The plotline: Dr. Stockton has plagued his neighbors with a nocturnal building project, a basement fallout shelter, and by his frequent warnings to prepare for a nuclear attack. When radar detects missiles heading for the U.S., his neighbors wish they had listened; but, since they didn’t, surely Stockton would wish to share his quarters. Not the case. The shelter can only hold three—Stockton, his wife, Grace and their son, Paul. Will his neighbors break down the shelter door? If so, who should be allowed in?
Rod Serling’s short play was greeted enthusiastically by my summer school students, since two were aficionados of the Sci Fi channel’s “Twilight Zone” marathons. Patrick had even seen “The Shelter” episode and quickly snagged the prime role of Dr. Stockton.
The reading didn’t go particularly smoothly. There were several stops for historical background questions. What was Conelrad? (the 50s emergency broadcasting system). What was a fallout shelter? (This inspired Alex’s spirited description of a four- level shelter found under a garage floor, complete with a defensive armaments in case of assault.) Christina didn’t like her lines: “Why do I have to say ‘Pop’ every time I talk to my father? Who calls their dad ‘Pop’?” Patrick didn’t think the others were using enough expression when delivering their lines. Many, however, found his delivery too bombastic (including the students in the next-door classroom), and none caught his Rod Serling impersonation, which, he believed, should earn him an extra point or two.
There was trouble with the plot points. If the neighbors really wanted to save themselves, Alex pointed out, battering down the shelter door would only insure that nobody would survive. It’s a mob, he was reminded, and a mob doesn’t think rationally.
The study questions provoked much debate. One asked if leaving the water tap on and filling jar-after-jar until the flow stopped revealed anything about the Stocktons’ social values. Christina thought ‘yes,’ they should only take their fair share. Since they already had stocked the shelter with everything, even reading material, certainly they would have already stored water. Patrick argued that everyone was doing the same thing, so why not the Stocktons?
I flashed back to my family’s nuclear war preparations. Since our canned food storage was in the basement cellar, all we needed was a can opener and big jugs of water. My father did try to dig a basement well so we would be well hydrated, but gave up after drilling down 100 feet.
Another question asked if the students agreed with Grace Stockton: that it would be better to die in a nuclear blast than cope with surviving without friends and the world she knew. Some yes, some no. Chris actually thought it would be a hoot to be one of the few survivors.
Should Dr. Stockton have let in at least a few of his neighbors? And if he did, who should it be? His best friend, the children? Most thought he was right to refuse entry to the others. He had the foresight to build a shelter. Let one person in and they’ll all try to enter. Survival of the fittest. It’s like that fable about the grasshopper singing away all summer while the ant stores food for winter.
What about the neighbors? What do their actions reveal? They’re not so loveable either, we discovered. They didn’t want people on another block to know “they” had a shelter on theirs. (The shelter by that point in the play had morphed from Stockton’s to the property of their particular block.) And finally one Mr. Henderson turns on his neighbor Mr. Weiss, saying there was no room for ‘foreigners’ with their pushy ways.
While the class struggled through these ethical dilemmas, a student from my the previous hour, which had read Serling’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” instead, beckoned me into the hallway. Josh requested that I look at the opening paragraphs of his persuasive essay. He had considered a number of topics over the last week, but none had suited; so, I was pleased that he had finally had made a start.
The topic was immigration reform, and at first I didn’t get it. But reading on, I realized I held a marvelous bit of synchronicity in my hand. Previously Josh had written pieces on blood diamonds, the Iraq War and capitalism that had expressed humanitarian views. Consequently, I was startled to read “All illegal immigrants should be sent back to where they came from.” His reasons were that ‘they’ were taking ‘our’ jobs, and if they couldn’t speak English, they shouldn’t be here. I commented that he should present the other side of the jobs argument: that immigrants were taking jobs Americans didn’t want. Those jobs, he replied, should go to legal immigrants.
Back in my classroom, I mused that Josh’s non-English speakers were today’s equivalent of the foreigner Weiss in the play, that the wall along our southern border was Stockton’s shelter walls writ large. And the same questions apply: should those who have something valuable be willing to share, or is it, indeed, survival of the fittest?
Students’ names have been changed.