Tag Archive for Ray Bradbury

Farewell to My Friend, Ray Bradbury

My friend, Ray Bradbury, is now roaming the wind-swept midway of the Dark Carnival. He passed away at the age of 91 in Los Angeles on Tuesday, June 5, following what his publisher described as a long illness.

No, I never met Ray, apart from having had the pleasure of hearing him speak a couple of times (once at Tulane University in New Orleans, the second time at Comic Con International). Nor did I ever correspond with him. But I count him as a friend, as well as an influence and an inspiration.

One of the first science fiction books I ever asked for was Ray’s A Medicine for Melancholy. My father bought it for me at a newsstand/cigar store when I was in fifth grade, the day before I was due to get on a bus for my first-ever overnight trip away from my parents and home, a school-sponsored outing to Sea Camp down in the Florida Keys. The bus ride from North Miami Beach down to the Keys would take between two and three hours, and my father wanted me to have something to read on the journey. I picked out the Ballantine Books paperback because the collage of images on its front cover included a dinosaur. At that point, I didn’t know who Ray Bradbury was; I just wanted to read a book that had a dinosaur in it. No particular story of the twenty-two stories I read during those hours on the bus springs to mind; rather, what I recall from those hours I spent thirty-seven years ago is a sense of enchantment, of being gently drawn into a whole new universe of words and colors and textures, very much unlike anything I had read previously. The welcoming strangeness of the stories in the book was undoubtedly reinforced by the happy strangeness of Sea Camp, a place where the red (not pink) lemonade was tart to the point of harshness and one could walk precariously atop a giant ring of stones surrounding a shark pool, an artificial inlet connected to the ocean by a wire mesh gate.

I bought other Ray Bradbury story collections, including The Golden Apples of the Sun, The Machineries of Joy, and R is for Rocket. I read The Illustrated Man and Dandelion Wine. The two Bradbury books which left the strongest imprints on me during the years between my tenth and thirteenth birthdays were The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451. I remember that what impressed me so strongly about The Martian Chronicles was that story cycle’s pervading sense of yearning, nostalgia, and ultimate pangs of loss for the Martian culture which was so blithely superseded and discarded. One of the Martian stories (which had also appeared in A Medicine for Melancholy), “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed,” is the only story (apart from Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” which devastated me) that I remember from my seventh grade literature sampler. Being on the cusp of the cascade of adolescent physical changes when I read it, “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed,” being all about a young family of Earth people on Mars gradually, unconsciously transmogrifying into beautiful Martians sent quivers, both emotional and physical, all throughout my own transmogrifying self.

(By the way, isn’t it interesting that the only two stories I can remember from my seventh grade literature sampler, which was mostly filled with capital “L” Literary short stories, are both science fiction tales from the 1940s and 1950s? I wonder what percentage of one-time junior high school students would report the same? I suspect many would.)

I think I read Fahrenheit 451 and saw Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation within a few months of each other (the Truffaut film most likely as part of my local CBS affiliate’s “Science Fiction Thriller Week” of afternoon movies). I’m pretty sure I saw the movie first, which then sent me looking for a used copy of the book. The film had much the same effect upon me as reading A Medicine for Melancholy had – a thrilling immersion into a world of not-unwelcome strangeness, although the Truffaut film certainly struck me as more menacing and dark than any of the stories I had read in the Bradbury collection. I do recall thinking, after having read the original book, that it was rather weak sauce after the experience of the film. I don’t think that Ray would have minded hearing my opinion too much; after all, he has said that Truffaut’s film was his favorite of the many film and television adaptations which have been made from his work. And who can argue about the memorability of Truffaut’s images and visualizations of Bradbury’s words, the fire trucks, the firemen’s uniforms, that haunting suburban landscape, and the hypnotic fires themselves?

Twenty-seven or twenty-eight years after I read Fahrenheit 451 and first saw the movie version, I wrote my own novel-length homage to the book and the film, The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501, which has been described as “Fahrenheit 451 for the fast food industry.” I originally wanted to entitle the book just Calorie 3501 (3500 being the number of calories which, if consumed and not expended, adds one pound of fat to the human body). My publisher, Jacob Weisman of Tachyon Publications, wanted a title that reflected Bradbury’s title for the original novella-length version of his book-burning tale, “The Fireman” (published in the February, 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction); he wanted to call it The Good Humor Man. We ended up compromising with the combined title, which, although a bit clunky, sort of satisfied both of us (and which doubly reinforces the connection with Ray Bradbury’s original works).

Another aspect of Ray Bradbury, apart from his writings (although certainly affecting his writings), has always enormously impressed me. He was a genuinely happy man, and he was never loathe to express this to his public. He loved his childhood in Waukegan, Illinois, and frequently referenced it in his fiction, but he loved being an adult, too. My former rabbi in New Orleans, David Bockman, grew up in Los Angeles in a house just up the street from Ray Bradbury’s house. David told stories about how his famous neighbor would throw huge Halloween parties for the neighborhood’s children each year, and how gracious Ray always was. Bradbury’s public talks and published interviews often repeated the same anecdotes, but they were invariably happy anecdotes, about writing Fahrenheit 451 on a typewriter at the public library that he rented for ten cents an hour, or about his childhood encounter with Mr. Electro on a carnival midway sideshow, the encounter he credits with turning his imagination toward the fantastic. Ray was also a devoted friend, cherishing his boyhood friendships with Ray Harryhausen and Forry Ackerman throughout his life and always supporting them however he could.

Ray’s death leaves only Frederik Pohl as a living representative of that fabulous generation of science fiction writers who began as fans in the 1930s and turned pro in the early 1940s. In recent years, we’ve lost Jack Williamson (from an older generation still) and Philip Klass (who was three months older than Ray, whose birthdate was August 22, 1920). Ray’s contemporaries, writers of science fiction’s Golden Age, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and A. E. van Vogt, departed Earth many years before he did.

Ray, I will miss you very much. As will hundreds of thousands of your readers. In my mind’s ear, I can hear your fog horn and lonesome dinosaur both bellowing their grief.

Never Trust a Weatherman

Weather.com, you’re on my Double-Secret-Probation List (and maybe that other list, too).

Now and then you find yourself planning an entire weekend around a weather report. This was the first weekend of the Prince William County Fair, Virginia’s biggest fair, a Major Event in our household. We do not miss the fair. Sunday was Half-Price Day, when both fair admissions and ride bracelets were half the normal price. When you’ve got three little boys who are all crazy for carnival rides, half-price ride bracelets are a big deal, particularly when even the puniest kiddy ride on the midway will cost you three bucks per ride, per kid, if you purchase ride tickets. So I knew we would be attending the fair on Sunday. I also knew that the long-range forecast called for thunderstorms. But I thought we might be able to finess the weather, get the boys’ rides over and done with between rainstorms, then concentrate on the fair’s indoor activities.

As soon as I woke up on Sunday, I checked weather.com. On our two prior visits to the fair, we had gone in the late afternoon and evening, to avoid the hottest, sunniest part of the day. But weather.com told me to reverse my usual plan. The hourly forecast for our zip code predicted a high of 81F (not at all bad for Virginia in mid-August), overcast skies early, and then 70%-80% chances of rain from 3 PM on. The fair’s gates would open at noon. I figured I could gorge the boys on rides for three hours, and then, at the first sign of rain, the family and I could duck into the animal husbandry displays and pet the goats and sheep and cows under a good, solid roof.

So, we headed off the to the fair sans hats and sunscreen. What did we need hats and sunscreen for if it was going to be cloudy and rainy all day?

We rushed through breakfast to arrive at the fair soon after the gates opened. It was muggy. It was bright. It was hot, a good ten degrees hotter than the forecast predicted. Still, since we got there relatively early, the fair wasn’t crowded, at least not at first. The boys went on the Chinese Dragon mini rollercoaster and the Flying Swings/Raging Funnel and the Flying Dumbos (I’m sure Disney doesn’t let hinky-dinky carnival operators call it that, but that’s what I call it) and bumped their noses against the glass panels inside the Monkey Maze. They rode the Crazy Bus together, crammed into a miniature school bus with twenty other riders while huge pistons hurled the bus through the air. The older two went on the Parasail Rider (kind of like the Flying Swings, but with a sail-like panel which riders can swivel to make them bobble up and down while swinging around). I took my littlest, Judah, on a couple of those kiddy motorcycle/ATV merry-go-rounds and let him jump in a bounce house. His big disappointment was that the one ride he’d been talking about all week, Quadzilla, where he could ride a four-wheeler on tracks through a spook house, was temporarily closed for repairs.

Dara and I stood out of the direct glare as much as possible and waited anxiously for the few dark clouds spotting the sky to cover up the sun and provide us some relief. I watched the crowds linger in front of the games of chance and thought about Ray Bradbury, whose first story collection had been called Dark Carnival, who had written one of the greatest dark fantasies set on a midway, Something Wicked This Way Comes, whose childhood imagination had been fired by visits to fairs probably much like this one.

for laffs under the blazing sun, it's hard to beat a guy with a weather balloon stuck on his head

After two and a half hours of putting the kids on rides and taking (costly) beverage breaks, we decided to catch one of the 3 PM shows. A few more darkish clouds dotted the sky, but it still didn’t look like the thunderstorms the forecast had called for were anywhere near. We headed over to The Magic of Agriculture: Agri-Cadabra show, which we had seen earlier versions of the prior two years. The managers of the Prince William County Fair must like this guy, and he does put on a good show (even if his jokes disparaging West Virginia get a little stale after you’ve heard them a time or two). His grand finale is inflating a giant green weather balloon with a leaf blower, then inserting most of his body into the balloon, where he creates an elaborate balloon animal before emerging from his rubber cocoon. What can I say? It might not be Ray Bradbury’s idea of a proper show for a carnival midway (I think he prefers his magicians a bit more traditional and somber), but for me, it never gets old. My kids invariably get a charge out of it, perhaps akin to the charge the young Ray received from the fingertip of Mr. Electro, his earliest mentor in the ways of the fantastic.

Unfortunately, I had trouble concentrating on the show because I felt myself cooking. My wife reached over to touch my dark brown hair. “Touch your hair,” she said. “You could fry an egg on your hair. Mine, too.” Yup. She was right. My fingers came away smoking. And it wasn’t a magic trick.

unlike me, Black Locust had sense enough to stay out of the sun

Immediately after the Agri-Cadabra show, I herded my crew under the livestock barns, then went to refill our cup of $6 lemonade with water from the bathroom (there was still a little sugar and a couple of squeezed-out lemons at the bottom of the cup, so the tap water acquired a vaguely lemonadey tinge). I peered again at the sky. Where was this rain I had been promised? Where were the clouds to mask that brutal sun? We petted the goats. I made friends with a goat named Black Locust. I tried to figure out the reason for her name. She was black, yes, but not remotely insectoid. Perhaps she’d acquired that name due to her eating habits? I looked over at Dara. She was hors de combat. No more sun for her. But the boys were still clamoring to go on more rides.

I decided to take the bullet. I volunteered to lead the Midway Death March. Dara would remain behind with the goats in the shade. The boys hustled back to the Monkey Maze. I pressed myself as close to the wall of the ride as I could, clinging to whatever shadow was available. We ran into one of Asher’s friends, Maggie, and her grandmother. The kids all wanted to go on different rides. The lines had gotten much longer. The sun remained fierce overhead. Maggie’s grandmother and I decided to divide and conquer. We split the little group. Her half headed off to the Giant Ferris Wheel. Lucky her; the line was in the shade, and the gondolas had canopies. I got to stand in line for the Flying Swings. No shade there.

My older two boys went on the bumper cars. Judah had a mini-meltdown when he learned he wasn’t tall enough to ride. I yanked him over to the side of the bumper car pavillion, where the unused cars were stored, where there was a smidgeon of shadow to stand in. I pressed my index finger onto the skin of my forearm. The impression remained ominously white for a few seconds. I recognized what I had to look forward to that evening–squirming uncomfortably in bed while my skin reminded me incessantly what an idiot I had been. The boys wanted to ride the bumper cars again. I lacked the energy to deal with a renewed Judah meltdown. I told the boys they could pick one final ride before we went to pick up their mommy at the goat barn, but it had to be one they could all ride.

We saw that Quadzilla had been reopened. Judah began jumping up and down and flapping his hands. We got in line. The line didn’t move. The operator seemed to be taking forever to get the children out of the cars and seat more kids in their places. I shouldn’t get too angry with the man for not hustling with greater alacrity under that brutal sun; in conversations with other carnival employees, I learned they are housed in trailers, are paid an average of $300 a week, and have to buy all their own meals at the fair, which leaves them about $15 per week to spare. They do this from February to November, taking only a six-week break around the holidays to return to wherever their permanent homes are. So the man moved like a camel beneath the desert sun, conserving his energy and his internal moisture. If I were in his place, I suppose I would, too.

I felt my epidermis about to ignite. I yanked the boys out of the line. “No Quadzilla!” I thundered, substituting for the overhead thunder which had never made its appearance. “Maybe next year. Pick something else! Something with no line!” I shoved them toward a lame-o kiddy ride that none of the other fairgoers evinced an interest in. They dutifully boarded it, then rode it with blank faces. I could see they were all done in, too.

I marched them back toward the goat barn. On the way, we passed a row of standing wooden cutout figures, the kind that have oval holes cut where their faces are, the kind that invite you to put your own face in the oval and have a picture taken of you as a farmer or a fireman or a race car driver. One of the cutouts was of King Kong holding Fay Wray; you could opt to be either the gorilla or the maiden. All of the cutout figures stood unutilized when we passed. No one was taking pictures beneath the broiling sun.

I stared at those holes where faces should be, those voids, and I thought about Ray Bradbury again. Grandpa Ray, Master of the Dark Carnival, who had finagled ways to see King Kong in the theaters dozens of times as a kid. Ray had always been around for me; I’d watched his Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms and It Came From Outer Space at least as many times on Creature Features as a kid as he’d seen King Kong, and his A Medicine for Melancholy had been one of the first science fiction books I’d personally owned. My novel The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501 owes an inestimable debt to Ray’s Fahrenheit 451. He had always been around, and he seemed to go on forever, as though he would live forever, just like Mr. Electro had commanded him when Ray had been a boy–“Now go and live forever!” But he wouldn’t live forever. One day, I would live in a world without a Ray Bradbury. It would be like staring at those cutout figures with oval holes where faces should be.

the Master of the Dark Carnival won't be with us forever

I made myself a promise. Next year, when the Prince William County Fair comes around again, we won’t go beneath the blazing midday sun. We’ll go at twilight, the time Ray Bradbury tells us is the perfect time to walk within the neon glow of the midway’s dark lights.

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