Thursday, October 06, 2016

On a Road in the Twilight Zone

"This road is the afterwards of the Civil War. It began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and ended at a place called Appomattox. It's littered with the residue of broken battles and shattered dreams."

Opening narration

As the episode of the Twilight Zone began on this night in 1961, viewers saw a lonely country road with Civil War–era soldiers marching along, most with visible wounds and/or bandages. They marched in silence past a house where sat a solitary woman (Joanne Linville) in a rocking chair.

One soldier, played by James Gregory, stopped and asked the woman for a drink of water. She said he could have one, and they struck up a conversation.

And as the soldier sat under a tree and strummed the guitar he carried with him, the woman recalled the start of the war and the men's boasts that they would vanquish the Yanks in a month.

The women had cheered the men as they left on their mission, she lamented, believing they would soon return. "How wrong we were," she said, confessing that her own husband had been killed in the war.

So many of the soldiers on both sides did not go home — not alive, anyway.

She carried many things within her — anger, mostly, over her husband's death and the devastation of her home — but she also carried some sort of unnamed "fever."

Her anger led her to promise the soldier that if a Yankee ever walked by her home, she would take an old shotgun she had inside her house, aim it at him and fire after telling him he could consider it the final shot of the Civil War.

(Note: I've studied a lot of history in my life, and while I don't claim to be an authority on the subject I really don't think Civil War was a phrase that was in use at that time — at least not very much. Most people in the North, both civilian and soldiers, seem to have called it the "Great Rebellion," and the Southern equivalent seems to have been "War of Northern Aggression.")

Shortly thereafter, a Yankee soldier came riding by. He was obscured in the shadows, but the Confederate soldier was sure he had seen the Yankee before. And then he remembered. When he had been wounded on a battlefield, the Yankee soldier had stopped his bleeding.

The Confederate started to introduce the Yankee to the lady of the house, but then he saw that she had emerged from the house with the shotgun in her hands. She aimed it at the Yankee, and it appeared she was intent upon fulfilling her pledge. The Confederate tried to stop her, but she fired, anyway.

And the Yankee didn't move. Didn't slump over. Didn't fall. He just sat astride his horse as if nothing had happened.

"I couldn't have missed you," the dumbfounded woman said.

And then the Confederate soldier remembered something else from that battlefield encounter. A shell had exploded overhead, and he had believed the Yankee had been killed that day.

Turned out, he had been right.

The Confederate soldier came to a conclusion.

The road that passed by that house had been filled with soldiers from both sides, all going in the same direction, some helping each other along the way. Then, during the night, they stopped coming.

"There's something at the end of that road," the soldier told the woman, "and I'm going to find out what it is."

The soldier had a good idea what was at the end of that road — and his suspicion was confirmed when the woman's husband, believed to be dead, came walking along the road. The woman ran to embrace him. He told her that they were both dead — he had been killed in battle, and she had died of a fever.

She resisted the idea, but she watched as her husband proceeded down the road.

And along came Abraham Lincoln, who told her he was the last man on the road, "the last casualty of the Civil War."

(In fact, Lincoln was not the last casualty of the war. After Lee surrendered to Grant and Lincoln was assassinated, there were still skirmishes for awhile. A little more poetic license, I suppose. Lincoln's assassination has always served as a convenient conclusion for the Civil War — even though it wasn't.)

It was one of those Twilight Zone episodes in which each viewer had to draw his or her own conclusion about the point of the story. Sometimes the moral of a Twilight Zone story, as it were, was clear; other times not so much.

And while the moral of this story may be clear to others, it has not always been clear to me. I'm not sure it ever was.

After her encounter with Lincoln, the woman went running after her husband, who was walking down the road.

Perhaps the moral was acceptance of the inevitable.