Ray Bradbury, 1920-2012

One of my lifelong heroes, the great American writer Ray Bradbury, has died. He is generally pigeonholed as a science fiction writer, but any reader of his work will quickly understand that whether he was telling stories about the colonization of Mars, firefighters who burn books, or some strange, fleshy object floating in a jar somewhere in Arkansas, his subject was always human nature: our weirdness, our heroicism, our ability to be simultaneously many different, often contradictory beings in one shell. Over the decades he explored how we behave in groups (“The Crowd”) and how we behave when there is nothing but the stillness of the night. He wrote about utopias and dystopias, all of them worlds we create for ourselves. Bradbury is the favorite son of Waukegan, Illinois. Being the place of his birth is perhaps the greatest claim to fame of this small, mid-Western town perched on the edge of Lake Michigan just a few miles from Wisconsin, and just a few too many miles from Chicago to qualify as suburb. My lifelong love for Ray Bradbury began when I was a young boy growing up in that very same Waukegan. (My father had taken a job at a local engineering firm, and we were firmly settled into a classic two story brick home perfectly situated within walking distance of the school, an enormous park, railroad tracks and Lake Michigan; quite the ideal arrangement for childhood.) At some point, I gathered his books from the library at Greenwood Elementary and the book mobile and immersed myself in their worlds. Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine takes place in Greentown, Illinois, his literary double for Waukegan. In this book and his many other novels and short stories, he creates a mythology of boyhood, of love and devotion for his hometown, describing summer days playing in the mysterious ravine (“And here the paths, made or yet unmade, that told of the need of boys traveling, always traveling, to be men.”), drinking an elixir of dandelion greens (“summer caught and stoppered…like a sudden patch of sunlight in the dark”), of fall days full of thrills and dangers, of traveling carnivals with electric men (“Live forever!”), the elderly who were never young, the wonders of new tennis shoes (“somehow the people who made tennis shoes knew what boys needed and wanted. They put marshmallows and could springs in the soles…”), the deaths of Fall and the resurrections of Spring, and so much more. Looking back, I now realize that I was literally living in Bradbury’s childhood, walking in his footsteps. Time had, of course, moved on, but nothing much changes in a town like Waukegan. The ravine will always be filled with bugs and birds and Poplar trees, as beautiful in the sunshine as it was terrifying at night. You could tumble down the steep sides and never hit the bottom. You could take the little flowers off the Dutchman’s Breeches and laugh and pretend they were fake teeth. You could stand with your bike and your friends at the top of a frighteningly steep hill and goad each other into going first (“man, I was booking!”), or smash pennies on the train tracks, perhaps fear the dark corners of the basement as the radiator belches and grinds.¬†Or dig in the water and find salamanders with frilly gills, maybe sneak onto the driving range and snitch golf balls. One day after school, you get punched in the face and feel blood pour out of your nose; or, alternatively, smash a bully upside his head with your Evel Knievel lunch box and watch him crumple …