One of the great story tellers of the 20th Century was Rod Sterling. A generation of children grew up watching the Twilight Zone (1959-1964).
In its 156 episodes we were exposed to an array of topics couched in science-fiction/fantasy since the television sponsors were not afraid to pay about societal ills if they were enrobed in another reality. Sterling did just that—prejudice, religion, nuclear war, nature of evil, phobias, and the list could continue.
It was on the night of May 2, 1963 that Sterling’s ON THURSDAY WE LEAVE FOR HOME premiered on our black and white sets with their flickering images and poor sound. As we gathered around the television the whole family watched intently.
A group of humans from earth, the first humans to seek a world to colonize landed on a two-sun world of perpetual day in August 1991. On their derelict space ship these words were scribed:
“This is the Pilgrim I the first spaceship sent up to colonize the outer regions carrying 113 people who established this first colony off the earth erected August 1991.”
There were many people back in the 60s that believed we would be colonizing the moon and planets by the end of the century. Unfortunately, some dreams were never meant to be for my generation.
In 2021 Pilgrim I had 187 souls ranging in age from 6 months to 60 years of age. Leading this rag-tag bunch was a 45 year old man named William Benteen who was 15 when Pilgrim I landed.
Hope is fading fast for this group. There had been 9 funerals in the last 9 months. Their constant hope was “there’s a ship coming”. A ship from earth would come and take them home, even though those under 30 were denizens of this barren, hostile world. This was their home.
Benteen would be begged by the younger ones to tell them about the earth where rivers, forests, clouds and snow graced the year. The night was a concept they could not comprehend on their world of constant daylight.
After a vicious meteor storm which wreaked havoc on their camp, they huddled in their cave waiting for it to end. Then the older ones heard the sound of engines. The earth ship had come at last to take them “home”.
After the people met Colonel Sloane, commander of the Galaxy 6, their focus drifted away from Benteen to Sloane. The tension between the two men mounted as the countdown to Thursday’s launch began.
Benteen saw his people, his children, leaving him for their new messiah, Sloane. In a last ditch effort he called his people together to tell them the truth about earth, not the mystical place in their memories or tales, but the reality of humans.
“Now listen to me. I want to tell you some things about the Earth that you haven’t heard before. Things that are ugly. Things that are wrong. Things… that cannot be lived with. There is violence on Earth. There are hatreds! And jealousy! Now listen to me, listen to me and listen carefully. The Earth is a place we do not know. The Earth is a place we have never lived in. It is a society we do not belong in. If we leave here, we will die. We will die! We’ll be committing suicide if we go back to Earth. We will die of a misery we have never experienced before. Loneliness. Loneliness like animals in a zoo. We do not belong there. We do not belong to his kind. We do not belong there. We do not belong there.”
Colonel Sloane challenged Benteen: “Captain Benteen! Why don’t you let your “children” vote on it?”
Benteen sadly responded, “Only if they know what’s waiting for them! Only if they know that the Earth is not a garden. Never was a garden! And it never will be a garden!”
Sloane declared truthfully, “Fair enough! Fair enough! Then I’ll tell you what Earth is. It’s a race of men – struggling for survival. Just as you have survived. And Captain Benteen is quite right when he tells you it isn’t a place of all beauty. We may yet have wars. And there still remains prejudice. And I suppose as long as men walk, there’ll be angry men, jealous men, unforgiving men. But it has one thing that you don’t have. One thing. It lets every man be his own master. There won’t be any Captain Benteens down there for you. There won’t be anybody to tell you when to eat and when to sleep, and when to meet. There won’t be anyone to tell you when to dance or what to sing or how to play. And instead of the thirst, you may feel hunger. Instead of heat, you may feel cold! But you’ll be men and women. You won’t be sheep. You won’t be a kindergarten. And when you pray to God, his name won’t be “Benteen”!”
The people decided to return to earth, a planet most of them had never seen. Benteen cannot deal with the rejection. His plea that “we must stay together” is like an echo in the wind fading like an mirage. After attacking the ship, he hides in the cave.
After desperate pleas for him to come out of hiding and board the ship, he remains silent and hidden. Eventually, he emerges from his hiding place and begins his daily assembly routine talking to an empty cave.
As the engines echo in the cave, he races out to the camp. As he watches the ship rise into the heavens, his last words are “I want to go home.”
Poignant, sad and heartbreaking for a man who held the group together for 30 years by the force of his will. The loneliness that he feared for his children on earth became his reality on his world.
Whatever happened to Benteen? If Sterling had a sequel in his fertile imagination it was never penned.
Benteen was a man who bore the weight of a community on his shoulders. His community was his world. He never took the time to enjoy the simple luxuries of life—a wife and children.
Like many leaders he forgot one important lesson—that your people are not sheep, not children. Being the center of a group’s world will one day come to an end. When it does end, tragedy is usually the aftermath.
Sometime, down the road, we will revisit Captain William Benteen and the Pilgrim I survivors on earth. What happened to them when they arrived on earth after the parades and family reunions? What became of Benteen and his solitary world?
G. D. Williams © 2013
IMDb On Thursday We Leave For Home