The “Twilight Zone” of Nostalgia

courtesy CBS Productions

I’m a person trapped by nostalgia (says the guy who wrote a book set in the ‘80s). When do these feelings start? Well, based on my own personal research (i.e., watching my kids), younger than you might think. My oldest daughter was a fussy eater when she was a baby (and still sort of is), so to get her to eat dinner, I would take out this toy that resembled a small house. It had secret compartments and open flanges she liked to take apart and play with as I spoon-fed her the Gerber’s jar of the day. Years later, when I was rummaging through old toys to donate or throw out, her eyes lit upon that same plastic house, and she immediately exclaimed, “Ohh yeaaaah!!” as if to say, “I remember that!” That was probably her first taste of the inexplicable frisson of nostalgia. (Yes, I just used the phrase “inexplicable frisson.” Deal with it.)

I experienced something similar a few years ago. In the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, there used to be a McDonald’s commercial that aired every Halloween featuring their famed chicken nuggets. They were puppetted to walk and talk, and I used to sneer, cynical even in my young age, “Who’d want to eat something that walks and talks?” (I guess I didn’t count cows mooing or chickens clucking as “talking.”) These mini-Muppets “acted” in these elaborate, miniature sets that resembled Frankenstein’s castle and other ghostly, haunted places, being that it was around Halloween. They aired the hell out of these commercials during my Saturday morning cartoons, prime real estate for fast food-addicted kids of the late ‘80s like me. At first, I thought they were cute, but after the zillionth time I saw them, I got so sick of them, I swore at the screen that I wished I’d never see them again.

Then, as if my old-school Zenith T.V. was a magic genie, I got my wish. They suddenly stopped airing, even the next Halloween — and the one after that. Cut to a few years ago when I was bored on YouTube and wondered if the commercials were on the website, captured on the Internet for eternity. To my amazement, they were, so I put one on and watched. What was my reaction? Was I still annoyed at the antics of these puppetted Mcnuggets? Did they make me laugh? Did they make me hungry? No.

I cried.

I cried not because the quality was so terrible, but because I realized how much I missed these commercials, cheap and cheesy as they were. Most importantly, so much had happened in my life between the time I swore at the T.V. I never wanted to see them again and a few years ago when I finally did. I was a boy. Now I’m a man. I had grown up. Nostalgia, baby.

I once took a photography class in college, and after I showed a fellow student one of my photographs and explained I was trying to balance the light and shadow in the shot, he pretentiously sniffed and said, “Light and shadow are overused in photography.” If I was less polite, I would’ve answered, “But photography is nothing but capturing light and shadow.” I feel the same way about writing and nostalgia. If someone complains that I rely too much on memory and feelings of nostalgia in my writing, I think, “But writing is nothing but trying to reconcile the past and capture the experience of living through time.” In my mind, what light and shadow are to photography, memory and time are to writing. In a way, writers are professional rememberers, which is why it pays to have a great memory.

I was thinking of all this when I recently watched an old episode of the classic, black-and-white series “The Twilight Zone,” titled “The Incredible World of Horace Ford.” (My wife is a huge “Twilight Zone” fan and has several seasons on DVD, and I occasionally watch an episode when there’s nothing on T.V.) The story is about a 30-something toy designer named (oddly enough) Horace Ford who is absolutely obsessed with his childhood, much to the consternation of his live-in mother, wife, and, especially, boss. You would think being in touch with your childhood is a great asset when you’re working in the world of toys (think of the movie “Big”), and you’d be partly right, but you may also forget how stubborn and immature children can behave, like when one of Horace’s designs for a robot is rejected by his boss because it would be too costly to manufacture.

“The eyes lighting up, that’s the beauty part!” he loudly whines to his boss when it’s suggested to eliminate that feature. You can tell even in the beginning of the episode that Horace’s job is not long for this world.

After work, Horace decides to visit his old neighborhood, and he is amazed when it seems nothing has changed, from a frankfurter salesman wheeling his cart through the street to the young couple splitting up and saying “bread and butter” to the woman in the window angrily yelling for her son to come home. Then he actually sees his childhood friends playing together — and they haven’t aged a day since they were 10. (This is a “Twilight Zone” episode after all.)

Horace returns home to tell his mother and wife what occurred, but of course, they don’t believe him, so he goes back, just to prove it to himself, when the exact same sequence of events repeats itself: the frankfurter salesman still happily offers his goods, the young couple still says “bread and butter,” and the woman still calls for her son in the window. For me, this was instantly reminiscent of “Groundhog Day,” my favorite movie of all time, where the main character seems to be repeating the same day over and over again. Of course, this episode aired 30 years before the movie, so you can’t claim Rod Serling’s show plagiarized the idea.

I’m not going to give away the show’s ending (it’s a good one; you should check it out!), but needless to say, Horace learns a lesson about living in the moment and letting go of the past. Ultimately, his wife imparts the moral: “I think we’re all like that,” she says. “We remember what was good and black out what was bad, because we couldn’t live if we didn’t.” She’s basically defining nostalgia in that moment, something I identify with a little too closely (at least as a writer). Besides the show’s theme, however, there were three other elements of the episode that hit home for me, coincidences so strong that they were almost as spooky as revisiting your old neighborhood and finding your childhood friends haven’t grown up.

1. Pat Hingle stars as the man-child obsessed with his past in the episode. Pat Hingle also starred as Commissioner Gordon in 1989’s “Batman,” a movie I was obsessed with as a child. (I had Batman toys, posters, notebooks, board games, and even a flashlight that made the Bat Signal, which one night burned a stain in my nightstand when I accidentally left it on all night.) As the years passed and I got older, I saw “Batman” as emblematic of the end of my childhood. It was released in the summer of ’89, the final year of my “official childhood.” It was the last summer I wasn’t a teenager and only a few months before I entered junior high. So here was the actor who had starred (okay, costarred) in the movie that I came to reference as the end of my childhood playing a man refusing to let go of his own childhood.

2. I watched the episode on the same date that it originally aired. I watched this episode for the first time this year on April 18. When I checked the liner notes of the DVD, it said the episode originally aired on April 18, 1963, almost 60 years to the day. Cue the creepy “Twilight Zone” music.

3. Mike Starr performed the radio version. One of the episode’s special features is the audio version of the story that aired on the radio in the 1980s. Character actor Mike Starr took the place of Pat Hingle (I’m assuming he was too old to play the role, even in the ‘80s) to play the titular character. Starr starred in (see what I did there?) Tim Burton’s brilliant “Ed Wood,” “Goodfellas,” the comedy classics “Uncle Buck” and “Dumb and Dumber,” and a memorable episode of “The Office” (U.S. version), among many others. How is this a coincidence for me? He happens to be the father of one of my wife’s childhood friends. (She grew up in the Bronx.)

What does this all mean? Probably nothing. But as I finished watching “The Incredible World of Horace Ford,” and I gazed at the sad, obsessed eyes of Pat Hingle as he desperately tried to wrestle his childhood into the present, I hoped that I wouldn’t end up like him. You can’t live in the past. But hopefully, I at least wrote a good book about it.


P.S.: Do you like free stuff? Do you like to laugh? No? Well, then pick up a free copy of my book anyway. Lists, Life, and Other Unimportant Details is an over 270-paged collection of my best blogs and published articles over the past 25 years. Read the top of the Blog/FREE Book page for more details.

P.P.S.: Loyal readers may have noticed I published this week’s blog a day early. That’s because I’m going to be too busy tomorrow doing Dad stuff.

P.P.P.S.: Next week’s blog: The Difficulty of Living in the Moment

P.P.P.P.S.: These postscripts may be getting out of control.

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