This iconic episode takes place at a retirement home called Sunnyvale Rest Home. We’re shown a cross section of the inhabitants doddering around or dozing in chairs along with a few nurses and a doctor supervising the elderly. Next, we see one old man, Charles Whitley, trying to sneak out the front door with a suitcase in hand without the nurse seeing him. When he manages it, a car pulls up in front of Sunnyvale and Charles gets in. But we’re witness to Charles’ son telling his old Dad that he didn’t say he would be taking Dad home with him but that he would talk with him about it. Next, we see the car drive away with Charles left behind. Walking dejectedly back toward Sunnyvale Charles is mesmerized by the sight of a bunch of young boys playing kick the can. In fact, almost unconsciously he picks up the can and walks away with it as the kids plead with him to return it.
Back in his room Charles talks to his old friend Ben Conroy about what happened. Ben criticizes Charles’ son for abandoning him but Charles claims that he can’t expect his son to have the resources to take him into his small home. After all, his growing family needs all the resources available. But Charles has begun to think about what life should be like for himself. And the thought that has entered his mind is that acting young has a magic that can make him young. He tells Ben that he thinks that if he can relive his childhood pursuit of a game like Kick the Can maybe he can be young again too. Ben tells him not to go soft in the head and that he should maintain some dignity in his declining years. He warns Charles that trying to act young is only going to get him hurt doing things his body isn’t capable of anymore.
But Charles ignores his friend and starts running around the grounds acting like a kid. When he decides to start running through the lawn sprinkler, the Doctor and the Nurses restrain him and take him inside to put on dry clothes and rest. The Doctor informs Ben that the next morning he intends to have Charles confined to a restricted area where he can’t hurt himself. Ben tells this to Charles and in desperation to prevent this from happening he hatches a plan. He recruits the other old men and women. After dark while they are supposed to be asleep, they will set off firecrackers as a distraction and escape onto the front lawn to play kick the can. At the last-minute Charles begs Ben, his oldest friend to join them.
But Ben rejects the idea and when the firecrackers go off, he goes to tell the Doctor that Charles has staged an escape with the other patients. The two of them rush outside and as some boys and girls run past them we can hear Charles counting off the beginning of the game, “five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty.” Then we hear a young boy’s voice continue, “forty-five, fifty, fifty-five, sixty.” And by the time his count is over we see a little boy run past Ben and the Doctor to catch up to the other kids we’ve seen run by. The Doctor chases after the other kids but the boy who is “it” stops and looks at Ben. And Ben recognizes his boyhood friend Charlie and asks him if he recognizes his old friend Bennie. Then Ben begs Charlie to take him with him but Charlie is no longer a part of the world that Ben has clung to and he runs into the night free of the weight of old age and mortality. And Ben sits on the steps holding the can and regretfully contemplating his fate.
I have to admit, hearing the kids recite the sing-song count at the beginning of the game brings me back to being ten years old with a vividness that verges on magic. Playing tag, freeze tag and hide and go seek on a warm summer evening were some of the fondest memories of childhood even if it was on the mean streets of 1960s Brooklyn. This episode conjures that up and as I get older, I fully understand that childhood joy is a magic formula that even the old can share in, even if less miraculously than in the story.
This one gets a full A.