Earl Hamner, who grew up in Nelson County's Schuyler community and attended the University of Richmond in the early 1940s (and after serving World War II, worked briefly for radio station WMBG) was back in town to receive the Literary Lifetime Achievement Award from the Library of Virginia in 2011. At right is actor Richard Thomas, who played John-Boy in "The Waltons." (Photo courtesy Library of Virginia)
I once lived as John-Boy. Growing up during the mid-1970s in the Chesterfield County public schools, gawky, bespectacled and book-smitten, classmates called me the name. With the perspective of years, and Thursday’s decease of Earl Hamner Jr., 92, who created “The Waltons” and John-Boy in his own image, I’ve come to appreciate the comparison.
Like more than a few people this morning, I’d either forgotten or never knew that he also created “Falcon Crest,” adapted “Charlotte’s Web” for the 1973 animated film and the Swiss children’s story “Heidi” for the 1968 television version, but coolest of all, he wrote eight episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” These included “You Drive, “ about a hit-and-run driver whose Ford Fairlane is possessed by more of a moral conscience than its driver, “Stopover in Quiet Town,” in which a married couple who, after a night of ribaldry, awaken in a residence not their own that is actually a big doll house — and “The Ring-a-Ding Girl.”
This one concerns a movie star named Bunny Blake who receives, supposedly from her small hometown fan club, a magical (or cursed) ring in which she sees friends imploring her to return home. She’s traveling to a shoot in Rome, but she gets on an airliner flying from Los Angeles to New York across flyover country and lands in Howardville. She arrives feeling unwell, but determined to put on a one-woman presentation, although it coincides with the town’s founders day event. She goes on with the show in the high school auditorium despite her illness and stormy weather outside. But as she, Bunny’s sister and friends are about to depart for the performance, sirens intervene and an announcement of the airplane crash that has killed Bunny Blake. The actress has seen this come to pass on her ring, whispers goodbye to her family, and disappears in the rain.
“We are all travelers,” Rod Serling postscripturally intones, “The trip starts in a place called birth — and ends in that lonely town called death. And that's the end of the journey, unless you happen to exist for a few hours, like Bunny Blake, in the misty regions of The Twilight Zone.”
Both Serling and Hamner used their voices in opening and closing their best-known shows, and by happenstance; Serling because by production time the network couldn’t find anybody they wanted to deliver the prelude lines so they made Serling do the honors. His initial nervousness clenched his jaws and he held a cigarette to calm his nerves (and this provided sponsorship). Hamner, in a similar way, added his characteristic manner to the show because when searching for a “homespun” voice, the producers ran out of options until at last he spoke into a recording microphone.
Back in November 1999, we compiled essays for Richmond magazine’s “100 Years of Richmond" to acknowledge the passing of the 20th century. This is an interesting issue now because not only is Earl Hamner Jr. in it, but also a fellow then best known for his work on the "X-Files," Vince Gilligan. These two different writers and their contributions to popular culture — both coming from our region — is worth considering.
I received the assignment of tracking down Hamner to ask if he’d write a little essay. In those pre-Internet days, I learned how to find him through the Richmond Public Library, called his office (sweaty-palmed) and spoke to his assistant, who put me through to him and all of a sudden, the clear Upper Piedmont voice emanated through my phone. I may have stuttered, but I somehow managed to ask what we needed and he responded that he’d be glad to, as the city meant a great deal to him because of the profound and positive effect on his life. Some days later his essay arrived — via fax — which I then re-typed. Like John-Boy.