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Live Forever

By

In September of 1932, just hours after his uncle’s funeral, twelve-year-old Ray Bradbury was walking down the familiar streets of Waukegan, Illinois when he spotted a carnival tent on the shores of Lake Michigan. The night prior, young Bradbury had witnessed a spectacle inside, the amazing Mr. Electro confined to his chair, holding steady while the electric current passed through him. At the close of his performance, the showman moved from person to person, and as Bradbury recounted, “When he reached me, he pointed his sword at my head and touched my brow. The electricity rushed down the sword, inside my skull, made my hair stand up and sparks fly out of my ears. He then shouted at me, ‘Live forever!’”

It was a commandment Bradbury seemed to have taken quite literally, reported the Los Angeles Times, at least until the 91-year-old writer died on June 5, 2012.

***

When I first visited Ray in his Los Angeles home in December of 2002, he shared with me the story of Mr. Electro. I, a spellbound high school senior, sat beside him on the couch, trying to keep my own hands from trembling as a different kind of electricity tore through.

The circumstances that led me to my literary hero were the result of luck, serendipity, and my own harmless fudging of the truth. Though it was also due to an essay contest in which I’d argued that Bradbury was a “great American” (or something equally innocuous and uncontestable). Despite the boilerplate I’d cooked up, the essay miraculously won, and while the contest made no promises about the winner meeting his “great American” (which would have been a logistical feat had one of the many George Washington essays won), the contest organizers nevertheless sent a copy of my work to Ray.

I was seventeen, and while most seventeen-year-olds were spending their afternoons displaying acute symptoms of senioritis, my after school job at the local bookstore confined me to the more arduous task of alphabetizing the books.

All of the books.

One of those afternoons—(I was likely lingering in Bradbury’s b’s, or if in an indulgent mood, hovering near the h’s and dreaming myself onto the shelf)—my mother burst into the bookstore and handed me a letter with Ray’s return address.

Inside the envelope was a letter thanking me for my essay and encouraging me to give him a call sometime.

I did, that night, rehearsing my words a half-dozen times before picking up the phone on my parents’ bedside table.

I listened to the ring, followed by a booming voice:

“Hello?” he called.

“Ray?” I asked.

We became friends a few words later.

I can’t recall exactly what we talked about; it was all so long ago.  What I do remember was implying to him that I would soon be “in the area,” and how much I’d appreciate the chance to shake his hand.

“Well, come on over then!”

If by “in the area” I meant 2202 miles away, then surely I was telling the truth.  I kept the exact distance to myself, assuring him that I’d see him soon, and then, within a few months time, boarded a plane from Indiana, became hopelessly lost in LAX, and finally persuaded a shuttle driver to take me to the address I’d scrawled on a half sheet of paper.

I arrived at the Bradbury home a few hours early, though far too embarrassed to knock on his door, I chose the slightly less mortifying route of loitering on the sidewalk across from his home, passing the time by reading a few of his stories while trying to protect the pages from the rain.

Ray and I spent a few hours together that morning, the grand storyteller regaling me with his life’s tales, while also taking an interest in my own.

“Tell me everything,” he cried.  “I want to know everything there is to know.”

I wanted the same from him, though throughout our conversations I made the repeated mistake of commenting on various curiosities in his home—a particular book, a movie—and as a result, left with an overstuffed backpack, Ray happily handing over anything that had crossed my line of vision. I left him with a gift as well, a 1995 batch of dandelion wine, which amounted to little more than a few dead dandelion heads floating atop brown ether in a baby food jar. Ray feigned great appreciation for the humble gift, swearing to me he’d keep it forever.

***

On the first day of summer at the end of my seventh grade year, I settled into a lawn chair in my parents’ backyard with a copy of Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine.

The book changed me.

While I knew nothing of being a Midwestern boy growing up in the summer of 1928, I knew everything about what it meant to be one growing up now. Ray’s book recounts the story of a pair of brothers—Douglas and Thomas Spaulding—in desperate need to keep their world the same. The boys do everything in their power to slow time, to keep themselves in a perpetual state of summer.

In the present, they realize, beloved grandparents never die and best friends never move away. Likewise, the present allows for fresh tennis shoes to remain forever springy and for ice cream cartons to always stay full. The problem, the boys decide, is the unknowable future, and in an effort to combat the sadness lurking before them, the brothers—on their grandfather’s bidding—collect dandelions from the yard in order to bottle batches of dandelion wine.

“Dandelion Wine,” Ray wrote. “The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered.”

The tragedy, of course, is that the brothers soon face the harsh truth: that time is “stoppered” for no man (not even for any boys). All the cellar shelves in the Midwest might overflow with carefully corked ketchup bottles of summers’ past, but no vintage serves as an antidote for growing older. Dandelion Wine—while possessing the powers of nostalgia—cannot heal the sick or resurrect the dying.

They are just dandelions, after all—they grow, they die, all the while refusing to stay static.

***

Ray and I kept in touch over the years, dozens of letters exchanged back and forth, as well as a cherished, ego-boosting voice message he once left for me:

“B.J., Ray Bradbury here.  Call me back!  Ray Bradbury.  Call me!  I love you!”

Sometimes, after reading Ray’s “The Ravine” in my fiction classroom, I put my phone on speaker and replay the message for the class. Most students think it’s some kind of obtuse professorial joke, that I’m playing some kind of trick.

“It’s him,” I promise, and when they still don’t believe me, I show them the picture of Ray and me from my senior year, though even with photographic proof they remain skeptical. Upon first experiencing this phenomena, I was reminded of a similar skepticism described in Dandelion Wine, a scene in which ten-year-old Tom Spaulding and a pair of girls meet an elderly woman named Mrs. Bentley. Mrs. Bentley tries telling her young visitors that she was once their age, though the children refuse to believe her.

“But I was,” Mrs. Bentley cries out to them, “many years ago, a little girl just like you.”

How could she prove it? the children naively wonder.  Isn’t it true that old people were always old and that the young stay young forever?

***

The week before I grew up and got married I made my first and last trip to Waukegan. I was twenty-four, it was summer, and in an attempt at fulfilling some last wish of bachelorhood, I stepped off the train and wandered into Ray’s childhood home, as well as the real-life model for Green Town, the setting for many of his books. I was greeted by the remnants of a once charming town, and while surely some charm remained (the marquee over the Genesee Theater, the shoreline, the long reach of the trees), the memory of the city’s most famous citizen seemed mostly an afterthought.

I’ve written about this before: how I tracked down his childhood home, snagged a handful of grass, tried hard to imagine a boyish Ray gathering dandelions by the sackful. Next, I went in search of Ray Bradbury Park, but when I asked a man washing his car if he knew the way, he informed me that he’d never heard of any “Batberry Park.”

I found his park, eventually, and took the wooden stairs leading me deep into the ravine.  It was the same ravine Ray had written about in Dandelion Wine, the same one I referenced when teaching the story in class.  He described it as a “black dynamo humming with sparkles like great electricity where fireflies moved on the air.”  Even by daylight, I could see his description rang true. It was mysterious, indeed, a shadowy, tree-covered gouge in the earth whose knee-high weeds seemed to leave everything buried far beneath the surface. In my attempt to be a man, I tromped through those trees anyway, forgetting—for a moment—the horrors Ray had written of that place.  Instead, I removed my shoes and socks and waded in the cool water of the stream, though after growing numb, returned to the woods, dedicating much of that afternoon examining trees in the off chance I might stumble across Ray’s initials carved into the bark three-quarters of a century before.

Much to my disappointment, Ray wasn’t anywhere in Waukegan.

He, too, refused to stay static.

***

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that on Ray’s last night on earth, Venus made a rare transit across the sun, an otherworldly wonder that scientists report won’t be repeated for over a hundred years. Ray—who wrote and dreamed of space travel long before it was a reality—was no stranger to the stars. He put men on the red planet when rocket scientists couldn’t, publishing The Martian Chronicles in 1950 and giving readers deep insight on what it means to be an outsider on a distant land.

In a recent interview, Bradbury biographer Sam Weller asked Ray what it felt like to visit his future gravesite; a plot alongside his wife’s in Los Angeles’s Westwood Memorial Park.

“I’d much rather be buried on Mars,” he replied. “Put my ashes in a tomato soup can, because that’s all I ate when I was a child.  Bury me on the red planet. Place a tombstone there with my name and a listing of my most well-known books, Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. And at the top of the tombstone I’d like there to be a little hole and underneath that it should read, ‘Place only dandelions here.’”

***

Two decades prior, in late spring of 1989, Mike McDonough—the producer of a thirteen-episode radio drama based on Bradbury’s work—asked Ray to speak on his stories’ many depictions of death.

“…[A] lot of people don’t like to talk about it, but I think you have to be very honest that we’re competing all the time with time,” Ray explained, “and time is running out. I sensed this when I was very young, that I was in a competition with death. I had to get my work done, and every time I put a new short story in the mail—especially a novel, what a triumph that is—because you say, ‘Okay, death, I’ve won this time.’ And you’re not going to win forever.”

I was reminded of this in the summer of 2010, when from a gas station in the California desert I found the courage to call Ray one last time. We hadn’t spoken by phone in years (though we still exchanged letters), and buoyed, perhaps, by the rush of having nearly completed the 2202 mile road trip to help my brother move to L.A., I picked up the phone and dialed.

“Hello?” he called.

“Ray?” I asked once more.

After offering less than a word or two of explanation—how far we’d come, how close we were—he cried out, “You’re here? Well what are you waiting for? Come over!”

Then, he hung up the phone.

My brother and I parked the car in front of his home an hour or so later, and after mustering my courage, knocked. A woman answered the door, and as I began introducing myself to Ray’s daughter, she interrupted, “Oh, it’s you! We’re never quite sure who Dad’s inviting over.”

My brother and I spent the next hour chatting with Ray. He sat in his chair, the TV blaring behind us, as he showed off the Ordre des Arts et Des Lettres medal dangling from around his neck.

“This was given to me by the French people,” he said, aiming his head down to admire it. “It’s one of their highest honors.”

We talked just as we had before—exchanging the stories of our lives—and as our time wound down he presented me with an honor as well.

His arm raised, he touched my forehead, giving me the blessing that once, many years back, had been bestowed upon him in a carnival tent in Waukegan.

“Live forever,” he demanded, staring hard into my eyes.

I swore to him I would.


B.J. Hollars is the author of two books of nonfiction—Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa. His hybrid text, Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction will be published in the fall of 2014. He teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more of his work visit www.bjhollars.com. More from this author →