Thursday, January 26, 2017

Man's Best Friend

The episode of the Twilight Zone that first aired on this night in 1962, "The Hunt," was a tribute to man's best friend, the dog.

In typical Twilight Zone fashion, you couldn't tell that right off. You saw the dog (it was a hound dog) and you saw his owner, an old mountain man played by Arthur Hunnicutt, but you couldn't tell where the story would take you.

(I guess I have a soft spot in my heart for movies and TV episodes that include Hunnicutt. He was born about 70 miles west of the small Arkansas town in which I grew up — and he went to college in my hometown.)

Initially, the viewers were introduced to the old man, his wife of half a century and his dog. His wife didn't like having the dog in the cabin, but she put up with it because the dog had saved the old man's life once, and they were virtually inseparable.

They were also frequent hunting companions, and that was where they were bound after eating their supper. They went coon hunting, a frequent nocturnal pastime that usually resulted in at least one trophy to take home. But on this occasion the dog dived into the water after a raccoon, and the old man dived in after him. The only creature to emerge from the water was the raccoon.

The next morning the old man and the dog woke up on the bank of the pond, and the old man worried about what he would tell his wife — and what she would say to him. When they returned home, though, they found that no one could see or hear them. While trying to get to the bottom of things, the old man and the dog found themselves on an unfamiliar road that took them past a gate that was tended by a man who told them that beyond the gate was the afterlife.

But when the old man tried to bring his dog in with him, the gatekeeper refused, saying there was an afterlife for dogs just down the road. The old man wouldn't go in without the dog, though, and they proceeded along the road.

They encountered a young man — and learned from him that the first gate had actually been the gate to hell.

"They don't never give up," the young man said. "Always tryin' to get folks in there right down to the last minute."

He explained that dogs weren't allowed in for fear they would warn their masters. "And he woulda," the young man said of the hound dog, "time he got a whiff of that brimstone."

And then came the punch line: "A man will walk right into hell with both eyes open — but even the devil can't fool a dog."

I think I have mentioned here before that my mother and grandmother were fans of The Waltons. It was created by Earl Hamner Jr., who also wrote "The Hunt," which predated The Waltons by a decade or so.

Anyone with any familiarity with The Waltons could see numerous elements in "The Hunt" that would resurface on The Waltons.

Many were subtle, but perhaps the most obvious was the way the old mountain couple called each other "Old Man" and "Old Woman" in much the way Will Geer and Ellen Corby did as the Walton family's patriarch and matriarch.

And the dirt roads the old man and his dog walked were straight out of Walton's Mountain.

Hamner died last year at the age of 92.