This afternoon I was reminded of a favorite episode of The Twilight Zone: “In Praise of Pip,” and a facet of that story I thought worthy of mention here.
The story opens in an Army hospital in South Vietnam, where a young soldier is brought in on a stretcher. He is evaluated by a doctor, who notes the soldier’s unusual name – Pip Phillips – and after examination, estimates that his patient’s chances of survival are not promising. Cut to half way around the world and a seedy apartment wherein resides one Max Phillips, the boy’s father. We learn shortly that Max is a bookie, though perhaps not with the hard attitude it takes to be one, as we discover in an interaction with one of his clients. There is fallout from this scene later, when we see Max with his boss, who isn’t exactly happy that Max has welched on the bet that client made, a mistake that young man has paid for with a severe beating by one of the boss’s musclemen. It is here that Max receives a phone call, notifying him of his son’s condition. This is the last straw for Max, who reflects briefly on how Pip was the one bright spot in his life against the sordid mess which is his living as a bookie and a shill. He flips the money his client bet back to him, telling him to leave and not look back. Max’s boss and muscle take this amiss, to put matters mildly, and in the dust-up that follows, Max takes a shot to the gut as he dispatches them both, then flees the premises.
The next scene is at the gate to an old amusement park, where Max and his son spent their best times. He clutches at his wound as he remembers those times, regretting what he has become and wishing to god that he could somehow make it up to his kid. There’s a movement in the shadows, and impossibly, out of them walks Pip, though now as a 10-year-old child. Max is astonished at how this can be as he embraces and kisses his son, but Pip answers that it doesn’t matter, a statement that his father finally embraces, even as his belly wound is somehow now in abeyance. The amusement park takes its cue and comes to life, and father and son run with this unforeseeable opportunity, getting cotton candy, riding the carousel and the roller coaster, getting a hat and balloon, immersing themselves in the joy of the moment and each other.
At the shooting gallery, Max notes his son chewing gum as he takes aim. “Work the gun, not your jaws,” he chides him gently, and Pip proceeds to hit target after target. Max embraces Pip again, only this time, Pip reacts in shock, pulls away, and runs to the House of Mirrors. His father is aghast and chases after Pip, attempting to catch up and asking repeatedly what is wrong. “The hour is up, Dad,” is the only answer his son gives, separated from Max by multiple reflections. Max’s further pursuit only yields a broken mirror with his son’s reflection in it, apologizing again that he can’t stay any longer.
The bullet wound reasserts itself as Max unsteadily exits the House of Mirrors, his son nowhere to be found, the lights of the park going out. Once again, he pleads with his god:
Hey, god? Hey, god, I’ll make a deal with you. I give you … I give you the sodden carcass of an aging, weak idiot. I give you me. All you have to give back is Pip. Please, god, don’t take my boy. Take me.
Max manages a few steps, then collapses to the pavement.
It’s apparently now some months later, as the woman who managed the apartment where Max lived enters that same amusement park with her daughter in tow and behind them, Pip, very much alive, though walking with a cane, and still in uniform. They agree to meet later as Pip turns to the shooting gallery. Taking a gun in hand, he checks himself and smiles. “Work the gun, not your jaws,” he reminds himself, remembering his father and his admonition fondly. The camera pans away as Pip takes aim, and we hear Rod Serling’s closing comment:
Very little comment here, save for this small aside: that the ties of flesh are deep and strong, that the capacity to love is a vital, rich and all-consuming function of the human animal, and that you can find nobility and sacrifice and love wherever you may seek it out; down the block, in the heart, or in the Twilight Zone.
So what’s my point in recounting this story? The perhaps somewhat embarrassing fact that, without a god for Max Phillips to pray to, I’m not certain that there is a story. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I watched this episode this afternoon, trying to find a way to rewrite the story, keeping Pip in Vietnam and his father back in the States, yet somehow maintaining the poignancy and sense of self-sacrifice represented so well by Jack Klugman’s powerfully emotive performance, without which “In Praise of Pip” would be utterly unremarkable.
From the atheist point of view, the entire business is obvious almost to the point of being trivial: Max had little to no hope of survival. His encounter with his son was nothing more than a hallucination resulting from the gunshot, and his prayers meaningless words offered to a non-existent deity. Meantime, Pip was in the best hands the Army could afford him. That and Pip’s own internal strength saved him and not some omniscient being.
What gets lost here with a coldly pragmatic point of view is the magic which very often is part and parcel of what Rod Serling did with The Twilight Zone, the wonder and sense of “could-it-be-possible” that he created so many times in stories such as this. I am an atheist, and yet I gladly suspend my disbelief as I watch, so that I can more fully enjoy this story and others like it. I admire what Serling accomplishes here, pleas to deity notwithstanding.