Out of my peripheral, I would count the drinks slipping down my family members’ throats. It was a tactic I had gotten good at: introduce my cousins to a new toy Santa had gifted me, chat briefly with the familiar faces floating around the living room and kitchen, try to comprehend the slices of English cutting through my grandfather’s thick Puerto Rican accent, but all the while, count. When it got around the three to four drink mark, that’s when I would make my escape.
The stairs to the second floor — with their creaky wooden planks — proved a natural enemy threatening to give away my position (my dad was not keen on the idea of me not socializing with guests), but attention spans would lesson and volume control on voices would crash on that fourth round of drinks, providing me a smooth getaway. As to waste no time — because time was essential here — I had already turned the dial on the TV set in the spare bedroom to the SyFy channel, which was in its infancy then. There was nary a program on the station that I was familiar with, but I knew one thing: on New Year’s Eve, The Twilight Zone would be broadcast all day and night.
Even today — over 50 years since the series first premiered — Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone exudes an air of coolness that will last as long as there remains a digital or physical copy somewhere. The guest stars; the twist endings; the moral implications embedded within the narratives; the appearance of Serling at the beginning of each episode, christening our voyage into the netherworld — it makes for fantastic TV.
Everyone who has followed the show seems to have their favorite episode. “I Shot An Arrow Into The Air” sees a trio of astronauts who crash land and begin to resent each other’s existence before the revelatory finale. “The Dummy” is one of several episodes that portrays a doll exhibiting human qualities to horrifying effect. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” has Captain Kirk screaming, “There’s some…thing on the wing.” “Eye of the Beholder” is a tale that will make you feel shame for spending 45 minutes in the mirror perfecting your coiffed hairdo.
For me though, there was one tale that had both devastated and inspired me within the same half-hour. It was called “Time Enough at Last,” and when I first watched the episode during a NYE marathon, I sobbed uncontrollably for at least 10 minutes. “I got so desperate that I’ve found myself trying to read the labels on the condiment bottles on the table,” says Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) in one of the opening scenes.
You see, Bemis — much like myself in those adolescent years — loves to read. He doesn’t just read for the enjoyment of the literary journey, although that is a large part of his fascination with the printed word, he does it to escape. Bemis buries his face in books to escape from his condescending wife, who tortures and belittles him regularly. He reads inside his bank’s vault to escape the drudgery of his job, as well as his mean-spirited employer. Books are Bemis’ portal to a place where judgment does not apply, where the characters dancing off the page shoulder the weight of the world’s issues — a welcome change from his load-bearing reality.
I could relate to Bemis. No, I did not have a wife who would throw backhanded daggers my way with every opportunity, and I was too young to even have a job yet. But, I did understand the joy of melting away into a good literary adventure, one that would push away the pressurized framework of my seemingly miserable, dull, and lonely existence. I was just a kid, sure, but I was an extremely self-aware child who had just come to terms with his own mortality. Just like Bemis, I was an outcast, a nerd.
Bemis is reading in his bank’s vault one day when an explosion rocks the building. He emerges from the vault to find the world in rubble. A nuclear holocaust has destroyed everything; not one man, woman, or child can be found. For all he knows, Henry Bemis is the last man on earth. As he traverses through the fragments of an unrecognizable society that shunned him, he stumbles upon the remnants of a library. The walls of the building no longer remain, but its contents do: books, more books than Bemis knows what to do with. Nothing stands in his way now. Not his wife, not his job, not his unpleasant boss, not even time.
“And the best thing, the very best thing of all, is there’s time now,” he says gleaming over the stacks of books at his disposal.
As he reaches down to pick one of the tomes up, Bemis’ thick, black-rimmed glasses — which he is almost blind without — slide off his face, the lenses shattering on impact. All the time in the world amounted to nothing for Henry Bemis. The books which he so adores, the ones at his fingertips, are as a valuable as paperweights now.
“Time Enough at Last” hit a raw nerve in me when I first watched it, and during every subsequent NYE The Twilight Zone marathon, I would wait for it to air. The emotions swirling within at the end of the episode are the reason why I started writing at a young age. I thought that if I could elicit an emotional response from others, just as half as powerful as the one I experienced, then the vocation was well worth the effort. It’s possible that I’ll never achieve that goal, but I’m content with having fun trying. And that, I have Mr. Serling to thank for.