Death Is A Lonely Business

June 7, 2012

The space ship lifted off from the launch pad just outside Waukegan, Illinois. The rocket carved an upside down “L” as it flew west.

Long before the gantries moved to Cape Canaveral they were on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Waukegan was a bigger city then.  And because the country was gripped by the first of many, increasingly frequent, economic downturns, most eyes were not pointed skyward. Not one person noticed the launch, or knew the boy on board, though many of their children know him now.

The space traveler was just a kid who could conjure up any reality with the stroke of his pen. He never heard that only rich boys were supposed to experience the wonderful. That acquiring was what made people happy. Or that the only proper stories were literature. None of that mattered. He found his gift. He found he could fly.

And fly he did. After 91 years, Ray Bradbury finally broke free of the known universe yesterday.

Bradbury’s stories hooked me like no other. He grew up in the Midwest. He made his second childhood home the Carnegie Free Library in Waukegan. The family moved to California and he graduated from high school in Los Angeles. That was all the formal education he got. The Bradbury’s had no money. Ray never went to college. Later he said he never saw the need. He got his education in the great public and university libraries in LA. He typed what became Fahrenheit 451 on a rented typewriter in the library at UCLA. Maybe that is why he spoke to this Brooklyn Boy like no one before or since.

I went to hear and hopefully meet Ray back when I lived in LA. He was doing a free public reading at the California African American Museum on Literacy Day. Ray was always promoting literacy to every possible audience. Particularly to those, who like himself, might not have the advantage of status or wealth.

He was gracious when we met. I asked him to sign his latest book to me – with something that might inspire me, when my muse was MIA or on vacation.

Then I asked him his secret to finding inspiration. I confided that wanted to write screen plays. He knew how to do that. I figured in the 8 seconds I would chat with him, he could give me one of the keys to the kingdom – or the secret handshake – or whatever I needed to be him.

It was easy, he said. Just shove your fist down your throat and make sure whatever comes up finds a place on the page.

Theoretically, that should have helped.

A few years later, I produced a TV news story (for and with anchor Kerry Kilbride) about Mt. Wilson Observatory’s famous telescope being retrofitted with an adaptive optics rig… putting that iconic scientific tool, originally carried up the mountain by horse and cart, back in business at a time when actually looking through glass at the stars seems so last century.

Because of that story, I was invited to a reception for the donors – filled with all kinds of space people – astronauts, scientists of all kinds, and writers and other creative people, including Bradbury.

My wife was 8 months pregnant at the time with our first, and I asked Ray to sign a book to my son. He inscribed it to him, dating it and sending his greetings 10 years into the future, from way back in the present, 10 years ago. An ingenious personalization. I could barely imagine my son being born a month later. Ray had him reading the book in a decade.

Over the years, I heard him numerous other times in person, and listened to him read on audio books.  Saw his movies. And TV shows. And of course, read his short stories and books. That man could spin a yarn!

One of the last versions of his masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451 – was an illustrated version – a graphic novel.  He wrote this in the introduction. Seems like another attempt to answer my first questions to him.

“My subconscious is more complicated than I ever imagined. I’ve learned over the years to let it run rampant and offer me its ideas as they come, giving them no preference and no special treatment. When the time is right, somehow they coalesce and erupt from my subconscious and spill onto the page.

Thank god that I didn’t, at any time in the last 20 or 30 years, know exactly what I was doing, so that each of these parts of me was able to step forth and declare itself.  Each character in Farenheit 451  has his or her moment of truth; I stayed quietly in the background and let them declaim and never interrupted.

So what you have here, now, is a pastiche of my former lives, my former fears, my inhibitions, and my strange and mysterious and unrecognized predictions of the future.

[I]f some teacher suggests to his or her students that they conceive metaphors and write essays or stories about them, the young writers should take care not to intellectualize or be self-conscious or overanalyze their metaphors; they should let the metaphors race as fast and furious and freely as possible so that what is stirred up are all the hidden truths at the bottom of the writer’s mind.

I say all this to inform any teachers or students reading this book that what I did was name a metaphor and let myself run free, allowing my subconscious to surface all kinds of wild ideas.”

Once every hundred or so years an extremely rare astronomical phenomenon – the transit of venus – occurs.

It happened yesterday. At the same time Ray died.

A showman to the end, I believe he somehow engineered that final interplanetary salute.

Safe Journeys, Ray!


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