Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Boy That Bradbury Built

I first encountered Ray Bradbury in middle school. I believe that is the perfect time to meet Bradbury. Any younger and the wonder of his stories would have escaped me. Any older, and my focus would have been on girls and cars and football–the business of growing up. I would have read the words but perhaps missed most of the magic.

Instead, I was the perfect audience for Bradbury: shy, bespectacled, a quiet boy secretly yearning for adventure.

I don’t recall the first Bradbury story I read. However, I cannot forget the first story that had an impact on my young mind. It was “Mars is Heaven”.

A rocket is sent to the red planet to discover what happened to two previous expeditions. Upon landing, the rocket’s crew discovers an idyllic American small town, circa the 1920s, the perfect Bradbury town. The residents of the town are the deceased relatives of the astronauts, all in perfect health and leading an ideal life on the surface of Mars. Overcome with joy, the crew abandons the rocket to reunite with their long-lost loved ones. The only crew member who doesn’t trust what he sees is the captain, who suspects his men are being duped by telepathic creatures.

I had never read a story with that emotional heft (honestly, more heft than I was capable of processing. Still, like most kids who had read a lot by that age, I knew there was more going in in the story than I could see, even if I couldn’t grasp every nuance) and I remember lying awake in my bed for several nights, replaying the tale’s events over and over. I wasn’t sure what had happened or why I couldn’t stop thinking about “Mars is Heaven”.

What I didn’t realize until much later was that Ray Bradbury had changed me, as surely as if he had opened the top of my skull, reached into my brain and rearranged a few things. Because of Bradbury, I asked for a telescope and began searching for that tiny red speck in the sky. I read more Bradbury and discovered the magic and mystery that hid in autumn, of the ghosts and monsters who yearned for a better life just like the rest of us. Because of Bradbury, October became my favorite month and Halloween the most cherished holiday. I was transformed into the boy that Bradbury built.

I’m still that boy, all these years down the road. My life is richer for his works. Anytime I feel that old red planet slipping away from me, I just have to turn to my bookshelf, where the dinosaurs and little ghosts and rocket men are always there to welcome me home.

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