Ray Bradbury’s Groupie from the Future

ray bradbury reading cropped

I met a man from the future at one of Ray Bradbury’s talks.

Around 10 years ago Ray would give classes on writing in San Diego once or twice a year. These turned out to be Ray reminiscing about being a writer, not so much about the craft. Not that I minded.

Sitting next to me was this elfin little old man. I noticed him because he was so obviously happy to be there: fidgeting, and winking at me, and nodding along at everything Ray said. As though he’d heard it before, the way a fan would show their familiarity with a much-loved symphony piece, say, by conducting with their fingers along with the performance.

Ray started into a story and the little man caught my eye, grinned, and whispered, “Oh, thees. You’ll love thees one.” He had an odd accent, like a Monty Python caricature of a French accent.

After the talk, there was a question & answer session. The little man eventually was called on, and he looked at Ray and asked, “Tell me, Meester Bradbouree, do you believe een…time travel?”

“No. It’s impossible.”

I was surprised how flatly dismissive Ray was. He sounded almost irritated with the question. This puzzled me.

The little man grinned widely. “Oh, you theenk so?” And tapped his temple.

Later, we lined up for autographs. Predictably, the little man is right in front of me. We get to Ray, and the elf gives Ray a pen to sign with. When Ray takes it, it flares to life like a lightsaber, glowing hot blue. Ray held it up, curious, inspecting it. “Oh, you like eet! It is my gift to you!”

As I walked to my car, I didn’t see how the little man left. Probably because I didn’t look up.

Fourth of July: Ground Bloom Flowers

Ground Bloom Flowers

This was the core of our annual firework arsenal. We’d often have a brick of these things, leading to a steady course of them over the evening, punctuated by fountain cones or other more exotic (expensive) devices. As the night wore on and we got bored with lighting them one at a time, we tried them in clusters, discovering new and novel principles of thermodynamics. You could braid the fuses of several together. Sometimes this would form a larger, combined Voltron of hissing, skipping, colored flames. Sometimes they wouldn’t stay together, and the spinning fireball would eject a few offspring into new orbits, usually toward watching children. Kept us on our toes. Amazingly we kept all our toes, too.

The pinnacle of Ground Bloom Flower art was amphibious operations. Once the Flower got up to speed, spinning and skipping crazily on the concrete, someone wondered how it would do on water. The families of redneck scientists adjourned to the laboratory: our backyard pool. For a delivery system, a 6″ square piece of plywood was found and floated in the pool. Light the Ground Bloom Flower, nudge the wood out into the pool as the fuse burned down, and…amazement. The Flower whirled to life and danced across the surface of the water. Some of them would fizzle and drown immediately. Some skittered around and burst just as they would on land. But a few…a few of them fought to live. My favorites were the ones that started to slow down, bubbled, then found their second wind and found a way to keep going.

Bonus: the morning of July 5th, the kids on the block were ordered into the pool (hours earlier than normally permitted) to dive and recover the spent Ground Bloom Flowers from the bottom.

Fourth of July: Suburban Antiaircraft

1942_02_26_NY_Times_Battle of Los Angeles_largeSome years would see a block party with neighbors combining firework arsenals. The Dagnalls never kicked in the large boxed assortments. In part because I was particular about the fireworks I liked and the ones I didn’t at the local Red Devil/Freedom/Wildcat stands. I preferred to handpick my fireworks. I swore by Piccolo Petes and Ground Bloom Flowers, maybe cunningly constructed pyramids of Black Snakes that left cool scorch patterns like Maori facial tattoos on the concrete for the rest of summer. Why pay extra for boxed sets that cost more yet were larded down with impotent Sprinklers?

Also, in part, because of a streak of rebellion. Others would bring the retail fireworks and play within the bounds of “safe and sane”. Others might mishandle things and suffer burns or cause structure fires, earning our scorn as well as a trip to the hospital. We refused to be bound by rules meant for these other sorts of people. What could be more American, right?

So my father would use his trucking connections to get the Good Stuff: illegal fireworks “up from the border”. A few bricks of tiny, firecracker-on-a-stick bottle rockets, which were more fascinating because they were contraband than because of the results they delivered. They weren’t much better than sparklers, honestly. But there were always a few of their larger cousins, as well: bona fide rockets on thick guide rods with rocketish plastic fixtures–nosecones and fins and such. These looked serious. Aeronautical, even.

Some of the other dads would set down a fountain, light it with their Bic, and scurry back to watch fifteen seconds of sparks. When this petered out, we’d unlimber our family artillery: a man-high length of black PVC pipe, square hole cut in the side down at one end. Scarred and scorched at the muzzle from Fourths of July past.

You know the old movies where they make a big deal out of loading a cannon or a musket? Wadding, powder, shot, whatever, tamp it down, aim, fire? That’s how this felt to me. A throwback to an earlier, more revolutionary era. Less safe and sane, no warning labels.

We boys would stand at the ready with buckets of water, in case an errant round went into a neighbor’s landscaping. My father would drop a rocket down the pipe. The fuse would appear where the notch was cut in the PVC (good design, that). Light, tilt in the direction you want it to go, wait…and foomp! Worked like a charm, trailing sparks to burst fifty feet up.

One year the police helicopter was around, and we kids were in mortal fear that we’d all get swept up for the illegal fireworks. Some of the dumber adults, my father included, decided to use the rocket tube for suburban antiaircraft instead. Larger rocket in the tube, wait ’til Angel One wanders by, don’t fire ’til you see the whites of the searchlight…foomp! No, the rockets didn’t come anywhere near the helo, but it’s the thought that counts. The lingering thought of “WTF, Dad?”

Bradbury Season

…that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and mid-nights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…

-Ray Bradbury, preamble to October Country.

 

Will Write for Harleys

Dad never understood what I did for a living. Something to do with writing. Then he tried to buy a Harley-Davidson, since I was grown and he was having a midlife crisis. He could ride a bike and kill himself and everything would be fine.

He got turned down with poor credit. Asked for my help. Coincidentally, I’d been reading a business book on H-D in the 1980s, and I quoted H-D’s CEO from his testimony before Congress in my father’s letter: “All I’m asking for is a chance.”

About two weeks later, my dad called with news: he’d gotten a call from the OC dealership inviting him to come down and pick out any bike. “I don’t know what you said, but we’re supposed to give you the pick of the litter” and at excellent terms.

My dad still didn’t understand what I did for a living, but he told his friends for years after “he got me that bike.”

Agent 001.9

For National Library Week, with gratitude.

I could read when I was 2, and some of my earliest memories are scenes from the mid-century Anaheim Central Library. Mom would cut me loose in the juvenile literature room, and I’d happily research bionics or whatever, though I was aware there was a greater store of knowledge in the rest of the building. The yellow juvenile card was my own, but all it afforded me was a chance to splash around in the shallow end of things.

So for my 7th birthday, my parents gave me the keys to the kingdom: an adult library card. This being the mid-Seventies, I was allowed to ride my BMX bike (helmetless) to downtown Anaheim (by myself) and wander the maze of shelves and floors (without ever once encountering a homeless person or furtive pedophile trolling the stacks).

Almost immediately, I found what became my first job and my second home: Section 001.9. The Dewey Decimal neighborhood where UFOs, Bigfoot, Nessie, and other unexplained phenomena lived. Not the inoffensive little green men like in the kids’ section, either–but this visitor from Flatwoods and many of my later nightmares:

God, the surge of interest in UFOs made it a wonderful time to be a kid. Living in suburban Anaheim, I understood the only way I’d ever meet Bigfoot was if he learned to use the bus system. But UFOs could land anywhere. You couldn’t fully let your guard down. The lights overhead might be aircraft most nights, but there was room for doubt. And all the kids on my block agreed that the yellow discoloration of decorative stones on a neighbor’s lawn could indeed have been caused by radiation from unknown craft bent on unknown missions. We each pocketed a sample. For science.

We had to prepare. I visited the library with a new purpose, not for myself alone but for all my second grade class. Well, the budding geeks in my second grade class. For the remainder of the 1976-77 school year, we spent the long lunch recess in the classroom while the uninitiated played endless kickball outside. I’d pull armloads of books from 001.9 out of my pack, we’d find the best pictures, and we’d make contingency plans:

OK, Bill, if you saw that at the window of the classroom over there, what would you do? WHAT WOULD YOU DO, BILL?!

Bill Marble answered that he’d run out the other way and call Miz Abbott or the principal to help. Wrong move, Bill:

At least the rest of us would escape. Thanks, Bill. RIP.

None of these noon terrors and chills would’ve been possible without my access to an adult library card. 30+ years later, my library card remains one of my prized possessions, well-worn and occupying prime position in my wallet. So to libraries and librarians everywhere, a deeply felt thank you.

Soundtrack for the Season

Chilling, thrilling sounds of the Haunted House!
Chilling, thrilling sounds of the Haunted House!

What a find! I popped into my local public library branch just before closing and saw this album cover as the centerpiece of their Halloween display–a blast from my past, and for sale at $1!

The album is a collection of sound effects from Disney–stock footage of wind, howling wolves, screaming cats, insane cackling, and all other things Halloween. Side A strings them together in a series of vignettes, mostly cheesy, but a few of these filled me with genuine dread as a kid, like the sounds of creatures chewing their way through a moon lander and its crew. I didn’t like to imagine an Apollo mission coming to such an end. Side B is just the sound effects, sans narratives, to serve as atmosphere for your own Halloween party.

This album was the soundtrack to many of my Halloweens–I’d ask my parents to cue it up while getting into costume. So it’s great to stumble across it now as an LP, even though I have MP3s of the tracks on my iPod already. I’ll frame it and display it proudly year-round.

I’m a good enough person that I won’t play the Cat Fight track just to see how my kittens respond. I won’t. Much.

Suburban legends.