Excerpt: 'As I Knew Him: My Dad Rod Serling' by Anne Serling
Rod Serling with his daughters, 1959
Every summer we fly to our cottage in upstate New York, built by my mother’s grandfather and great-grandfather where, with the exception of the years my sister and I were born, my mother has come every summer of her life.
We pack up our two dogs, our two cats, give them their prescribed sedatives, and put our three pet rats in their tiny yellow fabric-covered travel cages in preparation for the long flight. We always arrive at night, crunching down the gravel drive, the suitcases piled up in back and the dogs leaning out the window, like a Norman Rockwell painting. June, fireflies in flight, glowing in and out of darkness, my dad whistling and then all of us calling in a singsong voice, “We’re here! We’re here!” There is no greater thrill than this first arrival, with all of summer, a lifetime, just ahead; my father as ecstatic as my mother, my sister, and I when we see the little red house.
The cottage has three tiny bedrooms with sliding wooden doors and one bathroom with only a toilet and sink. We bathe in the lake or in a small shower in the trailer across the lawn where my great-grandmother stays in the summer months.
One day my dad will tell me how he was once washing in the lake when a boat approached. “Pops, I was standing there in my birthday suit, and I heard the boat coming closer and closer. I made a mad dash and crouched under the dock so that I wouldn’t be seen.”
At the cottage, we dry our clothes outside on a line and my mother hands me pins from a small blue and white cloth bag so that I can hang my own. I am a little chubby in those early years. My hair is curly like my dad’s, and my mother makes me get it cut in the summer, which I hate. I am also short for my age and sometimes have to stand on my toes to reach the clothesline.
We talk a little as we work. “Did you know,” my mother says, reaching into the bag, “this is the same clothespin bag we used when I was a little girl?” She helps me pin up my wet bathing suit. “Maybe you’ll keep it for your kids.”
Our days in the summer relieve my dad of his life in Los Angeles, show business, and the madness and pace of the city. Still, he struggles to balance the two ways of life, and I watch him running in and out of the house to answer the ringing phone, jarring against the quiet voices from the lake below, the hum of the cicadas—all of the summer sounds.
Even at the cottage he is continuously writing and creating. But for a while, at least, he takes himself out of the passing lane. He turns the phone down and lies in the hammock, reading there every afternoon, pushing himself back and forth with a stick he found on the beach, his glasses sliding down his nose while he dozes. When I am six or so, I dance around him, playing, balancing pebbles on his toes, challenging the sleeping, snoring giant to awaken and chase me away.
My sister, Jodi, three years older than I am, often plays a few feet away. Her long, brown hair is tied back as she gallops two toy palomino horses, making them whinny as they round a tree. She is obsessed with horses, even then.
And my mother, in the distance, arms full of freshly picked orange day lilies, walks across the porch and then into the cottage.
For a while there are just the sounds of the screen door closing as my mother carries the flowers inside, my father continues his rhythmic snore, my sister talks to her horses, and a boat motors slowly along the shoreline of the lake below.
Throughout these early summers we eat chocolate ice cream cones, my dad reads stacks of Mad magazine and plays hide-and-seek with us. He plants roses and even corn, and keeps a diary of the garden’s progress. “Bunny,” he tells me, “Look, it won’t be long now until we’re having corn on the cob.”
Everyone in my family has nicknames; even the animals. Rarely is anyone called by his or her proper name. My mother calls my dad “Elyan,” after his Hebrew name Rowelyan Ben Shmuel. He calls her C.B. for Carolyn Bunny, and Jodi is Jo-Ball or Steve (one day she will marry a Steve). I call my father “Roddy Rabbit” or “Stuart Little.” He even signs notes to me: “Love, S. Little.” He calls me Miss Grumple, or simply Grumple, Bunny, Little Raisin (he was Roddy Raisin), Small Rabbit, and both Momma and Pops.
There is something timeless and joyful and tranquil about being at this old, red house built so many decades before and where, in photos on a wall, generations of relatives gaze out at us from another time in their heavy, old-fashioned clothing, sitting on the same porch we do with the lake in the distance. It is this simple peace that we miss the moment the cottage is boarded up for the season and we fly back to California.
My father loves it here, skipping rocks along the shoreline and swimming in the cool, clear lake. He loves the summer storms that blacken the sky, that are both exhilarating and alarming and seem to roll in from nowhere. He lies out in the warm sun, walks on the beach, and pulls us aquaplaning behind the boat. He and my mother have drinks on the porch, and my dad cooks on the grill. My sister and I and our friends stage dog shows and make-believe horse shows. We brush the dogs until their coats shine and then practice for hours, finally presenting the performances on the lawn after dinner. Jodi is the designated announcer. “The show is ready to begin,” she says in a deep, dramatic voice, and she turns and signals for us to start circling around the “ring.” We lure the dogs with biscuits, but there is generally a struggle as they often fail to cooperate (unlike in rehearsals when they listened). With the added attention and excitement, they charge up the porch steps to escape us and greet our parents. We have to pull them back, whispering loudly, “No, Maggie!” “Come, Michael!” and we lead them back to the “ring,” the biscuits crumbled in our hands. Once we have them in control again and doing their routines, our parents applaud, and one or the other of them gives out the ribbons we have carefully cut out and colored for the winners.
Early in the morning, my dad sits with his blue porcelain cup filled with black coffee and two scoops of sugar and leans back in the wicker chair, his feet on the porch rail, listening as fish jump in the lake below.
He loves the visits from friends; his childhood friend Julius “Julie” Golden and wife, Rhoda, come every summer from Long Island and stay a week in July. One year, Julie brings an old photograph of their Boy Scout troop that he has enlarged. I see them unrolling it on the porch table, pointing and laughing.
Years later, Julie sends me a letter my dad wrote him in response to some old correspondence Julie had saved and sent him from when they were kids:
Granted that the enclosed represent the memorabilia of a couple of aging men and nothing more-you can’t imagine the joy they gave me or how I went into a raging gust of screaming laughter that brought tears. “The Summer of 42”–and we were the principal players.”…
Passing sentiment: your letters reinforced a feeling I’ve had gut deep for a whole lot of years. You were and are a dear and valued friend, Julie. And if that doesn’t elicit a small catch in the esophagus, then there never was a tune called MacNamara’s Band and nary A Broome County farmer ever purchased a pair of work gloves at Louie’s.
Shortly after Julie and Rhoda leave, my dad drives back to his hometown in Binghamton, New York—a small, once bucolic city in upstate New York where down a tree-lined street there stands a white, two-story house with dark shutters. It isn’t difficult to find; head down Front Street, straight onto Riverside Drive, right on Beethoven Street, then two blocks and you’re there.
This is a pilgrimage my father takes every summer until his death. It is 1965. He is forty years old. In ten years he will be gone.
He starts the car and waits as we call, “Good-bye.” He is going back, he says, “just for a few hours,” and leaning out of the car window, waves. His paratrooper bracelet glints in the sun. I listen as the car’s tires crunch through the gravel road of our cottage. I watch him go.
I imagine him driving slowly down Bennett Avenue, his old street, and passing by his house, now slightly in need of painting, a little worse for wear. I wonder if, stopping briefly, he pictures his mother still there, opening the front door, seeing him suddenly, a vision she cannot quite be certain of, holding up her hand to block the afternoon sun. Or maybe it is his father he sees out in the driveway, washing the old Ford, suddenly dropping the hose, which snakes through the air, spraying memories my dad can almost touch as he imagines both his parents running toward him in a kind of dreamlike, slow-motion reverie that only this level of recall can recreate. Or perhaps, driving a little farther, he sees the ghosts of his boyhood friends running barefoot alongside the car or waving to him from their porches, calling, “Come on, Roddy, come on,” until the sounds of the present bring him back and the passage of years and everything he has imagined are gone again.
I recognize that these visits re-center my dad. One day I will see the Twilight Zone episode inspired by these trips—“Walking Distance.” “The idea,” my dad will say, “came from walking through the streets of my hometown and then taking a long evening stroll to a place called Recreation Park three blocks from my old house and seeing the merry-go-round and remembering that wondrous, bittersweet time of growing up.” In the closing narration of that episode he says:
Martin Sloan, age thirty-six, vice-president in charge of media. Successful in most things but not in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives—trying to go home again. And also like all men perhaps there’ll be an occasion, maybe a summer night sometime, when he’ll look up from what he’s doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope, and hear the voices and the laughter of the people and the places of his past. And perhaps across his mind there’ll flit a little errant wish, that a man might not have to become old, never outgrow the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth. And he’ll smile then, too, because he’ll know it is just an errant wish, some wisp of memory not too important really, some laughing ghosts that cross a man’s mind, that are a part of The Twilight Zone.
I know early on that within my dad there is a kind of desperateness, an urge to go back, a need to touch home plate, to have things the way they were. And one day I will understand it on more than a farsighted level.
Occasionally my parents meet friends in Ithaca, a nearby college town twenty minutes from our cottage, and they always have the identical conversation when my mother takes too long getting ready. My dad will start pacing and growing annoyed. “Come on, honey!” and she’ll yell back, “For Christ’s sake, Rod, I’m almost ready! Go start the car.” To which he will always respond, “I don’t have to crank the God damn thing!” When she arrives, he often does this prank (he does to all of us) when, just as she, or one of us, is about to reach the car handle to open the door, he’ll drive a few feet forward. He does this to my mother all the time promising each time, “Okay. Okay. I won’t do it anymore. Get in,” at which point she’ll reach for the door and he will drive off again. After about the third time, she is completely exasperated, yells, “Rod!” and may storm inside, but I always hear her laughing.
For years, on the last night of summer, in a tradition I have passed on to my own children, we carve little boats from the leftover wood in the scrap pile. In the center of the boats, a hole is dug for a candle. We spread newspaper on the picnic table, and with our friends, we paint the boats and scratch in our names.
At sundown, when they are dry, we walk down the steep path through the woods to the lake and light the candles. Our parents sit on the dock beside us, and we lie on our stomachs and push the boats out into the dark water. Sometimes a breeze immediately sweeps across the lake and extinguishes the light. Sometimes the boats float for a long time, small flames in the distance, growing dimmer and dimmer, away from us, our shadowed figures huddled on the dock.
Year after year, we watch these little boats decorated by our small hands as they carry away that last gasp of summer’s glow.
When we are back in California, my dad and I have a ritual to speed the days until we can return to the lake. He takes me to a diner, where on late afternoons, we sit across from each other in a booth by the window, have a sundae, and play our private little game of “Only A Few More Months Until Summer,” both of us despairing of the long wait; my father, because Los Angeles is already beginning to wear on him again and I, because I treasure the uninterrupted time with him. He will say, “And then there’s Christmas, which is actually right around the corner. After all, this is practically November, which leads to December…” I am giggling, knowing what comes next, knowing this script so well, but saying excitedly anyway, “And then what?!”
He smiles. “You can eliminate the first fifteen days, which brings us to January, and February doesn’t count.”
“Why not?” I’ll ask as if on cue.
“Too few days.”
“Forget March! That whizzes by! So there’s just,” and he ticks them off on his fingers, “April, May, and then June and then Bunny . . .”
“Summer!” we’ll both shout in unison and explode into laughter.
Excerpt republished from As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling, by Anne Serling, published by Kensington, 2014. republished with permission of the author. This excerpt first appeared in Meat For Tea: The Valley Review in 2013.