War of the Water Towers


... or how Big Things with More Than Two Legs scare the shit out of Humanity's offspring.

Aliens are assholes

Water towers unsettled me as a child.  Perhaps it was because they were massive balls suspended on only a few thin legs?  They groaned when the wind was fierce, and creaked when temperatures suddenly snapped from one extreme to another.  Foreboding due to their mass and height, they stood like resolute sentries, sometimes silhouetted by the full moon when not obfuscated by grumbling storm clouds.  We didn't climb them. We didn't go near them. Instead, we sat in our beds on stormy nights, and we waited with all the fever of a child eager to catch Santa at his job... but what we waited for wasn't anticipation of presents.  Nay, we wanted verification of the Supreme Truth that my friends in our tiny town knew: water towers were alien machines.

Oh, you can laugh all you want.  It won't make much sense to people that haven't known a world without the internet.  Those of us that grew up during more technologically-lacking times relied on movies and books to get us through the dull slumps between work and chores.   Our minds - fed on a steady diet of science fiction works like The Tripods and the 1953 War of the Worlds movie - conjured up monsters in every shadow.

The icing on the cake was Orson Welles' War of the Worlds. The local stations rebroadcast this episode of the American radio drama anthology series on Halloween.  

Every October 31st, we would gobble our dinners and dash out into the world of spirits and spooks, then come home and watch It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  Afterwards, we'd shuffle off for bed and quietly turn on the radio in our rooms (or else join our parents while they listened) to have the sugar-infused shit scared out of us.  We were hooked at the opening narration. 

No one would have believed in the early years of the 21st century that our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns, *they* observed and studied, the way a man with a microscope might scrutinize the creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of our empire over this world. Yet across the gulf of space, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us.

Never heard it?  Feast your ears:

Delicious childhood horror!
A finely tuned imagination is more powerful than anything Hollywood can visually present. It is the fuel for a child's convictions. You knew the monster under the bed couldn't attack you if all your body parts were covered by the blanket, you knew vampires could be thwarted by holy water,  and you just knew that blankets and holy water would not save your ass from the water tower. 

We had only one water tower.  It was a relic deep in a canyon, maybe a leftover from an abandoned movie set? Those kids lucky enough to live in its shadow watched it until sleep took them. Brave kids, this lot.  We didn't have text messages back then. We had party lines - a circuit shared by two or more subscribers/households.  You never knew when it would be busy, nor who would answer.

Our sentinel friends wouldn't risk parental wrath by calling us should the Truth become verified by movement and death rays. Those like me lived too far away to see the thing. We would force our eyes to stay open and perk up our ears.   In the absence of a phone call, our only alert system was the savage, dying screams of our sentinel friends.  Good on them, sacrificing themselves to save the rest of us!

Nothing is scarier than the monster that can't be seen. Every dull rumble or thud became the monster's tread towards us. The winds were the sigh of the machine's exhaust.  Dry leaves scraping along the patio betrayed the alien slithering out of his machine. 

Last Stand
All the world's armies and navies had failed every year. It had heartlessly killed a priest in the movie and gone unpunished by God.  
One year in particular was bad.  It started the day before Halloween.

A small brush fire had broken out in the hills surrounding our valley.  It wasn't major to the adults, but we knew it had been caused by the water tower. We could see the smoke and occasional puff of red flame while we stood in the school parking lot. We swore to keep alert.

The local news broadcast that night was grim.  The water tower was gone. 

Frikken gone!  Judas priest!

In truth, the brush fire had destroyed the old movie set.  In our minds, however, the water tower went for a pre-invasion walk with his friends. Every kid under the age of ten was sure of it.

Word spread through the neighborhood kiddie haunts the following afternoon. This was it. We had proof that the aliens were moving. The adults were clueless. It was up to us to take action. Enough was enough.  It was time for Operation Spit.

Phase One was simple. A glimmer of hope had always existed.  Orson Welles said so in his broadcast every year, thus it was true.   

From the moment the invaders arrived, breathed our air, ate and drank, they were doomed. They were undone, destroyed, after all of man's weapons and devices had failed, by the tiniest creatures that God in his wisdom put upon this earth. By the toll of a billion deaths, man had earned his immunity, his right to survive among this planet's infinite organisms. And that right is ours against all challenges. For neither do men live nor die in vain.

To win, we needed to arm ourselves with the most brutal germ known to mankind.  Small pox and chicken pox were too weak and slow-moving. Measles, too, weren't good enough.  The adults had killed off polio.  That meant we had to arm ourselves by exposing each other to the worst thing in the whole universe: Cooties.  

By God, it was a great sacrifice on our parts!  Nobody wants cooties.  We took great pains to avoid them each and every day.  Yet the water tower was walking around out there, and it was Halloween, and the broadcast was on the horizon.  We had to take drastic measures! 

Nobody knew exactly what a cootie looked like, nor where it took refuge in the human body. They said you would get cooties if you kissed a member of the opposite sex ergo, scientifically speaking, cooties left the body via saliva.  

The thought of kissing each other was way too gross to entertain. We did the next best thing.  We risked parental wrath by dawdling on the corner just as a light drizzle began to fall.  Emboldened by the knowledge that we were saving the world, we sucked sour jaw breakers until our mouths were slathered with foam, and then we spit into our palms.  It took a crapton of spit but, in the end, everyone had wiped cooties on his or her neighbor, and some had enough left over to take home to their younger siblings.  

Phase Two of the Operation was more difficult.  We'd have to be sneaky after dark, and we'd employ all our resources.  

The arroyo was one of them.  This artery ran through our neighborhood, dividing the old subdivision from the new.  It was also the fastest way to get from one side of town to the other.  

The plan was to hop our fences and run down the gulch's concrete bed at the first sign of any water tower in our vicinity, and then rally at the elementary school. The concentration of germs at the valley's perimeter would buy us time by pushing back anything foolish enough to mess with us.  And then we'd hit the payphone at the elementary school and call the White House. President Carter would do something then. He'd have to believe us. He'd send the Army, and the National Guard.  Maybe even the Marines.

In truth, we had no other plans beyond Operation Spit and calling the President.  I suppose those of us in the belly of the valley would rely on the hill kids being eaten.  Surely the cooties would buy us time before the water towers reached us? 

There was no telling, though.  Water towers could probably eat a lot of kids before feeling full.

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Children
I'd like to say that everything went like clockwork.  I watched Great Pumpkin, then tried not to look too wary as I settled onto the shag rug to hear the broadcast.

The opening spiel played, alerting everyone to this being a radio drama - as if!  And then the music started.  And then the lights went out.

I peed myself.  I'm not ashamed to admit it all these years later.

There wasn't any way to call the boys across the arroyo. Not without risking parental wrath, considering the late hour.  In the utter darkness of my bedroom, I slipped off my wet things and threw baggy pants on.  These had numerous pockets, and those pockets were filled with spare candy for rations, various sharp weapons, and a small vial of holy water nicked from St. Rose.  Aliens may have killed that priest in the movie, but maybe my innocent soul would lend some power to that fluid.

It took forever for my parents to go to bed.  All the while, I strained my ears for any water tower sounds.  The storm made it difficult. My tired mind often confused thunder for footsteps.  I nodded off a few times, only to be awoken by a violent flash of light.  And then I heard it.  This sound was very distinct - the rattle of the chain link fence on the hill behind our house.  Splashing feet scurried across our patio.  A hazy figure became suddenly much too defined beyond my window shade. 

Tap, tap!

There was nowhere to run. Blankets were useless. The closet might offer some protection, but the monster that inhabited it was no match for the water tower.  I had just resolved to flee to my parents room when a low voice called my name.


I carefully slid the window open to discover the Ortz brothers from the other side of the watery divide. The downpour had rendered them into frightened, wet dogs despite their rain slickers.  I wrapped my own slicker around me, then followed them into the bleak.

Down the arroyo we went, joined by other children - a growing mischief of wet rats splashing towards our destiny.  Or away from doom. Take your pick.  We cast our eyes skyward every so often, and then behind us.  There was more than just aliens out there.  Our path was a conduit for flash floods.

Fear pumped our veins full of adrenaline, then a particularly brilliant flash of lightening spurred us into flight.

I wasn't a runner. My lungs ached by time we reached the school. Water was already lapping  our ankles, and the slick concrete made our ascent to street level difficult.  The Ortz siblings cast hands downward to haul me up. We climbed the fence with gusto, dropping into the muddy playground to rest our backs against the barrier before gathering our resolve and crossing the grass.

We never reached the school building.

"Look!"  To this day, I can't recall who spoke.  What I do remember is a beam of light carving through the rain and weird fog. It halted us in our tracks.  We ducked and scattered, instinctively moving towards the ground's far end.

Nobody spoke.  We - the last seven kids left on earth! Oh God, the water towers ate the hill kids! - huddled behind the trashcans near the monkey bars and watched as the beam of light swept to and fro.  The aliens would find us.  We would never reach the payphone in time to call President Carter.  This was it. The War of the Water Towers would end as miserably as the radio broadcast.

"Hey! I know you're out there!"

This wasn't the voice of some alien machine. We recognized the source immediately.  Things had gone from world-ending to far worse: Officer Dills was one of our town's finest night patrolmen. 

An adult would perhaps breathe a relieved sigh at the first sign of an authority figure.  We, however, knew that being caught by Dills in the middle of night would result parental reaction - the Mother of All Spankings followed by a grounding so severe that we would probably be grandparents before being let out of our rooms.  We did the most logical thing: we scattered and bolted for home. The known fear is sometimes worse than the unknown one. 

I don't remember running through the arroyo, nor going over my own fence. I can't tell you how long it took (though it felt like I was running forever at the speed of light).  I recall stripping off my soggy clothing and slipping on my soft nightgown, and I remember diving under the covers to hide from any threat of punishment.  

Our antics that night were never discovered, nor did we talk about them in the weeks that followed. I chained them in the deepest corner of mind for years, actually.  They weren't shaken free until today's episode of StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson. The topic? Water towers.

"If you came at the right time at twilight, and you're not quite fully there, they all almost look like they landed from Mars."

I can confirm: they certainly do.

Speaking of my favorite astrophysics guy, please check out StarTalk and Brilliant. Okay, shameless plug here.  I've eternally recommend Brilliant to students, and I urge educators to take advantage of the wealth of knowledge available via this outstanding org. 

Brilliant's mission statement is simple: "Finding and developing the next generation of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians." 

To anyone struggling to grasp math or science, I say this: dearest, you are not stupid so don't be ashamed. Every young person is full of potential. It's on us to take the time to help you grow in a positive way. Never give up trying to learn. 
"War of the Water Towers", reprint from GruffChick, 20 March, 2018