1909 footage digitally restored in 2014.
I met a man from the future at one of Ray Bradburyâ€™s talks.
Around ten 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 writing. Not that I minded!
Sitting next to me was this elfin little man with silver hair but the restless energy of a child. He was dressed all in silver, like a jumpsuit. I first noticed him because he was so obviously happy to be there: fidgeting, bouncing in his chair, winking at me when he caught my eye, rubbing his hands together in expectation.
As Ray lectured, the little man kept catching my attention as he was nodding in agreement or chuckling to himself at everything said. Like the buddy who echoes the lines of a movie under his breath to show how well he knows it, or conducts a symphony with his fingers.
At one point Ray launched into a story and the little man leaned over to me, grinning, and whispered like a conspirator, “Oh, thees. You will love thees one!” He had an odd, slurred accent, like a Monty Python caricature of French.
Later, everyone lined up for book signings and autographs. The little man was right in front of me, bouncing on his toes and taking notes on some cards.
We arrived in front of Ray, and the little man said, “I have nozzing for you to zign, Ray Bradbouree, but I have a question for you: Do you believe in time travel?”
“No. It’s impossible.” I was surprised at Ray’s impatient, flatly dismissive tone. Well, maybe he gets asked that a lot. But should a science-fiction writer say something is impossible?
“Oh, you theenk so?” The elf’s smile grew and he slowly shook his silver head, indulging Bradbury’s opinion. Then he handed Ray his pen. At a touch it flared to life like a lightsaber, a hot blue spark, and Ray exclaimed with wonder and inspected it curiously.Â
“Well, zis is for you anyway. I brought it wiz me.” And the little man fairly skipped away.
As I walked to my car later, I didn’t see how the elf left. Probably because I didn’t look up.
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.
Some years would see a block party with neighbors combining firework arsenals. The Dagnalls never kicked in the large boxed assortments.Â 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 fatherÂ 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.Â But there were always a few of their larger cousins, as well: bona fide rockets on thick guide rods withÂ 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!Â No, the rockets didn’t come anywhere near the helo, but it’s the thought that counts. The lingering thought of “WTF, Dad?”
Great design for “headspace”: inside are books, sheltered from the elements, for you to browse and borrow.
…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.
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.”