Ray Bradbury is 90 years young today, and there’s not much I need to write for those of you in the know. I love that Los Angeles is honoring one of its fortunate sons with a week of cool events. Suffice to say, he had a formidable influence on my life after I read “The Martian Chronicles” at age 13. He was never a “science fiction author — he was truly what the Lit Academy likes to call “magical realism” (except they reserve that semantic honor for writers like Gabriel Garcia-Marquez). He’s really a poet at heart, and he encompasses the dark as well as the light. He’s made firemen torch forbidden paper and dinosaurs wail over a lighthouse while gently leading boys to Mr. Dark’s carnival and the jars of dandelion wine in the summer basement. Growing up, he befriended another visionary soul, Ray Harryhausen, and their fates were entwined as mine was with the fantasy writer and the stop-motion magician.
Speaking of magic, the first time I saw Ray Bradbury speak was at a Long Beach writer’s conference and his keynote address is still the most inspirational speech I’ve ever witnessed. He was like the wise, spritely grandfather we all wish we had around to inspire us. Even though my script was being honored at the conference with other scribes, Bradbury told the crowd, “You won’t learn a Goddamn thing about writing from screenplays.” After his talk, we were assembled in the back to take our group photo with Bradbury as centerpiece. I was standing next to him, awed and silent, and for some reason, he suddenly reached out and grabbed my hand as the photographer began to snap away. I felt electrified within his grasp and I recalled the story that Bradbury has oft-told about how he became a writer:
Mr. Electrico was a fantastic creator of marvels. He sat in his electric chair every night and was electrocuted in front of all the people, young and old, of Waukegan, Illinois. When the electricity surged through his body he raised a sword and knighted all the kids sitting in the front row below his platform. I had been to see Mr. Electrico the night before. When he reached me, he pointed his sword at my head and touched my brow. The electricity rushed down the sword, inside my skull, made my hair stand up and sparks fly out of my ears. He then shouted at me, “Live forever!”
When I received the Official Group Photo — it was not the shot of Ray clutching my hand, but the last perfunctory one after I tried to slip away. So my peering head was in there, but Bradbury had already captured my soul. I felt that I had been baptized by his warm clutch and that he was sending me his own message to Live Forever — or at least to take the work serious enough to devote my life to the cause. I did and it’s a fact that Ray Bradbury and his poetry of wonders will live on eternally. Happy Birthday.