Time Enough at Last

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Growing up, I was a big fan of the television series “The Twilight Zone” – and of course I mean the ORIGINAL series. I believe (I hope so, anyway, since its run lasted from 1959-1964) that it was in syndication (re-runs) when it made its impression on me. I can clearly remember many a night in college watching with friends at 11pm on WGN out of Chicago. I’ve alluded to the show briefly in a couple prior posts here at Bibliophilopolis, but Wednesday I was “inspired” to write a post about one famous episode in particular…

On federal holidays and weekends, one thing you can count on cable tv’s sci-fi (nka “SyFy”) channel for is a “Twilight Zone Marathon.” I stumbled upon one in the evening on Independence Day. Like many of us, I have my own favorite episodes (and the series was famous for both good AND bad episodes) and a “marathon” guarantees you’ll catch at least some of your favorites. After joining the fray about 7:40 pm, I struck it rich with just the second episode I saw.

(***MAJOR Spoilers Alert!***)
Like many other episodes it has become almost iconic in entertainment history. It’s titled “Time Enough at Last” and features Burgess Meredith as “Mr. Bemis,” a coke bottle lensed glasses-wearing bank teller who is also a persecuted bibliophile. Persecuted by his wife (she vandalized a poetry book of his, first by crossing out the printing and then by tearing out the pages! – yep, she sounds like a keeper…) and also by his boss (who doesn’t like the fact that Bemis spends his lunch hours at the bank reading). In spite of this, he is not deterred from taking the next opportunity to get comfortable in the downstairs vault, ensconced with his brown bag lunch and a newspaper. The headline of the newspaper features some brute force foreshadowing as it mentions “H-BOMB CAPABLE OF TOTAL DESTRUCTION.” Naturally, soon thereafter the vault is rocked with a tremendous explosion (the “special-effects requirements” of which are clearly beyond the budget of the half-hour show).

A stunned and dazed Bemis staggers up the stairs from his unintentional bomb shelter to discover the world “destroyed.” Scenes of blood and gore of the thousands of victims are mysteriously absent (well, I guess this was television of the late ’50s so maybe that’s not a surprise), but Bemis is nonetheless distraught and wonders what he can do now. There is plenty of food left in the city’s remnants, so that’s not a problem. He is concerned about loneliness and how to fill the days ahead even contemplates suicide. It is just about then that he realizes that, amidst the ruins in which he is standing is part of the structure of the public library. Now his post-apocalyptic life can have a purpose! Reading! Now he has all the time he needs to read anything he has ever wanted.

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Some time elapses, and we next join Mr. Bemis after he has arranged his reading for the next year in towering stacks. “January, February…” he revels as he descends the steps of the ruins on which he has piled his “to be read” list. Of course, this IS “The Twilight Zone,” and the viewer knows it’s not over. Upon espying a book just out of reach, Bemis grabs for it greedily, causing his glasses slip off his face and fall onto the concrete steps, accompanied with the sickening sound of breaking glass. He desperately picks them up and the remaining glass crumbles from the frames. “Oh, that’s not fair,” he moans. “There was TIME now…”

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Rod Serling’s closing narration:

“The best laid plans of mice and men…and Henry Bemis…the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis…in the Twilight Zone.”

I love it. It does concern me a bit, however, in that it makes me wonder how those who love to read are viewed by “society at large.” I think there is less of a social stigma for us readers in today’s world than there used to be, but I’m not sure if “we’ve come a long way, baby” or not. Indeed, Serling’s intro to this episode feels at best condescending (“bookish little man”) to those of us who are book lovers.

“Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment, Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He’ll have a world all to himself…without anyone.”

What do you think? Have you faced “discrimination” or social ostracism because you’d just as rather read a good book in a comfortable chair as “go boating on the lake” or “hang out at a noisy bar” with friends? Even more importantly, 🙂 what are your favorite episodes of TheTwilight Zone?

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