To Mars and beyond, and back again, with an old friend

    Although we never met, his work had a particularly lasting effect on my life in many ways. Yet, I realized I hadn’t read any of his new works of the last decade or even revisited the older ones that still enthrall me. We had drifted apart.

    There are those exceptional humans who stay connected with the persons they have encountered throughout their lives. They plan class reunions, post milestones on Facebook and send birthday cards that arrive on the day.

    I am not one of those.

    So, when I heard the news that fantasy writer Ray Bradbury had died I felt that familiar pang of guilt. Although we never met, his work had a particularly lasting effect on my life in many ways. Yet, I realized I hadn’t read any of his new works of the last decade or even revisited the older ones that still enthrall me. We had drifted apart.

    I had known Bradbury’s work since I met it in a high school anthology in the late 1960s. It was “The Pedestrian,” a cautionary tale of a future society so anesthetized by TV that a man out for an evening stroll is suspicious enough to be arrested — by a robot police car. I can see why it affected my 14-year-old psyche, why it hooked me.

    The writing style was descriptive. Lights “clicked.” A voice is “metallic.” The car “smelled of riveted steel.” The message of individualism thwarted by authoritarianism resonated with someone who had to endure isoceles triangles in geometry class instead of sitting in front of the home stereo listening to The Allman Brothers. The story was just a few pages, but with so much said.

    If epiphanies exist, this had to be one. This was writing that demanded — and earned — your full attention. This was writing I wanted to do.

    For years I worked my way through his short stories and novels. Stories such as “The Rocket Man” and “Off Season” from The Martian Chronicles were some of my first realizations of the sweet mysteries of irony — in writing and in life. Bradbury (and Rod Serling) helped forge my fascination with the bittersweet core of life. Bradbury’s fantasies knowingly walked the thin line between dark and light. Terror and joy. Hope and despair. He didn’t invent the trick ending, but he used it very well, tackling broad concepts such as racism and religion and the deepest of human emotions. “Ylla,” the tale of a failing Martian marriage is as heart-wrenching as any Shakespearean tragedy or Dickinson poem.

    Over the years, his work was a wonderful shared experience with my high-school flame — now my married flame. When Elton John’s “Rocket Man” hit the charts, my wife and I smiled knowingly. We even made Dandelion Wine. It tasted terrible, but what a kick. The film version “Something Wicked This Way” is a long-standing Halloween tradition in our house.

    For decades. I have been a writer of sorts. News stories. Essays. Press releases. I’ve even had the chance to teach writing. I’m happy to report the hair on the nape of my neck still bristles when, as another friend says, someone knows how to “rub two sentences together.”

    I read the Bradbury obit and attendant stories and have been dipping scattershot into his canon. He once observed “The muse persists.” A simple phrase, but one with vast insight into his work and life philosophy. He believed in hard work and craftsmanship, of course. But he also believed that good writing comes from somewhere we can’t quite pinpoint. He believed there was magic in good writing. It was inspired. It was a mystery. He would repeat a quote from his friend director Federico Fellini: “Don’t tell me what I’m doing. I don’t want to know.”

    I was an English major who read all of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. I studied the selected writings of Emily Dickinson and the poems of James Dickey. I fell in love, along the years, with Ernest Hemingway and Tom Wolfe and Clive Barker and Stan Lee. But, looking back, I realize I never wanted to emulate any of them. I wanted to be Ray Bradbury. Still do.

    For Father’s Day, I received a paperback of Bradbury’s later work Now and Forever and a hardback reissue of The Martian Chronicles. So, you’ll have to pardon me. I’m off to catch up with an old friend.

    Bill Wedo is a recovering journalist and Communications Manager at Studio Incamminati, a school for contemporary realist art in Center City.

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