Thursday, April 21, 2016

If You Snooze, You Lose

"It is one thing, gentlemen, to stop a train on its way from Fort Knox to Los Angeles and steal its cargo. It's another thing to remain free to spend it."

Farwell (Oscar Beregi)

When I was a boy, my mother would read to me from a collection of Washington Irving's short stories. One of the stories was "Rip Van Winkle," and it was probably my favorite story in that book. I couldn't tell you why.

I didn't care much for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." It probably scared me. I mean, I was only about 5 or 6 at the time. But I remember liking "Rip Van Winkle" so much that my parents bought a record for me of someone (probably someone who was well known at the time, but I'll be damned if I can remember who it was) narrating the story with sound effects and music. (They probably gave me that record so I wouldn't pester them to read the story to me.)

I didn't know it then, but by the time I heard that story for the first time, an episode of the Twilight Zone that was inspired by that story had already been written and aired at least once, probably several times in what passed for syndication in those days.

In the episode of the Twilight Zone that first aired on this night in 1961, "The Rip Van Winkle Caper," a group of criminals carried out what they thought would be the perfect crime.

They robbed a train carrying a cargo of $1 million worth of gold from Fort Knox to Los Angeles.

The leader of the gang was a scientist who had hatched a plan in which all four would be put in states of suspended animation in a desert cave and would "sleep" for a century. At the end of that time, they would wake up, divide the gold and be free to spend it, secure in the knowledge that all the people who had searched unsuccessfully for them were long gone.

(That was a pretty safe assumption. While it is true that today, 55 years after this episode first aired, medical science has extended lives with many discoveries, life expectancy for most people still falls at least 20 years short of the century mark — that is merely an average, of course. Some will die long before they reach the life expectancy age for their generation. Some will exceed it by a few years, but few will make it to their 100th birthdays.

(Some will. I have heard it said that we have more people aged 100 and older than ever before, and I have no doubt that is true. But that still represents a small portion of the population, and I am confident that nearly all of the people living today will be deceased a century from now.

(All of those who are alive today and will still be living on April 21, 2116 are children now, too, not adults. The oldest recorded age of any human was 122. That is considered "maximum life span," and I know of only one person in human history who achieved it — so, in terms of longevity, it is safe to say that anyone who will still be living a century from now is under 21 today — probably well under 21. In 1961, I'm sure the odds were that anyone living at that time who would still be living in 2061 probably hadn't reached his/her teen years, much less his/her 20s.)

It sure seemed like a foolproof plan.

And if the story happened to be true, those criminals would still have 45 years of suspended animation left for them on this date.

Of course, it wasn't true. But it was the kind of thing that Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling liked to use as the launching point for a story. This story wasn't exactly about time travel, but it was related to the concept. It was about overcoming the natural limitations of time.

When they were roused from their Rip Van Winkle–like slumber, the members of the gang went outside the cave and saw no indication of any changes. It all looked like it looked when they went to sleep, and they didn't think the plan had worked. They thought they had been asleep for an hour or two — until they discovered that one of their colleagues was dead and had decomposed to the point where nothing was left but his skeleton. A rock from the ceiling of the cave apparently had come loose and fallen on the glass enclosure in which he lay, breaking the glass and allowing the gas that kept him alive to escape.

They were sorry to lose their colleague, but his death proved that they had been sleeping in that cave for a long time.

(I have often wondered if that scene inspired the scene early in the original "Planet of the Apes" in which a crew member died in a similar fashion.)

The story then became a tale of greed, much as "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" did.) One of the criminals ran the other one over with the getaway truck — which seemed to operate pretty well for a vehicle that hadn't been started for a century, until the criminal tried to apply the brakes and they didn't work.

He dove out of the truck just before it went over a cliff — so he and the scientist had to walk to the nearest town — which, when they had "gone to sleep," had been about 28 miles away. They had no way of knowing if the town had grown and expanded closer to where they were in a century's time — or if a new town had sprung up between the cave and the old town. Not knowing what to expect, they started walking with a canteen of water apiece and knapsacks filled with as many bars of gold as they could carry. The rest would have to wait until they could come back for them.

His purpose in killing his colleague, of course, was to have more of the gold for himself. Instead of dividing it up four ways, the gold could now be divided between just two with the other two out of the picture.

And if he did away with the scientist, all the gold would be his.

He was a calculating type, all right, and when the scientist forgot his canteen after a rest stop, the criminal started charging him for swallows of water from his canteen — one bar of gold for one swallow.

That was the going rate initially. The next day the rate went up to two bars per swallow.

"I keep underestimating you," the scientist repeatedly said to the rather enterprising criminal. "You're quite an entrepreneur."

The scientist turned out to be full of surprises himself. At one point the criminal turned his attention away from the scientist — and the scientist struck him in the head with a bar of gold, then repeatedly pounded him as he lay unconscious on the desert floor.

All the gold — and what was left in the canteen — belonged to him — but it couldn't make his feet carry him to civilization any faster, and he collapsed — to be found shortly by someone was riding around in one of those Jetsons–like flying cars.

The scientist handed the man a bar of gold and told him he could keep it if he would take the scientist to town and give him some water. The scientist died a few seconds later, though, so the man decided to return to town and tell the authorities where they could find the body. He had a brief conversation with his female companion and told her about the gold. He said the old man had spoken about it "as if it were really worth something."

Turned out that while the gang had been slumbering in the cave, mankind had discovered how to manufacture gold, and that rendered their loot worthless.

Talk about a hard day's night.