Chapter 1: Binghamton (1924-35)

And also like all men perhaps there’ll be an occasion — maybe a summer night sometime — when he’ll look up from what he’s doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope, and hear the voices and the laughter of his past. And perhaps across his mind there’ll flit a little errant wish, that a man might not have to become old, never outgrow the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth. And he’ll smile then too because he’ll know it is just an errant wish, some wisp of memory not too important, really, some laughing ghosts that cross a man’s mind — that are a part of the Twilight Zone.

– closing narration of “Walking Distance,” first aired October 30, 1959

***

“Everybody has a hometown,” Rod Serling wrote in 1959, shortly before the launch of “The Twilight Zone.” “In the strangely brittle, terribly sensitive make-up of a human being, there is a need for a place to hang a hat, for a kind of geographic womb to crawl back to. Binghamton’s mine.” Did everyone in transient, mid-century United States really have such a hometown or even need one? Rod Serling did.

[…]

To be sure, much of The Twilight Zone, a show that is far more autobiographical in nature than many viewers realize, is Rod Serling’s video testament to the Binghamton of his youth.

[…]

Binghamton, New York, the seat of Broome County, in south-central New York, lies at the confluence of the Chenango and Susquehanna rivers near the Pennsylvania border, seventy-five miles south of Syracuse; with Johnson City and Endicott, it forms the Triple Cities. Settled in 1787 at the site of an Iroquois village, named for William Bingham, who owned land tracts on both sides of the Susquehanna. Laid out in 1800, the village prospered after the Chenango and the Erie Canal were linked in 1837 and the Erie Railroad arrived in 1848; by the turn of the century, Binghamton’s transportation advantages made it a bustling industrial city with a population of thirty thousand.

[…]

Sam Serling’s strongest suit, aside from the tough hide he acquired from living on the road, was his mechanical aptitude. He was a whiz with machines, all kinds of machines. A blindingly fast typist, he could type up to 120 words per minute. And he could fix anything. The bespectacled Michigan native was also a perennial inventor. Sam was endlessly spinning off ideas for things like the “frankburger” machine, a gadget for making hamburger-shaped frankfurters, and other sometimes odd devices for the common good. Indeed, he probably would have been happiest working as a laboratory engineer someplace; unfortunately, Sam’s lack of advanced education made that an unrealistic option — as did his Jewishness. Otherwise, Sam was eminently assimilable. He spoke extremely clearly, almost typing out his speech, a trait that he passed on to his son Rod. He dressed impeccably. Although introspective by nature, his manner with company was warm and ingratiating. He made friends easily.

[…]

Leaving Auburn, the couple next set up residence in Syracuse. There, on Christmas Day in 1924, their second child, Rodman Edward, was born. The Serlings were now four. It was time for Sam to get praktisch (Yiddish for “practical”). Finally, the next year, Sam succumbed to his wife’s arguments and moved to Binghamton to set up a new outpost of the Cooper grocery chain. Serling’s Sanitary Grocery, it was to be called.

[…]

Rod doesn’t seem to have found much in his older brother he wanted to emulate: if anything, while loving Robert, he sees to have used him more as an exemplar of what not to be. Indeed, it is difficult to think of two brothers who were as different from each other in character and temperament as Robert and Rod Serling. Where Robert was quiet and withdrawn, Rod was loud and boisterous. Robert avoided sports; Rod loved them. Robert, like his father, was conservative; Rod, like his mother, would become an outspoken liberal.

[…]

If he didn’t have a date — apparently rarely a problem for Serling, who is alleged to have dated half the girls in his class at Binghamton Central High School — he could whip up a game of pool or PingPong at the community center. Or, weather permitting, he might hang out in the courthouse square and just shoot the breeze, like Jerry Whipple and his friends did in the radio show County Seat. Or he could stay at home and watch his father tinkering with his latest contraption, like the wonderful mechanism that allowed the Serlings to buzz in Antoinette, the family terrier, from upstairs. This was the Binghamton that Rod Serling would remember and dote upon and mythologize. This, in the words of Martin Sloan, as he urged his perplexed, twelve-year-old self to squeeze the most out of 1936, this, indeed, was “the wonderful time.”

Reality in some of its harsher forms began to puncture Rod Seling’s dreamy world in high school.

[…]

If anything, however, Serling’s failure to make the football team spurred him on even more. “Because he was short,” said Sybil Goldenberg, a classmate from Central, “he felt he had to prove himself doubly.”

[…]

If his short stature was a spur, it was also an onus. Cousin Leona Serling called it “the bane of his existence. He felt if he were taller he could have done anything in the world. I remember one time before he became such an important person, I was visiting with him at the Cooper family residence, and he came down the stairs to greet me, but he stayed on the first step, so he was taller than me, and said, ‘See, I’m taller. This is the way I would like to be.’ ” As an adult, the perennially size-conscious Serling, who would level off at five-foot-four-and-a-half inches as an adult, would wear elevator shoes and refuse to be filmed full-frame in the lead-ins to “The Twilight Zone.” Serling had to face it: he was short. And he didn’t like it.

[…]

In Rod’s sophomore year at Central, came another shock: Serling’s Sanitary Grocery failed. Sam quickly picked up the pieces and went back into business as a wholesale butcher. But the illusion of economic security he had given his family had been jarred, an illusion that was finally shattered when Sam was forced to sell the family’s house in order to pay for Robert’s tuition at Anrioch. After the sale, a chagrined Sam Serling moved his wife and teenage son to an apartment in another, less-refined part of town. Even then, the Serlings continued to be hard-strapped. One high school classmate, Vernon Hartung, who would later enlist with Rod in the paratroops, recalled his friend going without lunch for lack of funds on several occasions. Hard times had reached the Serling household.

Hurt, probably confused, Rod reacted the same way that many of his Depression-age peers did: by resolving to make a lot of money some day, as he would.

[…]

Outwardly, he was still the chipper, happy-go-lucky “Roddie” of yore, but inwardly, he had begun to change, to harden.

Serling still loved Binghamton. But now, as he approached manhood, he knew its limitations as well. He had experienced intolerance there, and rejection, and he would never forget it.

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