Barely a week ago I was standing in line, in no particular hurry to check out a book from the town’s ultra-modern and expansive library–an 8400 square foot building which bore little resemblance to my 1960s library in Brooklyn, New York. A young family pressed up against the glass of the exotic saltwater aquarium while the father rattled off the names of several tropical fish. The tank was so large it included a man-made coral reef.
I love libraries. They have been a refuge, a sanctuary for stirring my senses, indulging my dreams and putting me on the path of storyteller. Libraries were the only place where I could travel to Mars yet be home for dinner. But I must confess–the local Flatlands branch library was also an escape from the blacktop city streets and brick row houses in our working-class neighborhood.
I glanced toward the exit and saw an arresting quotation, “Without libraries, what have we? We have no past and no future.“– Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury. The name put a smile on my face, evoked so many boyhood memories and emotions. Behind the drab facade of the Brooklyn public library on the corner of “Flatbush (Avenue) and (Avenue) P” was everything I would ever need–books about history, exploration, space and science fiction. It was here I first came in contact with Ray Bradbury, an avid reader who, like me, shared a great love for Jules Verne and HG Wells. I started with his book R is for Rocket and graduated to S is for Space which, in turn, led to The Martian Chronicles. Coming home from the library, I couldn’t wait to share this author, a ‘master of the written word,’ with my parents. My father seemed amused by my childlike awe of science fiction. He, himself, kept a pair of science fiction books in the basement bookshelf–one by Issac Asimov; the other by Robert Heinlein. Dad challenged me to read Bradbury’s collection of short stories in The Illustrated Man.
My career was winding down. Within a year, I would be retired from the federal government and looking for a second career in the corporate sector. Yet I still maintained a childlike fascination for books and bookstores, one of which was nearby the office–the Mystery and Imagination bookshop on Brand Boulevard. Three years earlier I had missed a book signing by Ray Bradbury, faithful friend of libraries and indie bookstores at the very same venue. There on the bulletin board was another Ray Bradbury event–a book signing to coincide with his 89th birthday party. The owner winked at me with the assurance he would save me a place at the table. I purchased Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 on the spot and patiently bided my time until August 22.
The big day arrived. I was finally going to meet the man who had inspired me all those years ago to read and write. It was a full house of exuberant Ray Bradbury fans and friends jockeying for position to get a closer look at the man who was “most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream.” The author, screenwriter and poet was being gently pushed in his wheelchair by Bo Derek, a Hollywood actress and star of the movie Ten who doted on him the entire time. While fans brought out a cake adorned with a Bradbury look alike pumpkin we, his many fans, sang ‘Happy Birthday.’ Bradbury sampled the frosting and jokingly remarked, “I taste delicious.” The store’s owner and hostess held up a huge birthday card for all to see saying with some emotion, “You are a living book. You spawned all of us living books.”
During the signing, I handed my book to Ray Bradbury but decided to crouch like a baseball catcher so I could whisper a word to him at eye level. As he scribbled his name in the book and closed it, I leaned in and opened my heart, “Mr. Bradbury. Many years ago I discovered you in a small library in Brooklyn, New York. Your books made such a difference in my life…thank you for that.” His eyes began to water and I suppose mine did as well. A spontaneous gesture from this playful man of “gentle humanity” followed as he pulled me toward him and kissed me on the cheek.
I’m a lucky man. Some might prefer being kissed by Bo Derek. Not me. In 2018, six years after Ray Bradbury’s death, I published my first book. However, I could not resist placing an apt reference to Ray Bradbury and one of his stories from Martian Chronicles--“The Long Rain” in my book. Call it a tribute, my humble way of saying, “Thank you Ray!”