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Our Father, Rod Serling: Finding Family in The Twilight Zone

“Very little comment here, save for this small aside: that the ties of flesh are deep and strong, that the capacity to love is a vital, rich and all-consuming function of the human animal, and that you can find nobility and sacrifice and love wherever you may seek it out: down the block, in the heart, or in the Twilight Zone. “

“In Praise of Pip”, Rod Serling

Growing up, I collected father figures. 

Others who come of age without the genuine product in their lives probably tend to do the same thing, for whomever or whatever it is that they may be missing. This little hobby of mine meant that sometimes I would “collect” other members of my family to fill in the gap—two grandfathers, one maternal and the other linked by marriage, were greatly beloved and essentially my best friends throughout my boyhood—but, being a cloistered introvert who found comfort in the company of movies and television, it wasn’t uncommon for me to seek out my paternity in the entertainment I consumed. 

Darren McGavin was always a favorite, whether playing scrappy INS reporter Carl Kolchak or the endearingly grumpy Old Man from A Christmas Story. Boris Karloff and Vincent Price were both role models of dark suavity and joviality. Even Kevin Kline was the subject of a fleeting attachment, but in the end he always seemed better suited to the role of a crazy uncle than a father. (This was probably because Kevin Kline reminded me of the crazy uncle I already had.)

Yet amidst all these faces looking out from the fuzzy screen of my TV set, there was only one who seemed to epitomize the essence of true father material: Rod Serling.

The Twilight Zone marathons the Sci-Fi Channel hosted every New Year’s and Fourth of July were annual hallmarks for me as a kid, dates to look forward to with the kind of pressure-cooker anticipation that most children reserve for holidays and birthdays, occasions when the proffering of gifts is close at hand. In those pre-DVD owning days my cache of blank VHS tapes would be used to record every episode that I could catch on the air, commercials manually edited out (STOP – REC – STOP) to save as much precious tape as possible so that I could later relive those sweet monochrome moments when the fifth dimension became a heavenly place on Earth. 

But none of this explains why I collected Rod Serling, does it? 

Developing emotional attachments to the characters that populate the stories we enjoy is nothing new. It’s one of the most basic tenets of entertainment, and why shouldn’t it be? The majority of us are sympathetic creatures by nature, and so when we invest so much of our time and mental energies in getting to know characters and their stories, it naturally follows that we begin to care about them and even think of them, to one degree or another, as living human beings. 

The circumstances of my adopted lineage are a little different though. It’s one thing to become emotionally connected to a character in an ongoing drama whose plight resonates with you, but the host of an anthology series? When does that ever happen? I suppose there is a pinch of logic at play here. With television anthologies, locations, cast, and storylines change from episode to episode. The host, when there is one, serves the purpose of grounding us, of reminding us that these disparate tales do take place within the structure of some ordered universe. The delivery and appearance of the host can vary drastically, from Shelley Duvall to the Crypt-Keeper, but the presence of the anthology host is ultimately reassuring. You know where you are with them. They’re consistent, dependable, and always there for you.

And those were all things that my real dad never was. 

Jose Beto Cruz was one of the millions of exiles to flee El Salvador during the height of the country’s civil war in the 1980s. With social unrest and upheaval at their peak, death soon became a frequent visitor to the cramped, impoverished neighborhoods of the country’s citizens as skirmishes between troops and guerilla fighters raged just outside their doors.  And so my grandmother made the decision to send my father away, to save him from a fate in which he might wind up killed or, perhaps worse still, recruited as a child soldier by either the military or the FMLN to kill others. And so my dad, just a few years older than I was when I first entered The Twilight Zone as a grade-schooler, journeyed in the bed of a pickup truck through his own land of shadow and substance with a passel of other characters in search of an exit. He suffered hardships on the way to the United States and, I imagine, a few more when he got here, but, somehow, he ended up far, far from his home in Central America and in Long Island, New York where he would eventually meet my mother. 

After I and my sister were born, my dad remained a semi-presence according to my mother, physically near and affectionate enough but never quite willing or able to commit to the full responsibilities of being a father. He was not only young, barely in his twenties, but also quiet and moody, given to long periods of silence when overcome with emotion, traits that I’ve inherited along with his name and a passing resemblance. He was also fond of drink, and while he always gravitated toward the sillier end of the spectrum than the serious when intoxicated, the final straw came when, one early morning while he was in his cups, my father took me from my crib, placed me in the sole family car, and drove out to an empty parking lot, presumably just to hang out with me, but leaving my mother to spend a few terrified hours thinking that I had been kidnapped. 

My dad didn’t live with us anymore after that, and a few years later we moved to Florida. 

There were only two other times in my life when I would see him again. Once on a trip back to Long Island, watching Men in Black and eating egg sandwiches from Subway in his motel room, and then once again back in Florida when he lived with us for a period of several months, an apparent attempt at reconciliation. But the attempt didn’t pan out. My father was just as fond of alcohol as ever, only this time the cops were called. And that’s when it was finally noted that my father had never become naturalized as an American citizen. 

My mother would tell me about the phone call from prison later, how he shouted “They’re sending me back” before the line went dead. 

How do you process the absence of someone who was never really there to begin with, but by all rights — at least in your own mind — should have been? Do you move on? Forget about them? Exorcise them? Long for them? Wonder what your life could have been like if only fate had moved just a few inches to the left, if he could have quit drinking, if they could have been more honest with each other, if you could have only tried to accept him into your heart a little harder when you had the chance? Those who find themselves in this situation know that, frequently, you do all of these things, often all at once. 

And, sometimes, you pick up collecting hobbies.

None of what happened with Rod Serling and I was intentional. At first I knew of him only as that seriously cool-looking guy with the crisp, mellifluous voice who would cue the beginning and end of every TZ episode. He would saunter onto the set, casually smoking, looking every bit the quintessential father with his sharp suits, coiffed hair, and paratrooper bracelet. And, like the best fathers, he would offer beautiful and valuable bits of human wisdom, only his came as bookends to stories that I initially enjoyed solely for their darkness and their weirdness. Returning from my TZ marathon sabbaticals, I could successfully quote whole scenes of dialogue with ease, but it was Serling’s monologues that affected me on a more secret, molecular level, molding my thoughts and shaping who I was to become in a quieter but undoubtedly more profound way. 

The stories I was writing at the time began incorporating intros and outros with a very familiar ring to them. In moments of solitude I developed a reflex of clasping my hands together and setting my jaw tight to act out some of Rod’s patented patter. Later in high school and beyond I would grow to admire the quality and power of Serling’s writing on its own terms, appreciating the deep and abiding compassion that he brought to scathing commentaries and irreverent fantasies alike. Finally owning The Twilight Zone on disc as an adult meant that I could now play a whole stream of episodes at my leisure, something that I’m still regularly compelled to do, especially when I have the house to myself. Because while I love the stories, I’m always just as excited to see Rod again, to hear him speak. The room feels less empty with him around. 

In spite of all this, it wasn’t until just last year that I became fully aware of the depth of my feelings for Serling. It all began with the book: As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling, Anne Serling’s loving account of her father’s life. I’d figured that the book would offer up amusing and fascinating insights into an artist who had been a longtime inspiration. And it did. In the book Anne talked about her father’s incessant sense of humor. She talked about the summers they spent at their treasured lakeside cabin in upstate New York. She talked about how her father would ask her who her best friend was and how Anne, regardless of her given mood, would always answer back, “You are.” 

At about this time something strange began to happen. The details Anne was relating in the book weren’t just coming across as secondhand anecdotes. It felt as if I had been there for all of them, like a warped form of déjà vu. I could see Rod in my mind’s eye, not as the grand, brooding host but as the father napping in his hammock, as the neighbor playing with his dogs, as the guy who would bust a gut laughing at some practical joke played on his kids. I had become the prototypical Twilight Zone character, the one who can’t shake that weird feeling that they’ve been here before in some other life, in some other dimension. 

And that’s when it clicked: I had been here before. That eerie familiarity I was feeling as I read Anne’s book had been bred from years of waiting for Marius Constant’s jangling guitar theme to herald every Fourth of July, from smiling in the dark of my bedroom as that omnipotent figure stepped from the sidelines and introduced tonight’s episode. My real father was on some other plane of existence that I couldn’t fathom, my feelings for him muddied and confusing, but Rod was here. Twice every year, hour after hour, just the two of us. 

And with him I knew love. 

As Anne’s memoir began chronicling her father’s declining health during the early ‘70s in its later chapters, my eyes began to mist over and the pressure in my throat became a constant presence. I had already lost one father twenty years ago; I didn’t want to face the idea that another one would be taken away. Even if it might never have been possible for me to communicate with Rod had he lived to a ripe old age – he would have been a venerable 85 when I graduated high school – to tell him the impact he had on my life, it still hurt worse knowing that he’d been taken so prematurely and that he was truly gone in a sense even more concrete than my father was, that any hope I might have had of establishing contact was dashed long, long before I was even a thought in anybody’s mind. I became a contradiction, not wanting to witness the book’s inevitable conclusion but powerless against my own desire to read every last page and warm myself in Rod’s presence for as long as I could. 

And reading those passages of Rod comforting his family even as he lay in his hospital bed, of Anne wrestling through her grief in the months and years to come following his death in 1975… I was there for it all, too. I mourned the man who had saved me as a boy, for the man who inspired me to write, for the man who taught me that the greatest gift I could have was my humanity. The book touched me and hurt me and made me feel a little like a freak. Who was I to weep for this person I had never met or knew? What level of obsession drove me to feel as if I had met him and known him? Why couldn’t I just let go of it all? 

But stories and humans are funny like that. The rational mind tells you that someone is not your father, that there is no link between you and them, and that you have and will continue to exist in two completely different realms. But Rod was always more interested in those liminal spaces, those twilit-gray areas where the imagination constructed a reality that carried a truth all its own. 

Rod Serling was not my father. But in another way, in that special twilit way, he was.

That’s enough for me, and I pray and hope that he’ll continue to reside in that starry region where all the great people and characters live on, waiting for our children and the children yet to be born to find whatever it is they’re looking for.

About Jose Cruz

Jose Cruz is an author who lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and nearly not enough shelves for their books and DVDs. He has written for Rue Morgue, bare•bones e-zine, and Turn to Ash, among others, and his fiction has appeared in Nightscript and Year's Best Hardcore Horror.

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