The Shelter

Walls.  We’ve been hearing a lot about them lately.  Concrete walls and steel walls and bollard fences. But walls are not just physical barriers that stand between people or communities or nation-states. There are other kinds, as well.

 

Some walls are not built with metal or wood or whatever else technology or ingenuity can manufacture.  They are, rather, erected within our minds and our hearts, born from blind prejudices and long-festering hatreds that too often span centuries and generations.  These walls, these soul-killing monuments harbored by far too many for far too long, aren’t visible to the eye.  But they are experienced every day, in all corners of the world.

Rod Serling knew this well, and some of the more memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone dealt with such issues.  One in particular, which sometimes flies under the proverbial radar, was a third-season tour de force called “The Shelter.” (Airdate September 29, 1961.)

 

The episode begins with a panoramic view of a suburban neighborhood, at night.  Everything looks peaceful, serene, the American ideal.  And when we enter the home of Dr. William Stockton, we witness a gathering of friends and neighbors, celebrating the doctor’s birthday.  One of the neighbors, Jerry Harlowe, gives a speech honoring the doctor.  He says that Stockton is a good friend, an excellent doctor, someone who has treated them and their children for twenty years.  They make lighthearted fun of Stockton and the bomb shelter he has built off of his basement.  Laughter is plentiful, and hearty.  These are people who know each other–or so it seems.  They know and respect Dr. Stockton.

 

Just then, Stockton’s son enters the room, tells everyone that the picture on the television set just went dark and an announcer came on, informing the audience to tune into the CONELRAD (Civil Defense) station on the radio.

Stockton does, and the throng of neighbors is shocked by what they hear.  The CONELRAD announcement states that there is an unidentified flying object on radar, traveling southeast.  The president of the United States has declared a “yellow emergency.”  The announcer tells his listeners to retreat to a shelter if they have one; if not, go to a basement or, lacking that, to the centermost position in the house, while closing all doors and windows.

 

The neighbors run out of Stockton’s house and into the street, in a panic.  The announcement can mean only one thing–a nuclear attack.  This is the event the nation, the world, has dreaded.

 

At this point, Rod Serling provides the opening narration.

 

“What you are about to watch is a nightmare,” Serling intones.  “It is not meant to be prophetic.  It need not happen.  It’s the fervent and urgent prayer of all men of goodwill that it never shall happen.  But in this place, in this moment, it does happen.  This is the Twilight Zone.”

 

The doctor, his wife, and his son prepare for an extended stay in their bomb shelter.  They fill jugs with water, gather canned goods.  Efficiency is paramount.  Lights are flickering, the power threatening to cut out.  They may have twenty minutes, perhaps a half hour at the outside, to supply the shelter with everything they’ll need to weather the cataclysm of the potential bomb blast and resulting aftermath.

 

The food and water procured, the family of three locks themselves inside the shelter.  There is a radio within.  Stockton turns it on, as they listen for updates.

Upstairs, neighbor Jerry and his wife let themselves in.  Realizing that Stockton and his family must already be secured in their shelter, Jerry heads down to the basement.  He knocks on the shelter door. Stockton opens, it walks out.  Jerry tells him that he and his wife have no basement in their home.  Theirs is the “only brand-new house on the block.  We’re sitting ducks over there.”

Dr. Stockton tells them they can use his basement.

“Your basement?” Jerry says. ” What about your shelter?  It’s the only place we can survive!”

The doctor explains that the shelter was designed for his family, for just the three of them.  They don’t have enough room, or enough supplies, to take in anyone else.

Jerry won’t give up.  “We’ll sleep standing up,” he says.  “We won’t use any of your stuff.”

“What about air?” Stockton snaps back.  “Will you bring your own air?  I’m sorry, Jerry.  God as my witness, I am sorry!  But I built this shelter for my family.”

 

At this, Jerry becomes hysterical, and knocks a jug of water from Stockton’s hands.  It breaks on the concrete floor, the water spilling out.

Stockton pulls away, retreats into the shelter, shouts at him.  “I kept telling you, Jerry.  All of you.  Forget the card parties and the barbecues–for maybe a few hours a week.  Admit that the worst was possible.  But you didn’t want to listen, Jerry.  None of you wanted to listen.”

He finishes by telling his neighbor it is now out of his hands, and he slams the shelter door in Jerry’s face.

Meanwhile, another neighbor–Marty, along with his wife–arrives at the Stockton home.  When Jerry tells them that Stockton won’t let anyone in the shelter, Marty is incredulous.  “He’s got to let us in.”  But he, too, runs into a locked door–literally and figuratively–when he descends into Stockton’s basement and pleads with the doctor, to no avail.

Marty returns to the upstairs portion of the house as still more neighbors arrive.  None of Stockton’s friends are ready for the cataclysm.  All want refuge in the shelter.

One of the neighbors, Frank, is angry.  They should break into the shelter, he says.  Batter in the door.  But Jerry reminds him that the shelter is too small.  They couldn’t all survive.

Marty opines that they should pick out one family, just one, who could join the Stocktons inside the shelter.  But then they argue over which family should have the privilege.

 

Here, Frank snaps, and he tells Marty, who is Hispanic, to shut his mouth.  “That’s the way it is when the foreigners come over here,” he says.  “Pushy, grabby.  Semi-American.”

The two come close to blows, and Frank, still full of rage, races downstairs and pounds on the shelter door, demanding entry.  Stockton remains firm.  No one gets in.

A member of the growing throng of neighbors says he knows someone down the street who has a steel pipe they can use as a battering ram.  If they get their hands on it, they can bust through the shelter door.

Jerry tells them to stop.  “You’re all acting like a mob!” he shouts.  Marty concurs, tells them to cool down, think it through.

 

To this, Frank scowls and says, “Wasn’t I clear before?  Nobody cares what you think, you or your kind!”  This time, the two do come to blows.  Frank punches Marty in the mouth.  There are shrieks, screams.  A siren goes off, whining in the distance.  Frank yells that they need to batter down the door, and they run off for the steel pipe.

Moments later, they are back, in a frenzy.  They swing the pipe, crash it against the shelter door, frantic, violent.  Again and again and again, until the door gives way.

 

And then . . . the power flicks on, the lights come to life.  And the radio crackles, the announcer speaks.  The president has determined that the UFOs are not nuclear missiles, but satellites.  “Repeat–there are no enemy missiles approaching.”  There is no danger.  The state of emergency has been called off.

 

Everyone smiles and laughs.  Couple hug each other.

But then a startled, regretful expression comes to Frank’s face.  He approaches Marty, apologizes, explaining to his neighbor that he “went off [his] rocker” and that he “didn’t mean any of those things I said to you.”

 

Jerry chimes in.  Feigning joviality, he says they’ll pay Dr. Stockton for the damages to his property.  “We’ll take up a collection right away.”

“We can have a block party tomorrow night,” Marty says.  “A big celebration!”

Jerry is all for it.  “Anything to get back to normal.”

Stockton, exhausted, defeated, tells them he doesn’t know what normal is anymore.  And paying for the damages?

 

“I wonder if any one of us has any idea what those damages really are,” he says.  “Maybe one of them is finding out what we’re really like when we’re normal.  The kind of people we are underneath the skin.  A lot of naked, wild animals who put such a price on staying alive that they’ll claw their neighbors to death just for the privilege.”

 

Rod Serling sums it up at the closing, as the camera pans the Stockton living room, the tables overturned, casualties of the neighbors’ recklessness and rage during the crisis.

 

“No moral, no message, no prophetic tract, just a simple statement of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized.  Tonight’s very small exercise in logic from the Twilight Zone.”

And, no doubt, it’s an exercise at least as relevant in 2019 as it was in 1961.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

29 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. huguetta
    Feb 12, 2019 @ 16:20:59

    I guess there is a moral: « The kind of people we are underneath the skin.  A lot of naked, wild animals who put such a price on staying alive that they’ll claw their neighbors to death just for the privilege. »
    Nowadays people are willing to claw others to death for less reasons than survival, sometimes for stupid reasons…
    Thank you for sharing!

    Reply

  2. laurelwolfelives
    Feb 12, 2019 @ 17:16:18

    I remember this episode well. I particularly like it because of the name Stockton.
    I immediately knew from the beginning…how it was going to end. I grew up when people were building bomb shelters and having air raids regularly. It was a scary time.

    Reply

  3. Dragthepen
    Feb 12, 2019 @ 21:42:27

    Thank you for this walk down memory lane. I am big fan of the Twilight Zone. You have a made a major point about how and why we keep people out and a deep look into the true side of mankind when it comes down to the survival of the fittest.

    Reply

  4. Lyn
    Feb 12, 2019 @ 22:08:43

    I’m sort of glad they haven’t done a new series of the Twilight Zone in the last few years. I doubt they could do it any better than they did back in the sixties – especially episodes like The Shelter

    Reply

  5. joannerambling
    Feb 12, 2019 @ 23:08:00

    Never seen the episode not something I ever watched but still an interesting post

    Reply

  6. kmSalvatore
    Feb 12, 2019 @ 23:28:14

    Ahhh that was a great day all down memory lane for sure. And yep I remember that episode very well.. of course around these part Rod Sterling is a household name, even to this day… He lived in our southern tier .

    Reply

  7. lampmagician
    Feb 13, 2019 @ 14:19:35

    Reblogged this on lampmagician.

    Reply

  8. lampmagician
    Feb 14, 2019 @ 15:09:16

    Thank You back dear Friend, great read 👍it has also remembered me of the TV series; the Twilight Zone from the sixties which I loved to watch and learned me to explore widely my imagination 😊👍🙏

    Reply

  9. Lara/Trace
    Feb 16, 2019 @ 20:21:02

    Ah Mike, thanks for the sad reminder.

    Reply

  10. Ste J
    Feb 18, 2019 @ 00:46:17

    A classic episode, and on point with a timeless message. Humans are generally an entertaining mess but when lives,property, and so forth are threatened, it is so much darker.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 18, 2019 @ 14:05:25

      So many Twilight Zone episodes are timeless, indeed. For this reason, I think the show is underrated! A lot of people think of it as an imaginative, “weird” show, but it’s so much more, and so much better, than that . . .

      Reply

  11. Anna Waldherr
    Feb 19, 2019 @ 16:27:28

    I remember this episode well. It has great application today.

    Reply

  12. Rosaliene Bacchus
    Feb 19, 2019 @ 17:42:50

    Excellent post, Mike. As you rightly point out: “[Walls] are, rather, erected within our minds and our hearts, born from blind prejudices and long-festering hatreds that too often span centuries and generations.” No “big, beautiful wall” on our southern border will protect us from our hate and fear of the other.

    Reply

  13. Karina Pinella
    Feb 21, 2019 @ 16:59:59

    I remember this episode. My thought about this is those neighbors have no right to impose themselves on someone who clearly stated his shelter was designed to accommodate only his own family. People tend to be disrespectful once they feel threatened. Is it our human nature? It seems to be based on that episode. Once our survival is threatened, we forget about boundaries and think only about our own demise. There is a feeling of I have nothing to lose but my life, so I don’t care what my neighbor thinks. At all costs, the threatened will do damage even though if one were to stop to think that if damage is done to the shelter, then it becomes useless. So then it starts to turn selfish. If I can’t be part of that, then no one can even though that person who built the shelter has every right to benefit from it and owes no one to share it if it would clearly undermine the whole reason he built it for his own family.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 22, 2019 @ 16:15:00

      That is a great point–the destructive quality that, if the people outside the shelter couldn’t be let in, they’d destroy the shelter so no one could use it. The “if I’m gonna go, so are you,” mind-set–which, sadly, is all too common, isn’t it?:(

      Reply

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