Grover’s Mill

Memorial Plaque

Memorial Plaque

I have a very vivid memory of an event that happened twenty-four years before I was born. There was a TV movie called “The Night That Panicked America”, about Orson Welles’ broadcast of “War of the Worlds”. Near the end of the movie, when the hysteria had reached that nearly unbearable level, and the main family that we’ve been following through the story, the family that has made the terror real to us, is sitting in the middle of the Lincoln Tunnel, stranded, trapped by traffic and god knows what else. Lights are bearing down on them, like the lights they’ve heard the Martians had, the terrible lights that created their horrible heat ray that had already killed so many. And you can see the terror in the father’s eyes. And he has his children in his arms as he cowers by the corner of his car. And the children are covered in his coat. And his eyes, they’re as large as saucers. And the gun in his hand is pointed at his children’s head because he can’t bear the idea of them being subjected to the gruesome nightmares of intergalactic death that are wandering through his brain. And he’s shaking. And the child is asking what’s going on, what’s going on? Is asking why can’t I see? Is saying it’s hard to breathe in here daddy. And the gun is shaking, and the finger is pulling on the trigger, and the lights are getting closer and closer and closer. And the sweat on his face is blurring his vision. And something seems to be emerging from the lights, and he’s trying to summon the courage to save his children. And then he realizes that it’s a police officer and that those are police lights. And the cop tells him it was all just a radio show. Tells him that he should take his family out of this tunnel. Tells him he should go home.

And I’ve often wondered what happened to the hundreds, some say thousands, of men like that, men who became hysterical with fear, who were convinced that the end was nigh, who had endured the unfathomable depths of the Depression, who were reading about Hitler taking over Germany, who had seen their world transformed in so many ways – good and bad – what happened to those men? Were they ashamed? Were they amazed at what lengths they had pushed themselves? Did it make them more suspicious? More circumspect? Did they spend the rest of their lives second-guessing their instincts after that night? Or did they just file this experience away in some dark corner of the brain, never to be spoken of again?

I don’t know. So I went to Grover’s Mill to see if I could figure it out.

Grover’s Mill was where Orson told us that the Martians had landed. I don’t know what it looked like then, but my guess is not much different from what it looks like now: a tiny little crossroads, not even a town or a village, a few miles from Princeton. Howard Koch who wrote the script for the radio broadcast, picked it at random from a roadmap of New Jersey. There’s a pond and some beautiful old houses that give the place a timeless air, and there’s a park with a modern jungle gym, and some picnic tables and barbecue grills and a plaque commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the broadcast.

It’s a nice plaque, as plaques go. There’s Orson in the middle of it, hand raised in clarion call toward the microphone. There’s a family gathered around their Crossley Cathedral. Are they excited? Are they enthralled? Are they afraid? It’s hard to tell. And up at the top, of course, are the Martians, their evil tentacles emerging apocalyptically from their flying saucer.

I stood there and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck start to stand up, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. Why? Nothing happened here. It’s not like walking among the crosses at Normandy where you can feel the heavy weight of so many souls. Nothing happened here. There were no Martians. There was no heat ray, no dead bodies, no invasion. All there was was panic. Simple mass hysteria. And that’s when it hit me. That’s when I realized what Grover’s Mill really was: the perfect monument to the twentieth century.

This is the monument to the power of technology. To the power of technology when allied with the creative imagination. This is a monument to the incendiary volatility of ideas, ideas borne of the marriage of technology and imagination. This is a monument to the power of hysteria, a monument that honors the birth of the kind of mob mass-rule panic that we who have witnessed what came after 1938 now take for granted. And when you stand here, amidst the suburban houses and the idle geese on the idyllic pond, when you stand here, down the street from the ancient water tower that the locals shot up in their midnight panic that night, when you stand here and you feel the hairs on the back of your neck start to tingle, you can say to yourself, I know what that is. It’s the twentieth century spinning around me like a mad angry dervish. It’s only the twentieth century.

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~ by martinbihl on August 10, 2008.

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