He arrived with a seedy two-bit carnival, The Dill Brothers Combined Shows, during Labor Day weekend of 1932, when I was twelve. Every night for three nights, Mr. Electrico sat in his electric chair, being fired with ten billion volts of pure sizzling power. Reaching out into the audience, his eyes flaming, his white hair standing on end, sparks leaping between his smiling teeth, he brushed an Excalibur sword over the heads of the children, knighting them with fire. When he came to me, he tapped me on both shoulders and then the tip of my nose. The lightning jumped into me. Mr. Electrico cried: “Live forever!”
I decided that was the greatest idea I had ever heard.*
Tuesday of last week, Mr. Bradbury died.
I sat thinking for awhile about what I would say about him. What was special about his work? Certainly, he had a dark and fantastic imagination. He had an amazing sense of place and a unique way with words. He’s one of the few writers I would read for his voice alone, story aside.
But none of these things do him justice. They are all symptoms of a deeper thing that I feel strongly but that I’m not sure I can put into words.
Remember how everything felt when you were a kid? How much more terrifying and wonderful everything was? Before you got so busy. And jaded. Before you let yourself become ashamed of loving comic books and Saturday morning cartoons and Nancy Drew. Remember how palpably exciting it was to merely pretend to be the captain of a ship? The magic of anticipating Christmas morning that was not only because of the presents? The hot, perfect freedom of summer, and how eternal those three months felt?
We felt things then we can’t seem to feel anymore. We get inklings occasionally, like catching the faintest whiff of a familiar scent, but it seems we’ve forgotten how to really feel them.
Bradbury brings it all back.
He writes in the passion of feeling we had when we were children. I don’t mean “passion” and “feeling” like drama. I mean magic. Wonder. His words are dripping with it. We drink them and become intoxicated with it.
Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip, for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.***
Ray Bradbury never forgot the boy in him. When he wrote, he didn’t have to twist his brain around to squeeze out words like so many of us do. He opened a fire hydrant of his own childhood wonder, and magic came gushing out.
Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.**
Bradbury’s stories are time machines. Except they don’t take us back to a particular place or era. They take us back to ourselves.
When it is a long damp November in my soul, and I think too much and perceive too little, I know it is high time to get back to that boy with the tennis shoes, the high fevers, the multitudinous joys, and the terrible nightmares. I’m not sure where he leaves off and I start.*
The boy mentioned at the top of this post was Ray Bradbury 80 years ago.
And it will be Ray Bradbury forever.
“Now it’s your turn,” he prods us toward our own landmines:
* Zen in the Art of Writing: Drunk and in Charge of a Bicycle
** Zen in the Art of Writing: How to Climb the Tree of Life, Throw Rocks at Yourself, and Get Down Again Without Breaking Your Bones or Your Spirit, A Preface with a Title Not Much Longer than the Book
*** Dandelion Wine