Like so many fellow readers of Ray Bradbury, I was sad to awaken to the news on the morning of June 6th, 2012, to learn the iconic writer had passed away the previous night. Though I expected this day to come since hearing of his stroke in 1999, I had secretly hoped Mr. Electrico's benediction for Bradbury to "Live forever!" was more than high carnival drama. (Yet, Bradbury will live forever through the novels and short stories he leaves behind.) The blow of the news was softened a bit as I learned of Bradbury's passing in an email from a dear friend. Moments later my wife called from work to ask how I was handling the news. She knows me well. She knows I rarely mourn the passing of a stranger, though I may have enjoyed her/his work. Ray Bradbury is an exception to this rule. Please forgive me as I embark on this self indulgent remembrance.
I first heard Bradbury's name from my older brothers. They had read Fahrenheit 451 as part of a high school literature course. I was smart enough at the time to have the thought: "Well if both of them had to read the Berrybury guy, then I'll most likely have to read him as well. Better figure out what he is all about." So I questioned my oldest brother, learned the name was not Berrybury, but Bradbury, and came away with a magical title swirling around in my mind: Something Wicked This Way Comes. I soon found a copy of the book, and fell in love with how Bradbury terrified me. (I have nightmares from Something Wicked This Way Comes to this day.) I was hooked on Bradbury long before reading the last page.
I quickly jumped into Fahrenheit 451, and again was amazed to find something wonderful happening between the pages. When seeking the third Bradbury to read, I soon realized I was making rapid progress through his more celebrated works, so I shifted to titles rarely found in the articles of accolades. I possessed enough brain power at that time (somewhere in the quagmire of middle school) to realize I had discovered something amazing, and all from eavesdropping on a conversation between my brothers. It was glorious! I read Bradbury after Bradbury--that is, when my nose was not in a western. Soon I realized the goldmine was bound to dry up under my voracious reading. Having not yet learned the value of rereading a book, I set upon a campaign that is still with me. A campaign of Bradbury conservation, as in I allow myself no more than two titles a year. Without this exercise in discipline, I knew I would have read through all the current titles before graduating high school, leaving me to suffer dry spells between the following releases. Agonizing! Unbearable! Knowing there are Bradbury titles waiting to be read provides a touch of soothing during the absences.
Upon entering high school, I soon learned Bradbury was common ground between myself and many of the teachers. A fantastic discovery. My sophomore English teacher, Mrs. Richardson had never read Ray Bradbury, but she was a curious soul. I brought to class my copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes for her to borrow, and I never saw it again. I hope she enjoyed it so much she felt compelled to keep the book. I had Mrs. Richardson again my junior year, thinking the book would be returned. I was not entirely upset when that failed to happen. Every high school has at minimum one teacher who the boys worship. Mrs. Richardson was that teacher. I have since bought a second copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes, and I guard it with a passion.
Fast forward to my senior year, specifically December 4th, 1993, the day Frank Zappa died. I was spending the weekends with my father. Saturday morning I was informed we had an exciting outing planned for the night. I grudgingly agreed, though what I desperately wanted was to enjoy these last few months of teen angst, alone and in my room. We made the drive from Lake Forest, California to Mission Viejo, and I'm thinking: "Dad, I've been to the mission far too many times. Can we just get pizza and go home?" Dad parked the car outside the Mission Viejo library, and now I am thinking: "But what can be so exciting about this small thing?" All these jerkish thoughts are washed away the moment we step through the doors. There is a poster of Ray Bradbury's face with the caption: Special Appearance Tonight. Ray Bradbury Lecture and then the time and date. I happened to have my copy of Fahrenheit 451 in the backpack (I suspect my dad's hand in this.)
The evening was one of those surreal moments when you think you are taking everything in, you are convinced you will remember every last damn detail, and realize two minutes later little to nothing penetrated into long term memory--much like watching the birth of your children. Only the highlights remain. I remember watching Bradbury walking out onto the stage, thinking he was smiling for the only pimply geek in the audience, me. (Remember, I was a teen, so the world revolved around me.) I do not remember a thing about the lecture, to my shame and regret, beyond his discussion of Fahrenheit 451. He told the tale of being unable to sell the book to a publisher as the book was considered too inflammatory for the mass market. Eventually, a man willing to take risks came along, chopped the book into quarters, and published it over the first four issues of his fledgling magazine. This risk taker was Hugh Hefner. So what did I take away from the lecture? Ray Bradbury was in Playboy. I remember my hormonal response whispered in my dad's ear. "That is awesome!" (I have since learned the articles and short stories found in Playboy actually are better than the pictures--ignore my wife's laughing.)
After the lecture, Bradbury sat down at a table in the lobby, and immediately began signing books. The facilitators of the event were allowing him to sign no more than one book per person. Dad being the great fellow that he is picked up a copy of The Halloween Tree so I could have two books signed by Bradbury. As I'm waiting my turn, the librarian informs us there are books on sale directly from Mr. Bradbury. That was when I learned he bought his unsold titles from the publisher when they went out of print. He stored these books in a warehouse rather than let them return to the pulp mill. This also enabled him to offer out of print titles to his fans. I thought, and still do, that this was an amazing and generous effort on his part.
I grabbed peeks of Bradbury from between heads and over shoulders as I waited in line. Living in Southern California, I heard numerous horror stories of people having chance encounters with celebrities, and was understandably nervous, fearing I'd endure a horrendous moment. I observed Mr. Bradbury, and he had a genuine smile on his face. He was shaking hands, taking books, talking, signing, laughing, returning books, and shaking hands once more. Next person. Repeat. I was beyond impressed. Bradbury, at that moment, surpassed being my favorite writer. He became my number one role model.
Eventually I found myself standing face to face with the legend, trying not to squeak in fear under his radiant smile. I handed over Fahrenheit 451, and barely manage to ask: "How old were you when you sold your first story?" He replied, "I was eighteen. Why? Are you a writer?" I sheepishly admitted that I was. At that point, Mr. Bradbury launched into the story of his first sale. I felt important, like I was the star, but I also felt guilty. All the other people had a minute with Mr. Bradbury, and here I am getting a personal story spanning ten or so minutes. Amazing! After Bradbury concluded the story, the wonderful woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder. Here I was, afraid this gray haired woman was going to ask me to stop taking up so much of Bradbury's time, and let others have their chance. Nope. Instead I found her shoving a copy of Zen in the Art of Writing into my hands, saying: "I think you need this more than me." Mr. Bradbury immediately grabbed the book from my hands while showering the woman with praise: "You are an amazing woman. Wonderful. Such a wonderful, generous person. God bless you! Thank you!" Bradbury asked my name, signed the book, and that was the end. I came away with three signed books when I was suppose to have one signature. Truly a magical night brought to you by my dad, Mr. Bradbury, and a mystery woman whom I will never forget. (The story of Mr. Bradbury's first sale can be found in Zen in the Art of Writing.)
I waited to read the inscription in Zen in the Art of Writing until after dad and I returned home. It was an attempt to prolong the magic, to enjoy the greatness of the evening for as long as possible. Mr. Bradbury wrote: Jim, Good luck! Not much, but it worked like a benediction upon an eighteen year old boy. I have cherished that book ever since--it never gets packed in a box when I move, but instead goes in with my luggage. Those simple words--Jim, Good luck!--are ingrained in my mind. They flash through my thoughts multiple times each day, and should I fail to write less than a paragraph a day I feel guilty. As though I have failed to measure up to Mr. Bradbury's faith in an unknown kid, scrawny and covered in pimples.
Ray Bradbury was the first author I met at a book signing. Though I enjoyed all the other writers' lectures and signings I have attended since then, Mr. Bradbury will always outshine them all.
A day of dread and sadness arrived come June 6th, 2012. It was the day we learned Ray Bradbury died on the previous night, June 5th. I knew instantly two things were going to happen in the course of my day. I would find myself in the bookstore, and at home I would be searching through the DVDs. I picked up a second copy of Fahrenheit 451 since my signed paperback is close to falling apart. I decided on a hardback to ensure many years of multiple readings. I waited for my girls to come home, sat them down, and made them watch Disney's weak adaptation of Something Wicked This Way Comes. They loved it. For years I have attempted to get my girls to read Bradbury, and with no success. Perhaps that will now change.
Later that night, as I was getting ready for bed, my thoughts were on Mr. Bradbury. I do not write fan letters since I have nothing to say the writers have not already heard, but last night I began to regret the decision. I wanted to thank Bradbury for that magical evening all those years ago in Mission Viejo. I wanted to tell him I'm working hard at writing. Most of all, I wanted to thank him for being who he was, a generous heart, an amazing writer, and an inspiration. So I will say it here:
Thank you for all the joy, Mr. Bradbury.
The Halloween Tree
August 22, 1920 - June 5, 2012