The sequel to the saga of my near ruination, and how I pulled myself back from the edge of a steep cliff has been put on hold. Today, I must pay homage to the man who first convinced me that I wanted to be a writer, more than anything in the world. Here is a Major Dude who never lost his way, never lost sight of who he was, and stayed married to one woman, the love of his life, for her entire life. When she passed on before him, he overcame his unfathomable grief and kept on writing. His strength of spirit made him unstoppable, right up to the day he finally went to be among the stars and the heavens that he wrote about.
I was first introduced to Ray Bradbury in the third grade by a schoolchum who was himself way ahead of his grade and time. Mark Frauenfelder, who grew up to help create the ezine Boing Boing and from there was one of the founding editors for Wired Magazine, was one of the strangest kids I went to school with. So it was natural that he and I became friends. We seemed to get each other right off the bat, and together, we got Ray. Ray wrote about such things from his boyhood that we as boys could still relate to back then – such as the magical power of a pair of sneakers that could make you run like a gazelle and leap over buildings. Ray was still a boy at heart, and he never lost the wonderment and excitement that usually disappears when boys grow into men.
Among the many tattered paperbacks that Mark loaned me with Ray’s name on the spine was my all-time favorite, The Martian Chronicles. It rocked my world, because I totally got the fact that it was an allegory for many things. By writing about the future and life on Mars, Ray was able to tell many unpopular and unpalatable truths about our life in this present age, here on Earth. I was stunned by the power this gave him, and I’ve never forgotten the lesson I learned from Ray about the power of the pen. Or, in his case, a manual typewriter that he insisted on using for his entire writing career. Ray had a real disdain for electronic devices – especially computers and the internet. He never wrote a single word with Word.
Today, some may say that he was not a real science fiction writer, since he never really got into researching the science of his fiction. They miss the point, however. Ray was a poet. He was also a visionary genius, and was once handpicked by none other than Walt Disney himself to conceptualize many of the rides and exhibits you’ll see today at EPCOT center at Disney World in Florida.
Most of all, Ray was one of the kindest and most generous men I’ve ever met, especially among celebrities and superstars. He was both, but I’ll never forget the time I first met him, aside from the first book signing I ever attended, where I managed to shake his hand among two hundred other people that day.
The time we really met was far more intimate and personal. I was driving up the 405 from Orange County to Los Angeles, where I was to join my then wife, Diana, at an event she was managing for Spectrum Restaurants. It was the Bad Hemingway Competition Dinner, being held at none other than Harry’s Bar and Grill in Century City. It was impressive enough that Charlton Heston was the Master of Ceremonies, but when I learned that Ray was going to be there as one of the judges, judging parodies of Ernest Hemingway’s writing, wild horses couldn’t have kept me away.
Somewhere along the way, I pulled off the freeway to dash into a Barnes and Noble, and emerged with a stack of books, all written by – you guessed it – Ray Bradbury. I racked up my credit card, since they were all hardcover, with the exception of one softcover, titled: Zen in the Art Of Writing. Ray had written a book on writing? I had to have it!
By the time I got to Harry’s, my bladder was stretched to its limit after sitting in traffic for nearly three hours. It hurt to take a full breath. I was compulsively early, however, and the place was relatively empty with no sign of anyone except Diana, the manager, and the bartender. Gingerly, I pranced through the front door and kept going, right past Diana with just one thought. Men’s room, men’s room, men’s room….
I flung open the door and was blinded by the reflection of bright fluorescent lights, bouncing off the checkered white and black floor. The walls were bright white, as were the urinals. The optical illusion it created was like a scene out of a Stanley Kubrick film.
I stopped in my tracks when I saw an elderly gentleman of medium height and build, standing in front of one of the urinals. He was wearing a badly wrinkled black suit, with a long shock of untrimmed white hair tumbling down over his collar. While his back was turned to me, I studied him in disbelief and wondered – could this really be him, the master himself? It could, and it was. I also realized that there was nobody else in there – the stall was wide open and empty.
As he stepped away from the porcelain and zipped up, I pronounced the obvious with unabashed fervor and yes, love. “You’re Ray Bradbury!” I exclaimed. With that, I balanced my stack of his books in my left hand, and thrust out my right. I swear, if he had his tucked into his hip pocket, I would have reached in, pulled it out and shook it anyway.
With a droll chuckle, however, he extended his hand to shake mine, and politely replied in his loud, booming voice, “Yes, yes I am!” It didn’t bother me in the least that I felt a warm dewdrop, transferred from his hand to mine, and I was in no hurry to wash it off. The funny thing is, anyone who knows me understands what a germaphobe I normally am. If it had been anyone else, I would have immediately soaked my hand in alcohol. This was completely different, of course – I would take any type of annointing I could get in hopes of tapping into Ray’s fire and brilliance, and his muse.
I can’t tell you exactly what I said to him after that. I was babbling incoherently, I’m sure, about the many books of his I’d read, and how profoundly his work had touched my life. Seeing my stack of books, he tactfully suggested, “Would you like me to sign one of those for you?” I nodded, slack jawed as I tried to figure out how to explain that my real plan was for him to sign all of them.
He took the one on top, though, and whipped out his pen. To my delight, it was the title that I had not read, Zen in the Art of Writing. Dazed, I took it back from him and waited as he washed up and cheerily exited out the door. I stood there for a few seconds, unable to feel my toes much less my previously aching bladder, and slowly opened it to see what he had written in his signature scrawl. It was the perfect memento of that moment that I will cherish and keep forever:
GEORGE! IN A CLEAN WELL LIGHTED PLACE… Ray Bradbury
A few days later, I wrote to Ray, at first to just write a quick note of apology for accosting him in a restroom. Then, I couldn’t help myself as I went on to spill my guts some more about how profoundly he had touched my life. It didn’t even occur to me that he would ever write back – it was just something I needed to share with him. I had been reading his books nearly my entire life.
Several weeks had passed when I was having a particularly bad day at work, handling complaints as the manager of the customer service department for a large, well known scuba equipment manufacturer. Buried in the large stack of of mail was a letter that practically jumped out at me. The envelope seemed to beam with goodwill and friendship, and my heart raced when I saw the name on the return address. To my astonishment, when I opened it, I saw that Ray had sent me an early Christmas greeting, with his own personal message to me typed around it.
I got to speak with Ray again several times over the next few years, and he was always a gentleman. Cantankerous, funny, and eccentric, but always a truly gentle man. There has never been anyone like him, and never will be again. He was inimitable and unstoppable. His imagination and his spirit knew no bounds. Most of all, his love and enthusiasm for writing was infectious. While other authors gripe and complain about the drudgery and misery of the creative process, Ray delighted in bounding out of bed each morning to write. He was living proof that writing, most of all, could be – and should be – fun.
Godspeed, Ray. I imagine you have already had the chance to sample the golden apples of the Sun, on your way to Mars…