My mother used to take my brother and me with her when she went grocery shopping, but we never made it through the sliding glass doors. She’d lock us in the car while she shopped. I asked her about this many years later. “The two of you were always fighting. How could I take you into the supermarket?” she said, in a tone that signified it was almost too obvious to bear mentioning.
Nowadays, she would have taken us in with her, however rambunctious we were. It’d be an opportunity to talk about sustainable farming and fair trade and dolphins being mistaken for tuna. Nowadays, she might even get arrested for leaving us locked in the car. Or she’d be too terrified someone might kidnap us, even with the doors locked.
My mother hadn’t been afraid. I imagine she never read or heard of anything like that happening so it never occurred to her that it could happen. But it’s probably more that she simply couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to steal two boys who always seemed to be fighting among themselves. In fact, she couldn’t imagine anyone stealing chidren from a suburban supermarket parking lot.
The Cold War stripped average Americans like my mother and father of the naïveté that had informed their world-view: they now knew the enemy outside the gates, the one that lay on the other side of the “Iron Curtain”, the one that, as my grade-school history teacher told us, had bombs which were engraved with the name of our small town and which they would launch at the first sign of relaxed vigilance. But it wouldn’t be until the next generation—my generation—became parents that the enemy within was identified, the pedophiles and desperate wannabe mothers and de-institutionalized psychotics that lurked in suburban schoolyards and shopping centers. It was then that mothers no longer locked their kids in the car in a suburban supermarket parking lot.
My sister-in-law chauffeurs her daughter everywhere: to soccer games and choir practice and ballet lessons, though the field and the church and the dance studio are all just a short bike ride away. She says you can’t just let a kid bike off alone, it’s too unsafe. “There were all sorts of sick people out there who prey on kids,” she once said.
I first though my sister-in-law was just over-protective and slightly paranoid. But then I realized that all the parents were chaperoning and chauffeuring their kids around this quintessential American suburb of well-kept lawns, swim clubs and playing fields. It’s ironic. The specter of a society built on the fear of the ever present danger posed by the enemy within, a society in which each person’s movements were watched by the omnipresent eye of the guardian state—the specter that figured so prominently in Cold War ideology, had, in some small and bizarre way, come to pass. But there was not one eye, but many.
On June 4, 1964, eighteen months after the end of the Cuban missile crisis, American television aired an episode of the short-lived and creatively daring sci-fi series The Outer Limits. It was called “The Special One”. Written by Oliver Crawford, a Hollywood screenwriter who survived the McCarthy blacklist to write for such shows as Perry Mason and Star Trek, the episode is about a middle-class family whose son is enrolled in a special government-sponsored program for the gifted. One evening a stranger arrives at their New York City apartment. Dressed in the inconspicuous, reassuring Brooks Brothers suit of lawyers, corporate accountants and government functionaries, the stranger announces that he’s “with the government” and has come to provide extra tutoring sessions to their gifted son for a special yet unnamed project. After a brief conversation about the program, during which the parents learn that the doses of radiation to which they had been exposed while themselves employed on a government project was responsible for the mutation that resulted in their son’s unusually high intelligence (“Oh I wouldn’t worry,” says the stranger, “I would be proud”), Mom and Dad send the stranger and their son up to their boy’s bedroom so that the two can become acquainted!
I’m not sure which was more disquieting: the naive faith in the putative good intentions of the State—how can it be wrong if it’s the government?—or the absence of the fear of predators that now seem to be such a mainstay of contemporary life. Of course, the stranger is a predator, an alien on a mission to recruit bright kids to be part of an advance phalanx to prepare the way for the colonization of the planet, arrives at their New York City apartment
The episode, like the series as a whole, encapsulates much of the uneasiness of Cold War America. We sense the fear and fascination surrounding atomic. We can read the post-Sputnik anxiety about “falling behind” in the arms-and-science race: the Washington office that houses the Educational Enrichment Program, a program designed to protect and nurture the brightest young minds (“just like wildlife and other natural resources”) is on the same floor as the Department of Education’s “Industrial Development Division”. But it is the enemy in “The Special One”, the stranger from beyond that has infiltrated to within, that inspires the greatest fear.
Many episodes of the Outer Limits feature a monster—aliens in the shape of crabs or ants, huge pulsating brains and luminous blobs—but the alien in this episode is practically indistinguishable from ordinary Americans, at least until the end when he unbuttons his shirt to reveal a throbbing vulva-like breathing appendage in his thorax. The character does have the slightest of accents, a vaguely English, vaguely elitist accent, stiffly correct but lacking in the idiomatic expressions and rhetorical devices that mark everyday language. The kind of accent someone is trained to acquire. A foreign agent, say. A Soviet foreign agent. An agent with the power to influence the free will of his targets to the point where they would kill (read, sacrifice) themselves at his command.
The father gradually comes to suspect that something is not right with this stranger, who soon starts coming at the oddest hours, often unannounced and never apologetic for the intrusion. Dad becomes concerned that his son is spending more and more time alone in his room with the stranger, sacrificing even baseball in order to devote himself to the “project”, a part of which unbeknownst to the father involves mastering the intricacies of the aliens’ climate-change (!) device. Even before the father sees the alien dematerialize and pass through the apartment walls he’s convinced this is not an American educator.
In the end it is the son who saves his father and the apprentice who bests the master. The climax, played out at night in the boy’s bedroom, is rich in psychological and ideological sub-texts. The only sources of light in the room come from the glow of the alien’s climate device that the boy holds in his hand and from the moonlight at the window, on whose sill the father is perched, struggling to resist the alien’s silent command to jump. Just as his father is about to leap to his death, the boy activates the device to alter generate a cloud of feather-like particles that alters the composition of the air in the room. The alien begins to suffocate and begs for mercy, which the boy naturally grants (this is, after all, is a story of an American hero).
The episode played perfectly on the American angst regarding Soviet expansionism and the toxic ideology they perceived fed it. The Soviets had a plan for world dominion, we were told at school. This was many years after Joseph McCarthy’s infamous speech in which he announced he had the names of 205 members of the Communist Party who were “shaping policy” in the US State Department, a speech which launched an era of scare-mongering, security review boards and blacklists that would costs thousands of persons their jobs, including ironically the screenwriter of this episode. Though McCarthyism had long ended when the episode aired, the vein of anxiety that the Special One taps is not all that different from the one that ran through the anti-communist hysteria of the Second Red Scare.
The alien dematerializes and leaves for his planet, sans climate-changing device, which the boy tells his father he will deliver to the government so that they reproduce in the thousands to repel any future alien attack. The family heads up the stairs for bed. How they can even think of sleep after what they’ve been through that night—a near suicide, a cloud of feathers, and a dematerializing alien—is only part of the marvelous implausibility of the whole episode . But to bed they must. The boy says half-jokingly, “I need my beauty sleep. Tomorrow I have Little League.”
Yes, the boy is once again his ordinary self. He is a hero, but one who rejects his specialness. “You could have been a god,” the alien tells him in a tone that is both accusation and disappointment. But the boy doesn’t want to be a god. He doesn’t want to be special. He wants to play baseball.
I didn’t play baseball as a kid. I wanted to. Not desperately, since I knew (or at least was convinced) that I was too uncoordinated. But I wanted to play. There were ways of being special that made you a hero in junior high school and there were ways that made you an outcast. Not playing baseball was one of the ways you didn’t want to be special.
So I wanted to play and was envious of my brother, who did. But I was more envious of the way baseball brought them together. I wished I had a purple uniform like his, the one emblazoned with the logo of the local drugstore. I wished that the local newspaper clippings with the game results that my dad pinned on the corkboard above his workbench had had my name, too, along with my brother’s.
And then there was the other way in which I was special, though I couldn’t give a name to it then. But I understood enough to know that there was something unusual about my feelings for my friend Will. I knew I had to keep it secret. And for the rest of junior and senior high, I did. Though I didn’t make elaborate efforts to “pass”—I didn’t have girlfriends and never talked about girls with the guys on the track team—I was still the careful alien.
It is no accident that the language that the conservative right (and not only the right) employed in their hate campaigns against gay people was often similar to that deployed in their rabid anti-Communism. Both are depicted as infiltrators intent on recruiting the innocent into their ranks.
No one recruited me, of course. I sometimes wish they had. It would have been helpful to have had a guide and tutor. Someone to tell me that I wasn’t special, that there were many other boys who felt just as I did. Someone to show me a world in which a man could love another man and that this love was something beautiful. Something special.
Image: Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, 1963, photo by Danny Fitzgerald [Les Demi-Dieux]. Photographer Danny Fitzgerald (1921-2000), known perhaps to a small group of collectors for his series of male physique photographs (produced with his partner under the name “Les Demi Dieux”) but also for his photos of Brooklyn youths (Fitzgerald was born in the Italian-American Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens). For more on the intriguing work of this photogapher, see the Les Demi Dieux.