Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Revisiting The Twilight Zone

I am traveling back in time, once again, to October of 2009, when I first wrote this post.

Did you know that Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame grew up in Binghamton, NY?  Did you know that The Twilight Zone TV show, seen by my generation as a new show, and generations since as reruns, aired 52 years ago this past October?

I am honored by the fact that I do much of my exercise walking in Rod Serling's boyhood neighborhood; that in a manner of speaking I walk in his footsteps.

Now that Binghamton (and surrounding villages and town) is in a fight to recover from the devastating floods of last month, I sometimes find myself in a personal Twilight Zone. Just a handful of miles from Rod's boyhood home, I can walk through my neighborhood, and pass from a zone where people just had some water (or a lot of water) in their basements, to a zone where water touched and then receded, to a zone where everything is closed, abandoned, or just plain dark (some still covered in layers of mud) with active rebuilding. I can pinch myself and ask "Did this really happen?  Or was it just a figment of imagination?  And what will it take for us to recover?"

Let us take a lesson from Binghamton's native son.  All things are possible in The Twilight Zone.  We will rise again.

So now, submitted for your approval, one of my longer posts.....

The Writer Once Without Honor in His Hometown

 Rod Serling.  The Twilight Zone.  The writer and the show are so much a part of our culture that several catchphrases and its theme music immediately bring this show to mind even to my 19 year old son.  Yet it is 50 years (and one day) after its first episode aired on October 2, 1959.  It has never left television once in all of those 50 years.

Happily, the paraphrase above of a quote from Jesus in the New Testament Book of Mark  ("A prophet without honor in his hometown...") may have been true at one time, but no longer is.   Rod Serling, a very talented...and tormented... man, who wrote amazing TV scripts in the era of the Red Menace with messages so timeless they resonate today, has come home.  It is ironic, in a way, that one of his most famous scripts showed a man trying to revisit his childhood in vain.

Rod Serling has now been honored in his hometown.  The hometown of which Rod Serling once said this:

"Everybody has to have a hometown, Binghamton's mine. In the strangely brittle, terribly sensitive make-up of a human being, there is a need for a place to hang a hat or a kind of geographical womb to crawl back into, or maybe just a place that's familiar because that's where you grew up.
  "When I dig back through memory cells, I get one particularly distinctive feelingand that's one of warmth, comfort and well-being. For whatever else I may have had, or lost, or will findI've still got a hometown. This, nobody's gonna take away from me."

We think we know the man in black and white, smoking a cigarette, who intoned the following every week on the TV sets of the baby boomer generation and their parents:

"There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition...."

But what of the child who grew up in Binghamton?  Thanks in part to a conversation I had today with a man from California who upkeeps the Rod Serling Foundation website, I was able to walk in those footsteps.  It was humbling in a way to speak to a man who thinks so highly of a man that he has traveled four times to Binghamton to be here.  The same Binghamton that I am in five days a week, and take for granted.

During my journey, I also met people from Seneca Falls, NY and Cherry Hill, NJ who also came out to share the experience.  To so many, Binghamton is a "burnt out industrial town" but one of these people closed her eyes in delight in Rod's childhood neighborhood and exclaimed her happiness in seeing it.

So here is my tribute to Rod Serling.  I'm not even going to say "submitted for your approval". 

First, here is the home where Rod Serling grew up.  I've passed it doing my exercise walks (disclosure:  I do not live in this neighborhood but I love walking in it) and never knew its history.  As the address and a photo of this home exist on a Rod Serling website, I feel comfortable in posting a picture but will not give the address-it is privately owned.

This is the junior high (now West Middle School) where Rod Serling first met Helen Foley, the English teacher who influenced the boy who became the writer.  I took two pictures to highlight some of the Art Deco architectural details both in the windows above the entrance doors.

The next stop was Recreation Park, just a few
blocks from where Serling grew up, home to a bandstand where Serling carved his initials as a boy.
I didn't take a picture of the bandstand, but I did of the building housing the historic carousel.

Binghamton is known as the "Carousel Capital" and myself and my son took many rides on the same carousel. The carousel, which normally doesn't run after Labor Day, was running today to celebrate.  (Sorry, the picture isn't very good.)  They were showing the episode inside the carousel building on a couple of TV's and, although it has been years, I immediately recognized it because I've had such emotional responses when I've seen it.

A live recreation of this episode will air on our local PBS station tonight.

It will be an emotional experience for us who know the true story.  Which I do now.  I was told that even, after Rod Serling was famous beyond imagination, he would come back to his childhood neighborhood on Binghamton's west side and walk those streets.  Trying to find....something.

For what it is worth, the "Walking Distance" episode was not filmed in Binghamton (nor were any other Twilight Zones, although Serling came back to Binghamton many times) and the carousel in the episode was not this carousel.  It was filmed in Hollywood, according to the Serling expert I spoke to.

This is Binghamton High School (then known as Binghamton Central High School before Binghamton lost so much of its population in the 80's and 90's)

 Next, is a Rod Serling portrait inside of Binghamton High School.

I skipped the Serling star in the Binghamton Walk of Fame downtown, as I pass it so many times that it is an ordinary object to me.  Perhaps that's why prophets are without honor in their hometowns.  We know the famous celebrity as an ordinary person.  One who carved his initials into a city bandstand as a child.

Or even...the thought I had as I passed the boys room in Binghamton High...oh, never mind.

Thank you to Broome County Transit whose special hybrid shuttle bus transported us to some of these sights.

So, what was the rest of the story?

This child of Binghamton grew up.  After Rod Serling graduated Binghamton Central in 1943 he served in the Pacific Theatre during World War II as a paratrooper.   The combat service (including, it is said, seeing his best friend die in front of him) created permanent trauma that haunted Serling for the rest of his too short life.  A driven individual and a heavy smoker, Rod Serling died at age 50 with an unbelievable legacy few of us could ever aspire to.

Some episodes haunted me for years after I saw them.  "It's a Good Life".  "The Midnight Sun".  "The Hitchhiker". "Nick of Time".

Others were morality plays that still resonate today although as a child I did not know their true meanings.   "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street"  "The Eye of the Beholder". "The Obsolete Man".

And, of course, "Walking Distance".

Rod Serling said, at the end of the "Walking Distance" episode of the protagonist Martin Sloane, the man who found out he could not go home:

Martin Sloan, age thirty-six, vice-president in charge of media. Successful in most things but not in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives—trying to go home again. And also like all men perhaps there'll be an occasion, maybe a summer night sometime, when he'll look up from what he's doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope, and hear the voices and the laughter of the people and the places of his past. And perhaps across his mind there'll flit a little errant wish, that a man might not have to become old, never outgrow the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth. And he'll smile then too because he'll know it is just an errant wish, some wisp of memory not too important really, some laughing ghosts that cross a man's mind, that are a part of the Twilight Zone.

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