The air was fine and crisp and clear that October day in Los Angeles. My friend Shanna and I had gone in search of the ghostliest graveyards in the City of Angels.
“Hey,” I said as we sat in the sun-dappled grass of Rosedale Cemetery, “I think I still have a letter that Ray Bradbury wrote me in 1975 or ’76, with his return address. Let’s go see if he still lives there!”
We drove up into Cheviot Hills, a wealthy but not ostentatious community next to the glitzier, more plastic Beverly Hills. And there it was: Ray Bradbury’s house. Spacious and yellow, the side porch sported a grinning Jack O’Lantern and, no joke, a black cat. The perfect house for the man who gave us “Dandelion Wine” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “The Halloween Tree,” those magic-realist meditations on the hidden wonders and terrors of small-town life.
We knocked and a woman answered (we learned later it was one of Ray’s four daughters). We were thrilled when she said she would ask the great author if he had a moment for us.
He did. Ray came out, dressed in a tux, waiting for a limo to take him to some affair or other — he never did learn to drive a car — and spent a few minutes chatting. No haughty celebrity, he was delighted that two of his admirers would take the time to find his house. He let loose a dose of exuberant Bradbury laughter and invited us to meet him for a beer sometime (which I did, though it took years; I was fortunate to spend extended time with him on three later occasions).
Ray Bradbury died Tuesday at age 91. It seems impossible that a man who burst with such life, for whom everything was a wonder, an inspiration for poetry, a reason to shout, “I love you!” at the whole world, could have left us.
I am not the only one to mourn Bradbury. He fired more imaginations and sparked more passion, in both children and adults, than any thousand other writers, any 10,000, any million, as he would have written with delicious exaggeration.
He’s been widely eulogized as a “science fiction” writer, but that’s never been the right label. He wasn’t the least bit interested in science; witness the impossible red planet in “The Martian Chronicles.” It was more akin to the mythical Green Town, Illinois — the nostalgic offspring of Bradbury’s imagination and grimy Waukegan, Illinois, where he spent his earliest years — than Earth’s closest neighbor.
He’s best known today for “Fahrenheit 451,” the cautionary tale of an oppressive future that stands with “1984” and “Brave New World.” But even that short novel, a perennial bestseller and assigned reading for millions of students, is more poetry than prediction.
Ray relished the dream of forging into the unknown vastness of space — “It is good to renew one’s wonder,” said the philosopher. “Space travel has again made children of us all,” reads the epigraph to “Chronicles” — yet he was suspicious of technology. His stories “There Will Come Soft Rains” and “The Garbage Collector” are sad, dark meditations on humanity’s capacity to destroy itself.
He preferred to think of himself as an “idea writer.” I think he was all about passion. The message, the emotion, the humanity — his Martian tale, “Way in the Middle of the Air” is a beautiful and wry indictment of Southern racism — were what mattered. Ray lived nine decades in utter astonishment of life’s wonders. He was truly in love with living. He signed many books, posters and letters to me, “Mad love!”
I wept when he died and received condolences from friends who, though fans of Ray, know how much I loved him. He touched millions, and surely millions exchanged stories this week, as if we were holding a virtual Irish wake; Ray would have loved that, having written so often about the worthies of Eire.
“I still remember the day I bought a copy of ‘The Illustrated Man’ in the bookshop at the Denver Dry Goods store in the Northglenn Mall in the fall of 1977,” CU spokesman Bronson Hilliard wrote me on Wednesday. “I started reading it on the bus on the way home and I was transfixed. Same with ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ a year or so later. He took me places that I miss going to. Amazing man, amazing writer.”
Shanna herself remembered that astounding and delightful day in 1989 to me: “What a wonderful memory. I am grateful for it.”
Ray lived to write, writing nearly every day of his life. He published right up until his death, a short essay, “Take Me Home,” in the most recent issue of The New Yorker. There he revels in the passionate life he insisted upon living from the moment of his birth (which he always claimed to remember in frightening detail, resulting in one of his creepiest early tales, “The Small Assassin” ).
“(W)hat a trial I must have been to my friends and relatives. It was one frenzy after one elation after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another. I was always yelling and running somewhere, because I was afraid life was going to be over that afternoon,” he wrote.
Maybe that’s why I loved him so deeply. I, too, was a “too much” kid. Too loud, too busy running from wonder to wonder, my mind distracted by dreams of stars and dragons and ghosts, a kid who coaxed kingdoms out of shabby forts and vast exotic continents from the wild gully behind our house in south Boulder. My giraffes were green, my elephants purple, I talked too much, felt too much, maybe even loved too much.
Ray Bradbury and I, blood brothers: Too much.
That final essay described how his grandfather introduced young Ray to a pyrotechnic of yesteryear — “a gossamer spirit, the paper-tissue ghost of a fire balloon waiting to be breathed into.” Like glowing orange lanterns, fire balloons rise into the sky, climbing until spent, then falling away to darkened landscapes below.
So of course, I’ve always wanted — no, needed — to see a fire balloon. To my amazement I did at long last, just a week ago: floating away above a dark, tree-haunted bluff on the Chesapeake Bay. I ran just like the little kids, oohing and reaching, all of us wishing we could go along for the ride. I pouted the next day when I learned that two more balloons had been set alight — set free! — after I’d gone to bed.
“Late that night,” Bradbury wrote in that last essay, “I dreamed the fire balloon came back and drifted by my window.”
And now, of course, the great Ray Bradbury himself has been set free.
Thank you, Ray. Mad Love!