The Twilight Zone episode “Kick the Can” is tailor made for Baby Boomers, who were kids when the episode first aired, and it appeals to the spirit of the age, the modern age, the age where I can be anything I want to be.
For those younger than a certain age, kick the can is a game you play at night with a can and a bunch of kids, where one kid guards the can while the others hide. If a hider kicks the can before he’s sighted by the can-guarder, he wins. If the can-guarder spots all the hiders before they can kick the can, he wins.
I’m a fan and a student of The Twilight Zone. I composed an article for Catholic World Report entitled “Human Liberty and The Obsolete Man”, about an episode where the state decides what constitutes right thinking, who deserves to live, and where books are proscribed. “Kick the Can” is just as edifying an episode as “The Obsolete Man” because it misses the mark, because it depicts what Dietrich Bonheoffer called “cheap grace”, or false grace.
Watch “Kick the Can,” a feel-good Zone episode. Recover lost youth. Never grow old. An old man (Ben) swipes a magic can from some kids, and he convinces all but one resident (Charles) of a senior apartment to play kick the can with him, with those who play becoming young again. The post-transformation Ben doesn’t recognize Charles when the old man calls him, and runs off with the others, while Charles is left to lament this lost opportunity to be young again.
What could be wrong with a story that champions revitalization and rejuvenation?
Ben tells Charles, “There is magic in the world. I know there is.” Then he relates his memories of his wife, memories of his son as a boy, of good friends. The recalcitrant Charles responds to Ben with, “I am old and so are you…and that’s a fact”, sanguine insofar as turning back the clock even if Charles embodies a disordered fatalism.
What happens to those old people who become young again and run out of the camera’s vision? With no loving parents, they’re orphans, needing a family to take them in and nurture them. And how do memories of adulthood and old age compromise their new youth? Moreover, the old people who get young again will get old again, and die. They have delayed what must be. Life on Earth is meant to be lived once, and only once.
The kid actors in the 1960s episode are now as old as the old people in “Kick the Can.” I was nine when this episode first aired and now I’m sixty-two and live across the street from senior apartments that look like that Twilight Zone episode, with many of the residents reminding me of the people in the story.
Where Serling hits the mark is the brief scene with Ben in his son’s car. Ben thinks he’s leaving—his bag is packed—but there’s too much going on in Ben’s son’s life to bring the old man home, to do more than the minimum. How many Baby Boomers are in that place right now with their children, or maybe their parents? What heroic courage and generosity it takes to put the world’s priorities and fears aside and let grace have its way.
Someone in their eighties told me the hardest thing they face is alone-ness, the crie de coeur that can overwhelm us as we get older, even when we’re living with someone else, if the experience—for any number of reasons—is one of isolation, or self-isolation. Can that isolation and alone-ness be remedied? Not entirely in this life, though it can be softened by authentic solidarity.
Who wouldn’t want to run like a deer again, climb trees to the top and swing from branches like monkeys, tumble down stairs and pop up again with a bruise and a smile? Only those who believe they will someday run faster, climb taller trees, and have adventures far surpassing those they could ever experience in this life—a game of kick the can to surpass any kid’s wildest dreams.
There’s grace in this world even if we can’t see or feel it, the gift of strength and wisdom to those who are open and willing to follow where grace takes them. Magic is man’s attempt to order the world to his will, with spells, potions…or cans. Age, vigor, and physical beauty aren’t what matter. What matters is state of mind and especially, state of grace, the antithesis of what our culture screams at us, and where our fallen natures want to drag us.
Rod Serling did us a great service with his Twilight Zone stories, some hitting the bulls-eye and some missing the target, but all of them provoking thought and reflection, taking us out of our comfort zones. “Kick the Can” brings me back to my youth, but I’m not young any more, and I have to go on to the finish line, not backwards.
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