Ray Bradbury: A Lion of Literature -- and Life

Ray Bradbury holds an image of himself during an event honoring the author with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame April 1, 2002 in Hollywood. | Photo: Vince Bucci/Getty Images

It is a pity to be so superficial, especially regarding a literary icon, but one of the things I remember most about my first encounter with Ray Bradbury was the man's hair. The first time I saw him speak was in Oxnard some 25 year ago. He was electric. The crowd was transfixed, bewitched, beguiled and stunned. He laughed. He shouted. He raised his hands to the fluorescent lighting. His passions ran far and wide, although apparently they did not include a comb. His snow white hair ran in every direction, too, as if, immediately before arriving, he had flunked an electrical re-wiring final. He may have actually been electric.

Bradbury, who sadly (but maybe not for him -- new and greater adventures await!) passed away this past June at 91, is back in the news again, which is definitely a good thing because the author of, most famously, "Fahrenheit 451", reminds us of how we might live.

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He is in the news because Ventura filmmaker and artist Michael O'Kelly has made the documentary film called "Live Forever -- The Ray Bradbury Odyssey." The full-length feature film covers Bradbury's remarkable creative career and, equally exciting, offers a personal look at a charming, witty, and wholly unique man. O'Kelly, a personal friend of Bradbury's, made the film for all the right reasons. "I wanted to make a film that would inspire other people, especially kids, to read and write," he told a reporter. "The message is if you don't read and write, it's very hard to think. If you can't think clearly, it's hard to find who you are and how you fit into the world." (I should also mention that the November 11 screening at the Century 10 Theater in downtown Ventura is a pre-release benefit for, among other good causes, local libraries. Ray Bradbury loved libraries. I can already see him waving his hands.)

Ray Bradbury waved his hands a lot. I know this because I saw him speak numerous times. He slowed down as he grew old, but in his younger days, standing somewhere in the vicinity of the speaker's dais (the rest of him didn't stay still either), he exhorted and waved his hands about as if conducting some madcap symphony only he could hear. On one unforgettable occasion he waved his hands right in my face, dispensing advice that became one of the pillars of my own life.

But this column is about a greater man. Ray Bradbury was the author of "Fahrenheit 451," yes. He also (take a deep breath) wrote "The Martian Chronicles" and "The Illustrated Man," penned episodes for "The Twilight Zone" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," co-wrote the screenplay for the film "Moby Dick," wrote plays, headed the Pandemonium Theatre Company in Los Angeles, consulted on the American Pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair and the original exhibit housed in Epcot's Spaceship Earth geosphere at Walt Disney World, and read poetry every day. The man had creative ADHD and forty-eight hours in his day.

I provide this resume because I am hoping you might pass this column on to your kids, or maybe read it to them -- or if you don't have kids, find some -- and there's a chance they don't know who Ray Bradbury is, in the same way young people don't know the Beatles or how to ride in a car and look at the scenery. I don't mean this as an insult. It's just that nowadays things move very, very fast -- faster, possibly, than even Ray Bradbury could have imagined -- and in that rapid passing, priceless things dissipate in the vapor trail.

Ray Bradbury wrote lots of great stories, and if they haven't already, your kids should read some of them. His mind, like his hair, went everywhere. What if? Why? Why the hell not? A keen observation, a twist and a turn, and stories leapt from his mind to the page. Once, infuriated by a fashion shoot he saw in Harper's Bazaar in which emaciated runway models posed and postured in front of poor natives in a Puerto Rican backstreet, he whipped off "Sun and Shadow," the story of an old Puerto Rican who ruins a Bazaar photographer's afternoon by sidling into every picture and dropping his pants. How fun is that?

But Ray Bradbury also dispensed an equal amount of wonderful advice. About writing, yes, but just as often, about life. For Bradbury the two were inextricably intertwined. Self-consciousness, he said, is the enemy of all art, be it acting, writing, painting, or living itself, which is the greatest art of all. Read poetry every day of your life (If your boy is a poet, horse manure can only mean flowers to him, he fetchingly wrote). Run. Seize your time. Stuff your senses with it, touch it, smell it, taste it. That we are alive is a gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it is awarded us.

Wise counsel, every word, and Bradbury had tons more, making it difficult to pick a favorite, but not for me.

Be a child of one's time.

When your kids start reading Ray Bradbury, perhaps they should start with this. It's taken from one of my favorite Bradbury books, called "Zen in the Art of Writing"; no surprise now, a book of writing advice that seamlessly transfers to life.

By the time many people are fourteen or fifteen, they have been divested of their loves, their ancient and intuitive tastes, one by one, until when they reach maturity there is no fun left, no zest, no gusto, no flavor... When the circus pulls in at five of a dark cold summer morn, and the calliope sounds, they do not rise and run, they turn in their sleep, and life passes by.

Ray Bradbury got up and bolted. He plunged smack dab into the wellspring of life. I don't have to close my eyes to see him away from the podium, hopping about like a flea at the gates of a boarding kennel.

It was after that first talk-cum-jitterbug that Ray Bradbury waved his hands in my face. I was a young reporter for a weekly newspaper in Ventura, sent to cover Bradbury's talk. With an ink stain blossoming in one pant pocket where a pen had exploded and a shirt I had obviously ironed by hand I was lucky just to get in. Compounding my luck, someone in charge of the event took pity on me. When the talk was over and Bradbury finished speaking with the knot of admirers who rushed the stage, this kind man signaled to him.

And then Ray Bradbury was moving through the crowd to talk to me, and my heart was doing back flips while my tongue affixed itself gummily to the roof of my mouth. When Bradbury's eyes found me he didn't look right through me, he looked right into me. In the last instant before he pulled up barely a nose length away, I remember thinking, "What does this man have to teach me?", a queer thought in retrospect as I would later find out that Bradbury was likely thinking the same thing. He was curious about everyone, even dumbstruck reporters who would never ever appear in a fashion shoot in Harper's Bazaar.

Since it was clear I was not going to speak, he did.

"Well young man, obviously you're a writer." I think he glanced at my pocket, but I'm not sure. "Good for you."

I knew I should ask him what his next project was -- a short story, a new book, lunch with Ronald Reagan -- I was a newspaper reporter after all, a slave to breaking news. But I also knew how long he had been pinned against the stage by his admirers and I saw how his eyes, though kind, went to the exit. There was something else in his eyes, too. In that nervous instant I couldn't quite grasp it, although I know what it is now

"If you had one word of advice, what would it be?"

His eyes left the exit. They fixed on mine, and he smiled at me as if we had just both received the first one-way ticket to Mars.

"One word?" he asked.

"Yes sir."

"Follow your dreams with delightful passion," he said, waving his hands, "like a child," and then he was gone, his hair nearly dusting both sides of the door jamb.

On November 11 I will stand in line to see "Live Forever -- The Ray Bradbury Odyssey," my heart racing. I will seize it, breath it, stuff my senses with it, embrace it with passion.

Chronologically I am not so young anymore. But thanks in part to Ray Bradbury, the calendar no longer matters to me.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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