I could hear them bickering downstairs, while the radio shifted from static to voices and back to static again. Over Joan’s objections, Chuck would be tuning into Edgar Bergen. Joan was the baby, she had no say in radio operations. Normally, I would be in the mix, but Mother had given me the last piece of my Halloween costume right before she had left for her party: a small, black, pillbox hat she no longer used. I had sewn a band of black felt across the front and setting it on my dark curls, I tilted it rakishly over my right eye. It was all the rage to dress like a Hollywood star, and at tomorrow’s dance I would look just like Myrna Loy in Double Wedding. In character, I lifted my chin and floated down the stairs and twirled into the living room to join my siblings.
“Oh Terese, you look just like her,” Joan said. “I can’t wait until I’m in eighth grade and can go to the Halloween Dance. On a school night, no less!”
“Shush,” Chuck said. “It’s starting.”
I glided to the couch and sat next to Chuck. Joan plunked down between us and we stared at the radio, Joan giggling in anticipation and Chuck shushing her once again. For the next eight minutes we were delighted by the quips and banter of Edgar Bergen and his myriad characters. When the band came on Joan danced to the music while I slipped into the kitchen to fetch us a plate of Jam Jams. I took a bite of one of the jelly-filled molasses cookies and leaving it clenched between my teeth, grabbed the plate and a cup of milk and headed back to the living room.
Chuck was fiddling with the radio again. He had no patience for the big bands. It was the opening of the show that he always enjoyed. I set the plate of Jam Jams on the coffee table, and sipped my milk. Chuck adjusted the knob a tiny bit more and an authoritative voice announced, “…an eyewitness account of what’s happening on the Wilmuth farm, Grovers Mill, New Jersey.”1
“This is boring; even Edgar Bergen is better than this,” said Joan.
“Did he say New Jersey? Where’s Grovers Mills?” I asked.
“Would you two be quiet! This is goin’ on just south of us near Trenton. I want to hear this.”
We took our seats on the couch and listened as the announcer described the events unfolding. I took my hat off and tweaked at a loose thread while I waited for Chuck to turn the program back. The felt was a bit floppy. I’d have to ask Mother for help so that it would stick up stiffly. The radio started hissing and I felt cold fingers trace down my back. The hissing was replaced by a humming sound that seeped into my ears and spread through my head. I looked over Joan’s head at Chuck. His eyes were glued to the radio and creases were forming over his brow. As the announcers’ voices grew more panicked Chuck’s eyes met mine. I felt Joan’s little body jump at the explosion.
“I don’t like this,” Joan whispered. She reached for the knob.
“Don’t be dingy,” Chuck said, pushing her hand away. “This is important.”
“I don’t like it either,” I said standing up and tossing my hat next to the cookies. Joan leaned against Chuck and he put his arm around her shoulder, pulling her closer. I stepped over to the window, moved the white lace curtain aside and studied the road outside. My reflection floated in the window, the lace curtain having replaced Mother’s hat as my adornment. A half-moon lit the otherwise empty street. Across the road, lights flickered in living room windows. The simple quiet of the night added to the eeriness creeping into our home.
I listened as one somber, disembodied voice after another, spoke of martial law in counties bordering our own, of fires and militia, of strange creatures advancing and receding. I could hear gun fire and crackling noises. Strangely, selfishly, all I could think about was my pretty pillbox hat and a dance that might never be.
“I’m speaking from the roof of the Broadcasting Building, New York City. The bells you hear are ringing to warn the people to evacuate the city as the Martians approach. Estimated in last two hours three million people have moved out along the roads to the north, Hutchison River Parkway…”1
“Chuck, that’s just across the river,” I said, still staring out at the empty night.
“Joan, get your coat,” Chuck said, clicking off the radio. “You too Terese. Shake a leg.”
“Where are we going,” asked Joan.
“Just down the road to find Mother and Father,” said Chuck.
Turning from the window, I said in my most confident Myrna Loy voice, “I won’t be needing a coat.” I picked up my lovely hat and placing it on my head, stepped into the quiet night.
Author’s Note: My mother remembered The War of the Worlds broadcast. Her parents were at a party a little ways from their home. We think they lived on Bogart Road in River Edge, NJ at the time. She and her siblings were frightened by the broadcast so they slipped out of the house and down the road to the party, climbed into their parents car and waited. This story is a fictionalized rendering of that night, written from my Aunt Terese’s point-of-view and dedicated to her memory.
Citation: 1) The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, Columbia Broadcasting System, Orson Welles and Mercury Theatre On The Air, Sunday, October 30, 1938, 8:00 to 9:00 P.M.