October Country

“October Country . . . 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

For Ray Bradbury’s Centennial: the Impossible Birthday Card

I once received a birthday card from a Neil, postmarked from England, and while I thought that was very kind I didn’t know any Neils, and certainly not any from England.

Inside was a kind note and some drawings in pen, and then it dawned on me that I was holding a birthday card sent to me by Neil Gaiman, who shouldn’t have any inkling I exist.

Later I learned that a mutual friend had arranged that as a birthday surprise, and that Neil Gaiman thought it was so clever he carried the card from the US to the UK just to mail it with the more exotic postmark.

It was an excellent idea, so I borrowed it.

Years later, another good friend was about to have a son. Ray Bradbury was coming to San Diego to do a book signing. I saw my chance. I waited patiently in line among some fans and some speculators asking an elderly man to sign a stack of hardbacks bound for eBay.

When it was my turn, Ray peered wearily up at me from his chair. I presented him with a blank birthday card. He puzzled over it while I explained my idea to him and his assistant (Ray’s hearing was going). I got across that a friend who had introduced me to many wonderful authors was about to have a child come into the world, and I thought they’d like to hear from Ray Bradbury.

When Ray understood, he lit up. “That’s wonderful!” And with new energy Ray wrote in the card, and seemed very pleased to be in on the scheme. He handed it back to me, and I sealed it in an envelope without reading. It wasn’t for me, after all.

Ray’s assistant caught up to me as I was leaving. Standing near a limo with F451 license plates, he said Ray was really happy and this was such a cool idea. Which made my day–I think I even remembered to give Neil Gaiman the credit.

I sent the envelope to a friend in Los Angeles who remailed it to disguise my part (a San Diego return address or postmark would give me away). Not entirely successfully, though:

A few days later, I got a phone call from my friend the new father. “Ahh…Rob, we got a birthday card from Ray Bradbury for Alex. Do you know anything about that?”

My first job: Submarine Captain

An old resume includes:

Captain in the world’s 13th largest submarine fleet. Led “voyage of exploration through liquid space,” including a course beneath the polar icecap. Demonstrated conspicuous bravery and sound judgment in rescuing 32 civilians from surface storms, the Graveyard of Lost Ships, and attacks by giant squid. Spearheaded underwater archaeological expedition; located the legendary lost continent of Atlantis.

Meeting Ray Bradbury

I sat down years ago to make a list of Remarkable Things I Want to Do in My Life. #1 was “Tell Ray Bradbury how much I love Dandelion Wine.” Shortly after, I moved to San Diego, and read that Ray was going to teach a seminar for writers. Right down the hill from my home. I could walk a hundred feet from my front door to the edge of Mission Valley and look down on the roof of the hotel that would host the event.

After the storytelling came a signing session. I stood in line, holding my well-thumbed, well-loved paperback copy of Dandelion Wine like a totem. As the line shuffled forward, I noticed my hands were beginning to sweat. I was fidgeting, restless, breathing and heart beating like I’d just run laps instead of sat in a chair listening for hours. How silly, I remember thinking, I’m a grown man, I don’t do starstruck or tongue-tied.

And of course there’s Ray, peering up at me expectantly, and I babble something about how much I like this book, and I read it once in high school, and I just want to say how much I like this book, and. And.

And Ray slowly stood, came around the table, gave me a hug, and said,

“I love you, too.”

Buying Fireworks

A friend on Facebook: “You can learn everything you need to know about someone just watching them purchase fireworks.”

One summer, my best friend and I were too poor to buy fireworks, but we loved window shopping at the firework stand. The dudebro attendants noticed us and offered us a deal: take stacks of their flyers, distribute them far and wide on our bikes, and they’d give us $100 worth of store credit. Deal! We took off and papered Anaheim with their ads going door-to-door.

Hours later, we returned. And were laughed at by the same guys: sorry, dudes, you should have gotten it in writing, sucks to be you!

My friend and I moped around my house, crushed. My father noticed and asked what’s going on.

He went to the fireworks stand and returned with $100 worth of fireworks.

I learned everything I needed to know about my dad from watching him “purchase” those fireworks.

Bradbury, on Halloween, in the Library

The day before Halloween some years ago, Ray Bradbury was appearing at a Los Angeles public library to drum up support for the institution–to remind people of the library, and its importance, and the books there for the asking. I found out about the event on short notice, and sped north from San Diego. First miracle: a parking space only a block or two away, and I crept back through dark suburban streets to the little branch library, now buzzing with an after-hours crowd.

My heart fell as I saw how full the place was. Second miracle: a seat, first row, but way off to one side. Far from the podium. But if I craned my neck, I’d be able to see the speaker. There was a small table in front of me, way over on stage left, with a lit jack-o’-lantern on it. Nice of the library staff to provide some atmosphere.

It was a while before things got organized, but eventually the room packed full, and a hush fell, and Ray was invited to the podium. There was a quick discussion between his assistant and the MC, and Ray rolled over in his chair and stopped a few feet from me. The podium wasn’t wheelchair-friendly, you see. He’d be more comfortable seated.

Ray began spinning his stories of how he became a writer, of educating himself in libraries, of typing Fahrenheit 451 on a rented typewriter at UCLA using $9.80 in dimes over nine days.

And then the lights went out. Library staff scuttled around in the dark, then apologized: the lights wouldn’t be coming back, but they’d let the talk continue if nobody minded.

Ray didn’t miss a beat. In the faint glow of the jack-o’-lantern, he seemed to talk directly to me and the people to either side. We were probably the only people Ray could see.

For more than an hour, I felt I had a private audience with Ray Bradbury, listening as he told his tales, conspiring over a pumpkin, watching as the Halloween candlelight played over his face and fired our imaginations.