PANIC IN THE JERSEY STREETS
James J. Yellen
I pressed and cracked open the thin, sugary shell of my Chinese fortune cookie and pulled the long thin slip of paper from within. I silently read it.
SATAN SELECTS HIS DISCIPLES WHEN THEY ARE IDLE.
I stared in disbelief at the small black lettering as the acid taste of fear entered my mouth and small beads of perspiration formed on my temples.
Across the small, intimate candle lit table my doe-eyed fiancée gazed back at me with a worried look. "Is something wrong Herbie?"
"Wrong? Heh-heh. What makes you think that something is wrong?" I flashed my best boyish Hugh Grant grin as I tried to stifle a choking lump that grew in my throat.
"You have a strange look on your face. Is it your fortune? What does it say? Mine says, 'The soul of woman lives in love.'" She cooed the words and under the table I could feel her foot run halfway up my calf.
I swallowed hard to get rid of that festering lump and reluctantly told her, "It says, 'Satan selects his disciples when they are idle.'"
"What kind of fortune is that?" she asked with a pouting frown. "What does it mean? I don't like it."
"I-I don't know." I stammered.
I lied. I knew exactly what it meant. I had always feared that one day my past would catch up with me. I was like a Nazi war criminal hiding in Buenos Aires. For years I've been living a lie, trying to deny my past, and just when I was beginning to feel most secure, thinking I had gotten away with it, an apparition from my former life returns to haunt me.
I mulled over those words again; "Satan selects his disciples when they are idle." How did they know that I would be here…today? Which one of these unpretentious people is their secret agent? Is it the smiling coat check girl? Or perhaps that grinning waiter. Why can't they leave me alone? Don't they know that I've reformed? I no longer do Satan's work. I'm no longer one of his disciples. Why do they have to remind me of something that I've worked so hard to forget?
I tried to fight back the memories, but the true unpleasant facts of the unfortunate incident slowly began to rise in my mind like an emerging fungus in the dank, musty sub-cellar of my subconscious.
It had all begun innocently enough. It was under a dim yellow street lamp on a cluttered street corner in Athenia, a dim cluttered semi-urban industrial center in Northern New Jersey, my hometown. A small group of idle teenagers was wasting away another cool autumn evening. Duke, Chuck, Boz and I were engaged in a lively conversation attempting to plan our annual Halloween prank. The big night was only forty-eight hours away and we still hadn't decided on a suitable stunt.
"This year we got to do something spectacular." Chuck said.
"Let's release the brake on old man Parker's DeSoto." Boz suggested. "It'll roll halfway to Passaic before he knows what's happening. That's spectacular."
"Forget it, " I interjected soberly. "That's too spectacular."
It was a tradition in our section of Athenia that male youths would annually stage a spectacular Halloween night prank. In my memory, this tradition dated back to when my older brother Bob and his friends had fashioned a realistic looking dummy out of old clothing. They covered it with a bottle of ketchup purchased at Nazimek’s Market, threw into the middle of Van Houten Avenue and called the police to report a hit and run accident. That stunt created quite a stir, including a trip by my extremely annoyed father to the Athenia police station to retrieve Bob who had been brought there with his cohorts for a "talking to" by the police.
Now that the torch had been passed to a new generation, the burden to match or surpass the past weighed heavily on the shoulders of my friends and me. It was an Athenia rite of passage that could not be avoided. It had to be met head on.
So the debate continued. Suggestions continued to be presented, and then the merits of each were discussed, disputed and argued. Most ideas were finally rejected for one reason or another. Several others were set aside for thought and further discussion if no better ideas came along.
While ideas were being formulated, other topics of conversation were also discussed.
"My cousin says he heard that somebody in Picatinny spotted those flying saucers over the reservoir again." Boz informed us.
Picatinny was a rural locale about thirty miles north of Athenia. It had three claims to fame. One, it was the location of the reservoir that supplied drinking water to our faucets. Two, it was the location of several secluded spots along that reservoir which were frequented by amorous couples seeking privacy. And three, it was the location of Billy's Great Notch Inn, a backwoods bar that did not bother with the formality of checking verification of age when serving alcoholic beverages.
Back in the summer there had been a sensational furor in the newspapers about strange lights being seen over the reservoir. This caused an epidemic of sightings with all kinds of wild reports. It also caused major traffic problems in Picatinny as curious UFO buffs swarmed up to the tiny hamlet to try and spot those strange visitors. Now, according to Boz, it was happening again.
"Those people are crazy. They're seeing things," Duke, our resident skeptic, said.
"No, really, there's something out there." Boz said earnestly. Boz was a believer and probably today is an officer in the X-Files fan club. “Visitors from outer space.” he said solemnly.
"They're probably coming down to take you back to where you came from," Duke gibed at Boz. The two were forever verbally jousting. It stemmed from the friendly animosity, which arose from one being a New York Giants fan and the other a Brooklyn Dodger rooter.
But maybe Boz was right. This was the era of the greatest wave of UFO sightings ever. The publicity given by the news media to a report by an Air Force pilot that he had seen a dozen or more disc-shaped unidentified objects maneuvering in formation near his speeding aircraft touched off an epidemic of similar sightings from coast to coast. Almost daily, the newspapers carried reports of new sightings of strange lights or unidentifiable objects in the skies. Speculation as to the origin of these strange flying objects was limited only by the speculator's imagination. Visitors from outer space was the most common theory. It became a popular pastime for people everywhere to sit on their front steps after dark scanning the sky hoping that they might catch a glimpse of one of these unknown objects. But at the same time, they were frightened that they would.
"I'd like to see one of those flying saucers," I announced.
"I don't believe there are such things. Why would anybody from another planet want to come down here?" Duke the skeptic wanted to know.
"Because of the atom bomb," I sagely informed him. "I heard a program about it on DIMENSION X about these creatures that came down to earth from another planet because they saw the atomic explosions. They came here to wipe us out because they were afraid that we'd use the bomb to wipe them out first."
DIMENSION X was a radio show of the time that dealt with fantastic stories of science fiction. It was one of my favorites, and I considered it to be on the cutting edge of science.
Chuck, who had been quietly listening to the discussion on extraterrestrial phenomena, suddenly blurted, "That's like what happened in War of the Worlds."
Boz looked at him puzzled. "What are you talking about?"
Chuck answered. "Before the war, some guy put a play on the radio that was all about Martians landing on earth. Everybody panicked because they thought that it was really happening."
"That's crazy," Duke the skeptic, again interjected.
"I'm not kidding. It really happened." Chuck insisted.
"You mean people thought that a radio show was really happening?" I asked.
"Yea," Chuck replied. "It was just a radio play about how flying saucers land and funny-looking Martians come out and they start to zap everybody in sight with ray guns, and a big war breaks out between them and us. But the people listening to the radio didn't know that it was just a show. They thought that it was the real thing and some thought that it was the end of the world."
"How do you know all about it?" Duke asked.
"My father told me. And he has a clipping from the newspaper that tells all about it."
When we all expressed complete disbelief that such an outlandish story could be true, Chuck insisted that we go with him to see that clipping. As we hurriedly walked the six blocks to Chuck's house, the conversation continued to argue the validity of such an occurrence. It was hard to believe that anybody could or would mistake a radio play for fact.
Arriving at his, house, Chuck went inside and returned shortly with a folded and yellow clipping from the New York Daily News. It was dated November 1, 1938, more than ten years old.
"Be careful. Don't tear it. My father will kill me if you tear it."
We could all see the bold black headline. RADIO LISTENERS IN PANIC-MARTIAN LANDING ONLY A HOAX.
Chuck read the story aloud to us. "A radio dramatization of H. G. Welles' 'War of the Worlds', which thousands of people misunderstood as a news broadcast of a current catastrophe in New Jersey, created almost unbelievable scenes of terror across the United State.”
"Wow, right here in New Jersey!" Boz was excited. Duke pounded him on the arm to keep him quiet.
Chuck continued. "Hearing reports that a mass of metal had struck New Jersey in a blazing light, and that weird monsters were swarming out of the object, destroying hundreds of people with death ray guns, thousands of listeners rushed from their homes with towels over their faces to protect themselves from the gas which the invaders were supposed to be spewing forth."
We were fascinated by the unbelievable scenes of chaos, which were wrought by the radio show.
"That was really something." Box sighed. "Wouldn't it be something if that happened today?"
That's when the idea struck me broadside in the same blunt, attention-getting manner that Moe invariably used on his sidekicks, Larry and Curly.
Those who have not had the touch of pure inspiration fall upon them cannot fully appreciate the way that I felt at that moment. I was like the cartoon character that suddenly has the light bulb go on above his head. I felt the same excitement and exhilaration that Eli Whitney must have felt when the idea for the cotton gin popped into his mind. But little did I suspect that Mephisto himself inspired my idea. He had selected my idle body to do his work.
It was at this time in my life, a time when my mind and hands should have been busily occupied shaping a solid future for myself that I veered from the mundane straight and narrow and staggered onto the wavering road of ruin.
"THAT'S IT!" It was the Devil speaking through my voice. "WE COULD DO IT!"
Everyone turned to stare at me in astonishment. They had obviously never seen a man possessed before.
"Do what?' Chuck asked calmly.
"We could make people think that the Martians have landed! We could make a fake flying saucer! Everybody will think it's real! They'll go crazy! That's our Halloween trick!"
I took a deep breath to calm myself, and then carefully explained my plan to my friends. Several months ago, I had seen an article in Popular Mechanics magazine.
Popular Mechanics magazine was my father’s absolute favorite magazine. It was the only one our family subscribed to, and when the new issue arrived each month, all crispy and shiny, my father would devour it. For that evening, even his beloved New York Daily News had to take a back seat. Dad would sit in the living room ensconced in this favorite easy chair with the three-way bulb over his head turned all the way to the third click, two hundred and fifty watts of illumination. He would spend the night slowly turning the pages, absorbing every article, and bending over the corner of pages that he would want to refer back to later. He wouldn’t go to bed until he’d examined every page.
After this first detailed perusal, the magazine would then be put in the place of honor, the top of the toilet tank in our bathroom. It would stay there for future easy reference as Dad would go back to it often, rereading especially important articles or rechecking the instructions for that particularly interesting home handyman project that he was going to construct “one of these days.” This frequent usage took its toll, and each day the magazine became a little more worn. Finally a month would pass. The new issue would arrive and replace the old issue in bathroom. The previous, old tattered issue, having served faithfully for the past thirty days, would then be mercifully retired to the basement where it blissfully rested on the top of a pile of several years worth of other back issues. We never threw away a single issue of Popular Mechanics magazine.
I distinctly remember that it was while was contentedly sitting there in our backroom, leisurely leafing through the latest issue, the one with the new Studebaker, Commander, V-8 Starline on the cover, when I came across the article. It gave full details, complete with photos, on how to make a small, working model of a hot-air balloon. The materials required were common objects found around the home. My plan was devilishly simple we would make the balloon and release it after dark. It would surely be seen and mistaken for a flying saucer! It was the perfect Halloween prank!
My buddies were immediately seized by my excitement. For two days that's almost all we talked about. Reading and rereading the article that I had ripped from the magazine so that we would each know what to bring and how to do it.
Finally, Halloween night arrived and we all met as planned in the open field behind St. John's church to hatch my satanic scheme.
“Where are we going to do it?” Boz asked.
“Right here, no?” said Chuck.
“There are too many trees around here.” Duke said, “What if it flies into one and gets stuck? The whole thing is ruined.”
“The steeple!” I blurted. We can let it go from there!” I gestured upward and all heads turned simultaneously to look where I was pointing.
Once again, a force outside of the flesh and blood of my mortal being guided my sub-conscious. It was a force that controlled my thoughts, actions and words while I helplessly enacted them.
It was right there, looming over us. A tall, brick tower topped with an open belfry, the steeple of St. John’s Church. We had been up there many times before. It was one of those adventures we went on when overcome with boredom. It was the tallest structure in Athenia except maybe for the water tower of the propeller plant and Van Houten Avenue. It afforded a magnificent view in all directions, and on a clear day even the jagged spires of the New York City skyline were visible twelve miles to the east. For years, researchers have unsuccessfully tried to determine the connection between teenage boys and high places. I cannot explain it either, but I do know that it was from the steeple of St. John’s Church that Boz had his name indelibly etched into the annals of the Athenia Hall of Fame. It was from here that on one warm night the previous summer he had performed the incredibly daring and skillful act of peeing into an empty peanut butter jar we had placed on the sidewalk below. It was a feat that had never been accomplished before or since.
The steeple belfry was a truly special place, and access to it was amazingly simple for insiders who knew the secrets of St. John’s. Since all four of us served as alter boys in the church, we were insiders who had long ago figured it out.
I took one last inventory to make sure that we had all the materials and equipment that we needed. Satisfied that we had everything, I said in a low, conspiratorial voice, like Fu Man Chu ordering his dacoits, “Come on, let’s go. And keep it quiet!”
We furtively entered the church using the door on the Wesley Street side. This was the side that faced away from the rectory and the watchful eyes of the priests. We went up the long flight of stairs to the choir level where in the corner, hidden behind some storage cabinets, was a circular iron staircase. There was a flimsy chain latched across the opening of the stairs, which provided token resistance to unauthorized entry. We leapt over that and shuffled up about thirty spiraling steps to a platform. Only one of us at a time could occupy this platform. The last leg of the journey was the only one that caused any trepidation. It was a series of iron ladder rungs, about ten of them, embedded into the tower wall. I went first, holding tightly to each rung as I ascended. At the top I pushed up the trap door in the floor of the belfry, then lifted myself up. I was there. My cohorts followed without hesitation. We were there!
The belfry was a small space and the four of up filled it up. There were no bells, just a couple of loudspeakers hanging over our heads that blared the sound of chiming bells whenever a priest pressed a button in the rectory or sacristy. We paused a very short time to look around and watch the trick or treaters zig-zagging on the streets below us has they rushed from house to house. But we didn’t have time for sightseeing.
“This is going to be great. “ Boz said. “We’re above all the trees.”
“Yea,” I agreed, then solemnly said, “Let’s do it!”
While my friends quietly watched, I calmly set about my hellish work.
The Devil guided my hands as I reshaped a wire coat hanger into a circle, leaving one jagged end at its center. My voice quivered with excitement as I asked Chuck to hand me the plastic bag he had brought. It was the kind that covered fresh dry cleaning. Using Scotch tape, I fastened the open end of the bag to the circumference of the wire ring.
Following the instructions in my magazine to the letter, I next pulled a huge wad of cotton out of my pocket and impaled it on the pointed end of the hanger.
"Now what?" Boz asked eagerly.
"Here, hold it over the edge by the top." I instructed him.
He grabbed the top of the plastic bag and dangled the sinister object as far out over the edge of the belfry as he could. I soaked the wad of cotton with the contents of a can of Ronson lighter fluid that Chuck had supplied.
"Hand me the matches." I instructed Duke.
"Here," he answered pulling them from his jeans pocket.
I gave him the final order. "Light it!"
Duke pulled a match from the book and dragged it several times over the striker until it finally lit. I could see his hand nervously shaking as he brought it closer and closer to the cotton wad. Finally the flame touched the cotton and it instantly burst into a ball of hot orange flame.
"Hold onto it as long as you can." I told Boz, and we watched as the warm rising air stretched the plastic outward until it billowed.
"My fingers are burning!" Boz screamed. "I can't hold on anymore!"
"Let go," I instructed, and he did.
The whole mass seemed to be magically suspended in midair. For a split second we thought it was going to go down as it faltered and sank slightly. But then it recovered and the evil thing slowly rose until it was caught by a gentle current of air and lazily drifted down Penobscot Street. We craned our necks to watch it. The orange flame reflected off the clear plastic giving the accursed object the appearance of a floating, glowing apparition.
"It really looks like a flying saucer!" Boz screamed, and it did. It was a glowing, orange ball eerily drifting down Speer Avenue. The Devil in me smiled knowingly.
We were mesmerized by the sinister object and continued to watch it float away until finally we realized that it was about to drift out of view.
“Let’s go follow it!” Boz shouted, and we clamored down the steeple tower and burst out the door onto Wesley Street. We ran down to the corner of Speer Avenue searching the sky for our homemade UFO. At first we couldn’t spot it until Duke shouted, “There it is!” It had floated almost out of sight. We ran down the street to follow our man-made UFO on its flight. It miraculously evaded treetops, power lines and rooftop TV antennas as if guided by some sinister, unseen force.
Speer Avenue was crowded with costumed Halloween celebrators running from house to house to get their candy and other treats. The younger ones were accompanied by their watchful parents. When our glowing apparition paused in its flight, we stopped too. That’s when Duke went into action.
“Look,” he shouted, loud enough to get the attention of nearby trick or treaters, “What’s that?” He was pointing right at the thing in the sky.
I caught on quickly. “It looks like a flying saucer!” I shouted, and Boz and Chuck followed up with loud remarks about UFOs and visitors from space. Some of the kids nearby looked up too and saw it. Then the grown ups noticed it. Pretty soon almost everyone on Speer Avenue was standing on the sidewalks or the street looking up at our thing. Other grown ups came out of their homes to see what the curiosity was and joined in. Boz, Chuck, Duke and I kept up our loud patter about alien spaceships and that seem to fuel the imagination of all the others. Soon I heard the adults whispering among themselves about UFOs and flying saucers. Our Halloween hoax was catching on. It had worked!
But soon the thing began to float away again, drifting over backyards and buildings until it disappeared from sight somewhere in the vicinity of Castle Hill, a large open field of grass.
The kids that gathered went back to their trick or treating, but a small groups of adults lingered on the sidewalk discussing what they had just seen in low voices.
We didn't hang around for a long time but we went back out our usual hangout location, the corner of Speer Avenue and Wesley Street and animatedly discussed the night’s prank. It had been a fantastic success. Everybody on the street had seen our homemade flying saucer and was trying to figure out just what it was that they had seen.
“That was great!” Boz said, “We should do it again.”
“Yea,” joined in Chuck, “Let’s do it again tomorrow.”
That seemed like a great idea, so with the hurly burly done, we parted into the dark night like the three witches of Mac Beth, with an agreement to meet again the next night to re-do our deed.
It was late when I arrived home that night and so I went directly to bed. As I lay in my room, the familiar sounds of the Athenia night drifted into my open window on the breeze of the Indian summer night. The plaintive wails of a tugboat meandering down the Passaic River, the clang of steel on steel from the night shift at the propeller factory, and the faint distant sound of screaming sirens rushing to an emergency all helped me drift off to a restful, contented sleep.
The next morning dawned dank, drab and chilly. I dragged myself out of bed and shuffled into the kitchen for my usual bowl of Cheerios with sliced bananas. My mother was at her usual position at the table toiling over the crossword puzzle in the morning newpaper. I shoved my first spoonful of cereal into my mouth, then asked. “Is there anything in the paper about people seeing a flying saucer last night?”
“No,” Mom said, matter-of-factly without looking up from her puzzle, "but there was a fire at Castle Hill last night.
At first those words meant nothing to me, but then they sank into my bran. "WHAT?" I ejaculated.
"There was a fire at Castle Hill. The whole field burned. Not a blade of grass left. Mrs. Wagoner called me to tell me. It was so bad that they had to call Mr. Wagoner to go help put it out. He's an auxiliary fireman. It’s a good thing it started to rain. They were afraid some houses would catch fire.”
I refused to believe what my mind was telling me, but it must have been true!
"Y-Y-Y-Yea…lucky." I stammered.
"Probably some careless boys playing a dreadful Halloween stunt." Mom said turning back to her puzzle. "I wonder who their parents are. Honestly!"
A short time later, I was standing with Boz, Chuck and Duke in the cold drizzle outside of School Thirteen. Our mood was somber.
“We almost burned down houses.” Chuck whispered.
“Yea.” Duke said weakly, his voice quivering with fear.
“We better forget about doing that again.” I said.
“Yea,” said Boz, “I’m not going to jail over some stupid Halloween prank.”
With that, the school’s opening bell clanged, the doors were flung open by the monitors, and we all marched in to begin another day of education. But we had all learned that some of the best lessons in life are not learned in school
"Herb, don't you just love Chinese food?" Tiffany asked smiling benignly at me.
"What?" I asked. She had awakened me from my painful recollections.
"I said, don't you love Chinese food?" Her foot ran up my calf again.
"Yea, the food's all right," I told her, "but you can keep these damn fortune cookies!"