“You’re hot!” he said, placing his open palm just millimetres away from my face. I moved back involuntarily, and nearly fell backward over a dog that had loped into the room.
He reached out to steady me, and I knew I would feel his grip for a long time.
“Yes… there was an accident at the crossroads, and a traffic snarl-up… I didn’t want to be late, so I ran all the way down the avenue, since I did not want to be late; I’d love a glass of cold water please.” One sentence. The News Editor would have had my head if he’d heard me.
I blushed and put my hand over my mouth. This was the second time I’d met him face-to-face, and the first time I’d been to his house. I hoped he didn’t think I was too forward.
But if I was to ghost-write his autobiography, in the little time he had left, it was as good a way as any to break the ice… “I don’t drink water. I only have orange juice and white wine in my fridge. Which would you prefer?”
I had regained a bit of my composure. “I don’t drink on the job…” I smiled, thinking that if I were the flirty type, I would have said “… maybe later.” But I didn’t. Even young, I was an old fuddy-duddy.
Carefully—too carefully—I lined up my pencils parallel with the edge of the table. My spiral notebook, however, I laid at an angle. I’m left-handed, and I find I work better like that.
Peter came back with a beautiful cut-glass tumbler of chilled orange-juice for me, and a mug of white wine for him. My sharp intake of breath must have registered my surprise—because matter-of-factly, he explained that “since the diagnosis” he preferred to use glassware with handles, “just in case.”
I winced. Yet again I was proving that I didn’t even have to open my mouth to put my foot in it. But surely he wouldn’t want intimate details like this to get into the book? I shivered involuntarily as his fingers touched mine. I flipped my notebook open, put the glass on the first page, tore off the thick cover, and placed it on the table, as a placemat for the glass.
“Well, young lady”—he said this with an old-fashioned courtesy and yet a half-smile that stripped it of all formality, “Shall we begin? And if so, where from?”
“I’m easy!” I said, showing off my knowledge of slang, and all too late realising what it meant in “good” English. “I mean, begin from wherever you want and I will edit later. Just tell me what comes into your head. In any case, with your permission I’ll switch on my tape-recorder so I’ll have back-up if I can’t read my own handwriting.”
“Please do. But first there’s something I want to know. Do you listen to radio?”
“Sometimes,” I replied, wondering what this had to do with the interview I was supposed to be doing.
“Typical reply from a person of your age, I guess. How old are you, what, 23? Let me put it another way—what would you be listening to, if you hadn’t come here?”
I glanced at my wristwatch. It was 8.15p.m. “The Chase and Sanborn Hour, definitely. I love Charlie McCarthy—sometimes it’s like he’s the ventriloquist and Edgar Bergen is the dummy! I’ve even bought the Big Little Book! My Mom loves it too, and we try never to miss an episode.”
He smiled. “But today it’s different, isn’t it? I’m sorry you missed it because of me, but there’s something else on, which might interest you. In any case, your Mom’s sure to fill you in. Are you fond of science fiction?”
I had always found Little Green Men—or Huge Slimy Creatures—intriguing, and I said so. “Well, then, this should please you”—and he twiddled the knobs until some music came on. “Listen! That’s Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra…” and sure enough, seconds later the announcer confirmed it, saying they were playing live from New York’s Hotel Park Plaza. Actually, they were playing in a CBS studio, but the acoustics were really good; I mean bad enough to make you think they were in the open air. “This is partly my idea—it’s the Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre On The Air group adaptation of The War of the Worlds…”
“Oh! I know that story. But that was written over 40 years ago by H.G. Wells, no? We have the book; it used to belong to papa.”
“Indeed? Orson and I were at school together. He bounced the idea of resurrecting it on me, and I suggested some things… Listen to him; he has exactly the right sonorous tone of voice for the ominous news…”
My brain told me there was no question of the “huge meteorite smashing into a New Jersey farm” being true, because I knew the story already. But the broadcast was so realistic that I almost accepted what I was hearing for fact. The purported newscaster was telling us that the aliens did not walk—they crawled….or wriggled, to be more precise, out of the spacecraft. “It glistens like wet leather. But that face – it…it is indescribable.” Those were his exact words. Brrrr…
And then it began. Someone tooted a car horn. In an instant, the air was filled with a cacophony of drivers blowing their horns. There were sounds of shouting and panicked screams, and cars’ headlights made it look like day again.
The penny dropped. “I think people are really believing what they are hearing on radio!” I said.
I didn’t even realise, at that moment, how privileged I was, not being one of them.
It is said hundreds of people required medical treatment for shock and hysteria, and that many died in the stampede, or of heart attacks. Not everyone joined in the exodus, however. Some people hid in cellars, taking down blankets and food and those emergency radios that work with a dynamo that has a handle, rather than batteries…as well as loaded guns.
We must not forget that not everyone knew how to read at the time, and so radio was welcomed by people, especially in the rural areas, for whom it was their only means of discovering what was going on in the world around them.
Back then, radio was not an incidental background noise like it is today. Radio sets were big, bulky pieces of equipment, sometimes incorporated into furniture. People sat facing them, rather as one sits facing a television set today.
Newspapers later reported that many people—like us—had tuned in after the announcement that a radio play was going to be on—and they got the fright of their lives upon hearing that “the Martians had landed”… the show was that realistic. I still have cuttings that tell how people jammed the emergency lines, asking what they could use as gas masks (and whether soaking towels in water and tying them over their faces would be any good), and which cities were safe, and whether there would be emergency transport.
The newspapers, of course, considered radio an ephemeral parvenu. So they tried to ride on the wave of popularity engendered for it by this show. In order to boost sales they churned out exaggerated reports, with as many “eye witness” accounts as possible.
At the same time, they took the opportunity to pontificate about how irresponsible of CBS Radio it was to have broadcast the play. They wanted to eat their cake and have it.
I asked Peter whether I could use his phone to call the Exchange so Barbra the Operator could contact Mom to tell her I was okay. “Feel free,” he said, “but judging from the ruckus outside, I suspect you might not get through.”
He was right. In my entire career as a journalist, I never had such a weird experience as this. What was supposed to be a routine interview had turned out to be a surreal adventure in which I was practically under siege. “I had thought I would be catching the 10.00p.m. bus home… Mom will be worried sick” I faltered.
“I had already ordered you a taxi. But I doubt whether he’ll turn up.”
“Oh, how embarrassing! I usually take the bus because…”
“I know. It’s much cheaper. I’ve been there, you know.” How perceptive of him. Actually, I did know that about him, as I knew several other things—such as that he had been a professional dancer. I also knew that his wife had died in a skiing accident when she was with her lover, and that he had a daughter who had inherited his feline grace and teal eyes with gold flecks, pale skin, and good looks. She was a model much in demand in Europe.
Documentaries and books have been written about that night. They even made films and television series. Historians and sociologists admit that the verisimilitude was flawless. Radio would actually work like that in an emergency, with all regular programming aborted, and musical interludes interrupted for official announcements.
Only, these statements were not authentic—but so cleverly done that people thought they were genuine.
And there I was, in the same room as one of the people behind this sensational hoax…which Conspiracy Theorists say was not one at all, and that the alien invasion in Grover’s Mill really happened. Some, these days, still actually believe that what happened in 1938 was just the tip of the iceberg – that the Martians who did come to earth were the vanguard evaluation team for the main taskforce.
Their mission was to assess how far we had progressed physically, mentally, and technologically. “Proof” of this is that the Grover’s Mill Militia had a complement of 38 men in the militia in 1938, of whom only four remained alive in 1988. And there’s more. These people insist that aliens have been visiting Earth for the last 2000 years. The mind boggles.
I read somewhere that the “offspring” of those Reconnaissance Mission aliens, today, still have the innate ability to create technological stuff from ordinary household equipment. That way, they will never raise suspicion by shopping at a hardware store for components of their gizmos. They just buy a food processor and dismantle it to make a radio receiver. You know— the highfalutin’ version of E.T.’s phone—or the device you can make from a computer and a particular device, should you want to commit suicide.
Someone later came up with a theory that the ‘bodies’ of these aliens are structured like those of jelly-fish, and as such, they can osmose into humans, and that in the second, main invasion that happened in 1953, this began happening all over the world.
But of course, all this came later. The broadcast continued. I only caught what I thought was one incongruity, and I asked Peter about it. Why would aliens not target the White House? “That would have cut the story short. What was needed was something that would stretch out the plot and make it more credible.” Ah.
Peter told me that he had suggested that the introduction of the War of the Worlds broadcast on CBS Radio specifically mention that Orson Welles and his team had previously dramatized novels such as The Count of Monte Cristo and Dracula, and that what would follow would be something on similar lines. But people who tuned in late had no way of knowing this. It was scary. It was exhilarating. It was fun.
Later, Michele Hilmes, a communications professor at University of Wisconsin in Madison, wrote in Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, “Audiences heard their regularly scheduled broadcast interrupted by breaking news,” and that, according to him, had been indispensable for the ruse to work. Also, science fiction was a relatively new genre—a sort of glorified Steampunk—and it was gaining popularity. If Mankind could send rockets out to space, couldn’t alien civilizations be doing the same, from their sector of the universe?
Every so often, we heard what sounded like a flip-switch being pressed, some static, as if the power supply was going to go out, and the voice of a “live” reporter bringing us up-to-date with what was happening. It got better—or worse, depending on whether you had swallowed this hook, line, and sinker. Because quite soon, even the radio studios themselves were ostensibly under attack. This, while testimonies from astronomers were read out, indicating that there had been several explosions of “incandescent gas” on Mars. Peter kept cranking the handle of the phone-box, trying to get through to Barbra, and he finally succeeded. He knew the script of the radio-play by heart, anyway, and left me to listen to it, enthralled. He passed me the receiver and I explained to Barbra what was happening. She told me that her switchboard was a Christmas tree, and that it was a good thing that I had called because Mom was all but tearing her hair out.
I could hear a zillion bleeps and buzzes in the background; people kept hoping to contact their loved ones through the Exchange, as I’d done. At the time, anyone who mentioned the possibility of mobile telephony would probably have been taken to the sanatorium!
As it happened, I began spending most Saturdays at Peter’s flat. But for the life of me I cannot exactly pinpoint the first time he kissed me, though heaven knows I have tried.
I’d looked up from my notebook, because he had paused, and for the millionth time my eyes registered the infinitesimally tiny scar at the left of his upper lip. His face moved closer, and my life changed forever.
We shared two glorious, poignant years… His autobiography was published some time before he died; he was housebound by then, and it was only because I knew him so well that I could tell when he was uncomfortable or in pain.
Peter taught me a lot about world politics. He was more au courant of what was happening than I, I am ashamed to say—my only excuse is that I covered national news. In March Adolf Hitler had given an ultimatum to Chancellor Schuschnigg of Austria to resign and allow a new Chancellor of Germany’s choosing to take over—failing which Nazi troops would march into Austria.
Schuschnigg kowtowed, and puppet Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart replaced him. He immediately ordered the Austrian army to cede to the German troops when they invaded. Thus, Hitler achieved the Anschluss he was after.
People were on tenterhooks because of this issue, and the developments following it.
So, the icing on the cake was that the War of the Worlds broadcast reminded people of how the Munich Crisis had been covered…. thereby lending it a further aura of truth. People do tend to hear what they want to hear, and some listeners never even realised that the show was about aliens—they thought Hitler had attacked, and assumed that the stuff falling out of the sky came courtesy of the Luftwaffe.
Those of us who have worked in radio will tell you that its pictures are more potent than those of television. This broadcast was in the right (wrong) place at the right (wrong) time to indicate how the media manipulates public opinion. It’s a wonder that people ever brought themselves to trust the news bulletins again, after this happening.
I’m 91 years old now, and I thought it was time you lot knew that not all the things that happen on the eve of Halloween are scary!
The headlines said “One is the Loneliest Number”
But what do the headlines know?
They have never loved and lost.
Just because the song was on Top of the Pops
And someone liked the sound of the words
And hummed the tune
As they two-finger typed the article,
That does not make it true.
Two is lonelier by far.
I’ve been there, done that
And bought the t-shirts…
One of which still bears his smell
Because he was wearing it
When he died in my arms.