Time_Enough_at_Last_(story)

(An earlier version of this piece appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.)

I am very much a fan of The Twilight Zone (OG series). In fact, two of the very best holidays each and every year are the Fourth of July and New Year’s, not only because of the fireworks and family and friends generally associated with each of them, but because the SyFy channel usually airs a The Twilight Zone marathon during the days surrounding each holiday.

The original series aired from 1959 to 1964 and ended-up with a run of 156 episodes. Although essentially a science fiction series, the episodes were almost always a commentary on contemporary American society, as I suppose most science fiction is anyway. Of the 156 episodes, I count six that are directly tied to the Atomic Age/Cold War Fever/General Nuclearness of the American Landscape. The number of episodes loosely tied to this theme are almost innumerable.

You’ve seen “Time Enough at Last.”  It’s one of the earliest (eighth ever) and most widely viewed episodes. It’s very likely what you thin of when you thing of The Twilight Zone. This is the episode in which bespectacled bookworm, Henry Bemis, moves through his dreary workaday existence as a bank teller and downtrodden husband, completely unmoved by anything in his life except reading.

One day at lunchtime, Bemis sneaks into the bank vault to read. The A-Bomb falls. The wold outside the vault is destroyed. After lamenting his lot for a bit, Bemis has an ah-ha moment realizing that he can now read ALL the books without his bitchy wife (she crossed out all of the text in his poetry book, psycho!) and his supervisor putting up a stink. So, he on the library steps he gathers all the books he plans to read in the foreseeable future, organized into monthly reading piles, and then–CRUNCH!–drops his Coke-bottle glasses. Without his glasses, he can’t so much as see a footnote.[1]

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that nuclear was isn’t THE point of this episode, and is merely used to propel the story, but the very use of nuclear war in the first place does a damned good job of reflecting how immersed in the stuff the American people really were. And then there’s the vault.

Even though “Time Enough at Last” is a work of fiction, a bank vault may very well be the best place to ride out the apocalypse. Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima 69 years ago today. The nuclear bomb basically obliterated the entire city aside from a few reinforced concrete buildings and … American bank vaults! The Teikou Bank had a few (the number varies from one to four depending on what you’re reading) American-made bank vaults along side at least one Japanese-made bank vault. The American vaults were built by the Mosler Safe Company of Hamilton, Ohio, and not to worry, the fact that the American bank vaults survived an American atomic bombing in a Japanese city, while the Japanese vaults did not, did not escape the Mosler clan.

Within a few months of the bombings, Mosler came out with an advertisement proclaiming the awesomeness of their product in the face of the atomic bomb–too soon, ya think?! The advertisement was supposedly based on a letter written to the Mosler Company by a US soldier who happened to be surveying damage when he came across the American vaults standing nearly unscathed in the rubble. Now, I know, this sounds fishy as all get out to me too. First of all, why did the US serviceman pay enough attention to the vaults to know where they were made? I mean, didn’t he have better things to be doing? And “US soldier” is pretty damned vague too.

So, Mosler thought it prudent to run a series of advertisements noting the hardiness of their vaults even in the face of atomic war–America, Fuck Yeah! Local banks soon got on this batshit bandwagon proclaiming that their branch in this or that Midwestern small town used only Mosler vaults. Because in the face of an atomic attack, we want to make sure our coin collection makes it to the other side of the apocalypse unscathed. The push to protect belongings rather than lives is just stunning, and dare I say, American? Why not promote the vaults as a place for people to ride out the atomic blast rather than protect oh so precious knick knacks, Mosler? Maybe that’s the very point this episode of The Twilight Zone was trying to make? I don’t know.

However crude their advertising, Mosler *did* make a hardy vault. And the government had uses for such hardy things and commissioned the company to built vaults capable of protecting documents and other valuables in the face of global-thermonulcear war. So, Mosler built a vault and the government tested its fortitude. And I’ve seen it! Or at least some iteration of it!

The Nevada Test Site has a Mosler vault, possibly more, but I only saw one, rusting away in the salt-encrusted hellscape that is Frenchmen Flat. I didn’t realize the vault’s significance while I was at the site, beyond, “hey that’s a bank vault. It didn’t fare too badly” sort of way, as our guide pointed out the vault along with the entrance to the giant underground parking garage/mass shelter and eerily bent railroad trestles (they’re metal!).

This particular bank vault was exposed to the Priscilla[2] test on June 24, 1957. Priscilla was supposed to test the effects of nuclear war on important documents and belongings–more stuff. I could definitely tell that this vault had seen some shit, what with the charred rebar (I didn’t even know that could happen!) and exterior concrete chaffing away, but it–and I’m assuming the all important stuff inside–survived! Just like Henry Bemis!

There were other blast-riddled structures around, yes, but this one stood out in all of its Old West-gone-atomic glory (is this steampunk?). I mean, I’ve been to my share of ghost towns, and generally, you’ll see a bank vault and a jail, even if most of the rest of town is gone due to flood, fire, time, whatever. The damage meted out by Mother Nature over the span of a couple of generations in most ghost towns was inflicted on this particular vault in the blink of an eye. That’s crazy cakes.

Anyway, the protect-your-valuables-from-atomic-bombs ad campaign inevitably became fodder for the writer/artist set of the Atomic Age. This is exemplified in Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead.” Not to get too English majory on this poem, at its simplest the poem serves as Lowell’s reflection on the changes to the Boston of his childhood and a meditation on the Boston of the Civil War, and the changes to all sorts of things since then.

There are no statues for the last war here;

on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph

shows Hiroshima bioling

over a Mosler Safe, the “Rock of Ages”

that survived the blast. Space is nearer. (53-57)

Lowell calls out the fact that though there are remembrances to the Civil War, particularly in the form of statues, in the city, but none commemorating WWII, save an advertisement for Mosler safes (again, highlighting the importance of the material) stuck in a window on Boylston street. Weird how we went from statues of actual people to advertisements for something that can protect material possessions at the end of the world in less than a century.

The Twilight Zone, and Lyn Venable who wrote the story on which the episode was based, Robert Lowell, and countless others took this damned atomic blast proof safe and created entire works of art around it. And I’m writing about it nearly seventy years later. Why?

Well, I’ve thought about it. A lot, actually. The best I can come up with is that post-World War II American was (is?) all about consumerism. Conspicuous consumption was the name of the game–the more you had, the more American you were. It’s the American Dream, comodified. And where would you store your American Dream? In the safe deposit box at your local bank, which was hopefully housed in an atom bomb proof Mosler safe. Because who cares if you can survive the blast if you don’t have your bling and your house deeds to prove that before the blast, you really were someone, picket fence and all? And it’s always been the role of the writer or artist to knock society down a notch. The Twilight Zone does a great job showing that, hey people can be saved in a Mosler safe too, but really, what good is it, if everyone else is gone, and you break your glasses?

[1] The folks at The Twilight Zone did a fantastic job foreshadowing the importance of Bemis’ glasses with a shot of him ever so gently placing them on the back of a sofa while reclining on a sofa in the rubble for a nap.

[2] Okay. Let’s go further down the rabbit hole. Priscilla was likely named after a beautiful strumpet in Pahrump, Nevada, which you’ve probably heard of if  you listen to Coast to Coast, and is a town about 45 minutes from Mercury, the test site. Going even further, this desert whore idea served as an influence from the 1994 movie, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. (Now it’s a musical!!) Or at least for the name. Damn I’m good at connecting dots.

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