Lessons Rod Serling taught me

by Steve Trimm

In the Spring of 1975 I was sitting in a church basement in Schenectady, New York, writing to Rod Serling. I’d heard that Mr. Serling was in the hospital, gravely ill. The prognosis sounded grim. Incredulous at the news, I fought against accepting it. I preferred to believe Mr. Serling would pull through. And yet, even if he rallied and recovered, it was pretty clear that his health would remain fragile.

Writing to Mr. Serling could not be put off. I had a lot I wanted to tell him. To begin with, I wanted to tell him why I was in a church basement in Schenectady, New York.

The church was one of the partner churches comprising the Schenectady Inner-City Ministries. The church operated a food pantry. I manned the food pantry. I manned the food pantry in order to help poor people, of course, but also to earn a Presidential Pardon.

Only a Presidential Pardon would restore my legal and civil rights and erase my conviction for Draft Resistance.

I had resisted the Draft in 1968, believing that participation in the Vietnam War would be immoral. Tried for this, convicted and sentenced to four years in prison, I had resisted incarceration, too. Rather than go to prison for doing what was morally right, I went underground. I was a fugitive for five and a half years.

It was during those fear-filled years that I sometimes thought about Rod Serling. Through his stories, Serling had taught important lessons about ethics and taking personal responsibility for humanity’s condition. He had often written about the power of kindness, forgiveness and compassion.

All of these principles were embodied in my act of resistance. That a man of Serling’s brilliance had endorsed those principles was reassuring and comforting.

Religious figures like Martin Luther King endorsed the same principles, needless to say. But while I thought of myself as highly spiritual, I did not think of myself as religious. Religion too often embraced superstition and irrationality. It too often rejected the logical and rational. That some religious leaders happened to stand where I stood was a heartwarming coincidence, but it was the Serlings of the world with whom I identified. Rod Serling’s support validated what I had done.

During the years when I was so afraid, when sometimes I felt that ending the ever-present, gut-twisting anxiety was the best thing I could do—by either surrendering to the authorities and becoming a soldier, or by committing suicide—Serling, through his marvelous tales, kept assuring me that, if I put my mind to it, I’d see there was no need for such deep hopelessness.

Serling argued through his morality plays on the Twilight Zone that each and every one of us, whether religious or irreligious, can triumph over the seeming inevitability of personal moral failure. What it takes, he wrote, is the capacity, despite the seeming omnipotence of the Powers Of Darkness, to keep believing in our own decency. If we can be generous and forgiving to ourselves, if we can hang on to a belief in our essential self-worth and goodness, simple charity will compel us to recognize the worth and goodness of others. This awareness will prevent us from becoming consumed by hatred. Unwilling to hate, we will behave morally. In the chaos of a frightened, angry society, holding tight to such beliefs will save us—and will ultimately save the world.

It is in the nature of anger that it must eventually burn itself out. It is in the nature of goodness that it must emerge from chaos, its emergence as certain as the coming of green grass in Springtime. The trick is to hang on long enough to live to see that day.

Don’t get me wrong. Other writer-sages helped sustain me during my fugitive years. Thoreau, Twain and Vonnegut would be examples. Still, Rod Serling was uniquely important. Crucial for me was his observation that, always, there is more than one reality unfolding.

We may think we know what the world is about, he said, but our picture is just a tiny fragment of the whole. This being true, the only way we can conclude there’s no room for hope is if we erroneously assume the world revolves around us. In other words, giving up hope cannot be justified, because the data leading to that conclusion is always incomplete.

This insight helped me survive. As it turned out, hanging in there was not a crazy thing to do. When Gerald Ford offered Presidential Pardons to Draft Resisters who would complete a stint of Conscientious Objector work, I was not only alive to see the day, but to seize it.

I was writing to Rod Serling from that church basement in Schenectady to thank him for helping save my life.

My friend George was also grateful to Mr. Serling.

George had been a combat Marine in Vietnam. He had seen more physical and psychological devastation than I could ever imagine. And when he came to realize that all that suffering need not have happened—that the reasons for going to war were spun out of thin air by politicians for self-serving political reasons—he came close to losing his mind.

George often told me that his Vietnam War experience was “like falling through Alice’s looking glass into Wonderland.” In Alice’s Wonderland all ethics were upside down and inside out. In the Wonderland of Vietnam, to kill was to preserve peace, to keep dictators in power was to promote democracy, to lock peasants into strategic hamlets was to grant them freedom. Murdering civilians was saving them from tyranny and lying about facts was an act of integrity. George’s buddies were killed for no good reason and he was told they had sacrificed themselves to advance a noble cause.

It was all too much.

In Vietnam, George’s moral Universe collapsed in upon itself. In reaction, he might have succumbed to suicidal depression or homicidal fury. Rod Serling helped him hang on to his sanity and, when he came home from the war, remain nonviolent.

“There is more going on here than you think,” Serling always asserted. “Yes, there is pain, death and sorrow. But that’s not all there is, not all there will be. Look. Really look. You’ll see.”

Following Serling’s lead—after all, Rod was a veteran who had had to wrestle with his own combat-induced demons—George willed himself, when he got home, to suppress his first destructive impulses. And sure enough, slowly, slowly, he began to see flashes, then beams of light cutting through his personal darkness.

It began with his fellow vets. Initially despised by their fellow countrymen, they turned to one another and, in a million ways great and small, helped one another to begin to heal. Their most severe wounds were emotional. Healing took a long time. But for many Vietnam veterans, life did become bearable and, for the luckiest among them, much more than that.

And then, sensitized to what war can do to individuals and their loved ones, and what this war in particular had done to the nation, some vets attempted to help America work through its Vietnam trauma.

Let me put it this way: The abuse and heartache the vets suffered turned many of them, paradoxically and unexpectedly, into care givers and men of conscience. The agonies they had endured eventually led them to reject hatred, to embrace goodness, and to bring much kindness into the world.

When George was at his most despondent and enraged, he could not even fantasize such an outcome. But he trusted Serling’s admonition that there is more than one reality, that blank night is never quite complete—nor permanent. Rod claimed that somewhere, despite appearances, the sun still shines and might even be rising. You might call it a matter of faith, but if one is patient and does not knuckle under to despair or rage, one will see that life can change for the better.

George and I work in the human service field. The work we do today is a direct outgrowth of our Vietnam Era experiences. And of refusing to let ourselves be killed by the smothering sadness and urge for revenge those experiences caused.

It was Rod Serling, above all others, who taught us to persevere, who taught us to look for the hope running beneath the surface of terrible events. It was Rod Serling who taught us, even when hope seems preposterous, never to give up on ourselves and never to give up on our fellow man.

That’s what I was writing to Rod Serling about from that church basement in Schenectady, New York.

Looking back, I doubt my letter conveyed all I wanted it to convey. But even if I failed to clearly communicate the specifics, I’m sure Mr. Serling sensed my admiration and gratitude. If he received an inkling that his work had touched someone and made a positive difference in his life, perhaps my words gave him a bit of comfort.

This will always be my hope.