Today is the day after Halloween, the special day that was originally intended to be a day to honor the Christian saints, but which in modern times has come down to a time for children to dress up in strange costumes and to play pranks of all kinds.
In fact, some now identify it as a time used to commemorate all kinds of minor misbehavior.
I remember when I was a kid in the city many years ago, a favorite bit of “harmless” misbehavior reserved just for Halloween was removing the iron gate from your neighbor’s front yard and leaving it lying on the sidewalk.
Another prank was throwing handfuls of raw tapioca against the front windows of neighborhood houses.
The tapioca didn’t do any damage, but the noise it made definitely got your neighbor’s attention enough to cause them to come out and chase you away. And, of course, practically everyone had a large pumpkin with a scary face carved in it and a candle inside.
But in 1938, the most sensational Halloween celebration up to that time took place right here in West Windsor. Or that is what the radio broadcast would have had you believe.
The celebration I refer to was the radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, the story about the invasion of the earth by Martians.
It was in the form of a radio play conceived and directed by the actor Orson Welles. At the time, Welles was only 23 years old, but was considered a leading figure in the entertainment business.
He adapted the well known story The War of the Worlds by the English writer H.G. Wells.
When Welles and his writing team met to discuss the setting for the story, they chose central New Jersey partly because it was the location of Princeton — a well known university where they could assume astronomers would be able to confirm their claims of unusual activity on a planet like Mars — and where there was an abundance of open farmland that would provide a suitable landing place for the Martian “invaders.”
Overnight, as a result of public reaction to the radio show, the name of Grovers Mill, New Jersey, acquired international stature.
The story of the reaction of local people in Grovers Mill is well known, and on Halloween in 1998 on the 50th anniversary of the broadcast, a celebration was held at Van Nest Park to dedicate a bronze casting that illustrates the occasion of the broadcast. It’s there today for all to see.
One of the landmark events of the reaction to the radio broadcast was the action of a nearby farmer who, on observing a nearby water tower, mistook it for what he thought was a Martian and took a shot at it with his shotgun.
That water tower is still there just behind the house across the road from Grovers Mill itself. I still don’t know if the water tower shows evidence of having been hit by a blast of shot.
In any event, that water tower has been a popular object to be observed by the visitors who come to Grovers Mill each Halloween.
At the time of the broadcast, I was in the fourth grade at school in Brooklyn, NY, my hometown. When I went to school the next day, there was only a small group of my classmates who had heard about the Martians. Practically everyone else had listened to the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy radio program.
But reading the papers revealed the lengths that some had gone to in reaction to the broadcast. This included people who tried to escape from New Jersey by walking on foot through the Holland Tunnel.
Locally, there was one story about a woman who had gone to a Sunday evening church service in Plainsboro and who’s daughter had walked to the church from Princeton Junction to tell her to come home because “the Martians” had invaded the area, and everyone was told by local authorities to stay home.
Of course, what most people thought was a Martian was unknown, although there were some who claimed to have been told by “the experts” at Princeton what they probably looked like.
Like most years since the 50th anniversary celebration in 1988, I expect that we will have tourists visiting Grovers Mill this year.
With the renovations going on at the mill itself, there will be more to see than usual. But the monument in Van Nest Park is the best thing to see. It is the only bronze monument I know of that commemorates a truly fictitious event, whatever that means.