Folk tales don’t seem to have the resonance they did in 1930’s America. Fewer and fewer people legitimately believe in the mystical, the supernatural, or even the idea of fate.
But we still see signs and symbols in the world around us. Despite our best efforts, we hold up objects or coincidental occurrences and give them more value than they’re due.
Giving a force of nature equal value to an act of God is exactly the issue at hand in the sixth episode of the 1970’s television show, The Waltons.
All 11 Waltons sit on the front porch and play in the yard on a gorgeous twilight evening in fall. Ben, roughly 13 at the time, practices for a spelling bee. John Boy practices his writing. And the children make a wish on the first star they see in the night sky.
As the stars begin to show themselves, one comes zooming down from the heavens and streaks across the Virginia skyline before crashing to the ground not far from the Walton property.
John and John Boy go off in search of it, but Grandpa Walton stays behind, nursing a pain in his chest.
In the next scene we see that the meteorite crashed into the Baldwin sisters’ recipe room, where the women unwittingly distill bootleg whiskey.
John comments that the ladies were lucky not to have been hit. Emily Baldwin says they were saved by their father’s spiritual protection.
“This star was a gift and a sign from Papa. Why, just look where it landed, in his favorite place on earth. The recipe room.”
The next day Grandpa Walton doesn’t get out of bed.
He explains to John that he got a pain in his chest just as the star fell the night before, and that the two incidents were connected.
“All things considered Zeb, you’re in very good condition,” the doctor says on a home visit. “Is there something else bothering you? Something you haven’t told me about?”
Grandpa Walton responds, “I am not what regular churchgoers call a religious man. Throughout these years I have had my beliefs. I have learned to recognize His will and accept it.”
“Zeb,” the doctor says with a sigh, “you’re too vigorous a man to be laid low by a sign. My advice to you is to get up out of this bed and start living again.”
But Grandpa Walton can’t muster the will to do so. It’s as if the meteorite was a catalyst to a depression that ties the old man to his man.
Another day passes.
He tells John the exact spot on the mountain where he wants to be buried, under an old oak tree that stand alone on the bank of a river.
This pushes John from bargaining to anger.
“You felt a twinge, you saw a star fall, that’s no reason to stay in your bed and pick out your grave!”
“A shooting star means death son,” Grandpa says, calm and resigned. “Mark Twain said that he came in with Halley’s Comet and he would go out with Halley’s Comet and he did. And I’ve proved it for myself. My own daddy, your grandpa, he was the soundest man in this county, then one evening, we was coming home from a barn raisin’, he was joshin’ and laughin’ and all of a sudden, in the sky right up there above us there was this shooting star. I watched his eyes just trail it onto the ground. The next morning he was dead.”
“His heart failed him, that’s all,”John said, growling.
“He knew that shooting star meant that his time had come. I saw it in his eyes … Now my time has come.”
The star also turns dark for the Baldwin sisters when their cousin uses it to manipulate them. He plays on their belief that their papa sent the star to trick them into getting rid of their father’s recipe machine.
“I was so happy when the star came. So many friends followed it here to visit with us. It seemed warm and beautiful. But now sister, it looks almost ugly,” Miss Emily says.
Ben starts to wonder if his wish on the star to win the spelling bee was in vain.
In his journal that night John Boy writes, “I wish I could make up my mind what the star falling means to me, or even whether it has a meaning. Couldn’t it be something as natural as green leaves turning red in the fall or water freezing into ice in the summer and melting in the spring.”
Ben interrupts to sit in John Boy’s room to study the spelling words.
“This is what I should have done in the first place, instead of counting on that star,” Ben says. “Do you think, sometimes, when wishes don’t come true it’s our own fault?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” John Boy says.
Days after the meteorite fell, John resolves the issue with Grandpa by confronting him with the object of his misery. Literally carrying the chunk of space rock into his room and placing it on the bed beside him.
“I thought since this made you take to your bed, shortened your life and filled your mind with gloom and graveyards, you might want to take a look at this heavenly piece of junk,” John yells, breaking into a rant. “And when we bury you up there on Walton’s Mountain, it could be the Baldwin sisters’ll let you keep that thing and put it on your grave.”
“John, now you stop,” Olivia interjects.
“Could be, we add an epitaph … Zebulon Walton, killed by a fallen star, two miles from where it hit.”
“John, this is hateful!” Olivia interjects, again.
Looking at John Boy, John says, “Son, say goodbye to your Grandpa. Let him lay back, fold his hands and die in peace.”
“Now that’s enough!” Grandma exclaims, throwing her mending work down on the bed.
“You’re not the only one! You’ve got company you know,” John continues, unperturbed. “Miss Mamee and Miss Emily, they haven’t picked out their gravesites yet, but they’re letting their cousin Pillonious cheat them using this clinker here out of their recipe and their still.”
“Pillonious Baldwin, is he here?” Grandpa finally says. “Why that low-down, no-good, cheep, conniving, son of a sea cook. I don’t believe the Baldwin sisters should let go of their daddy’s old recipe machine.”
“Well, too bad you’re stuck there in that bed,” John snaps. “They have such a high regard for you that you could probably change their minds. But you’re to busy dying.”
John storms out.
After a moment of frustrated shaking, Grandpa Walton stands up, gets dressed and rushes off to save the day.
Standing at the Baldwin sisters’ sides, he proclaims, “I am through looking for signs in the forces of nature. When a tree drops its leaves, that doesn’t mean the whole tree is dead. And a falling star is a falling star. If we make any more of it, it's our fault, not the star’s.”
Treating accidents of nature as signs or symbols or fate can be comforting in some instances. In the beginning it was a way for the sisters to remember their father’s loves.
But the lesson from the episode of the Waltons is simple. Treating any object, any force of nature, with more value than it’s worth will only ever work to your own detriment.
It can leave you open to manipulation, to greed, to pride, to despair.
Giving an object or event power over how you live your life, there is nothing worthwhile to be gained in that.
There is never a good enough reason to relinquish your free will.
Your ability to determine your own life disappears when you stop believing it exists.
It is episodes and lessons like this that show what a truly brilliant man and writer Earl Hamner was.
He took a powerful life lesson and wrapped it the packaging of a great-depression era family struggling to get by.
If Walton’s Mountain is truly as old and timeless as the earth itself, as the opening line of episode six suggests, than so too are the stories and the values that flowed down from it, touching the lives of people for generations to come.
Kayleigh Thesenvitz is a reporter with the Claremore Progress.