One year ago today, I wished Ray Bradbury (along with Dorothy Parker) a Happy Birthday. On October 2nd last year, Ray went to San Bernardino to speak to fans of his work at an event organized by the San Bernardino Public Library. It was originally going to be at the Feldheym Central Library downtown, but due to high demand wound up being moved to the Sturges Center for the Fine Arts down the road.
I managed to score a stand-by ticket, meaning I might or might not get in, depending on available seating. So I went to the theater, not knowing whether I’d get in, although any overflow would still be able to watch the event on projected television outside.
Dozens, seemingly hundreds of people queued up and went inside while I and others in the stand-by line stood by.
But luck was with me. I got inside. Brief remarks by various functionaries, including, if I recall, the mayor of San Bernardino. Soon enough, Mr. Bradbury came out, the lights dimmed, and he began telling stories.
The talk was the culmination of a community reading of Fahrenheit 451, a favorite of librarians and readers for over 50 years now (and yours truly for that matter), so he spoke of writing the book, of becoming a writer, of creativity. Much of what he talked about I remember reading in various books of his, but to hear it from him in person, not to mention witnessing other people hearing him, was truly a magical experience.
It had been announced that Mr. Bradbury would be signing autographs for whomever wished it, for as long as he could. Given his infirmity and age, I was frankly surprised he was going to attempt it at all.
Since virtually the entire auditorium wished it, two great queues of people formed going down both aisles of the theater; they got things a bit organized, taking a handful of people from each line, alternating back and forth. So there was this slow advancement, as the crowds watched the lucky ones at the beginning get their copies of 451 signed.
It took a long time to get to the front of the auditorium, then around to the side and up to the stage. Over the next hour or so, I texted Denyse a few times to update her on the progress.
As I finally got closer I could hear fans telling Mr. Bradbury various things as he signed, getting photographs with him. He took the time to acknowledge every one of them, especially the kids, shaking hands, replying graciously, and always signing, signing, signing. Scores of people went before me, but he was still going strong by the time I reached the stage.
I’d been running over and over in my head, anxious as can be, what I wanted to say to him.
It isn’t every day you meet one of your heroes. What are you supposed to say?
How are you supposed to encapsulate decades of joy and profound influence into 15 seconds of prattle? How do you summarize how much he influenced you, both to become a writer and to keep writing?
I handed my copy of Dandelion Wine to the attendant (in my nervous haste to get there, the only volume among the several of his books I own that I could find) and snapped the above picture. I told him hello, which he returned as he smoothed the book out to sign.
What did I say to him as we shook hands afterwards?
“Thank you so much, sir, for everything.”
He brought his other hand on top of mine, “Thank you,” he said with heartfelt emotion. “Thank you.”
As I left the theater, he was still at it with dozens of people waiting their turn.
I’ll bet he got through every last one of them.
Ever since, I had intended to pick out a few of the pictures, write a few things, and post this very entry. But whenever I came to do it, I just couldn’t. I’m not sure why.
I think it was a version of that sense of profundity I mentioned earlier. The moment was too special to grasp quite yet. Months passed.
Then on my calendar this week I noticed it was again Mr. Bradbury’s (and Mrs. Parker’s) birthday on the 22nd. A perfect moment.
So, on this August 22nd, Happy Birthday to Ray Bradbury!
Thank you so much, sir, for everything.