March 31, 2022

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Does Earl Hamner, Jr. Remind You of the Twilight Zone? He Should

Richard Thomas and Earl Hamner, Jr on the set of The Waltons. CBS Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most celebrated series from TV’s Golden Age is, of course, The Twilight Zone. The theme music, to this day, reminds many of something that is strange and unexplainable. It does not matter whether they lived during the first run of the series or came of age yesterday. Obviously, the creator as well as the host — Rod Serling is iconic but another name that may not click with people nostalgic for the strange storylines is Earl Hamner, Jr.

More famous for creating and narrating The CBS television series The Waltons, Earl Hamner, Jr. was a Hollywood writer from Virginia whose scripts touched the hearts of many, with down-home style storylines.

He created the Waltons based on his own rural Virginia upbringing. However, long before, John-Boy set a pen to paper, Hamner wrote scripts for several programs starting with an episode of the Kate Smith Hour in 1953. The Twilight Zone is the first series, according to IMDB, where he received credit for several episodes.

The Waltons brought a feel-good message in turbulent times

During the 1970s, the Waltons added that feel-good sense of family people longed to know from the Watergate era right up to the Reagan years when Americans tried to figure out where the country was headed. Running nine years from 1972 to 1981, it thrived in a culture steeped in comforting sensations, pastel colors, saccharine music and later disco.

The real world was lost in confusion between the resignation of Richard Nixon, the fall of Saigon and the unelected presidency of Gerald Ford giving way to the administration of Jimmy Carter marked by the Iranian hostage crisis. So, there was a lot of nostalgia longing for life in the 1940’s and 50’s at the time with such series as Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley on ABC and the Waltons over on the Tiffany Network.

Yes, Hollywood, there is a Virginia

One of Hamner’s signatures is the rural nature of his stories taking place in the generic Eastern forests. They are modeled after his hometown of Schuyler, Virginia. He wrote dramas placed far from the urban worlds and assumedly halfway between the White House and the North Carolina and Virginia border best represented also by such programs as the Andy Griffith Show and, of course, the Waltons.

Griffith modeled his town of Mayberry after the actual town of his origins — Mount Airy right on the border of North Carolina and Virginia. In fact, as you watch the program, you will hear actual communities such as Mount Pilot mentioned and, of course, the Snappy Lunch in his native hometown.

These are small towns in the rural world of northern North Carolina and Southern Virginia which many call flyover country and consider them irrelevant to the political life of this country. They are farther in culture than they are in distance from the more urban world of the Beltway surrounding Washington, DC. Life there reminds many of a loving and simpler life those in the city areas at the time longed to know especially those who never lived in the rural world.

During today’s troubled times of war in Eastern Europe, inflation and great division in the country, this writer and Navy veteran remembers my fellow sailors from rural areas boasting of their connection to the song A Country Boy Can Survive by Hank Williams, Jr. They never feared what the world would bring for they had all the tools to help them live in the most rustic of times.

Just as Rod Serling became known for the strange and ironic storylines such as the one that almost led him to quit Hollywood because of his hatred of censorship, Hamner became known for the stories of country living even the strange ones in the Twilight Zone.

The Bewitching Pool

If you were to ask Twilight Zone trivia buffs to name an episode that is most associated with Hamner they may bring up the final one — the Bewitching Pool. This storyline revolved around two children who found that modern living affording them California luxuries of a mansion and swimming pool brought forth a troubled home life and a soon-to-be broken home.

They found escape in a secret community life of an unknown rural world only found through a mystical passage at the bottom of the pool. There the two children meet Whitt who leads them to Aunt T.

Playing in a nearby lake in the forest with many other similarly estranged children, they find a new permanent family led by the elderly, joyous and loving matriarch. She gives the youngsters sanctuary from the toxicity of their actual homelife and a second chance at a joyous country childhood. They only have to happily turn their backs on their painful life in the real world.

Georgia Simmons played Aunt T. and was herself about 80 years old when she filmed the episode. She died just four years short of being a centenarian sixteen years later.

It is a classic Twilight Zone episode and one for which Hamner is famous possibly also due to it closing the run of the show.

However, Hamner wrote eight programs for the Twilight Zone from late 1962 to the end of the 1964 season and is even credited in the tease by Rod Serling for writing You Drive, the first episode to air in 1964. He mentions it at the end of another Hamner creation — the Ring-a-Ding Girl the last of 1963. In that classic episode, the famous Hollywood actress Bunny Blake comes back to visit her rural hometown at the behest of images sent to her through a ring. Of course, to explain why would be a spoiler in every sense of the term. Central to the storyline is how those in Hollywood consider such rural communities to be irrelevant.

It may be hard for some to connect the creator of the Waltons to the last half of the run of the Twilight Zone. We, possibly, cannot imagine two more different worlds. Maybe, they are not that different after all. Using both venues Hamner brings us back to the world of community, love and family. However, they too may have been as unreal in many ways as a ring that sends messages and pools with a secret passage to nirvana; escapism is the point of TV after all.

Earl Hamner, Jr. died in 2016 at the age of 92 after a successful career in Hollywood.

RJ Carr is the author of Encounter Christ In Your Humanity

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