Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury died yesterday.  I feel like a piece of me died with him.

Like him, I was not particularly well understood by my father.  Bradbury tells of growing up with a horror of The Thing At The Top Of The Stairs, the thing that was waiting to get him when he had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.  He never got over it, and his father never understood this fear, which lasted until his family moved west when Ray was thirteen.  His father's humiliating solution to Ray's night terror was to provide him with a chamber pot.  Without going into detail right now about my physically and emotionally abusive childhood, let me just say that I can relate.  My dad was a jock in high school; very charming, popular, a real Charles Atlas Hero Of The Beach type.  I was quiet, and shy, and bookish, a bit overweight, not athletic at all.  I had no interest in sports, especially football (Dad's favorite) and my leisure activity of choice was to read a book.  To this day my father takes great pride in the fact that he never read a book for pleasure until he was in his sixties.

Our second home was in the small town of Raritan, New Jersey.  We got a good price on the home on Anderson Street because it was directly across from the fire station.  The siren that blew at noon and at 6:00 PM (and whenever there was a fire, of course) was absolutely deafening when you were only thirty feet away.  But the fire station housed the town's one fire truck, the police station was around the back, and on the third floor of the building was the small town library.  It was my home away from home.

I wish I could remember the librarian's name.  I only know that she was kind, and took an interest not only in me but in every kid who came through the doors.  She was very good at finding books that would interest a kid.  It wasn't long before she started showing me the books in the science fiction section that were written for younger readers.  Nowadays we call them "young adult" novels, but back then, they were called "juveniles."

I devoured them, especially the books by Robert A. Heinlein and by Ray Bradbury.  Heinlein was a master of military adventure, with books like  Starship Troopers and  Revolt in 2100.  I liked them well enough, I guess.  But I adored the books by Bradbury.  I loved the way he could describe a thing and have it appear full-blown in your mind, just with his words.  (His short story, Small Assassin, scared the living crap out of me.  I will never forget it.  It was in a collection of Bradbury's stories called The October Country which reworked many of the contents of Bradbury's first, unsuccessful book, Dark Carnival.)

And then the librarian gave me The Martian Chronicles.  And everything changed.  I have been lost in Bradbury's words and worlds ever since.  Back when I was a working actor, I used a prose piece of his from the story Uncle Einar as my audition piece, because it was not only beautiful and lyrical and lovely, but also showed off your diction if you could pull it off.  All of Shakespeare's monologues and soliloquies have been done to death in auditions, but nobody had ever heard about "Uncle Einar's great green wings."  (It's a great story -- look for it.)  Using it landed me more than one role back in those days.

By the time my wife was in medical school in Richmond, Virginia, I had had to abandon show business, due largely to the increasing difficulties I was having from chronic illness.  Again, because of Ray Bradbury and our shared love of books and libraries, my second career -- librarian -- was a no-brainer.  I was working at Virginia Commonwealth University while Megan was studying medicine at the Medical College of Virginia when I learned that RAY BRADBURY was coming to speak at the University of Richmond.  

Needless to say, I was there.

This was in 1985.  Ray was not yet frail.  He talked for hours about everything from his life as a writer, to the time he spent in Hollywood, to his long friendships with Ray Harryhausen and Forrest Ackerman.  I was in heaven.  Afterwards, I joined the crowd around him to ask a few more questions.  Ray spent way more time with me than he needed to do.  He was generous, and kind, and funny, and gave me a huge hug when he learned that I was a librarian.  It was better than any autograph.

Ray worked right up until the end.  He wanted to live to be 101 because there was still so much that he wanted to do.  He wanted to write opera and screenplays and mysteries and radio theater and probably other forms that only he could imagine.  He came damned close, passing at the age of 91.  The world has lost a treasure.  People will be reading his books for centuries, and the  Moby Dick screenplay he wrote for John Huston and Gregory Peck will be studied as a classic for just as long.  He leaves a legacy of hundreds of short stories, novels and novellas.  I have yet to read one that I didn't enjoy.

I bet you won't, either.

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