Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

Scanning the latest double-issue of The New Yorker magazine yesterday, I saw a single-page piece by Ray Bradbury called “Take Me Home.” The Transit of Venus would begin soon, and I had just enough time to read it. I read it once, then re-read it, then read it a third time. The language was so lyrical and evocative and the word-images so vivid that I was transported to the porch of Bradbury’s grandparents’ boarding house in Waukegan, Illinois.
“I would go out to that lawn on summer nights and reach up to the red lights of Mars,” Bradbury wrote, “and say, ‘Take me home!’ I yearned to fly away and land there in the strange dusts that blew over dead-sea bottoms toward the ancient cities.”

Has anyone ever written anything so redolent about the red planet, or about the longing of a bookish boy wanting to hop on a balloon or a spaceship and soar away?

“While I remained earthbound, I would time-travel, listening to the grownups who on warm nights gathered outside the lawns and porches to talk and reminisce … it was the special time, the sad time, the time of beauty. It was the time of the fire balloons … I’d helped my grandpa carry the box in which lay, like a gossamer spirit, the paper tissue ghost of a fire balloon waiting to be breathed into, filled, and set adrift toward the midnight sky … Once the fire got going, the balloon whispered itself fat with the hot air rising inside …”
Surely you can see that fire-balloon! Not any fire-balloon but that specific balloon that the writer's grandpa had saved for him so that together they could set it “adrift toward the midnight sky.”

If the image is still vague, don’t give up. More stunning visual clarity is coming.
“But I could not let it go. It was so beautiful, with the light and shadows dancing inside. Only when Grandpa gave me a look, and a nod of his head, did I at last let the balloon drift free, up past the porch, illuminating the faces of my family. It floated up above the apple trees, over the beginning-to-sleep town, and across the night among the stars.”
Up, over, across. The words trace the flight of the balloon as lyrically as any poet or stylist ever could, carrying with it the enormous sadness of the boy who had just let it go.
“We stood watching it for at least ten minutes, until we could no longer see it. By then, tears were streaming down my face, and Grandpa, not looking at me, would at last clear his throat and shuffle his feet … Twenty five years later, I wrote ‘The Fire Balloons,’ a story in which a number of priests fly off to Mars looking for creatures of good will. It is my tribute to those summers when my grandfather was alive.”

After savoring the piece, I hurried off to see the Transit of Venus at a local observatory.
This morning I learned that Ray Bradbury has passed away at age 91.

I read only two of Bradbury’s work: “Fahrenheit 451” and “The Martian Chronicles.” What interested me even more than his work was his work ethic. Bradbury worked almost every day of his life (fans of Stephen King can identify), pounding out a thousand words a day on his typewriter. No computer or word processor for him. He was self-taught. The library was his refuge, his teacher. These days, people cite examples of tech icons like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg to prove that you don’t have to go to school to make your mark. We forget that before tech titans, there have always been self-taught writers who made lasting contributions to literature and civilization. Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for literature without having ever seen the inside of a classroom while growing up.
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there.”

Bradbury’s own words perfectly sums up what inspired and motivated him.
Go out tonight and look up. See that tangerine light overhead? That’s the planet Mars, with its “strange dusts that blow over dead-sea bottoms toward the ancient cities.” It is the celestial body that Bradbury made familiar to millions of us through literature.


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