A story despised by critics, beloved by Faulkner. “I like, it” he wrote, ” it because it portrays a type which I admire—not only a little boy, and I think little boys are all right, but a true American: an independent creature with courage and bottom and heart—a creature which is not vanishing, even though every articulate medium we have—radio, moving pictures, magazines—is busy day and night telling us that it has vanished, has become a sentimental and bragging liar.” I like it because very few stories make me cry. This one did. The relationship between the two brothers is all.
Pete is 18 or 19. The younger boy is not named. They’re in the habit of listening to the radio outside a deaf woman’s house at night. They hear about Pear Harbor. Pete understands. The younger boy doesn’t. Pete is restless until he decides to enlist. His mother is shattered but won’t stop him. His brother doesn’t yet know how shattered he’ll be. Pete takes the bus for Memphis. The next day, his brother finds ways to follow him. The trip is hilarious. The boy’s interactions with the bus driver, with the Law, with soldiers: critics may have seen it all as stereotypical and demeaning. But the humor is never crass. It’s moving, as almost everyone indulges the young boy. Pete hasn’t left for Little Rock yet. He shows up at the recruiting station. His brother pleads. “I got to go too. I got to. It hurts my heart, Pete.” Maybe that’s the line critics disliked so much. It made me cry actual tears. Pete lectures his brother about doing his part–he doesn’t say so, but he’s telling him to be a soldier on the home front, hence the title of the story. The boy returns home.
There’s a whiff of the war-office propaganda reel about it, a Sgt. York shucksiness that defines each boy in his way. But it’s in the distance, or maybe it’s the reader’s contrivance becase we’re not supposed to be so taken by a story that, in Spielberg’s hands, would have had us flooding the theater in tears.
Saturday Evening Post, March 28, 1942