Saturday, June 9, 2012

Thank you, Mr. Bradbury

Once, nearly half a century ago, when I was confined to my bed with the flu, my mother brought me a stack of library books to read. Included was the collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury, S is for Space. I quickly devoured it, followed by every Ray Bradbury book I could get my hands on. My favorites were Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. It was easy to identify with the protagonists in these books—boys of approximately my own age who lived in a small midwestern town much like mine: Green Town, Illinois—the idyllic, magical place based on Bradbury's hometown of Waukegan.

More than any other author, Ray Bradbury was responsible for my desire to become a writer. One of the first stories I wrote was inspired by his I Sing the Body Electric. As an homage, I named the manufacturer of my protagonist—a male surrogate (or "Mandroid") named Andrew—"Fantoccini," after the manufacturer of Bradbury's electric grandmother. My story was never published, but if it had been, I would have dedicated it to Mr. Bradbury.

On the wall of my den hangs an arcane bit of Bradbury memorabilia: a poster from Fahrenheit 451 - The Musical, which premiered at the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre in November of 1988. I was in the audience on opening night, as was Mr. Bradbury. He sat just a few rows in front of me. I wanted so badly to tell him how much his books meant to me, but I couldn't find the courage to approach him.

Fourteen years later, I got a second chance.

When we moved to Southern California, I soon discovered that Mr. Bradbury often made public appearances in the Los Angeles area—usually to raise money for public libraries, a cause dear to his heart. It was nearly impossible to get tickets to one of these events unless you knew someone. As luck would have it, we did know someone. Loretta's aunt, who had recently moved to Riverside, worked as a volunteer at the Riverside Public Library. When she found out that I was a fan, she got us tickets to An Afternoon with Ray Bradbury on November 23, 2002.

There wasn't room at the library for the sell-out crowd, so the event was held at a church across the street. Since I had last seen Mr. Bradbury, he had suffered a stroke and was now in a wheelchair, but his voice was still clear and strong. He regaled us for an hour with stories of the old days in Los Angeles, his friendship with Ray Harryhausen, and his experiences in the movie business. Afterwards, we all trooped back across the street to the library, where he stayed for another hour to sign books. I waited patiently in line, clutching a dog-eared copy of The Martian Chronicles. When I got to the table, I planned to blurt it all out—how he had inspired me to read as a child and to write as an adult, how I had seen him years before in Fort Wayne but had lacked the courage to speak to him. But when I got to the front of the line and presented my book to be signed, all I could say was, "Thank you, Mr. Bradbury."

And really, I suppose that was all that needed to be said.

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