Jim Dodson: A Tribute to My Emissary
Over my lengthy journalism career, there are only three famous folks I secretly hoped to someday meet and get to know. One was Arnold Palmer, my boyhood sports idol.
Proving what a wonderful place the universe is, I grew up to help Arnold write his memoirs. Don't get me started on what a joy that was.
The second was George Harrison, the Beatles' guitarist who found God and inspired me to play the guitar. Not long after Harrison passed away in 2001, I met a man who became his estate's gardener. He told me several amusing and tender things that only deepened my respect and admiration for the Quiet Beatle.
Lastly, there was Ray Bradbury, the great writer of fantasy and science, who was 91 when he passed away this past week. He was the joyful cosmic traveler who wrote hundreds of plays, essays, novels, short stories, an opera and even a screenplay to "Moby Dick."
Appropriately, his death came during the transit of Venus on Tuesday, one of the rarest celestial events of the century, something that had amateur astronomers and veteran space watchers in a spin of pleasure.
Bradbury was best known for his 1950 classic "The Martian Chronicles," which appeared in 1950 as the age of manned space travel was dawning. He went on to publish "The Illustrated Man" and "Fahrenheit 451" - the temperature at which books burn - at the height of the Red Scare and Joe McCarthy witch hunts, followed by other classics like "Dandelion Wine" and "Something Wicked This Way Comes." His "Selected Short Stories" was simply the best collection of stories I ever read.
He has been called the poet laureate of the space age, though he reportedly disliked being called a master of science fiction, a genre he believed was about the as-yet-undetermined future, not this moment's rich cosmic possibilities. In many respects he was an utterly Earthbound writer, an ageless spinner of powerfully human tales, though he expressly hoped to someday be buried on Mars.
He rode a bicycle nearly everywhere, for example, and never owned a driver's license or went to college - thought both, in a way, were a waste of time. Besides, early on, he was touched by magic.
Over his long and storied career, he loved to tell how at age 12, in 1932, the bottom of the Great Depression, he met a carnival magician named Mr. Electrico who touched him with a sword and declared, "Live forever!"
"I decided that was the greatest idea I had ever heard," he explained. "I started writing every day. I never stopped."
As a kid and young man he haunted libraries, devouring the classics, a fanatical book lover whose own tales of human beings striving to find their place in a vast universe eventually inspired generations of loyal readers to dream, imagine and create their own paths to the stars, a story as old as medieval alchemy.
Spark of the Eternal
Not long ago he related: "In my later years I have looked in the mirror each day and found a happy person staring back. Accordingly, I wonder why I can be so happy. The answer is that every day of my life I've worked only for myself and for the joy that comes from writing and creating."
Everything Bradbury said sounded a little like a college graduation speech: "Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off," he once urged young people. "Build your wings on the way down."
He explained that every human being possesses the spark of the eternal in them, an ability to take flight and explore new worlds, trusting in the power of imagination and our human capacity to grow, learn and love.
Truthfully, I was serious latecomer to the glory and vision of Ray Bradbury.
A fan of ancient myth and history, I failed to read anything by him until the lonely first summer I lived in Atlanta in 1977, just one year removed from college, a young reporter new to the big city and more than a little homesick for his old Carolina home.
I wandered into the Ansley Park Book Shop during a street festival and picked up a volume of Bradbury's "Selected Short-Stories" and was captivated by a story I read from beginning to end standing right there in the busy bookstore.
It's called "The Emissary," about a 10-year-old boy named Martin, suffering from an undiagnosed illness and confined to bed. His dog, named "Dog," roams the yards and creeks and fields of the town to bring the ordinary smells and sensations of the real world to his ailing master.
Here's the first opening paragraph. It still gives me goosebumps to read it:
"Martin knew it was autumn again, for Dog ran into the house bringing wind and frost and a smell of apples turned to cider under trees. In dark clock-springs of hair, Dog fetched goldenrod, dust of farewell summer, feather of departed robin, sawdust from fresh-cut cordwood, and leaves like charcoal shaken from a blaze of maple trees. Dog jumped. Showers of brittle fern, blackberry vine, marsh-grass sprang over the bed where Martin shouted. No doubt, no doubt about it at all. This incredible beast was October! Here, boy, here!"
I read the entire story, wiped my eyes and bought the book.
"Must be a good book," the young clerk remarked as she rang me up, noticing my emotions.
"I have no idea," I said.
Within a month, I'd read just about everything Ray Bradbury had published.
He became my literary Dog, my far-roaming and generous emissary to another world of mankind's glorious possibilities - and Earthly challenges. He made me ache and marvel and smile and cry and really want to be a grand storyteller who made a reader think and feel and wonder what could happen if you put optimism and curiosity into the theater of your life, enabling you to handle anything that came your way on this passage between cradle and grave.
He made me believe something that very good out there is waiting for us if we have the guts to give it chase the way Dog did, and maybe jump off the cliff the way Martin yearned to.
"We must move into the universe," Ray Bradbury told an audience some years ago. "Mankind must save itself. We must escape the danger of war and politics. We must become astronauts and go out into the universe and discover the God in ourselves."
Here on Earth, Dog digs holes in Miss Tarkin's garden and brings home interesting smells and objects to Martin's ever-expanding universe. Equipped with a tag that reads "My owner is Martin Smith ... Ten years old ... Sick in bed ...Visitors welcome!", Dog roams every corner of town and yard and far-flung woodland and field, even bringing back people: Mr. Holloway, the friendly neighbor who makes clocks; Mr. Jacobs, the grocer; even Miss Haight, his pretty teacher from school. She makes him cupcakes for Halloween.
One day Dog brings back a different kind of smell, though, the smell of the darkest Earth and - well, I won't tell you the rest of the story because you should read it for yourself.
Leaving So Much Behind
I read this story for the countless time sitting on my sunny terrace late Wednesday afternoon, minutes after I heard the news that Ray Bradbury had passed away, with my own crazy young digging dog, Ajax, lying at my feet.
It brought tears to my eyes again.
Mark Twain was born the same day as Halley's Comet passed through the skies in 1835, and died on the day it returned in 1910. This is listed as one of the great coincidences of mankind.
But was it?
Ray Bradbury, who didn't believe in such things, left on an even rarer celestial event, headed for heaven knows where.
As the grandfather advises his worried grandson in "Fahrenheit 451":
"Everyone must leave something behind when he dies. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there."
Thank you, Ray. You left so much behind. Happy travels.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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