Have no fear. My topic this week isn’t about animal abuse or murder-for-hire or any of the other disturbing things portrayed in the Netflix mini-series “Tiger King,” which I wrote about in last week’s column. But it is about loneliness and anti-intellectualism and nuclear holocaust.
So hang onto your hats.
I wasn’t yet five years old when The Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last” was broadcast for the first time in 1959, but I vividly remember seeing it in reruns as a teenager. It affected me deeply, as it did other fans of the classic Rod Serling series. It was voted the number one most memorable episode in a survey of Twilight Zone aficionados and was ranked number 25 in TV Guide’s “Most Memorable Moments in Television.”
“Time Enough at Last” tells the story of Henry Bemis, portrayed by Burgess Meredith. He’s a meek little man who wears eyeglasses thick as Coke bottles and who loves to read more than anything in the world. Problem is, the manager at the bank where Henry works as a teller won’t allow him to read on the job. His shrewish wife hates his hobby so much that she literally snatches the newspaper out of his hands when he settles into his armchair at night. Worse than that, she marks up his book of classic poetry so badly that none of the poems are readable.
Henry’s only chance to read without reprimand is during his lunch hour, when he retreats to the bank’s underground vault with sandwich and book in hand. It’s during one such lunch break that a terrible explosion occurs. Our timid teller emerges from his sanctuary to discover that a hydrogen bomb has destroyed the world.
As you might imagine, he’s distraught at first, particularly when he stumbles upon his own flattened house. (It was hard for me to feel sad that Henry’s wife was dead, but apparently he did.) He wanders around until nightfall and then tosses and turns until daybreak on a dilapidated sofa. The next morning, he finds the ruins of a grocery store with enough canned goods to keep him fed for the rest of his life, but Henry realizes that such a discovery is small comfort when there’s no one to share a meal with. When he finds a loaded pistol in the rubble of a sporting goods store, I assumed he’d save it to use against bad guys, just in case he’s not really the last living soul left on earth.
That’s not what happens. Instead, Henry points the gun at his temple. But just as he’s ready to pull the trigger, he spots something that gives him pause: a sign that says PUBLIC LIBRARY. The books seem to be intact. Dickens, Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw. Browning, Shelley, Keats.
That’s when Henry has his epiphany. He begins sorting the books into piles. “March, April, May,” he says. “This year, next year, the year after that…The best thing of all is that there’s time now. All the time I need. All the time I want. There’s time enough at last!” Henry bends over to pick up a book. His glasses slide down his nose and are smashed to smithereens on the rocky ground. The cameras pans out as Henry shakes his fists at the sky. “It’s not fair,” he cries. “It’s not fair!!!”
Yeah, it’s cheesy. But it’s also unforgettable. And important. For those of us who must or who choose to self-quarantine during this pandemic, it’s a cautionary tale to take to heart. If you’ve always wished for more time to read (or write or knit or play the piano or learn a foreign language or binge-watch The Twilight Zone), you just might have time right now. Maybe all the time you need. Time enough at last.
Let’s hop to it.
(June 14, 2020)