On Rod Serling’s “Walking Distance”

“His name was Martin Sloan and he was thirty-six years old…”

So begins Rod Serling’s bittersweet tale of memory and nostalgia. It is every bit as tender and filled with longing as the parallel television episode. However, unlike in The Twilight Zone episode, Rod Serling’s short story actually introduces us to our protagonist ad executive, Martin Sloan, at his bachelor flat on Park Avenue and 63rd Street in New York City. He drives a red Mercedez-Benz, dons a Brooks Brothers suit, and leads a busy stressful life which has recently caused a painful ulcer in his gut. Despite the busy days, Martin lives alone and often comes home to sit in the dark or gaze in the mirror (mirrors play an important thematic role both in the story as well as the episode).

Martin regularly finds himself dreaming of escapism, longing to go back to the little town of his youth in upstate New York. One night, on a whim, Martin drives out of the city toward his childhood home of Homewood, New York –“a quiet, tree-filled little town of three thousand people” (63). It is a warm summer night and as he drives he recalls the uninhibited freedom of his childhood, summer bandstands, parks, and playgrounds. Life was simpler then and Martin feels lost. He has not visited his hometown in some twenty years.

Martin stops for gas as well as an oil change and lube up when he suddenly realizes he is only one and a half miles from Homewood –or mere “walking distance” away. While his car is fixed he steps backward in time and walks over the hill to Homewood. First, he stops into Mr. Wilson’s drugstore which sits exactly as he once remembered it. Martin orders from the soda jerk a cup which costs three scoops for a dime! It is a shockingly low price. Little seems to have changed here and the pace of life is slow and easy, but Martin notes that the people seem happy.

In reading about these halcyon days, I am left to wonder if this bygone era in American has completely vanished never again to return. Our pace of life as been radically sped up, and many small towns are almost unrecognizable after having been decimated by years of corporate plunder. These old shops, where a man might once have taken pride in his work or trade, have now been replaced with soulless big box chains, distributing cheap mass-produced goods, paying their employees a pittance, serving the shareholder class who live far away without care. Today, people seem less happy, more frantic, fearful, disconnected, often without hope of a future, spiritually bankrupt and morally hedonistic, devoid of community, absent the rootedness which makes life meaningful and joyful. In contrast, Martin Sloan’s Homewood seems not to have yet been crushed by the weight of our world. Instead children play outside unsupervised, without fear of abduction. Life is generally safe and carefree, business is slow but people are kindhearted and optimistic. This is not the snide portrayal of small town middle class American life as in Sinclair Lewis’s novels.

The “bittersweet pang of nostalgia” hits Martin as he walks down Oak Street, which has remained exactly as he remembered it. Music plays in the park over the sounds of children, and a merry-go-round spins while the tinkling sound of an of ice cream truck lazily rolls by. Why did I ever leave this dream? Martin asks himself.

Martin spots a young Marty Sloan –himself– carving his name into the wooden bandstand in the park, and he meets his parents at his old house (though in reality his parents have long since died). Something is not right here. Martin has somehow stepped back in time only to find his nostalgia-ridden childhood to be a place which he can sadly never fully grasp again. Life is fleeting and these beautiful moments are protean, impossible to hold for too long. Youth is wasted on the young as the saying goes. As Martin chases down his younger self he causes a leg injury, and then quietly whispers, “I only wanted to tell you that this was the most wonderful time for you. Don’t let any of it go by without enjoying it. There won’t be any more merry-go-rounds. No more cotton candy. No more band concerts. I only wanted to tell you, Martin, that this is the most wonderful time…” (79).

Martin then somberly speaks with his father who seems to know the truth. Martin confesses to his father that life in New York is a rat race and he yearns to come home, to ride merry-go-rounds just one more time, to eat cotton candy and live carefree like he once did as a child, to gaze up at the stars on warm summer nights, to listen to a band concert in the park, to watch the rain from his home porch, to eat ice cream and find Mr. Wilson asleep in the back of the drugstore, to play hide-and-seek in the park, to hear the sound of children’s laughter once more. He is begging for a return to innocence. But, as Martin’s father notes, perhaps there is only one golden summer for each customer in this life, and perhaps Martin might actually find those merry-go-rounds and cotton candy and band concerts today if only he might look a little closer, and focus on what lies ahead rather than gazing longingly into the past. Martin solemnly bids farewell to his father for the last time and he returns home knowing that Homewood is never truly “walking distance” away anymore.

Serling, Rod. Stories From The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling Books: 1960 (republished in 1990 by the Serling family), Paperback Edition.

Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.

Click here to read my review of The Twilight Zone Episode “Walking Distance”

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