I just a few minutes ago finished re-reading Jack Finney’s classic tale, Invasion of The Body Snatchers. In book form, this story was first published in 1955. I enjoyed the year 1955, except for the hysterical parts which, of course, I failed to enjoy.
During that year, my dad worked for the railroad, the Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line. I loved my dad, and so I grew to love the railroad. I am to this day what you might call a railroad buff. I collect N Scale model trains decorated to imitate those of the PRSL. This hobby is not one that many people who know me, I suspect, would associate with the bookish, verbose and sometimes haughty person who is Anthony V. Toscano; but the hobby is indeed part of who I’ve become in old age.
I didn’t begin this article, however, with the intention of talking about model trains and assumed images, but so it goes, and let it go where it may.
Back to the black-and-white year of 1955. I was a child then, and my mother wore polka-dot house dresses and aprons when she cooked. I liked the polka dots and the aprons, but I did not like my mother. Nonetheless, that summer I recall that my dad worked as a switch-man, which meant that for most of the day — as he waited for locomotive whistles to signal trains’ arrivals, he raked gravel off the metal rails, pulled weeds along the route, and sat inside a small wooden shack, there ready to yank a metal arm in order to see the next train along its proper track. Then after the train passed, he’d yank the arm back again and watch the tracks pull themselves into a different direction.
My mother oftentimes would prepare his summer lunch. She and I together would walk the mile or so, meal packed tight and covered with fresh-washed towels, to meet my dad inside his assigned hut. Always on our arrival Dad smiled wide, the false teeth he’d earned by way of the Veterans’ hospital after World War II, glimmering wet with heated sunlight, the few metal hinges that held those ersatz teeth in place against his real ones glinting with the same light that reflected itself off his over-thick eyeglasses. A lot of love inside those pale-blue Sicilian eyes.
And what has any of this to do with Jack Finney’s book, other than the year that all these details hold in common?
Newness, romance, hope and ambition. Hard work and a boy’s poetic vision of polka dots, that’s what.
I enjoyed reading Finney’s book more than I felt entertained by the Hollywood version of the same title, although the movie was mostly loyal to the book’s details (that type of close similarity between the two a rarity in today’s world of tired computer animation). But then I’m an avid reader, as so many writers are apt to be — I actually held the pages of this book close to my face and breathed in deep, this a lust-filled sin I so often committed when I was a kid — and smelled the aroma of my past, back in the day when I first read of The Hardy Boys’ adventures, of Heidi and her grandpop living somewhere in the Alps, of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and such and so on. And who dares blame me for such an innocent sense of the erotic?
The DVD version of The Invasion of The Body Snatchers includes the de rigeur interview, this particular discussion with the star of our show Kevin McCarthy, thirty years after the movie’s initial release, appearing grey and dignified and comfortably paunchy.
Kevin speaks of Finney’s story as if it were about the vacuity of certain lives, empty, devoid of hopeful expression for a future time. And I agree. The pod replacement creatures who so resemble the once nerve-wracked and ruddy-faced citizens of Mill Valley, although they understand that life is short, fail to suffer the results of any emotion.
“I don’t want to live without love,” whimpers an apparently doomed Becky Driscoll, and Dr. Miles Bennell, who in the book has sexual intercourse — oh dear, in 1955? — with sweet Becky, nods in agreement.
Yet I, at my age, and living inside my current set of circumstances, can understand the other side of the same pod from Outer Space, if you will. What if Mother’s polka-dot dresses elicited no emotional reaction from my little boy’s soul? And what if the aroma of creosote along the railroad tracks — tar and kerosene, after all is said and done — gave me no pause today, no reason to collect my model trains? Might today I suffer nothing of regret or sadness as I face my own mortality, and that of my dying brother? Might I even better yet — free from the fear of failed ambition — write a novel and see it sitting on a bookstore shelf before I die?
Sometimes I wonder.