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Then There Was the Time That Rod Serling Saved My Life

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

I really wondered if I was going to make it through 1981.

Maybe it wasn’t as bad as 2020/early 2021 but there were more than enough existential threats to go around. The nuclear arms race was making a serious comeback, and there was this devastating world-wide economic downturn thing happening. One of the many manifestations of the recession was a protracted steelworkers strike in the city where I was living; local and national media were running stories of growing crime and suicide rates, and how housewives were turning to prostitution to feed their families. It’s never good when the community calendar starts reading like a chapter out of Les Miserables.

Now, my life at the time wasn’t a shit-storm like that. No, it was more of a shit-swamp. The further I moved forward, the deeper I seemed to sinking. It was slow horror, a gradual and seemingly inevitable process. Work on my thesis wasn't going particularly well; I was discovering that teaching undergraduates was not particularly inspiring (actually I kind of hated it); I seemed to be alienating my fellow-grad students and certain faculty members (without even trying); and (connected to the state of the world economy) future career prospects looked really, really bleak. Sometimes on the news, ever-so helpful experts were suggesting that my generation would never find any employment – let alone meaningful employment. In fact, it was just silly of us to ever have expected such a thing.

Great. Thanks guys.

On the extremely personal side, someone I loved was working her way to letting me know that she didn’t love me. Another very gradual and painful process. More slow horror.

Not surprisingly, I wasn’t sleeping very well. This was upsetting because up until then I was a good sleeper – bed by eleven, up by seven, totally rested and ready to take on the day.

Not so much anymore.

One Friday night (or rather very early Saturday morning), I was awake and worrying, so I turned my tiny black and white TV to Channel 47 who were the only people broadcasting at that hour. To my surprise, they were playing an episode of The Twilight Zone, It was called “Elegy” and it was written by Charles Beaumont. Good story, well-executed and unlike a lot of television of the 1970s/early 1980s, I didn’t feel as though I was sustaining brain damage while I was watching it. Quite the opposite in fact. For 30 minutes I was otherwise engaged, and in good way. Afterwards I felt a little better, I went to bed and had a reasonable night’s sleep.

I didn’t really know The Twilight Zone up until then. I wanted to know more.

I tuned in on Saturday night (or rather very early Sunday morning) and found another Twilight Zone waiting for me; Richard Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”. That’s the one with William Shatner and the gremlin on the wing of a passenger plane. It was amazing. My imagination was well-massaged and I slept real good.

Although Rod Serling was not the author of those particular episodes, he was a powerful presence both on and off-screen. I already knew of Mr. Serling as the wielder of the coolest voice on TV, me as a kid being a regular follower of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (which he narrated) and a viewer of Night Gallery1 (which he hosted and wrote for) when CBC ran it as a replacement show during the summer of 1972. I also remember reading an interview of him published in Planet of the Apes magazine just after his death in 1975. He talked about working on the screenplay for the first Apes film. He sounded like a really interesting person and he had some useful insights about writing. I was sorry that he was gone.

I had to wait until next Friday (early Saturday morning) to get more Twilight Zone. The episode was one that Serling had written: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”. This one was beyond fantastic, it was unbelievable, something that made you into a different (and better) person by watching it. I had no idea you could get that kind of dramatic effect in 30 minutes (including commercials). I went to bed wondering if Rod Serling and Arthur Miller were twins who had been separated at birth.

It was imperative that I learn more about Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone, regardless of the fact I was supposed to be producing thesis chapters, preparing lectures, grading papers, and looking for a job so I could eat after I graduated. Hey, I knew my priorities.

My quest was a challenge. Remember that this is 1981, no Wikipedia, and the internet itself was still just a twinkle in the eye of the Military-Industrial-University Complex. Fortunately, Mills Memorial Library at McMaster had excellent science fiction holdings and their drama section was also pretty good. They had two books of immediate interest: hardback editions of Stories From the Twilight Zone and Patterns; Four Television Plays with the Author's Personal Commentaries.

A very good start. The short stories were remarkably well-crafted for prose adaptations of TV scripts and they held up very nicely as works of speculative fiction. I felt like I was my younger self again, delighting in Bradbury, Sturgeon and Sheckley for the first time. As for the television plays, I revised my theory and decided that Rod Serling and Arthur Miller were more like cousins than twins. Serling was doing some very different and important things for a different medium.

A few weeks later, one of the independent stations in Buffalo (remember those wonderful institutions?) started running TZ episodes at seven and eleven every weekday night. Now I had two daily appointments with what had become my favourite place. Those TV dates were a lot like what was happening in Twilight Zone episodes like "Walking Distance", "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine" or "A Stop at Willoughby" – a lonely person, feeling trapped in their unhappy circumstances, seeks refuge by entering the realm of imagination. I really don’t know what would have happened to me without those 24 minute (plus six minutes of commercials and PSAs) escapes into shock and wonder.

My fate was not nearly as dire as those characters in those episodes, i.e. I didn’t die or disappear into a Fifth Dimension. Instead life kind of got better. It is amazing how therapeutic regular doses of well-told narrative can be.

I got through teaching the tutorials without too many more problems, work on the graduate thesis improved by quite a bit, and even though the World still seemed to be circling the drain, I resolved to survive for as long as possible. The romance did not improve; eventually it was a pretty nasty break-up. But somehow I seemed find the internal resources to get through that as well.

Dial forward to the year 2020. This last Christmas my son Evan got me the Blue-ray set of all five seasons of the original The Twilight Zone. Evan always gets me great presents. I’ve been working my way slowly through the disks, savoring each episode in much the same way that I did the first time I watched them. They feel like literature and art, what am I saying?! They are literature and art!

And they are definitely more than mere escapism. These journeys into the fantastic were never intended to avoid reality, they help us see the world in far more vivid and revealing ways than we might believe possible.

Case in point, Rod Serling's closing narration from “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”:

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill...and suspicion can destroy...and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own—for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”

1 I have more to say about Night Gallery, some of which you can find in my story “(Coping with) Norm Deviation” which is even now available in Why I Hunt Flying Saucers & Other Fantasticals”.

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