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Entering the Twilight Zone

Posted Feb 22 2013 1:03am
A memory arrived in the mail the other day. It wasn’t unexpected, as I had ordered the item on eBay about a week earlier. My wife helped me open the package, and as its contents emerged my eyes fell upon an object that seemed like a long-lost piece of myself, a relic long consigned to the mists of remembrance suddenly made real once again. There in my one working hand was a nearly 32-year-old copy of “The Twilight Zone” magazine, dating back to August, 1981, its cover as instantly familiar to me as the face of a rediscovered old friend.

I opened the magazine and flipped through the first few pages until I found the publication’s masthead, the long column of titles and names of the people who worked to publish each issue. Scanning the list, my heart jumped a bit as my eyes landed on a name that I knew would be there but which somehow managed to surprise me nonetheless. There it was, under the names of the Editor and Managing Editor, just as I remembered: “Editorial Assistant: Marc Stecker”. Me. Suddenly I was 17 years old again, as excited to see my name in print as I was the first time around over three decades past, back when all of life was still in front of me, and my current Twilight Zone like circumstances were beyond imagination.

I worked at The Twilight Zone magazine during the spring semester of my senior year of high school. Because I attended what is considered to be New York City’s best public high school, Stuyvesant High, the school's bulletin board listing afterschool jobs attracted more than the usual busboy and supermarket positions most kids worked at in those days to earn their weekend money. I was lucky enough to be the first to respond to a new posting looking for a proofreader to work at a publishing company uptown.

When I nervously arrived for my interview, I learned that the publication I was applying to work for was a magazine dedicated to The Twilight Zone, one of my all-time favorite TV shows. Back then, before the advent of cable television, when we had to make do with (gasp!) all of seven TV channels, The Twilight Zone was a syndicated staple of local non-network television broadcasts. I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but in New York City the show was televised seven days a week, usually with back-to-back half-hour episodes airing late at night in glorious black and white. Even before working on the magazine, I was already familiar with virtually every episode of The Twilight Zone, having viewed most of them numerous times. I was far from alone in this expertise; in those days before video games, my friends and I would sometimes while away the time recounting the diabolically clever plot lines of Twilight Zone episodes, even though we all knew most of the shows by heart.

The original Twilight Zone series was produced in the late 50s and early 60s, the brainchild of creator Rod Serling, who introduced each episode dressed in a suit with skinny lapels and tie, a cigarette usually dangling from his fingers. The show featured off kilter tales with a very human touch that almost always ended with a mindbending twist, most episodes falling into the sci-fi/fantasy realm. In The Twilight Zone nothing was quite what it seemed, and you’d better be careful what you wished for, because wishes would often come true in unexpected and sometimes – but certainly not always – unpleasant ways. The episodes were deftly produced and directed, and were written by some of the top TV and film wordsmiths of the day. Several episodes starred actors who were already well known, or who soon would be, including Robert Redford, Jack Klugman, Burgess Meredith, and Agnes Moorehead, to name a few.

Much to my surprise, after a brief interview with the magazine’s Managing Editor, I was hired on the spot. My daily tasks were devoted to assisting the very small staff of The Twilight Zone, which was primarily a two-person operation, with responsibilities split between an Editor and a Managing Editor, who were tucked away in a small office at a large publishing company. The company's primary product was a second-tier “adult” magazine (yes, the kind featuring naked ladies – a definite perk as far as this 17-year-old was concerned), with a large staff devoted to publishing it and some sister publications. The Twilight Zone magazine itself turned out to be not some cheesy fanzine, but an impressive, very literate publication, featuring not only information about The Twilight Zone and other science fiction and fantasy movies and TV shows, but also original fiction in the Twilight Zone tradition. As such, every month it featured half a dozen or so new short stories by known and unknown writers, including some very famous authors such as Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, stories whose typewritten pages I not only got to lay hands on but help copy edit, making sure the typeset “galleys” for publication were free from mistakes such as misspellings and misplaced punctuation. For a kid with literary ambitions, this was intoxicating stuff.

As I sat in my wheelchair leafing through the yellowed pages of the old magazine, a steady stream of long dormant memories roused from hibernation. My job at the publishing house was my first foray into the everyday world of working adults, and I remember how surprised and amused I was at the controlled chaos around me. Though older and allegedly more mature, these folks seemed as full of foibles and quirks as my teenage friends and classmates. Did anybody ever really grow up?

One of the big bosses at the publishing company was a man with a hair-trigger temper, who was plagued by physical tics that worsened the angrier he got. The editor of the magazine was a fellow named T.E.D Klein (who would later become a not very prolific but well-respected horror author), a man in his mid-30s with a sharp mind and dry wit. I vividly remember the big boss once flying into our office in a blind rage over some relatively minor transgression, screaming wildly as his tic ridden body Increasingly took on a mind of its own, his anger manifesting itself physically in the form of his uncontrollably pounding himself rhythmically in the center of his chest with his right forearm. I of course was horrified, but I could see T.E.D desperately trying to suppress his bemusement, his face weirdly puckered as he bit the inside of his lip in an attempt to not break down in uproarious laughter at the sight of the lunatic in front of him. So, this was life in the working world of adults. How strange.

Although I only worked at the magazine part-time for six months or so before going off to college, those days were brimming with teenage drama and angst, and my time at the magazine was a heady source of pride. Not only did I get to work with the hand typed manuscripts of famous authors, but I also took part in helping choose photos and illustrations for the magazine (developing the deep crush on one of the freelance illustrators in the process), met a variety of interesting people (including Carol Serling, Rod’s widow), and generally felt very much a part of the team.

Holding that old magazine, dating back to a time when I was about to embark on a defining new chapter of my own life story, I wistfully recalled that peculiar teenage mix of omnipotence and insecurity, the future rushing at me filled with prospects both exhilarating and terrifying. Life itself beckoned, and the preview reel that played in my mind featured visions of fame and fortune, romance and adventure, success and recognition, tempered liberally by fears of abject failure and disappointment. Despite occasional flashes of bravado, I was a bundle of neuroses back then, more Woody Allen than Mick Jagger, but still, my visions of a grand future seemed tantalizingly possible.

The notion that my life would be upended by a creeping paralysis certainly never entered my mind, even though I was an accomplished hypochondriac. I feared cancer, brain tumors, even leprosy, but the prospect of paralysis never really occurred to me. Now, with my disease continuing to progress, all of those teenage notions of what was to be are painfully bittersweet, the decades old magazine that sat in my lap their physical encapsulation. Viewed from certain angles, my current circumstances could be fodder for one of the stories contained within its pages, and it has often occurred to me that in some ways I could very well take my place as a character in a Twilight Zone episode.

I’m the wannabe writer who strayed from his path, his literary aspirations forever lingering as a painful reminder of dreams unfulfilled, until he contracted a dread disease and suddenly found his written ruminations reaching a worldwide audience through a medium that didn’t even exist when his dreams were first formed. I’m the lifelong neurotic and hypochondriac who spent countless hours and dollars on psychotherapy, whose inner demons were only put to rest through the realization of one of his greatest fears. I’m the disquieted seeker of wisdom always searching the arcane for glimmers of truth, only to grasp that which is truly important when forced to the sidelines of life, unable to apply the lessons learned to the existence he once led, the life interrupted.

I’ve written this before, but in this context I think it bears repeating. If a fortune teller had told the 17-year-old me that at age 49 I would live with my beautiful wife in a skyscraper next to Lincoln Center, that I’d sleep and wake to my own schedule, that my writings and photos would be read, viewed, and valued by people all around the world, and that I’d spend my days free from the constraints of having to work for a living, I’d have been ecstatic, convinced that all of my dreams would be realized. Of course, that seer would have left out one little detail, one slight wrinkle, an asterisk attached to the story that would make all the difference between dream and nightmare.

Yes, in The Twilight Zone you must be careful to read all of the fine print and consider every nuanced possibility. My life has seen me go from working at The Twilight Zone to living in my own private version of it, which in itself might make for an interesting episode. As Rod Serling might have said in an introduction to that episode, “Presented for your inspection, a man watching himself disappear, one side of his body paralyzed, and the other desperately trying to hold on. He finds himself oddly off-balance, his right leg immobile and his left firmly planted in The Twilight Zone…”

So, has this Twilight Zone life delivered it’s final twist, or might there be one more to come, a happier one in my future unwritten? One can only hope, and hope is the precious legal tender of The Twilight Zone.

Cue spooky music…



Here’s a classic old episode of The Twilight Zone, enjoy…


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