All right, young ‘uns. Pull up a toadstool and let Old Man Wetmore tell you of the days before cable teevee.
Given circumstances the first: I grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting in Connecticut, ninety miles northeast of Manhattan and one hundred and twenty miles southwest of Boston. It was the late seventies, and in the days before cable, we got in about five or six channels most days: the three networks, PBS, and two local independent stations. But on a clear night, we could get the channels out of New York and Boston, too; UHF channels that filled hours of programing with reruns of old television shows and tons of old movies. Those six channels doubled at night and oddly on the weekends, giving me a fill of monster movies, Shaw Brothers films (Kung Fu Theatre! Saturdays on WNEW Channel 5!), and old science fiction cinema and television. While I love how the internet and streaming services have made everything readily accessible, there was something special about snow on the television resolving into a dubbed kung fu fight and suddenly realizing we were watching The Five Deadly Venoms on television!
Given circumstances the second: Like most families, we had a color television in the family room (referred to some as “the den”) which we watched as a family. My parents also had an old, black-and-white television on a wheeled, plastic television stand in their bedroom. When my siblings and I fell ill (again, the seventies, in elementary school), my mother would wheel the old television into the bedroom of the respective ill child, who then would simply lie in bed all day watching television. It was supposed to be turned off at bedtime, so the ill child would get rest and perhaps go back to school tomorrow.
Given circumstances the third: What can be turned off at bedtime can be turned back on after said parents have gone to bed, if you’re smart enough to keep the volume low.
When I was around ten, lying ill in bed all day in October, worried I might still have the flu on Halloween (Side note: Is there any holiday worse to be sick on than Halloween? I think not. If you’re sick on Christmas, you still get a Christmas. If you’re sick on your birthday, you still get a birthday and everyone is like, hey, we’ll have a party next weekend when you’re better. If you’re sick on Halloween, that’s it, man - game over. You can’t go around your neighborhood in a costume a week later and be like, “Trick or Treat – sorry, I was sick last week, can you give me candy now?” If you are sick on Halloween YOU DO NOT GET A HALLOWEEN! That is the scariest thing I can think of. Okay, back to my back-in-the-day television story). So, when I was lying in bed in October, worried I would not be better in time, I would still put the television back on late at night. Why?
Eleven p.m. was The Twilight Zone out of Boston on weeknights. As a sci-fi/horror fanboy in 1979 (We were simply “nerds” back then.), I knew The Twilight Zone. I had seen “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” “Time Enough at Last,” “A Game of Pool,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (Seriously, my ten year old self thought, is that even a monster? C’mon!), “I Shot an Arrow Into the Air,” and “A Passage for Trumpet” (still have a soft spot for that one, even though no aliens or monsters, just Jack Klugman pretending to play the trumpet). Loved the show. Smart, fun television. It promised respite and the flavor I wanted late at night, alone in my room. But that night in the lonesome October, a ten-year-old boy languishing under the flu turned on the television in time for the start of “Mr. Garrity and the Graves.” It turned into the single most terrifying moment of my life to that point.
Tired, feeling ill, and miserable, I looked to Rod Serling to provide wonder and a twist. Instead, Rod introduced, “Mr. Jared Garrity, a gentleman of commerce, who in the latter half of the nineteenth century plied his trade in the wild and wooly hinterlands of the American West. And Mr. Garrity, if one can believe him, is a resurrecter of the dead.” Ho-lee crap. This was going to be scary. Black and white, late at night, the dead coming back to life.
Mr. Garrity (John Dehner) drives his medicine-show wagon into Happiness, Arizona. Offers to bring the dead in the town’s cemetery back to life. Nobody thinks he can do it. Then, a wagon strikes a dog on main street, killing it. The dog is brought to Garrity who lays it in the dirt in the middle of the street and asks everyone to turn around and not look. A minute later that dog is up and running as the soundtrack music tells the audience that some serious, weird, dead-back-to-life stuff just happened.
I noped right up out of bed, noped over to the television, and turned it off, again, just repeating “nope, nope, nope” as I jumped back in bed and made sure all the covers were living up to their name. All alone, late at night in a dark house, sick and miserable, and The Twilight Zone is now scaring the hell out of me? Nope.
I have seen the episode many times since. For my money, it’s one of the better ones. The funny thing is, I should have kept watching, instead of doing what I did, which was wait until the end, assuming there was a twist and turn the television back on only to get even more terrified. See, if you don’t turn the show off like scared ten-year-old me does, you learn that Mr. Garrity is a con man. The dog was trained to play dead as part of the scam. He keeps promising to resurrect the dead until everyone in town pays him not to – they don’t want the dead returning, because everyone buried in Boot Hill has a score to settle, and ain’t nobody wants to deal with that. So, not only is he a fake, the town pays him not to do the very thing the episode promises. It’s actually a pretty funny episode. I missed all this out of fear.
No, I turned the television back on in time for the twist (SPOILER ALERT), as Mr. Garrity is leaving town, the dead begin to resurrect anyway, heading into town for some serious payback, with one remarking Garrity didn’t know his own abilities. Serling returns to remind us that Mr. Garrity is indeed “a sad misjudger of his own talents” and that the episode is “respectfully submitted from an empty cemetery on a dark hillside that is one of the slopes leading to The Twilight Zone.” Empty cemetery?!?! AUUUGHHH! I turned the television off just to turn it back on in time to make the episode even scarier than it actually was.
The memory of that episode scared me for a long time. So, hats off to Rod Serling who managed to convince a sick ten-year-old that the dead could come back to life far more than any of the zombie or vampire films running on the same channels. And hats off to Rod Serling, a fine storyteller and gentleman scarer whose work I continue to love and treasure. The Twilight Zone doesn’t scare me and hasn’t for years. But I own the complete series on DVD. And I must admit, sometimes, when I’m not feeling well, late at night after my family has gone to sleep, I pull out season five, pull out the disk that has “Mr. Garrity and the Graves,” and for a few minutes I am ten again, and it is delicious. I don’t turn the television off, though. That’s for babies and scarety-cats, and I am a big boy now.