It was the early 1970s when Ray Bradbury and I met at Saint Patrick's Elementary School Library in North Hollywood. We were introduced through a dog-eared, much-underlined, yellowing paperback called "Dandelion Wine" and I promptly fell into puppy love. Ray was already ancient then, with graying hair and horn-rimmed glasses, or so it seemed to an 11-year-old, but I didn't care. I promptly read all his books on the shelves, sneaking in at odd hours since our little library doubled as the teachers' lounge. I recall pouring over "The Illustrated Man," "M is for Melancholy" and "The Martian Chronicles" at recess and lunch with the ardor that my school chums reserved for Tiger Beat Magazine. Ray's books transported me to shimmering far-off worlds. As you might imagine, my solitary obsession made me very popular with my David Cassidy/Bobby Sherman swooning peers.
Back then, I had no idea that Ray lived in Los Angeles, less than 20 miles from me. I realize now that he probably gave talks at bookstores and libraries and schools and generally swanned about town the way famous authors do. However, this literary largesse did not trickle down to my part of the Valley, and if it did, my family wasn't aware of it. While we were all very bookish, we were insular, bringing home booty scavenged from rummage sales and used bookstores. It would have been frivolous for my cash-strapped parents to spend good money on a new book when there were so many perfectly good used ones out there.
In college, Ray and I broke up. He'd become a bit of an embarrassment to me, proof of what a rube I'd been. I spurned his simple prose, his dated science. I was in love with more sophisticated, demanding and transgressive writers. Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Anais Nin, Andre Gide, Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, Jean Paul Sartre, Laurence Durrell, Thomas Pynchon, Feodor Dostoevsky. Ray was the freckled hometown boy in overalls who lacked the glittering allure of my edgier, faster crowd.
Then I must confess, I forgot about him altogether. I became a journalist, traveled the world, wrote my own novels, read many other things, had babies. Then my babies began to grow out of picture books. Browsing in my home library one day, I pulled out a dog-eared, much-underlined yellowing paperback copy of "Dandelion Wine" and all the fond spooky memories came rushing back. I began to read the book out loud to my oldest son each night, savoring the exquisite moods, the evocations of terror, of joy, the unbearable lightness of summer and the dark that lurked at the edges of things. It was a double pleasure to rediscover him as an adult, a triple pleasure that my son liked him too. Next came the "Martian Chronicles." Then "Fahrenheit 451." Bam, another generation was hooked.
Two weeks ago, Ray Bradbury came to a small independent bookstore in Glendale. He's 86 and in a wheelchair now, with a leonine mane of pure white hair, a kind of living time capsule, a character beamed out of one of his own Mobius Strip stories.
I told the kids we were going. After all these years, I would finally meet Ray. And the kids would see this literary legend in flesh and learn that even famous writers are just plain folks. It was glorious to see four generations of people crammed into the aisles of Mystery and Imagination Books ' hundreds of them, all holding cherished copies of old books and brand new ones.
My kids studied Ray. "He's old," my 8-year-old said. They were shy when we got to the front of the line, though we did get our picture taken with him. I had so much to say, it would have taken a whole book's worth of words. Ray was the first man whose writing I fell in love with, whose photo I recognized, whose words I emulated when I took my own baby steps at writing stories.
I settled for telling him that I was reading "The Illustrated Man" to the boys, one story a night. They'd found "The Veldt" especially unsettling. Ray twinkled fiendishly and said that was wonderful. He signed our books, including his newest, the sequel to "Dandelion Wine" that had been 60 years in the making. It's called "Farewell, Summer."
There was a certain melancholy to finally meeting him, in the late autumn of his life. There's the awareness that he's not going to be around forever, that it will be his words that survive the ages, not his flesh. So it goes for all of us. I hope my kids remember their afternoon with Ray long after he's gone. Maybe even after I'm gone. I hope that one day, they'll pull a dog-eared, much-underlined yellowing paperback of "Dandelion Wine" from their own shelves and read it to their children and that its themes will still resonate, regardless of what future they live in.