“’A place called Willoughby,’ Gart said. ‘A little town that I charted inside my head. A place I manufactured in a dream… An odd dream. A very odd dream. Willoughby. It was summer. Very warm. The kids were barefooted. One of them carried a fishing pole. And the main street looked like… like a Currier and Ives illustration. Bandstand, old-fashioned stores, bicycles, wagons… I’ve never seen such a serenity. It was the way people must have lived a hundred years ago” (118-119).
An under-appreciated favorite episode of mine from The Twilight Zone (among many such episodes), Rod Serling’s short story “A Stop At Willoughby” is about Gart Williams (played by James Daly in episode of the same name), a New York advertising account executive who. Hates his. Job. At forty-one years old, He has worked for the same agency for fifteen years and earns about $20,000 per year. Presently, he is on the hook for a $3M automobile account from an acquaintance named Jake Ross –but Jake has missed the scheduled meeting and is nowhere to be found. After making an urgent phone call, Gart receives a letter in the mail announcing that Jake Ross has resigned his position and is taking his automobile account to another agency. A distraught Gart is immediately lambasted by his corporate superiors. However, unable to bear the abuse, and before Gart is fully aware of his own words, he loudly shouts at his boss and calls him a “fat boy!”
Later, Gart Williams flees his Manhattan office and dozes on the train ride home when he is suddenly awoken by an announcement, “This is Willoughby!”
“The train had stopped at a small station with a sign that read, ‘Willoughby.’ On the platform of the station were women with parasols and long dresses. Boys in knickers ran back and forth. One carried a fishing pole. Beyond the station was a small village square with a bandstand. Williams could hear the strains of the Sousa. Music, happily discordant and marvelously reminiscent. The whole scene was bathed in a hot summer sun. Williams tried to digest it, knowing it was a dream, but confused by the absolute reality” (114).
The lifeless chrome green plastic train car he had previously entered in Grand Central Station is no more, and instead he finds himself seated in an ornate 19th century wooden, velvet train car with gas lamps dangling from the ceiling. A kindly white-haired conductor in a brass-buttoned suit walks by and announces the stop again, “Willoughby!” Outside the window, Gart witnesses an idyllic scene –a warm July day in 1880. People seem happy and carefree and the pace of life moves slowly. Then, he falls back asleep and awakens on his familiar ride home in the mid-20th century. However, the beauty of the fabled town of Willoughby cannot escape him.
At home, Gart enjoys a drink while his cold, humorless wife scolds him for the day’s events. After he confesses his dreams of escapism, she chides him for even having such childish dreams of becoming “Huck Finn.” The next night on the train, he falls asleep once again and visits Willoughby where he is overwhelmed by a sense of calmness about him. It is almost too perfect a moment. However, when the time comes, he is afraid to step off the train. ‘Next time,’ he tells himself.
Some time later in January, Gart is once again plagued by a particularly difficult day at work. He decides to immediately depart his office and head homeward, entirely unable to handle the stress of the modern office. Once again, he falls asleep on the train and starts to feel warmth on his face. As he hears the conductor shout, “Willoughby!” This time he steps off the train and greets the friendly, genteel people of Willoughby as they casually stroll down Main Street and into the park. Gart walks up to a storefront and admires the pendulum of a beautiful grandfather clock.
In an epilogue to the tale, we return to the 20th century. A gaggle of police officers are investigating the strange death of Gart Williams, a man who fell asleep on the train and shouted something about “Willoughby” before leaping to his death in the snow below. His body is recovered and carted away to Willoughby & Son Funeral Home Co.
“Mr. Gart Williams had climbed on a world that went by too fast and then had reached out trying to grasp at a respite from torment. In a sense he had merely jumped off this word. He did not fee the snow melting over his dead flesh as the ambulance sped through the night. Quite the contrary, the sun was very warm in the little village and he’d taken off his coat and tie. He was with a group of boys heading toward a stream where the trout were and he was laughing because it was summer and there was peace. And this was a pace where a man could live his life full measure. This was Willoughby” (127).
Serling, Rod. More Stories From The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling Books: 1960 (republished in 1990 by the Serling family), Paperback Edition.
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Click here to read my review of The Twilight Zone episode “A Stop At Willoughby.”