Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Night the Martians Landed: A Family Story from Halloween, 1938

Illustration from 1906 edition of HG Wells'
War of the Worlds
My Aunt "Sister", who will be 100 years old on Halloween, shared this story at her birthday celebration this summer.  Those who can remember the night of October 30, 1938 are becoming more rare, and it was a true gift to hear her first-hand account of family members' responses to a phenomenon of wide-spread panic and fear as a result of the radio broadcast of an adaptation of  HG Wells' novel,  War of the Worlds.

I had heard and read about the broadcast and its effect on individuals and families across the country. It was planned as a 60-minute Halloween radio drama, an episode of the Mercury Theatre on the Air, and was directed and narrated by Orson Welles.  The first two-thirds of the broadcast was presented as news bulletins which suggested that an actual invasion by Martians was taking place.  There were no commercial breaks, which added to the sense of realism.  The use of the news bulletin format also contributed to the believability of the story, as well as to the resulting panic, since people were accustomed to legitimate newsflashes, but not those used as part of a work of fiction.

According to Wikipedia, historians have calculated that six million people heard the broadcast, 1.7 million believed it to be true and 1.2 million were genuinely frightened.  According to my aunt, a number of those who believed it and were frightened resided in southeast Missouri, and were outside that Sunday evening, gazing toward the sky.

Aunt Sister, Uncle Jesse, and their three children stayed home from church and were listening to the radio, probably doing the equivalent of today's "channel surfing" between the Chase and Sanborn Hour, featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and singer Nelson Eddy, and the Mercury Theater.  The first comedy sketch on the Chase and Sanborn Hour ended about fifteen minutes into the program and was to be followed by a musical selection, presenting a good time to change the station.  This would have taken them directly into the middle of the Martian invasion on Mercury Theater, with no reassurance that what they were hearing wasn't really  happening.

This is a part of what they heard:

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed. . . . Wait a minute! Someone's crawling. Someone or . . . something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks . . . are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be . . . good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it's another one, and another one, and another one. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body. It's large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it . . . ladies and gentlemen, it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it's so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.

How many of us have thought about what we would do if the world was coming to an end?  Their instincts were to gather with other family members, so they left in their car to travel the few miles to the my grandparents' home. 

On the way there, my aunt noticed that baby Sandra's shoe was missing, that she must have dropped it or left it at home.  Uncle Jesse reassured my frightened aunt, that Sandra "wouldn't be needing her shoe."

She also noted that people standing out on the dirt roads as they travelled, looking at the sky and exclaiming, "They're coming!  They're coming!"

When they arrived at Mom and Pop's, the house was empty.  Mom and Pop had gone to Arkansas to church and hadn't yet returned home.  After a short time, they and the rest of their children arrived, asking what was going on. 

According to Aunt Sister, Pop didn't believe a word of the story.  He also scoffed at his oldest child's fear, declaring, "I didn't know that I raised a child who would be afraid to die."

Little brother Earl, then stepped up and joined forces with his sister, put his arms around her and said, "You raised two of them!"

The family story ends here, and we can imagine the relief they and others like them felt when they learned the truth.  We can also understand their panic and fear in a time when modern communication was still in its infancy.  We might also want to temper any thoughts or comments we might have about naivete or the willingness to believe the unbelievable -- at least until after Halloween!


p.s.  You can hear the Mercury Theater broadcast on YouTube.  It is in multiple parts, so I am not including links.

Friday, October 1, 2010

My Suggestion for Oprah's Aging Beauties

I watched Oprah's program on beauty and aging last night and was very interested in what Teri Hatcher, Cybill Shepherd, and Linda Evans had to say.  (Okay, I was also interested in what Cybill and Linda look like now, since they are in their sixties.  But that's another subject.)

The focus was primarily on what happens when really beautiful women age and have to come to grips with their beauty fading.  Not having been beautiful at a young age nor when older, I can't really speak from their experience, but I did have my share of compliments and attention as a reasonably attractive woman and can offer my opinion on the subject.

Of course, there were background photos of these gorgeous women as they were and their own remarks about how they didn't really feel beautiful when they were younger.  I'm not saying that they (Cybill and Linda, specifically) weren't being truthful, but I wonder what they thought about the rest of us, if they didn't see themselves as beautiful.

But that's really not what this post is about.  All three women, plus Oprah, emphasized the importance of finding things to like about ourselves, to develop our inward beauty and grace, and to accept the inevitability of (our culture's concept) of physical beauty going away. 

I agree with them.  I also read somewhere that it's good for women to have beauty when we're young, brains when we're older and money when we're really old.  (I'm not sure that is the exact way it should be quoted.)  I agree with that, also. 

For those of us who don't have great reserves of beauty, brains, or money, I have another suggestion.  I would like to offer it to Teri, Cybill, and Linda.  I think that Oprah would agree that the best thing you can have as a hedge against loss of beauty, love, money, or even when you get so old your brains give out is ----- GIRLFRIENDS!

If you have girlfriends, they probably didn't choose you as a friend because you were beautiful, and they certainly won't care if your beauty fades.  They will be there when your looks go (but will keep telling you that you look great).  They will be there when your man is gone either because he's found another, probably younger woman or because, sadly, men tend to die earlier than women.  They will be there when your money is gone or it's not, because they will remember the fun you had when none of you had any.   They will be there when your brains aren't so sharp anymore -- they'll point you in the right direction and make sure you stay out of trouble.

It may well be that Teri, Cybill, and Linda have girlfriends.  I know that Oprah has Gayle, but I hope she has some other girlfriends, too.  It's my belief that you can't have too many girlfriends.  The subject didn't come up on the "Fading Beauties" show and I wondered why. 

I think that the rest of us, especially those who were never "great beauties" understand the value of our friends.  We wouldn't trade them for anything!



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