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'Thunder Child' and the Epic Signal

Imagination is the finest variety of rocket-ship!

By Eric WolfPublished 2 years ago 7 min read
'Thunder Child' and the Epic Signal
Photo by Ryan Scott on Unsplash

Must have been nine, maybe eight, when first I learned about those Martians. Relying upon the primitive television devised by humans, my cousin Tamara and I were witness to the frightening arrivals of their deadly saucer ships, and we gaped at the destruction they wreaked, with their murderous heat beams. We drank in the scenes of global annihilation: Homo sapiens, defeated by ugly alien invaders with stick-like limbs and three-colored lenses for eyesight.

The aliens laid waste to Los Angeles, so this film depicted, in a handful of days. We were a pair of ’tweens — Tam was eleven that year — so we should have been traumatized; driven mad, perhaps, by the freakish spectacle of extraterrestrial mayhem. You can guess how we innocent tykes responded to this horror—

We loved every minute of it; it was just glorious. She and I were born to eat this stuff up. Science fiction was our playground! We never wanted recess to end!

We revisited the George Pal movie of The War of the Worlds at least twice more on Channel Whatever (I can’t recall what it was numbered), and of course, we didn’t care that it was over twenty years old, when we first watched it. It was a thrilling experience for us, that’s all that mattered. At our elementary school, I recruited my even nerdier classmates to crew the quite real jungle gym that became the quite imaginary Earth-to-Mars spaceship in which we would take the fight to our creepy neighbors in space. All we lacked was a specific bit of excitement to make it unique to ourselves — a year later, Tam supplied that.

We first played the ‘Signal Game’ on a Friday night — it was nothing to do with The War of the Worlds. I was rooted to the floor; wide-eyed, panting, like Tam’s border collie, with authentic anxiety. A fictional invasion had not scared me; I understood, even in my youth, that it was a vivid Hollywood fantasy — but this droning of an electronic sound, underscored by that stern declaration, “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System,” was liable to scare the bejesus out of me.

It nearly did, before my wily cousin, whose thirteenth birthday she would experience days later, contrived to take the threat out of the moment. Tam had entered into some kind of... trance. I watched with amazement as she bent her elbows, opening her hands, all ten fingers fully extended, and just... froze, in place. It was fascinating.

Some instinct (some sort of conspiratorial awareness) told me not to laugh, which I wanted to do. In the last second before the piercing electronic drone sounded, I leaned forward till I could rest my chin on my arm, which I folded, across my bent knees. As stiff as mannequins, we were waiting for the source of my anxiety, the emergency signal, to go quiet. Tam flopped down beside me. "You should have seen yourself," she said, holding her sides from mirth. "Epic, really. Are you okay, squirt? Or, do you just know how to do this really well?"

I flatter myself that I dazzled her, with my eventual answer, so cool, so steady: a raspy croak that sounded like, “Do what?” Already, I was aware that keeping, or winning, my older cousin’s admiration was going to be more difficult as our age gap became more of an issue, at least, for her. Fortunately, the great moment all but presented itself to me, almost as if Tam had gift-wrapped it.

I was more than okay. I was inspired!

Weeks later, when we heard the ominous test message starting up again, I divulged my fantastic idea, to Tam and my brother: we were supposed to treat a test message of the Emergency Broadcast System as though it were a searching beam from the Martians. If you moved while it was in progress, if you broke the constant drone of that Signal, the Martians would know where to find you!

Tam, at least, was ‘on board’; Brody — I know, I forgot to mention my kid brother’s name before, sorry — was less appreciative. He lacked a certain worldliness, at eight years of age, which I realize now, couldn’t really be held against him.

We played the Signal Game after that, whenever an EBS signal would air — at least, we boys did. Soon, Tam was growing grumpy and distant from us, too cool for her dorky younger cousins. Mom said it was ‘a phase’; she would come around eventually.

Before that happened, Tam’s folks relocated her back to California.

Back in Dallas, Texas, Brody and I still played the Signal Game, but as you might expect, it was mostly my pursuit. In junior high I kept the Game to myself, to avoid the inevitable abuse that it would have bought me from other students. We did not fret about the Martians at thirteen, fourteen years of age. As victims of puberty, we were becoming aliens ourselves, in a dreadful, unstoppable way.

I wasn't too worried about dire consequences if I were 'caught' playing the Game at home, though one time made me think I was becoming just a bit too confident. Dad, Brody and I were heading out to go pick up Aunt Ruth, Uncle Ted and their kids, one of whom is our cousin Tam, at the airport, one fine Saturday afternoon, when the EBS signal came on the FM radio station.

Mom was taking her time, getting ready to leave, but even she could hear them calling me to get a move on. Naturally, I remained stuck where I sat at the dining table, hands flattened upon its surface, trying my best not to even twitch, not to blink my eyes, not to breathe.

So, of course, Dad stormed up the steps to our house and threw the front door open, and he almost shocked me into moving: just this look of utter failure to comprehend what I was doing. Brody brought up the rear and had to fight to keep from laughing out loud. Dad's asking him to explain why he was laughing? That could have blown the whole Game!

Brody's failing not to snicker to himself did not help matters much. It's not that Dad would have disapproved of my wild imagination — if anything, he was always telling us such zany stories, just wrecking us, from laughing so hard — but sometimes, even a funny man has to be serious. "What's going on here?" Dad yelped. "We need to spring into action. I thought we were men of action—"

The signal cut out, the Game ended, and I sprang to life again. Brody shot me this look. Mom emerged from her room, and guided me out to the car. As I was sliding onto the back seat, I caught Brody's weird conspiratorial grin. "What's so funny, you...?" I didn't have the rest of that question, and wasn't allowed to curse at that age.

"Bet you thought I was going to tell," he said. "Didn't ya?" (I confess: that was my expectation, but I told them about it, years later, of course.) Even squabbling kids know when to keep a kid's game, our Game, secret from prying adults!

Being a lover of the movie, I should have sought out the H. G. Wells novel right away, but it seemed a bit too long and ‘heavy’ for me, until I reached my junior year of high school. Mister Broadwell, my English Literature teacher, he was cool enough to allow his students to do a book report on any book we liked, so long as it came from the list of suggested titles. I can’t pretend it didn’t please me, spotting Mister Wells’ name; once I chose The War of the Worlds, though, I was done.

Reading the author’s account of the brave sacrifice of the British torpedo boat, HMS Thunder Child, I was enflamed again, much as I had been years before. It was such a cool name, almost a superhero name; I decided to use it in creative pursuits. In my undergraduate days, I adopted it as my radio-DJ name.

College life in Austin… that’s a whole story in itself, maybe several of them. It’s a delicious irony that the Signal Game even came in handy for me there, during my unplanned courtship of Shelby, the best-looking and sharpest-witted nerd this lad had ever known, up to that point. It was a drinking game one night, that — okay… it was a ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ game, that evolved, let’s say, into a game I had not played before, called ‘I Confess’. “You must take a manly swig,” Shelby explained, “and tell us something embarrassing about yourself.”

I confessed my Martian-invasion fantasy to my friends; none of them seemed to find it all that embarrassing, to my disappointment. Shelby ‘accused’ me of making up something so ordinary, to cover up either a great sin, or a lack of sin. I exclaimed, “There is nothing ordinary about the Signal Game. While it’s happening, you can imagine almost anything is going on.”

She lit up with a smile, the like of which I had not experienced before from a young, single woman — a smile of approval for the flawed creature I was. She and I were bonded, on almost a molecular level, following that night.

I was twenty. We were at a house party. Friends of Shelby’s had thrown it for the bass player of one of our favorite local bands. Someone had switched on the television set, for reasons I can’t recall just now. As my girlfriend walked out of the kitchen to bring me a cold bottle of brew, the chilling tones could be heard: “This is a test, of the Emergency Broadcast System,” and wouldn’t you know it, Shelby stopped in her tracks, holding a beer for me and another for herself.

“What’s up, bunny?” I had to ask, giving her a too-perfect setup — one she took up with an almost professional zeal.

“Well, Thunder Child,” she said, flashing her smile, “don’t just do something — stand there.”

© Eric Wolf 2021.

Young Adult

About the Creator

Eric Wolf

Ink-slinger. Photo-grapher. Earth-ling. These are Stories of the Fantastic and the Mundane. Space, time, superheroes and shapeshifters. 'Wolf' thumbnail: https://unsplash.com/@marcojodoin.

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