by Lance Mungia
The Christmas break I turned 8 years old I was too young to work out in the fields with my father and uncle yet. Probably to alleviate my boredom, my grandmother introduced me to the public library. It was there that I would see snow for the first time and meet a stranger in a white suit that would help me set the course of my life.
That winter I would often avoid the foggy soup outside by searching the science fiction aisle looking for things that were short and easy to read. I happened across Ray Bradbury there, whose books consisted mostly of short stories that sparked my imagination about rocket ships, towns that ate people alive, and little boys who skeletons threatened to replace them. Suddenly the fog out the window was filled with mystery and promise and beauty I had missed before.
I was hooked.
It nearly never snowed in the farm country of the San Joaquin Valley, it was much too hot and dry as a rule, so imagine my surprise the morning I woke up and saw a faint whisper of white topping the brown grass in my front yard. It was the first time I’d ever seen snow, although I wouldn’t even know enough to call it that unless my grandma told me and trust me it wasn’t all that spectacular. More like a hint of things to come than the grande finale.
It was probably more a sight and a concern for someone trying to come up the grapevine from Los Angeles over the mountain passes that too often got completely snowed in unexpectedly during the winter. I didn’t know that day that there was someone I would meet trying to do just that crazy despite the weather.
Yet it was enough of an excuse to spend the whole day at the library snuggled with a book of Ray Bradbury short stories whispering sweet nothings of distant planets with golden aliens and all it took to get there.
I remember the next moment vividly, even what I was reading as I looked up from my book of golden beings to the front door just as an impressive man entered with a grin and a twinkle in his eye. He seemed to blend with the tule fog just outside. He sported an ice cream white suit and a shock of white hair that reminded me of the wispy snow on my lawn that had since melted away. His sharp white edges were perfectly offset by his black horn rimmed glasses and tie.
As the librarian proudly announced that author Ray Bradbury had arrived and would be spending the afternoon talking to us kids, I looked down amazed to realize that his name was attached to the spine of the very book I was reading!
I thought it quite impossible that any author as great as the one I was reading would come to such a tiny library in the middle of a small migrant farm town like Delano, yet I gathered with several other wide-eyed kids on a carpet to hang on the charismatic fellow’s every word anyway.
Ray spent the entire afternoon talking to us, transporting us away with stories not of spaceships, aliens, ghosts and goblins, but rather with what it meant to be a lover of books and a writer, for him, and vicariously for us as well.
His love of libraries and the people who inhabited them both on the page and in person was infectious. I actually remember him speaking and me thinking, “wow, I want to do that.” At that moment he spoke I stopped feeling apprehensive about my own love of books and instead embraced fully the power of my own imagination from that day on.
That afternoon not just the idea of writing, but the magic of it really, was born inside me. It would have a profound effect on the next several decades of my life.
I would go on to write and direct two feature films and several shorts in the science fiction/fantasy genre, and to help inspire others to use their imagination through KGEM and the non profit we operate, hopefully with more to still contribute. Only today as I read Ray’s comments online I learned my first short film which was inspired by an Eudora Welty short called “A Worn Path” was one of Ray’s favorites as well. Great minds and all that…
Yet I always thought of Ray most during the hardest times, the leanest times, the times where it felt most impossible to follow a dream.
Funny enough, whenever over the years things were that down I always thought of Ray’s dimes. Yes, dimes. I used to jingle a few in my pocket.
That day when I was eight at the library, Ray talked to us of being broke in his 20s, taking all of the dimes he could collect to the basement of the UCLA library, The only place he had to write, wherein 10 days on an old typewriter powered by dimes at 30 minute intervals produced a book called Fahrenheit 451, his first novel, a “dime at a time” novel.
Unable to get ahold of Fahrenheit 451 at the library after that, probably because the other inspired kids were always checking it out, I pestered my grandmother to buy me that book every day until she did. I read it in probably the same amount of time it took him to write it. It enthralled me with it’s tale of book burning firemen, and taught me a valuable lesson that art can both entertain and show the deepest potentials of human nature both good and ill at the same time.
His first novel was the first full length novel that I ever read and even then I understood it to be a masterpiece. I’d get Ray to sign it for me years later.
You see, maybe 7 years ago I met Ray again at a screening in San Pedro of Moby Dick, the screenplay of which he’d written for John Houston. The person who put on the screening had personally invited me after reading an article I’d written about Ray and how I’d once met him. She enticed me by saying that afterwards Ray was going to be having dinner with several of his fans and that I would be invited.
How could I refuse that?
Of course I walked to the theater late probably after too much primping. Yet I still managed to sit 3 seats away from Ray Bradbury himself, who had quietly parked his wheelchair in the back of the theater after presenting the film.
All during the screening, I so much wanted to reach over and just go on how about much I enjoyed his work, how much effect he had on me over the years. Yet of course I did not. Much like the story he told before the screening of how he had once had a chance to meet John Houston and could not do it until he could “prove his love”, I struggled with my own love of the man’s work and the nervousness that came with meeting him again.
Don’t ask me how, but somehow after the screening, as I waited and waited for Ray to finish signing autographs and for the enticing dinner that the lady online had mentioned and which she again assured me would happen, I wound up escorting Ray to the restaurant. All by myself, with my hero, and his assistant who was pushing his wheelchair.
We spoke as I walked beside him about our mutual love of films, and about changing times, his disdain for cell phones, and he never once asked ” who hell are you, kid?”
I reminded him of that visit he once made to a small rural library surrounded by fields when I was eight.
He looked at me, and smiled. He said ” It was snowing that day.”
I was taken aback. Until he reminded me, as he had of so many other things over the years… I had forgotten that detail.
He had not.
I returned his easy smile, and replied “You know Ray, it never snows there. But yes, you’re right, it snowed just for you.”
He responded, “And just for you too.”
When we got the restaurant, I was a bit taken aback to realize that there were no other fans present. I’d been misinformed. The restaurant was otherwise closed, and a single table had made out for Ray and his family and a few friends. His daughter was there and so was another old dear friend of his by the name of Ray Harryhausen, a legend that I instantly recognized as being the genius creator of numerous special-effects extravaganzas of my youth such as the Voyage of Sinbad. I’d read of his long friendship with Ray and frankly was surprised that not only was he alive but actually in good stead.
No one bothered to say anything about me sitting down across from the table with these giants of imagination. I guess they figured since I’d walked in talking easily with Ray, I somehow belonged there.
Once at the table, I watched as one Ray greeted the other. They made some small chat. Then the two Rays, both hard of hearing, sat quietly, in the familiar light and love of old friends who don’t require extended conversation because all that has needed to be said has been years ago. In that instant, I realized that I too didn’t really have much more to say. Just like old familiar friends, I already knew what there was to know.
Finally, Ray’s assistant leaned in close to me and asked, with some confusion, “what is your relationship to Ray again?”
I stammered and came up with some sort of excuse about being invited by the person who put on the screening, who conveniently was nowhere to be found. I was politely informed by the assistant that this was a gathering for Ray’s close family and his good friend and that I would have to leave.
I got up and excused myself from the table, shaking both Rays’ hands on the way out.
At least I was a polite stalker. …And Ray signed my tattered copy of Fahrenheit 451.
I’d see Ray a couple of other times after that actually, because you see he never stopped coming to libraries. He never stopped. He probably spoked to ten thousand eight year olds like me. Librarians across Los Angeles knew his personal number as if it’s the bat phone or something, always ready to call Ray when their funding was in trouble or they needed a closer for a special event, even at the Library I lived near now which Ray came out to dedicate, just a few years ago. So I rest assured my story is by no means unique.
We should not mourn his passing for he is not gone. His love of books and the people both within and without them never changed over the years and will remain with us as long as those library doors stay open. He lives in all the lives he’s touched and will continue to touch. Like the many varied characters of his books; the ethereal, the naïve, the haunted dreamers and fallen fools, the all too human spirits dealing with their loneliness and creativity with the act of creation, he of the wonderful ice cream suit will always be there stalking the halls and bookshelves of our imagination to remind us of our better angels.
We should all be so inspiring. We should all be so giving. We should all live so long and well.
We are all richer for his many loves.
- “Forever and the Earth,” Ray Bradbury, 1950 (jennre.wordpress.com)
- Ray Bradbury on how Disneyland humanized robots [Afternoon Reading] (io9.com)
- MGM Making Film Adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s FROM THE DUST RETURNED (geektyrant.com)
- Books That Changed my Life: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (caracaleo.com)