Anne Serling’s “Twilight Zone”

In the late 1950s, Rod Serling and his family lived on High Point Road. My family and I lived a few doors away. I’m not sure how many Playhouse 90 and Twilight Zone stories he wrote here — but he certainly used Westport as the inspiration for at least one of the latter episodes, “Last Stop: Willoughby.”

I recently reconnected with Anne Serling — Rod’s daughter, and my long-ago neighbor — on Facebook. Now she’s written a story for Salon, called “How I Found My Father in the ‘Twilight Zone.'”

Subtitled “I was devastated after my dad, Rod Serling, died. But then I found relief in another dimension,” it begins:

The last time I saw my father, he was lying in a hospital bed in a room with bright green and yellow walls, inappropriate colors intended to console the sick, the dying. As he slept, curled beneath a sheet, I watched him breathe, willing him to, his face still tan against that pillow so white.

And as I sat looking at him, I thought of how, when I was small, I would wake in my room beside my flowered wallpaper and listen for his footsteps down the hall, comfortable in their familiarity, secure in the insular world of my childhood, knowing without question or doubt that when I followed those sounds, I would always find him.

When he first got sick, I wiped his forehead dry until he became too ill and I could do nothing, and on the eighth floor of Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., my father died. He was just 50 years old, I barely 20.

Rod and Anne Serling, shortly before his death.

Anne goes on to describe the last night before her father’s open heart surgery — in 1975, it was a new procedure — and his death from a heart attack the next day.

“We are so sorry. He’s gone,” a doctor told Anne, her mother and sister.

Gone? Gone where?

That’s the thing about euphemisms. They never speak the truth. They leave all sorts of questions and dangling expectations. “Gone” would imply my father might return, or he’d just momentarily slipped away. Around the corner. Off to the nearest store. Gone might mean there would be footsteps to follow, tracks in the snow, a place to set at the table for later.

Gone would not necessarily mean “never coming back.”

Anne tries to cope with the death. Rod Serling was a famous public figure — but he was also her father.

Sitting at his desk, I listened to his Sinatra tapes, looking at notes, letters, photographs. I found cigarettes he’d hidden after he’d “quit.” An interview where he’d said, “All I want on my grave stone is, ‘He left friends.’”

I tried to watch a “Twilight Zone.” I listened to his opening narration, but it was terse and somber and his image in black-and-white was not the man I knew.

Grieving, Anne writes, “is not tidy, not organized or easy, but after it slams you, it has nowhere else to go. Understanding this can take years, can take its toll, can excise you off the planet, and it did for me.”

Finally a therapist told her that, to achieve closure, she needed to visit her father’s grave.

It took 2 years, but finally she went. For a while, she could not find it. Suddenly, there it was. Anne saw

his name, his birth date, the date of his death, WWII paratrooper; a small American flag.

In that instant came the finality and inconsolability I’d feared, but I stayed awhile, surrounded by silence, looking again at his name and the flag and then I saw it: a piece of masking tape attached to the stick of the flag and those three words from his interview: “He left friends.”

Though Rod Serling was Jewish, the family celebrated Christmas at the High Point Road home.

Later that summer, Anne began watching reruns of “The Twilight Zone” — more to see him than the actual show. One — “In Praise of Pip” — was filmed at an amusement park Rod often took his girls to.

When the show was over, she listened to the sounds of the Ithaca lake she and her father both loved. She was “still haunted by the void, by the reality of this empty space, and yet, those past 30 minutes spent watching his show brought a reconnection with him in a most unexpected way.”

In the episode’s closing narration, she had watched her father say,

The ties of flesh are deep and strong, the capacity to love is a vital, rich and all-consuming function of the human animal, and you can find nobility and sacrifice and love wherever you might seek it out — down the block, in the heart, or in “The Twilight Zone.”

Anne concludes: “I found it in a darkened room on a summer afternoon. Something invisible, inaudible and, until then, quite mistakenly presumed gone.”

17 responses to “Anne Serling’s “Twilight Zone”

  1. It is very easy to remember Rod Serling as a fellow student at Anitoch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I guess along with Jim Woog, (Dan’s father) we all knew and considered him a friend. Today, a lot of us are trying to get that institution up and running after its near ruination by an ill concieved attempt at creating a University.

  2. Oops, That’s Antioch!

  3. In “Last Stop: Willoughby” the harried protagonist, who lives in Westport, telephones his wife, using an operator to make the long-distance call. He recites an actual Westport telephone number, “Capital 6” something or other. It is an actual Westport number, still in use, and I have always wondered whether it was Serling’s own phone number. I have meant to find the phone book for that year and look it up, but have never gotten around to it.

    • At the time, it would have been “CApital 7” — 226 did not come into use until later. Those of us on High Point Road had a Fairfield exchange, for some reason: CLearwater 9 (now 259). My mother still has the same number she got when we moved to Westport in 1956!

    • I just saw “A Stop at Willoughby” (I always thought it was “Last Stop at Willoughby”) on the ScyFy network’s Twilight Zone marathon (when did they start misspelling “SciFi”?). The telephone number is “Capitol 7” — but there were only 3 numbers after that, I think, not 4.

      Also, on the train going home the first time, the conductor announces “Westport/Saugatuck.” I wonder when the “Saugatuck” was dropped from the official train station name.

      And, of course, there’s the scene at home, when Williams tells his wife he’s fed up with living in a pretentious home in a rich suburb. A classic.

  4. On Sunday January 29 at 3:00 PM, come to the Westport Historical Society for the opening day of the Rod Serling “Twilight Zone” exhibit. It will run until early May. There will be lots of interesting things to read & see about Serling and the TV program. Other 1950s TV shows and personalities who had a Westport connection will also be featured.

  5. Linda Gramatky Smith

    So glad to hear about the upcoming exhibit. I think in college, when people asked about my hometown, I would always mention that Rod Serling lived here. Anne Serling’s memories are beautifully written and she would find a lot of us who would put a piece of masking tape on her dad’s grave saying “he had/left friends” in Westport.

  6. I loved the show–one of my all-time favorites (and, in my opinion, still some of the best writing ever done on television). Thanks for the post.

  7. Twillight Zone marathon New Years Day on Sci Fy channel.

  8. One of your best, Dan.

  9. The Dude Abides

    Very nice. BTW, Serling was born on Christmas Day. One great quote was his “not caring is the worst obscenity of all.” I think RFK borrowed from that later in one of his speeches. Obviously, his daughter is one very caring individual as was her father. Rod Serling did a great job of scaring the hell outta of most of us teenagers in the early 60’s. One buddy refused to walk past the Famous Artist School on the river for fear of a “Serling sighting.” Twilight Zone was spooky and well before its time. Great show.

  10. Sarah Menchaca

    The Westport Historical Society will be having an exhibit on the “Twilight Zone’ in the near future – everyone should come and check it out. Details will be forthcoming soon.

    • On their website, it says that the date of the opening is already set (Sunday, January 29, 2012 3-5pm) and everyone is welcome to drop in! A great chance to see what the WHS on Avery Place & Myrtle Avenue is like. This organization, run by a terrific and energetic director, Sue Gold, is a real asset to our town.

  11. Great story, Dan, well told. If there were a Pulitzer Prize for blogs, You’d win hands down. Arianna would be second.