You know when you’re really hungry and you’re eating everything in sight, and you accidentally eat a grenade, and as it’s going down, the pin snags on a tooth and comes out so that the grenade is now live, and just as it enters your belly, it blows up ripping you asunder? Of course not, because that doesn’t happen, but if it did, it might adequately describe the gut punch that I felt watching Walking Distance. It’s reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (and later, Farewell, Summer), which is interesting because the lead character namechecks Bradbury at one point. This story offers another lucky break for the main character, which is just blowing my mind, because that’s 5 out of 5 so far for happy endings. But the journey to get there is an utter kick to the teeth for me, because it’s so topical. You thought it was rough watching Barbara Jean Trenton in Sixteen Millimeter Shrine? She’s a woman lost in her own past. For 36 year old VP of media, Martin Sloan, it’s a different kettle of fish altogether.
Maybe the reason this felt more meaningful to me is that I’ve never been a celebrity; never had my moment in the spotlight. I could never get used to my own voice or seeing myself on camera, so the journey Barbara went on in the previous episode was poignant, but not something I could relate to in detail; more a general understanding of how she feels, as she struggles with coming to terms with her own age. Martin, by contrast, is a business man; a successful one, but a guy with a job just like me. Martin Sloan is stressed and drives off in a hurry and when he finds himself near his childhood home, he goes to visit, only to find that somehow he’s gone back in time to his own childhood.
I had mentioned in Sixteen Millimeter Shrine that I understood the idea of pining for the glory days of one’s youth. I was just telling me wife about what I wrote for that episode (the same day I chose to watch this, but some hours earlier). This resonated to the core for me. I grew up in Staten Island in a little town that was picture perfect. Our neighborhood park had a nice gazebo and I’d spent many hours there at night. I remember once they did a 1920’s style music presentation there; the whole neighborhood turned out for it. I had friends on every corner and we hung out all the time. “There’s nothing quite as good as summer; being a kid!” People were over my house morning, noon, and night especially in the summertime when we didn’t have a curfew for school. I now live in a quiet area of New Jersey; I love it, it’s beautiful and I adore the home we have, but I miss those fun days of having people over all the time; those summertime days of my childhood. I was just saying to my wife today that I found it sad that our own boys never had the ability to have those heady days with friends over at all hours. I treasured those days! When Martin finds his younger self, he says, “Don’t let any of it go by without enjoying it!” He’s so right. My childhood was such a happy time, I can just imagine going back and seeing my younger self. I’d say the same thing, but thankfully, my younger self would look at me and say, “no duh!” and then run off to play some more with his friends. And even on those nights when friends were nowhere to be seen, rare though they were, I had fun just playing with the copious toys my mom and dad had bought me. I had the best childhood, I tell you.
Adult Martin seems to have forgotten that sometimes you have to be a kid again. You have to be a willing to jump on the merry-go-round and eat cotton candy. I am so grateful that the night before I watched this, the last weekend of September 2021, my wife and I went to the boardwalk, ate ice cream and funnel cake, went to the aquarium (and met a beautiful octopus), and then went on for a round of 18 holes of minigolf. That little kid version of me was looking into the future saying, “Good job. You didn’t forget!” Where Martin succeeded while our friend Barbara failed is that Martin takes the advice of his dad, “try looking ahead”. In other words, don’t be caught up in the past. And maybe that’s where we go wrong. We base our decisions on the life lessons we’ve had, which means constantly evaluating based on the past. It’s hard to know when to live for the future and when to linger in the past. We need to, to a certain extent; one doesn’t want to make the same mistakes of the past, but you have to be willing to be a kid sometimes or you get lost in the struggles of adulthood, and you can burn out. Look, I know the mere idea of going back in time would mean I’d see my dad again and that’s a wonderful thing, but it means looking back. Even my dad wouldn’t want that for me. One has to move forward, but take those memories with you.
Martin gets a chance to see his childhood again, gets to live for a little while back in his own past, stopping at the ice cream shop and getting a chocolate soda with three scoops. He had a moment to go back to that boardwalk of his own childhood and refresh himself. Maybe he’ll be ready to go back to work now, a new man, so to speak. As I write this one late Sunday night, ready to start the new week, I think maybe I too am ready for the next batch of working days. I didn’t have to step back in time to remember. Thankfully, I’d never forgotten! But it was a healthy reminder anyway. It was a hard hitting episode for me because it was just so timely but it was beautiful too. An unexpectedly refreshing story from the Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Most Twilight Zone episodes work with one simple idea, and Walking Distance is about a man who travels back into his own past, meeting his younger self and his parents, and experiencing that perfect childhood summer one more time. But although the concept might be straightforward, the emotions wrapped up in the idea are far from simple.
This was a deeply personal story for Rod Serling, a love letter to his own childhood, with the memories of Martin Sloan modelled on Serling’s own happy childhood memories. However, it’s a story that nearly all viewers can probably relate to on some level. I certainly can.
Martin is desperate to escape from life in the big city and get back to the simplicity of his childhood. I think that’s relatable on a level that is much wider than simply the town/country or city/village divide. Instead, I think it’s about responsibilities. When you are a child, you don’t really have to worry about anything other than yourself. I realise I am making broad generalisations here, and there are children who don’t manage to experience that carefree childhood, but by and large childhood concerns are rarely anything you could classify as a responsibility. As an adult there are things you have to do, such as making money to pay the mortgage, or looking after your own children. You might have to make difficult sacrifices, such as working long hours that take you away from your family, or leave you with little in the way of leisure time. For a child, particularly during those long, hot summers, it’s all about the leisure time. You can be a free spirit. So it’s only natural at some point to start harking back to those days. The message Martin is desperate to get across to his younger self is an interesting one:
“I only wanted to tell you that this is a wonderful time of life for you. Don’t let any of it go by without enjoying it.”
The truth is, he’s preaching to the converted. His younger self is enjoying his life. But here’s the thing: I don’t suppose there’s one person reading this who hasn’t looked back at a good time in their life and thought, “I didn’t realise how lucky I was.” Martin is out of his mind with the bizarre situation he finds himself in, so he understandably handles that all very badly. It’s uncomfortable to watch him chasing after himself as a boy, like some kind of a predator, and he pays the price for what he does by walking away with a lifelong disability. Ironically, by trying to make his younger self enjoy life more, he spoils things for him a bit, making him enjoy life less for a while. That’s perhaps the most overlooked message here, and it’s a message for parents: you’re not going to be able to get a child to understand how much they need to make the most of their childhood. It won’t work.
My son sometimes complains that he can’t wait to be an adult. He sees some of the freedoms we have, and he can’t wait to have those too. To a certain extent, he’s right, of course. That’s the point. Different stages of our lives bring us different things, and Martin’s view of the past is rose-tinted. It’s only natural, but he’s looking at all the good things, all the freedoms, without remembering the aspects of childhood that are all about a lack of freedom. A child can’t do what Martin is doing as an adult, for a start, jumping in a car and driving off wherever he wants to go. A child can’t even buy as many sodas as he likes in a day. But the point is that when my son says he wants to be an adult, I tell him to enjoy his childhood and stop wishing his life away. I tell him he has much more time to have fun and play than he will ever have as an adult, so to make the most of it while he can. And the thing is, it falls on deaf ears, and so it should. A child will never “count their blessings”, and that’s the forgotten message of this story. What Martin is trying to do is just not possible. More than that, he doesn’t need to do it. His child self was enjoying life anyway, and creating those happy memories.
There are of course two more obvious messages, but as everyone who writes about this episode flags them up I thought it would be more useful to talk about the less obvious one. But I won’t ignore the other two. The first is about the work/life balance. This is clearly what has motivated Martin to seek refuge in the past. He’s getting out of the rat race for a while. He can’t become a child again, so perhaps there’s an important lesson there: it’s better to address the work/life balance than wallow in ultimately self-defeating nostalgia. That brings us to the most overt message of the episode: nostalgia can be harmful. Yes, it can be comforting as well, but if you look to the past too much then you can’t move forward.
“You’ve been looking behind you, Martin. Try looking ahead.”
Wise words. You can’t go back, so if you need to make a change there’s only one way to do that. Go forwards. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Escape Clause