Sunday, April 23, 2017

Everything I Need To Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone

It has forever been thus: so long as men write what they think, then all of the other freedoms--all of them--may remain intact. And it is then that writing becomes a weapon of truth, and article of faith, an act of courage. Rod Serling, January 15, 1968 speech
When I read a review of Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone: A Fifth Dimension Guide to Life in the local paper I couldn't believe I had missed this book. Here was a book that spoke to what I had long believed: that Rod Serling had taught me my basic values.

I was seven years old in 1959 when Twilight Zone first aired. It became my 'must see' tv show. Over the years I enjoyed the reruns but it was while my son and I watched hours of marathon reruns that I realized that perhaps more than any book or Sunday school class it was Rod Serling who had instructed me in how to live.
Rod Serling
As a kid, I liked the ironic endings, the comeuppances, and just desserts. I thrilled to the eerie and chilled to the scary. The episode that most scared me was The Invaders, told without dialog, about a witchlike old woman whose primitive cabin is invaded by tiny spacemen. They were more frightening because of their diminutive size, for they could creep up unseen. Then came the reveal--the spaceship was from the United States, the menacing spacemen were human and the woman was the alien.
The Invaders
After reading the preview available online I ordered Mark Dawidziak's book and began reading it upon arrival.

Born in a Reform Jewish family in Binghamton, NY, Serling had an ideal childhood but encountered prejudice as he grew up. In 1943 he enlisted and served in the Pacific front as a paratrooper, the roots of his horror of war and hope for humanity. He entered Antioch College, founded by Horace Mann who wrote, "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." After graduation, Serling lived in Cincinnati where he wrote for the radio station, then for television. As he matured, his writing incorporated social commentary, convicted it was "the writer's role to menace the public's conscience."

The Twilight Zone stories are teaching parables. As Anne Serling writes in her forward, her father "truly and deeply cared about all of us." If we have ears to hear, Dawidziak shows us, there are fifty lessons to be gleaned from these stories.

Some of my favorite examples from the book, whose lessons need to be heard again, include:

Divided We Fall, highlighting Serling's script The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. It warns us about mob mentality, fear of people who are 'different', and shows how evil arises from suspicion and division. Many chapters end with a guest lesson; for this chapterMarc Scott Zicree writes, "we can live in a universe of love and compassion, or chaos and destruction. The choice is ours, made every day, every moment, by the actions we conscious or unconsciously take...and you can file that under L for Life Lessons."

Share With Others, gleaned from I Shot An Arrow into the Air, written by Serling. A spaceship crashes into a desert, leaving the astronauts with limited supplies. One man decides he will not share, he will survive at any cost. As the last man alive he learns they had landed on Earth, with civilization just over the hill. Adversity brings out the monster and the best of humanity. Dawidziak connects this lesson to the Flint water crisis and the challenge of providing clean water to everyone in need across the world.

Imagine a Better World, arising from Richard Matheson's script A World Of His Own, a comedic story of a man who can manipulate reality through a dictation machine. Dawidziak notes that the power of imagination is basic to the series, and this episode is a nod to storytellers and dreamers who unlock doors to possibilities.

Fill Your Life With Something Other Than Hate is a reoccurring theme in Twilight Zone, including one of my personal favorites, Two, written by Montgomery Pittman. In a post-war, empty world, one lone female and one lone man survive; they are from opposing armies, distrustful and full of hate. The episode is without dialog, for the two do not share a common language. They have a choice: to carry on the war or to assume their common humanity and lay down arms. He also lists Two under Everybody Needs Somebody Sometime.

Payback is a...Or, What Goes Around Comes Around, is another theme shared by many episodes. This was a favorite saying of a neighbor many years ago, meant as consolation while rejected by a petty community. Serling hated fascism; in his script Deaths-head Revisited, a Nazi visiting Dachau enjoys memories of his time there--until he is put on trial by the ghosts of the dead.

Serling ends the show saying, "All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzs, all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers."

My heart ached reading this, for I fear we are forgetting.

Don't Be A Bully also is a message found in over a half dozen episodes, wish fulfillment stories where bullies get their just desserts. The Guest Lesson is from Scott Skelton who wrote, "As I got older...the series' strong ethical undercurrents surfaced in my consciousness: its indignant stance on social injustice, its rage at the too often petty nature of our species--prejudice, mob rule, the ever-present threat of fascism, the shadow of superstition and ignorance that has, throughout history, halted the progress of our species. From these bite-sized morality plays I drew an unshakable belief in the basic dignity of man--that despite our individual mistakes, our foibles, our follies, and our general bad behavior, we all have a right to respect, to a collective esteem based on the actions and sacrifices of a few of our more noble representatives."

The Civilization That Does Not Value the Printed Word and the Individual is Not Civilized. The Obsolete Man by Serling has a librarian as the hero, a man who clings to his outlawed, obsolete, books, standing up to totalitarian authorities by announcing, "I am nothing more than a reminder to you that you cannot destroy truth by burning pages." Serling's closing narrative states, "Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, that state is obsolete."

These don't even include some of my favorite episodes, including Time Enough at Last (Nobody Said Life Was Fair/Be Careful What You Wish For); those with Jack Klugman, including A Passage for Trumpet, the lesson being Follow Your Passion); Kick the Can (You're Only Truly Old When You Decide You're Old); and Nothing in the Dark (Death, Where is Thy Sting). Nothing in the Dark has Robert Redford as a gentle and kind Mr. Death, an image that stuck with me.

I could go on, but instead, I will advise you to just read the book.

Thank you, Mr. Serling. And Thank you, Mr. Dawidziak, for confirming that I learned my values in The Twilight Zone.