Earl's world: Almost like being in a real place

Normally the Hot Seat is an 800- or 900-word affair, affording a glimpse into the lives– and refrigerators– of local newsmakers. But when we asked raconteur Earl Hamner to sit on the Hot Seat, the answers he provided were too engaging to be chopped down to normal Hot Seat size. Thus was born the Extra Hot Seat– because, as Hamner himself would say, "Sometimes you ask the time, and you learn how a watch is made."


The Twilight Zone, The Waltons, Falcon Crest– The Jeopardy question to this answer would be, for what three popular television series did Earl Hamner write?

Certainly Hamner is indelibly associated with The Waltons, the beloved series he created based upon his life growing up in tiny Schuyler during the Depression.

Hamner is so closely identified with the simple decency of country folk on Walton's Mountain that it's not an obvious connect to link him with the land of shadow and substance– The Twilight Zone– from the golden age of television. Or, for that matter, Falcon Crest, the 1980s series about the Giobertis, a wine-sipping, power-grabbing Napa Valley clan.

Though unlikely bedfellows, the Schuyler influences can be found in the eight Twilight Zone episodes he wrote, as well as in Falcon Crest, which ran for eight years– nearly as long as the iconic Waltons.

Twilight Zone scripts like "The Hunt," the story of a coon hunter whose faithful dog keeps him out of hell, or "Jess-Bell," about a witch who sells her soul for love, draw upon the folklore that infused Hamner's childhood.

And according to Hamner, the glitzy world of Falcon Crest has several things in common with The Waltons– notably its strong family unit and matriarch.

"Jane Wyman as Angela is Mother Courage, dragging this vineyard and family along," he says. And Hamner incorporated his own Italian heritage– his mother was a Giannini– into the series.

Even after living in California for more than 40 years, Hamner still has that Virginian voice made famous narrating The Waltons.

"The Waltons were the light side of my personality, and Falcon Crest the dark side," he says on a recent visit to Charlottesville to take part in the Virginia Festival of the Book.

Hamner is a hale 79-year-old. With two new books last year– Goodnight John-Boy and The Twilight Zone Scripts of Earl Hamner– he shows no sign of slowing his long and varied writing career. "When you get this old, you have to write fast," he jokes.

He mentions an upcoming project called Generous Women, "about ladies who've made a difference– like Patricia Neal, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Wyman, my wife, and my mother."

It's always a homecoming for Hamner to return to Virginia. He drives along Rockfish Drive from Schuyler– "my favorite drive in the world"– and takes pictures of places he remembers. And who knows? That could end up a book, too.

The biggest change he notices in Schuyler today is "the sense of no activity." There's no mill whistle sounding, no buses discharging school children, none of "the life and death activity, the coming and going" he remembers. Only the houses are the same– "and I know what they look like under their fancy dress."

Later that day, Hamner visits the Downtown Mall, where streetcars used to run and he used to walk in overalls to see a Tom Mix movie at the Lafayette Theater, now the site of the apartments and shops of York Place. He enjoys a glass of wine at Hamiltons' and finds the Mall "alive in the way streets are with cafés."

Hamner is particularly pleased that moderate drinking is more acceptable than in the Prohibition days of his youth. "When I was growing up, it was sinful," he remarks. "And I'm a Baptist. It's so much more civilized now to have a glass of wine with food."

Indeed, during his Falcon Crest days, Hamner bought a winery in Napa. "It was not a good investment," he admits. "I got out by the skin of my teeth."

Throughout his writing career, Hamner has been stereotyped, first as a radio writer, as a science fiction writer after his Twilight Zone scripts, and, despite the resounding international success of The Waltons, as a "soft" writer.

His first novel, Spencer's Mountain, was published in 1961 and set the stage for the place and characters that would become The Waltons. Warner Brothers made the novel into a movie with Maureen O'Hara and Henry Fonda.

Although Hamner is known for his wholesome characters– at least up until Falcon CrestSpencer's Mountain actually has a sex scene that earns Clay-Boy Spencer sunburned buttocks. "I was trying to convey the innocence and wonder– the healthy aspects of a boy's first experience with a girl," says Hamner. "In the movie, it became kind of a leering, Hollywood hot-and-sweaty production."

So how did Clay-Boy Spencer from Spencer's Mountain become John-Boy Walton in the TV series?

"When Warner Brothers buys property, they buy everything," says Hamner. When CBS produced its sequel, The Homecoming, as a two-hour Christmas special, Warner Brothers wouldn't allow the use the names "Clay-Boy" or "Spencer."

"Walton was a signer of the Constitution, and I had ancestors who were Waltons," explains Hamner. "It sounded like a sturdy American name." And the rest is television history.

Last year was a tumultuous one for Hamner and his family, thanks to a falling out with the Walton's Mountain Museum he helped create. A new Hamner-approved museum is in the works that will document rural life in Nelson County during the 20th century.

Despite the dust-up in his hometown, "I still love Schuyler," says Hamner, and he says that about the time he hits Culpeper, he begins to savor that moment of coming home to the mountains.

Any chance Nelson County's most famous native son will leave Studio City to return to his roots?

"I'm entrenched in California," says Hamner, and in his new Twilight Zone book, he describes Southern California as "almost like being in a real place."

There's also one very real danger of returning to the bosom of family and friends. "If I moved to Virginia," he predicts, "I would be loved to death."

Age: 80 in July.

What brought you to Charlottesville? I was in Charlottesville to participate in the Virginia Festival of the Book and read from my books about growing up in Nelson County, my career in Hollywood, and from Goodnight John-Boy, a new book about my television series, The Waltons.

What's worst about living here? I don't live in Charlottesville and never have. My impressions of the city go back to the '20s and '30s when, like so many country people, we would come in on a Saturday. Main Street would be lined with muddy farm trucks, horse-drawn wagons, and buggies. Main Street was open to traffic in those days, and a streetcar careened and clanged its way right down the middle of the street. In our overalls and white shirts buttoned at the top, we would wander up and down in wonderment at the movie theaters and restaurants and fancy shops. Even though we clogged their streets, I remember the "city folks" being friendly and hospitable.

Favorite hangout? I was never in the city long enough to have a "hangout." However, I remember being drawn to a drugstore, which I think was called Timberlake's. I would look through the window and envy all those folks sitting at the fountain as if they were right at home in there. I envied their fancy clothes and easy ways, but was shy about going in, dressed and looking "countrified." One summer I made what seemed to me to be a huge amount of money picking peaches over at Crozet. A crowd of us would ride over from Schuyler in a truck at dawn and come home after dark exhausted and covered with peach fuzz, but rich! On my next trip to Charlottesville, I finally ventured into Timberlake's, ordered and enjoyed my first chocolate soda.

Most overrated virtue? Many fans in the television audience give me credit for "that fine lesson you showed us in last night's show." Well, the truth is I never consciously intended to deliver a lesson in any of my writing. I think it just happened that in The Waltons I was writing about people who were inspired by my own family, and the actual people were decent, self-reliant, resourceful, upright citizens who loved their families, their God, and their country. Therefore, a story about such people might automatically carry a "lesson" of some kind.

What would people be surprised to know about you? I'm a penny-pinching, stingy cheapskate. When I was a boy, a pair of socks cost 10 cents, shoes were a dollar, and the suit my parents provided me to wear to college cost $19 (advertised in the Sears, Roebuck catalogue as a forest green herringbone twill with two pairs of pants, vest included). Those lean years became so deeply imbedded in my character that even today I find it difficult to pay $18 for a pair of socks, or $300 for a pair of Bally loafers, or $600 for a blazer at Brooks Bros. Thank God for a wife who sees me hesitating over some item I consider too expensive and will say to the clerk, "He'll take it."

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? To weigh 50 pounds less. When Jane and I were married in l954, I weighed 140 pounds and had a 30-inch waist. Recently I bought pajamas, and– not quite sure of the size– I asked the clerk what size he recommended. He looked me over critically and said, "Large top, extra large bottom." I'm going on a diet tomorrow. Or maybe the day after tomorrow.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? The village of Schuyler where I grew up was once thought of as being peopled by gun-toting, illiterate, xenophobic, moonshine-swilling hillbillies. Through my books and my television shows, I was able to give the area and the people a more positive image, an image that has been seen in every country in the world except China and Russia. Today, fans from all over the world come to Schuyler looking for the house where I grew up. I have been told that tourists leaving Monticello ask for directions to Walton's Mountain. I suspect Mr. Jefferson would be amused.

What do people find most annoying about you? I suspect that people find me garrulous, self-congratulatory, annoyingly hard of hearing, overly sentimental, and because I am hard of hearing, that I speak too loud.

Whom do you admire? A kid who used to live next door to me. His name is Cody Nichols, and he is 10 years old. At the moment Cody lives in Cairo where his mother is working on a film about the representation of animals in Egyptian tomb art. He has lived there only a year, and already he speaks Arabic. I admire Cody because of his intelligence, his many talents including composing and performing his own music, his outgoing personality tempered with reserve, his athletic abilities, and his calm approach to the challenge of growing up. I treasure the fact that I saw my first Harry Potter movie with Cody, and he shared his awe with mine. I think the future of America rests on Cody's shoulders and those children like him who will inherit what is left of our world after we have had our way with it. It comforts me to believe that he and other kids like him will hopefully make this a better world than we have given them.

Favorite book? At the moment it's The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason. The improbable story line has to do with a piano tuner who is sent from London to tune a rare Erard piano belonging to a charismatic British officer in a remote outpost in Burma. I highly recommend it. The book I read before this was A Parchment of Leaves by Silas House, a new, young, very talented, very promising writer from Kentucky.

What subject causes you to rant? I rant over what television has become. What could have been a medium that might have elevated, educated, enlightened, and even ennobled all of us has become a medium that cheapens the human experience, that pictures the procreation of life as a joke or dirty, that dulls our senses and glorifies violence. More often than not the dramas picture us as ill and in need of a doctor, in trouble and in need of a lawyer, or victims in need of the police. It cheapens our image of ourselves by showing our fellow folks eating worms or plotting to overcome our fellow man/woman through guile, trickery, and deceit or risking life and limb in exchange for a few dollars. Only rarely do we see ordinary human beings whose lives can relate to our own lives...

Just recently a gentle television icon named Mr. Rogers died. There is nothing left even remotely akin to what he stood for. There is Sesame Street, but Sesame Street is peopled with puppets. Mr. Rogers was real! His death marks the end of an era.

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? The mere fact of being alive in it. As long as we are alive, we can continue to evolve, shed our old skins, and reach for something more workable and rewarding in human experience than we have known.

What creeps you about life in the 21st century? We all might be blown to hell at any minute.

What do you drive? In my ancient years I drive a MDX, a sensible, safe, sober SUV. It serves us well hauling dogs to the beach, groceries home from the market, and plants from the nursery, but I still remember longingly a silver Corvette that Jane gave me on our 25th anniversary. It was parked in front of the house when I arrived home from work. It had a big red bow wrapped around it!

What's in your car CD player right now? A James Galway CD called Celtic Minstrel. It has so many associations that it breaks my heart. When I was young in New York I used to go with an Irish friend to a bar on Third Avenue called The Ireland Thirty Two. A five-man band of older Irish guys played reels and jigs that were straight from the Auld Country. The girls who frequented the place were lovely, ruddy-cheeked, red-haired country girls who had recently arrived and who had found work as maids in hotels and in the mansions on Park Avenue. Young Irish workmen came there to court them, and I suspect many of them found wives there.

One gentleman in the band, a bandy-legged old fellow who looked like Barry Fitzgerald, would sometimes get so carried away with the music that he, pipe clenched between his teeth, would take possession of the dance floor and fling himself into the air in time to the music while banging on a tambourine. My Irish friend, Halloran, would join him and the two of them would try to outdo each other leaping into the air in a crude jig until they were exhausted.

And finally the band would play "Danny Boy," and the immigrant girls and their young men would dance together, distant at first but warming gradually to the music and to each other.

What's your next journey? To the Grand Canyon. It's a trip my wife and some special friends have planned in honor of my 80th birthday. I have been there once before, but I had injured my back, and all I saw of the canyon was what I could see from my pained position in the back of the car– the rim, which looked as if it had been painted with mauve and brown and orange crayons. On this trip, I'm going to try to overcome my acrophobia and walk down the narrow trail to the bottom. On the trip we will also revisit favorite sites such as Tucson, Phoenix, Santa Fe, and Senoita. I will be 80 years old when we get back to California! Wow!

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? I was conscripted into the Army in World War II, and after basic training I was sent for further training in the Armored Division at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I was assigned to learn to drive an M4 tank, and nobody paid attention when I objected that I was too tall for the tank and that my head was getting bloody from battering against the closed hatch. I suspect to get rid of me they next assigned me to an Army Specialized Training Program where I, who cannot do simple arithmetic, was supposed to learn calculus and geometry. Fortunately, the program was dissolved, and I was shipped overseas as a replacement.

The Army was hard put to keep us occupied while waiting in the Replacement Depot up near the Welsh border. There was a large lake on the campgrounds, and for want of anything better to do, a crew was assigned to row around the lake in some kind of military craft. I was put in charge of the operation and sat at the rear of the boat trying to steer it.

I had no idea what I was doing and inadvertently guided my boat into a flock of swans. They scattered across the lake, making an awful noise, flying into the air in a wide frantic circle and shedding feathers. An outcry sounded from shore, and I could make out vaguely that someone was ordering us to return to shore. Under my inept steering, my boat went around in circles until a sergeant roared out in a motorized boat and towed us back to the dock.

A United States Army captain and a British lieutenant stood there looking sternly at my crew and me as we climbed up on the dock. "Who's in charge here?" demanded the captain. Everybody looked at me, and, shortly, I was informed that all the swans in England belong to the Queen, and that I had broken a good many laws by steering my boat into them, teasing them, and threatening their lives. As punishment, I was ordered to lead my squad in the digging of a six-by-six- foot trench.

It was well past midnight when we finished, and I grew increasingly unpopular with my fellow recruits. I suspect they were relieved when, a few days later, I was assigned to learn how to defuse landmines, a job where the life expectancy on the battlefront is about 20 minutes. Fortunately, somebody discovered I could type, and I ended up in Paris believing that somewhere a guardian angel was looking after me....

What do you regret? I have been a workaholic most of my life, and it made me less of a parent that I should have been. It's ironic that in writing about family life I neglected my own. I regret, too, that life is so short, and there is so little time to write all that I would like to. Still, I will be happy if I can complete one more book. I'm passionate to finish a stage play that I feel has something meaningful to say.

Favorite comfort food? A dish Jane invented that she calls "mush." You get the frying pan hot, and you put in some butter and chopped-up onion, and after that you add some lean ground sirloin and let that brown for a while. Then you add a can of Franco American Spaghetti and some seasoning. One of the things Jane adds is cilantro, which gives it a kind of southwestern flavor. You simmer it for a while and let it bubble and carry on. Finally, you cover the whole thing with ground Parmesan cheese and serve with a salad and a Napa Valley Merlot. It's to die for.

What's always in your refrigerator? Jif Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter.

Must see TV? The Today Show, Hardball, Keeping Up Appearances, Masterpiece Theater, and once in a while Everybody Loves Raymond.

Favorite cartoon? Doonesbury

 Describe a perfect day: It would start with my wife and me waking at dawn in the Queen Charlotte Islands at a resort called the Peregrine Lodge. The sky is just turning pink in the east when a Boston Whaler picks us up at the dock and takes us out to the fishing grounds where the Chinook salmon are just coming in, fresh and bright and hungry, from the ocean. We catch the limit, and then by magic are returned to my California home where our son and daughter are waiting and announce they are spending the day with us.

They have arranged for a flight to Nashville where we will have breakfast at the Loveless Café. All our Nashville friends will join us for coffee. A quick flight will take us to Virginia where the redbud and the dogwood are blooming, and all my brothers and sisters are gathered for a visit. Then on to New York. We will go for a walk in the Village and see our children's initials carved in the pavement outside the apartment house where we once lived. Lunch at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station where all our New York friends will join us for coffee.

A quick flight to Marseilles, met by car for an afternoon in Provence, a quick flight to London, dinner at The Ivy, and then to whatever is on stage nearby. Home without having to go through any major airport or through customs, and being met at the door by our dogs when we arrive. They jump up on us with muddy feet to tell us that we are really home again and the fantasy is over.

Walter Mitty fantasy? That I am a world-renowned concert pianist. I see myself dressed in white tie and tails playing the Emperor Concerto at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. A review of the concert is published the next day in the New York Times, and when I arrive home at JFK, a great crowd is waiting to carry me up Broadway for the ticker-tape parade.

Who would play you in the movie? Robert Redford. I'm sure that once these words reach Redford he will be in touch with whoever is producing this movie to volunteer his services.

Most embarrassing moment? In World War Tqo when I was a recruit in the Army, it was my second day at Camp Lee and we were being processed. At the morning line-up, I understood the sergeant to say that I was to go back to the barracks and fall out immediately wearing only my raincoat and carrying the spoon that came with our GI mess kit. I did as I thought I had been told, fell outside the barracks, naked except for the raincoat, spoon in hand, to find that I had gotten my time mixed up and that everybody else was in full dress uniform.

Favorite bumper sticker: "Make love, not war"