Ray Bradbury is my favorite writer; he passed away today and I am sad and startled, because a part of me felt that he would never die. If you read a memorial piece about him and the author refers to him as a science fiction writer, stop reading it and find something else to do. Ray wrote all kinds of material in many forms and several genres. He wrote silly, heartbreaking, true and terrifying things- often all in the same paragraph. Yes, he wrote about space and robots and fantastical things, but he also wrote about a Mexican man in an ice-cream-white suit and a boy smelling the cut grass as his beautiful youth waned. If you’ve never read any of Ray’s writing, your teachers failed you, and I am sorry for you. But you can remedy that. Go to the library (Ray loved libraries) and check something of his out. See if, like me, his writing makes you hold your breath. See if it makes you smile because it catches you off guard. It’s lush; Ray loved language and he used it in delightful ways. His imagery is unparalleled, which makes him the best for transporting you to another place and time. He headlined the Writer’s Symposium at PLNU my junior year- he opened by declaring Herman Melville a genius and Emily Dickenson a great lay. He was funny like that…I won’t say irreverent, because a sense of reverence weaves through his work and Ray believed in love and believed in believing, but he could be wry and he had little tolerance for bullshit. When he spoke at PLNU, he was earnest, which isn’t something that often characterizes a person of his age and fame. He insisted that we realize beauty, realize creating, realize wonder. Tears ran down my face. I love his writing, and I could eulogize for thousands of words, but Ray would probably tell me to write something new instead. So, I’ll include this, my favorite Ray story. Thanks Ray.
At the end of my last web-site talk I promised to tell you about how I happened to fall into becoming a writer.
Some of it was gradual, and part of it was accidental.
Back when I was twelve years old I was madly in love with L. Frank Baum and the Oz books, along with the novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and especially the Tarzan books and the John Carter, Warlord of Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I began to think about becoming a writer at that time.
Simultaneously I saw Blackstone the Magician on stage and thought, what a wonderful life it would be if I could grow up and become a magician.
In many ways that is exactly what I did.
It was an encounter with another magician that changed my life forever.
During the Labor Day week of 1932 a favorite uncle of mine died; his funeral was held on the Labor Day Saturday. If he hadn’t died that week, my life might not have changed because, returning from his funeral at noon on that Saturday, I saw carnival tent down by Lake Michigan. I knew that down there, by the lake, in his special tent, was a magician named Mr. Electrico.
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!”
I thought that was a wonderful idea, but how did you do it?
The next day, being driven home by my father, fresh from the funeral, I looked down at those carnival tents and thought to myself, “The answer is there. He said ‘Live forever,’ and I must go find out how to do that.” I told my father to stop the car. He didn’t want to, but I insisted. He stopped the car and let me out, furious with me for not returning home to partake in the wake being held for my uncle. With the car gone, and my father in a rage, I ran down the hill. What was I doing? I was running away from death, running toward life.
When I reached the carnival grounds, by God, sitting there, almost as if he were waiting for me, was Mr. Electrico. I grew, suddenly, very shy. I couldn’t possibly ask, How do you live forever? But luckily I had a magic trick in my pocket. I pulled it out, held it toward Mr. Electrico and asked him if he’d show me how to do the trick. He showed me how and then looked into my face and said, “Would you like to see some of those peculiar people in that tent over there?”
I said, “Yes.”
He took me over to the sideshow tent and hit it with his cane and shouted, “Clean up your language!” at whoever was inside. Then, he pulled up the tent flap and took me in to meet the Illustrated Man, the Fat Lady, the Skeleton Man, the acrobats, and all the strange people in the sideshows.
He then walked me down by the shore and we sat on a sand dune. He talked about his small philosophies and let me talk about my large ones. At a certain point he finally leaned forward and said, “You know, we’ve met before.”
I replied, “No, sir, I’ve never met you before.”
He said, “Yes, you were my best friend in the great war in France in 1918 and you were wounded and died in my arms at the battle of the Ardennes Forrest. But now, here today, I see his soul shining out of your eyes. Here you are, with a new face, a new name, but the soul shining from your face is the soul of my dear dead friend. Welcome back to the world.”
Why did he say that? I don’t know. Was there something in my eagerness, my passion for life, my being ready for some sort of new activity? I don’t know the answer to that. All I know is that he said, “Live forever” and gave me a future and in doing so, gave me a past many years before, when his friend died in France.
Leaving the carnival grounds that day I stood by the carousel and watched the horses go round and round to the music of “Beautiful Ohio.” Standing there, the tears poured down my face, for I felt that something strange and wonderful had happened to me because of my encounter with Mr. Electrico.
I went home and the next day traveled to Arizona with my folks. When we arrived there a few days later I began to write, full-time. I have written every single day of my life since that day 69 years ago.
I have long since lost track of Mr. Electrico, but I wish that he existed somewhere in the world so that I could run to him, embrace him, and thank him for changing my life and helping me become a writer.