The Twilight (War) Zone

It’s been a good few weeks with family and friends, even if it was a tad on the hot side in Orlando, Florida, USA.  Still, my years in the American South prepared me well, and survive, I did, enjoyably even.

(And, oh, yes, a couple of unexpected surgical procedures for family members, but all are doing much better, thank you, and all are more than ready to move on.)

Throughout this time I’ve been reading various short stories written by the late 19th/early 20th-century American author Ambrose Bierce, journalist, author, adventurer—and combat veteran of the American Civil War.  One of his more famous anthologies was Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, published in 1892.  Some have compared Bierce favorably to a more famous fellow-writer of an earlier generation, Edgar Allan Poe.  Indeed, Bierce’s stories have a horrific quality to them, much as do Poe’s.  Ask, for example, the protagonist in one of the most-often anthologized stories in the collection, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge“: Peyton Farqhar, a Confederate civilian who is to be hanged by Union forces—and who gives new meaning to the term twist ending.

Not only has that story often been anthologized, it has often been performed as well. Previously unbeknownst to me, though, was a fact that brought back memories not only of my childhood, but also of many hours of my adulthood: a French short-film version of the story had once run as an episode of Rod Serling‘s early-1960’s classic series, The Twilight Zone.

I have a special spot in my heart for The Twilight Zone.  As I recall all these years later, so did my parents, who must have spent many a Friday evening watching murderous, talking dolls; lonely grandmothers with habits of postmortem telephone conversations; a younger Colonel Kirk losing it somewhere in a sky much closer to Earth; and a hitchhiker who still gives me chills every time I think of seeing him in my rear-view mirror.  To this day I can while away hours on Netflix watching them.  The endings get me every time.

What also was unbeknownst to me, though, revealed only via the magic of Wikipedia, was that like Bierce, Rod Serling was also a combat veteran, having served in the Philippines with the United States Army during World War II.

The editor and writing guru Shawn Coyne, author of The Story Grid, considers horror stories to be an end-of-the-line version of the thriller genre, stories that live out the values of life and death by eventually placing the hero at the mercy of the villain, with the winner of the contest determining whether you’ll either have a). a commercial success on your hands or b). a decent review in The New York Times.

In the horror story, though, the villain is not just your average, bigger-than-life bad guy. The villain is an Evil greater than any of us can imagine. Even when the hero survives, there is no turning back to a world that existed before the inciting incident.  There may be denouements after most climaxes, but some denouements, apologies to Orwell, are more denoue-ing than others.

As I said, ask Peyton Farqhar.  Or any combat veteran, for that matter.

As I read literature by combat veterans (and even as I think about watching old black-and-white dramas by them), I remain struck by the shifts between the language of the story-as-going-on with the language of the scenes-where-time-stands-still.   I often find the shifts in vividness and tone between them to be jarring.  Since I am a civilian, I can only assume what the veterans I serve tell me: they are jarring because, in fact, combat jars, not only the body, but even more the mind and soul housed within.

Neuroscientific, trauma research only verifies what veterans such as Bierce and Serling have long shown us in their art: when time stands still—even as, in the worst of ways, it does not—the body records sensations in the most minute detail.  Words might fail those sensations at the moment itself, but if the veteran can one day return to that moment (never just in mind, but always, to some extent, in body) and craft words around those sensations (never altering them, merely giving them new form), the veteran can create within a few paragraphs sensations that will change us civilians forever, give us a denouement the experience of which we owe to all those who were willing to take actions that we, in one way or another, participated in calling them to take.

In the short-story form, whether written or staged, writers do not need to face the challenge of war writers of longer forms: the challenge of somehow finding a way to link, with language, memories that (quite likely, literally) lack neuronal linkages in the minds of the protagonists (and perhaps authors?) narrating their tales.  Consequently, Bierce and Serling can become masters of the moment, the moment itself when War/Death gives merely a glimpse of itself, a glimpse sufficient to turn off not only the hippocampus, but also the very Self.

Peyton Farqhar, Ambrose Bierce, Rod Serling: go ahead, ask them about that moment.

But only if you’re prepared to listen.


The Monsters Are Here, So They Say

I am unabashed fan of the original Rod Serling series, Twilight Zone.  Deep in the recesses of my memory, I seem to recall my parents watching the show at least occasionally, although at most I could only have been five or six.  The opening music still draws me in, every time, and when I found out I could watch episodes on my iPhone via Netflix, life suddenly took on new meaning.  Seriously.

A few weeks ago I re-watched an old classic from the show’s first season, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” featuring a host of great character actors whom I remember playing roles in film and TV throughout my early and teen years.  The story is a simple one:  in the opening scene, a discus-shaped shadow passes over the street of an idyllic town of the late 1950’s.  Soon afterwards, nothing on the street works:  electricity, cars, even lawn mowers.  Then for some inexplicable reason, some people’s cars or lights begin to work, while everyone else’s do not.

The key word there is inexplicable, for the whole point of the episode is simply this:  people will not live without explanations, even if they have to come up with them based on the flimsiest of evidence.  A young boy tells the neighborhood that he has just read a story about how aliens send scouts ahead of them, in the form of humans, so that the eventual invasion will go more smoothly.  Soon the various people on the street begin to throw out recriminations left and right (“He’s the alien!  No, she’s the alien!”), until finally, in a fit of fear, one man ends up shooting another neighbor to death.  Within minutes the whole street devolves into a series of terrified accusations and attacks, with lights coming on in some houses, only to dim again, with lights then coming on in a house a few doors down, then off, then on in another house, then off, cars going on and off, lawn mowers going on and off.

The Twilight Zone kicker, of course, is at the end, when the camera fades back from the street that is now in a state of riot, upwards toward  a hill overlooking the scene, only to show an actual discus-shaped space ship with two very human-looking aliens looking over the destruction below them.  One of them marvels that it only takes a few tricks, and soon humans are more than willing to destroy themselves.  The other, apparently more experienced with our kind, assures his colleague that it always works that way with humans.  Always.

I could talk again about the Kandahar incident in this light, but instead I want to consider a much more mundane, much more insidious process, one that many combat veterans (both men and women) face every day.  It’s a simple proposition, really:  when anything goes wrong and a combat veteran is within blaming distance–blame the veteran.  For many of us civilians, it works every time.

An interesting story made the rounds of the VA recently, The “Dangerous” Veteran:  An Inaccurate Media Narrative Takes Hold, telling about efforts being made in the San Diego area to establish a treatment facility for combat veterans with both PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI)–and about the efforts of the locals to prevent this from occurring.  Behind their concern is their fear that the facility may be too close to a school–and, of course, who knows what might happen to innocent children, right?

If  you meet a combat veteran, in other words:  thank the veteran for his/her service–and then lock your doors.

I have had more than one very frank, very painful discussion with a combat veteran about how (usually) his energy and intensity will automatically place him as the number one “blame object” whenever anything goes wrong between him and another person.  It will matter not that the other person might have just texted him some vicious insult.  It will matter not that the clerk has an attitude as big as Montana.  If any voice is raised, if any withdrawal occurs, it will be the combat veteran who is the one at fault, the one who cannot cope, the one who cannot manage his emotions.

Remember:  we’re not talking about domestic violence here, although clearly that is a serious problem among certain combat veterans.  We’re talking about the lights and lawnmowers, if you will, of life:  the throwing of the cell phone against the wall, the cursing of the clerk.  For such veterans, provocation will never be considered by civil society as a two-way street.  The veteran, we are told, like the rest of us should be able to take whatever is dished out to him, smile, firmly assert his boundaries, and then leave well enough alone and move on.

Yup, that’s exactly what he was taught in boot camp.

These are complex situations.  One should be able to say that blame is not the point.  One could say that blame should not be the point.  But usually–it’s the point, pure and simple.  When warriors-in-spirit become combat veterans, they don’t always play nice in the sandbox.  I certainly am not arguing that we should carte blanche exonerate them.  Nevertheless, neither should we ride too high a moral high horse as we collect our reasons to fear and to judge them.

Remember:  one can be angry until the cows come home, and one will not necessarily–in fact, not even usually–explode simply out of the anger.  One explodes when one has been made to feel weak, one-down, unimportant (as compared to the speaker’s importance), whether man or woman.  That’s what leads to outbursts.  The guy who cuts off the veteran, saying essentially “my goals are more important than yours.”  The clerk who gets put out by the veteran’s impatience or sarcasm, saying essentially “my manners are better than yours.”

Serling was a master of his genre–and a master psychologist.  Seek and ye shall find, the Good Book says.  Works well when you’re seeking  monsters, the kind that invade homes in the middle of the night in far-off places or that hole up in cabins in the woods, ready to assault the innocent at a moment’s notice.  No such monsters in our neighborhood, so they say.  Thank goodness.

Woe to the man or woman with a warrior’s intensity who happens into that neighborhood.

Woe even more to him or her:  the neighborhood is probably his or her own.

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