“Why do I write? I guess that’s been asked of every writer,” Rod Serling contemplated when that very question was put to him during what would turn out to be his last interview, conducted in March 1975 by Linda Brevelle. “It isn’t any massive compulsion. I don’t feel, you know, God dictated that I should write. You know, thunder rents the sky and a bony finger comes down from the clouds and says, ‘You. You write. You’re the anointed.’ I never felt that. I suppose it’s part compulsion, part a channel for what your brain is churning up.”
Now that the wheels were turning with regard to this specific topic, Serling proceeded full steam ahead with his train of thought. “I’d rather go along with this sense of illusion that I’m a neutral beast going along through life doing everything that’s preordained. I’m out of control anyway, so why fight it,” he conceded. “I suppose we think euphemistically that all writers write because they have something to say that is truthful and honest and pointed and important. And I suppose I subscribe to that, too.”
That Serling subscribed to this notion is something for which we can all be thankful. Charting the trajectory of when he did and why he did is critical in our comprehensive understanding of Rod Serling the creative force and the human being. The two were by no means mutually exclusive.
Technician Fourth Grade Rodman Edward Serling received an honorable discharge from the United States Army on January 13, 1946. He brought home with him many honors in the form of the World War II Victory Medal, American Service Medal, Asiatic Pacific Service Medal with Arrowhead, Good Conduct Medal, Philippines Liberation Medal with Bronze Star, Parachutist Badge, Presidential Unit Citation, Republic of Philippines Unit Citation, and Purple Heart. But these ribbons and medals were far from the only reminders of his service.
Serling also came back to Binghamton with a negligibly disjointed nose courtesy of his misadventures inside the boxing ring, as well as serious shrapnel wounds to his knee and wrist which earned him the Purple Heart and would cause him to walk with a slight limp and experience discomfort if not severe pain while typing for prolonged periods throughout the rest of his life.
Moreover, he had witnessed his friend Melvin Levy get crushed to death by a freefalling crate during a routine food drop on the Philippine island of Leyte, and was assigned to General Douglas MacArthur’s Occupation of Japan outfit following the cessation of hostilities when his first sergeant committed suicide inside the agricultural school which served as their base of operations.
Serling once encountered an unnervingly close brush with mortality when he found himself in the crosshairs of a rifle brandished by a Japanese soldier taking dead aim at him. He would undoubtedly have been shot and killed if not for his quick-acting buddy Richard who took out the enemy combatant from over Rod’s shoulder. By far, the most painful gut punch Serling received, existentially speaking, was the death of his beloved father Sam in September 1945, after the Japanese surrender but before his discharge. Because he had not accumulated the required amount of points, Serling’s request for personal leave to attend the services and be with his family back home at this terrible time was denied.
Many post-war nights would be plagued by bad dreams and, during occasional waking hours, Serling suffered the psychological effects of what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder but was simply and inadequately known as “shell shock” back then. “Sometimes I hear him scream in the middle of the night,” his daughter Anne recalls in her memoir. All things considered, Serling said that he arrived back home in Binghamton “bitter about everything and at loose ends. I think I turned to writing to get it off my chest.”
The GI Bill provided Serling the opportunity to widen the scope of his academic horizon, which he initially intended to take advantage of in pursuit of a career in physical education. He was accepted into Antioch College, the progressive liberal arts school located in Yellow Springs, Ohio that his older brother Robert had attended. The institution’s first president was the famous education reformer Horace Mann whose motto “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity” became a mission statement not only for the college but for Serling himself. The proof of how profoundly this message resonated with him can be evidenced by the fact that the grounds of Serling’s fictional Vermont preparatory Rock Spring School for Boys in the poignant Twilight Zone episode “The Changing of the Guard” features a Horace Mann statue adorned with that very quotation.
Carol Kramer was a pretty freshman with a double major in Elementary Education and Child Psychology when Rod Serling first laid eyes on her on the Antioch campus and eventually asked her out for coffee. “One day she’ll tell me that when she first sees him, he is pretending to be a monkey, an impersonation that becomes part of his permanent repertoire to the later delight of my sister and me,” Anne Serling writes about her mom’s memory of their first encounter. “My mother thinks he is a bit of an idiot, but funny, and she hears from friends that he is bright.”
Anne remarks that they quickly become “inseparable” and are married on July 31, 1948. Carol remained the diligent and loving gatekeeper to her husband’s legacy to the very end, passing away only recently, on January 9, 2020, at the age of 91. She also appears to have been a distant relative to Horace Mann, first cousins three times removed. Her grandfather was an Antioch trustee and two of her great-grandfathers had been professors, of Chemistry and Natural History respectively. Serling himself would return to his alma mater between November 1962 and January 1963, with the premiere of The Twilight Zone’s fourth season looming right around the corner, to teach a course called Drama in the Mass Media.
Haunted by wartime memories and troubled by social injustices, Serling felt an undeniable pull to give voice to frustrations both internal and external and switched his major to Language and Literature. “I found that little hole, that little sense of hunger, that all is not right, something is left out. And then came writing,” he later reminisced. Under the tutelage of radio scriptwriter Paul Bentel and Nolan Miller, Antioch’s writer in residence, Serling began composing short stories and radio plays at a furious pace. He knew no other way.
“I just want people to remember me a hundred years from now,” reflected Serling when speaking with interviewer Linda Brevelle at one of his favorite restaurants, Franco’s La Taverna on LA’s Sunset Strip. “I don’t care that they’re not able to quote any single line that I’ve written. But just that they can say, ‘Oh, he was a writer.’ That’s sufficiently an honored position for me.” Sadly, just four month later Serling would die on the operating table during open heart surgery at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York. His humble wish to be remembered, it goes without saying, has been granted honorably and exceeded by incalculable measure.
First mentored by his junior-high English teacher Helen Foley, Serling had served as writer and editor for The Panorama, which was the name of both Binghamton Central High School’s student paper and yearbook. He also composed poetry while in the Army that he sent home for his sibling Robert to critique. Brutally honest in his assessment, Robert had to admit to his kid brother, “You weren’t meant to be a poet, Rod.” During his service, Serling had also come up with a radio skit to coincide with a visit from the USO featuring Bob Hope. One of his earliest serious efforts at Antioch was a lengthy war story entitled “First Squad, First Platoon”, written with Serling’s trademark intensity and augmented by the intimacy of a young man finding his way. There was also an immediacy to the piece undoubtedly stirred up by recent traumas. It certainly helped exorcise some personal demons but would not appear in print, nor has it been made available for public consumption to this day.
This meant that Serling’s four-page-long boxing story that ran in the March 1948 edition of the school’s literary magazine The Antiochian would become his first ever published piece of writing. We know now, of course, that much more would follow. The almost unimaginably prolific Serling would go on to establish a body of work that is extraordinary in every sense of the word and has fired the imagination of admirers and aspiring writers for decades. And it all started with “The Good Right Hand.”
Swede emerges from the shower after winning the big title fight to find that his dressing room has become the site of an impromptu victory party, with fast-talking reporters, flashbulb-popping photographers, and fair-weathered supporters crammed together shoulder to shoulder and jostling for space closer to the new champ. This is all to the chagrin of Swede’s manager, Googy Epstein, who seeks refuge from the pomp and circumstance in the adjacent locker room where he encounters trainer Pop Trask.
When Pop compliments Swede’s “powerhouse” of a right hand, the well-meaning gesture sends Googy into a somber, meditative mood. “Yeah…gotta good right hand,” acknowledges Googy. “All like another fighter I handled.” This fighter was Danny Fales, who had been a promising contender until he demolished his right hand on a ring post when Sailor Gibbons, trapped in the corner during their bout, slipped Danny’s incoming punch. After that, Danny did little else besides sit around his room in a dingy boarding house examining his misshapen knuckles and mangled fingers and dwelling on what could have been but never was and never will be.
Googy had paid his brooding ex-fighter a visit, telling Danny to stop feeling sorry for himself and that he had secured him a job as a warehouse inventory checker. Even better, they could scout out the local talent at Stillman’s Gym and find an aspiring young boxer to work with together. “I couldn’t get along without yuh now that’s all,” Googy reasoned. “You’re my right hand.” He had been aware of the verbal blunder the moment the words were harmlessly expelled, and Danny assured him that he understood Googy’s kind intentions but was mercilessly honest about the fact that life wasn’t worth living if he couldn’t fight.
Having had enough of Danny’s emotional self-flagellation, Googy laid into him with some tough love. He not-so-subtly reminded Danny of the bout against Rodzynski in Cleveland when, despite both eyes being sealed shut, he continued throwing punches due to his instinct toward self-preservation. “You ain’t no quitter…I know that,” beseeched Googy. “Just cause you’re washed up in the ring ain’t no sign you’re washed up in everything.”
Googy is having breakfast in a hotel coffee shop waiting for Danny to meet him there to discuss his future prospects as he had promised his former manager the night before. Reflexively turning to the sports pages in the morning paper, Googy drops his coffee cup and rises from his seat in shocked disbelief upon seeing the headline reporting Danny Fales’ death by suicide.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is very easy to see how the 23 year-old Serling used “The Good Right Hand” to sow the seeds he would nurture throughout the creative process of tending to his future boxing stories until they reached full maturity and blossomed eight years later into Requiem for a Heavyweight.
Serling wrote, directed, and acted in radio shows for the Antioch Broadcasting System, for which he would create an original anthology program and become station manager. As he was putting the finishing touches on his series in the spring of 1949, Serling was notified that one of his scripts, a boxing story called “To Live a Dream”, had been chosen as one of a group of second place winners in a nationwide contest sponsored by the popular CBS radio program Dr. Christian, which took pride in its reputation as “the only show on radio where the audience writes the scripts.”
This honor earned Rod a cash prize of $500 and an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City for him and Carol. “My future parents leave after class on a Friday afternoon and arrive in Manhattan at the Savoy Plaza,” Anne Serling recollects.
Another runner-up, with whom Serling would rub shoulders during the presentation, happened to be third-time Dr. Christian contest winner Earl Hamner Jr. for his story entitled “All Things Come Home.” This would prove to be a fortuitous meeting between the two future collaborators, as Hamner would later write the scripts for eight Twilight Zone episodes including “The Hunt”, “A Piano in the House”, “Jess-Belle”, and the series finale, “The Bewitchin’ Pool”, before going on to create The Waltons.
Serling’s Dr. Christian submission tells the tale of a former boxer who is losing his battle with leukemia. Imparting as much of his own accumulated wisdom as he possibly can in precious little time onto the young fighter he is currently training is how he intends to leave behind a lasting legacy.
Unfortunately, this short and to the point synopsis is all I can offer on the subject of “To Live a Dream.” It is unknown whether or not Serling’s script exists, as I was informed by Nicholas Parisi, President of the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation. Parisi’s exhaustive search of archives and private collections looking for research material throughout the four-year process of writing his masterful book Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination produced no trace of it. But Nick hasn’t lost hope, nor have I, that it will turn up one day.
Interviewed during the special broadcast by Dr. Christian star and award show host Jean Hersholt, Rod humbly and succinctly acknowledged, “Well, I’ve always been fond of boxing…since you’ve read my story, you know where it all ties in.”
(Rest period prior to Round Three…to be continued)
Linda Brevelle. Rod Serling: The Facts of Life (May 27, 1976—accessed through the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation website at https://rodserling.com/rod-serlings-final-interview/)
Martin Grams, Jr. The Radio Career of Rod Serling (http://www.otrr.org/FILES/Articles/Martin_Grams_Jr_Articles/The_Radio_Career_Of_Rod_Serling.html)
Nicholas Parisi. Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination (University Press of Mississippi, 2018)
Vanessa Query. Rod Serling at Antioch College (Yellow Spring News, August 4, 2010, accessed at https://ysnews.com/news/2010/08/rod-serling-at-antioch-college)
Anne Serling. As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling (Citadel, 2013)
Rod Serling. The Good Right Hand (The Antiochian, March 1948 V. 10 No. 13)