The scene is the autograph table at the 2006 World Science Fiction Convention, Anaheim Convention Center, Los Angeles, California.
At the table sat an empty chair, a huge line arrayed before it, waiting. But the man they were waiting for never came. Instead he went to room CC204 – and so did we. We were close to the stage and, despite the weakness in his musical voice, had no trouble hearing everything Ray Bradbury had to say.
Remembering the previous times I’d seen him, ten and twenty years ago, it was sad. He was in a wheelchair now, frail; his body sprawled, as if aging ligatures were giving way. But I thought it heartening that he could make small gestures with his left hand, and his stories, his oral autobiography, seemed ageless.
He claimed to remember all of it, from the moment of his birth to date. He mentioned Forry Ackerman, seated right up front, Heinlein, Charles Addams, and Julie Schwartz. He told us – as he always does – “surround yourselves with your loves and this peculiar field that we all care about.” And he told us the story of Mr. Electrico.
He was 12, in Waukegan, Illinois, returning with his father from an uncle’s funeral. He’d been to a carnival and seen there a defrocked minister who could survive a blast of a thousand volts, who had touched the boy Bradbury with his cane (an arc jumped to his nose) and shouted “Live forever!” Ray said that he got his furious father to let him out as they passed the carnival, where he found Mr. Electrico again, and they sat by the river and exchanged philosophies – his, at 12, were “little philosophies,” but they impressed Mr. Electrico, who said that Ray was a friend of his killed in the Great War, reborn. It was the central day of his life, Bradbury said – he’d seen “the illustrated (i.e., tattooed) man” that day – and it changed his life.
He claims to have total recall. He remembers being born, the taste of being suckled, the pain of being circumcised. Certainly he remembers the movies – his mother was “a maniac for the movies” – and falling in love with Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, with The Lost World and its dinosaurs, with King Kong and its dinosaurs – Ray Bradbury has always had a thing for dinosaurs (viz: “A Sound of Thunder”).
He told of how Forry led him to Ray Harryhausen, who was doing dinosaur animation in his garage, and how that led him to “The Fog Horn” which led to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (a sort-of collaboration between Ray and Ray) and the screenplay for John Huston’s film of Moby Dick. Huston said he saw Melville in “The Fog Horn” – where Bradbury described the invention of fog horns – and also Shakespeare. Bradbury said that after Huston brought him to Ireland to write the screenplay for Moby Dick, he dreamed that Shakespeare stood underneath Melville’s window and said “Herman Melville, come ye forth!” He said that after he awoke he pounded out the last half hour of the screenplay in one sitting, rushed to Huston and tossed it onto his lap. shouting “Look quick! Herman Melville stands before you!”
He told us how a screen treatment he’d written for Gene Kelly morphed into Something Wicked This Way Comes. He told us about meeting his wife when she was a bookstore clerk and how they lived in Venice, the very town Rosy had visited two days before, and how he had to rush across the street to answer the phone at the gas station – which he pretended was his office. He talked about the fateful visit to New York when a brilliant book editor suggested that he gather his Martian stories into a book, and then suggested that he use the concept of the tattooed man from the carnival to create another book, and how The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man made the Bradburys the incredible sum of $1500 on one marvelous day.
Mostly, he spoke about being in love – in love with Lon Chaney, with being born, with memory and Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and John Carter and Barsoom, and Edgar Rice Burroughs – and his deep love for astounding science fiction. Love love love love love.
Yeah, we’d heard it all before – ringing from the dais at Confederation and ten years later, at L.A.Con III – but still, we applauded him off the stage.
John Coker, in tears, helped wheel Bradbury out. Outside, in the lobby, Bradbury munched on salad and faced the incredible autograph line – transferred here from downstairs. I’d gotten my copy of The Martian Chronicles inscribed at the last L.A.Con (see Challenger #5), so I just wanted to stand there and look at him. When I was an adolescent he was my Mr. Electrico – like his friend and agent, Julie Schwartz, like Carl Barks, like George Reeves in the series he so hated, like Walt Disney, like Rod Serling, like Andre Norton … he lit fires under my imagination. I may have accomplished little with this life, but I’ve enjoyed a lot, and this frail old man was one of the authors of that joy.
I would have stood there all day, but Rosy came up, and understanding, drew me away. “Come on,” she said. “It’s time to say goodbye.”