A Tribute to Ray Bradbury

A Tribute to Ray Bradbury

Loren Logsdon

I find myself nearing the end of a long and rewarding career in college teaching. This fall marks the 49th time I will be welcoming students to begin the first semester in the groves of academe. Along the way, I have encountered all kinds of interesting students and colleagues whom I will always remember—students for their energy, individuality, and potential and colleagues for their friendship and generosity in sharing ideas and teaching materials. Of the many authors I taught along the way, one stands out as being very special. He is Ray Bradbury, and I am writing this essay as a gesture of gratitude to a writer who celebrates the joy of living and reminds us that life is a precious gift. Ray’s works have not only given students some exciting reading experiences, but they have also influenced the way I think and live, indeed with the way I touch the world with my life. What also convinces me that Ray is special is the tribute paid by countless numbers of students over the years who have thanked me for assigning his novels and stories. Frequently, students from years ago tell me that reading Ray Bradbury was the highlight of the class.

My own first encounter with Ray’s works was in high school. I read “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” and a story from The Martian Chronicles recommended by a teacher. It was not until the summer of 1958 that Bradbury became a powerful influence in my life. I had just graduated from college and was working on construction to earn money to attend graduate school in the fall when two things happened that proved to be life-changing. I saw the movie Moby-Dick for the first time and was amazed at how good it was. I noticed that Ray Bradbury had written the script for the film. During my college years, I had read Moby-Dick twice, for two different courses, and consequently, I knew how long and complicated the novel was. After viewing the movie, I was convinced that Ray Bradbury had to be a genius to transform a 724-page novel into a two-hour movie. Thus it is easy to understand why I would read Ray’s novel Dandelion Wine immediately after seeing Moby-Dick. I finished his novel, and I was in awe, spellbound, and inspired by the magic of Ray’s creative spirit.

Later, as a college teacher with a master’s degree, I taught freshman composition courses, and had little opportunity to teach literature. After I completed my doctorate, thus qualifying me to teach literature, I taught Bradbury’s works whenever I could. For example, the English Department at Western Illinois University had a course entitled “The 20th Century American Novel,” and at that time it was the most popular course on the schedule. In fact, I often taught two sections of it each semester. Since professors were free to choose our own texts, I always taught a Bradbury novel, alternating Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Fahrenheit 451. At one time, my department chairman suggested that I design a major authors course around the works of Ray Bradbury and offer it as an extension course in the Rock Island-Moline area. Thirty-five students enrolled in the class, confirming what I already knew: that students enjoy reading Ray’s works. He speaks to them in ways they can understand. Like a magician, he tells them in his eloquent metaphors and images that life is very special and that they should open their eyes to the everyday miracles that most people either don’t see or don’t consider important.

Life has its delicious ironies. A graduate student who had taken two of my classes at the Quad Cities Graduate Center wrote to tell me of a strange experience she had. She and her husband were traveling to Jacksonville, Illinois, to attend their son’s basketball game at Illinois College, when they encountered a detour because the bridge was closed at Beardstown. She wrote, “We went through this little town that had Logsdon Orchard at one end and Bradbury Plumbing and Heating at the other. I thought we had just entered The Twilight Zone.”

I wrote back assuring her that the town was real and that she had just traveled through Versailles, Illinois, the hometown of my youth. I explained that Logsdon Orchard was owned by Sidney Logsdon, a distant cousin, and the Bradbury store was owned and operated by Raymond Bradbury. The Bradbury family was prominent in Versailles, but I didn’t know if those Bradburys were related to Ray Douglas Bradbury, the world famous writer. I cherish this story as a reminder of the special relationship I have enjoyed with a writer whose books have brought so much joy to people all over the world.

My first actual contact with Ray Bradbury the man occurred near the end of my days at Western Illinois University. For seventeen years, I served as the fiction editor of the department’s Mississippi Valley Review, and the magazine was approaching its twentieth year of existence, a remarkable achievement for a little magazine. The editors decided that we would publish an anniversary issue. As a special feature of that issue, we would write to famous authors, explain the situation, and ask them if they would donate a poem or story for our celebration. I decided that it was the perfect opportunity to write to Ray Bradbury.
I did and two weeks later I received a postcard from Ray remarking about my enthusiasm and inviting me to Waukegan, his hometown, where he was to be honored. He said that he would be glad to meet me there; however, a conflict prevented me from going. Now, Ray did not mention in his postcard anything about donating a story or poem, so I concluded that I had violated an unwritten rule by asking a writer to give away his work. About two weeks later, on a lazy Friday afternoon, I was sitting in my office at school when the phone rang. The voice on the other end asked for Loren Logsdon. I identified myself in a matter of fact professorial voice. Then the caller said, “This is Ray Bradbury. I hope I’m not calling at a bad time for you.”

I was taken so completely by surprise that I didn’t know what to say. I stammered and stuttered, finally saying something inane. Two weeks later, I discovered what I should have said: “Ray you can call me any time you want to.” I just didn’t think fast enough. I believe I can be forgiven, for who could imagine a famous author calling an unknown professor and asking if it was a bad time to call? Not many, I guess.

Ray then announced that he was sending two poems, but he said that he was having trouble with one of them. He couldn’t think of a title for it. Then, he surprised me once more by asking if I could help him edit it and find a title. This time, I knew exactly what to say. “I can do that,” I said.

The poem that was giving Ray so much trouble was based on his discovery that Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same day. In reading his poem, we editors noticed that he had a line that would be a perfect title: “Death starves for two.” When I sent the poem back to him with the suggested title along with some minor details for revision, I pointed out that the poem contained within itself the perfect title. His response was, “Geez! Why didn’t I see that?”

As a result of this experience and a further exchange of letters, I wondered if I would ever meet Ray in person. His letters and cards were almost as interesting as his stories and novels. I concluded that I had to be content with the connection I had with him. When I left Western to teach at Eureka College, my undergraduate alma mater, Nancy Perkins, a colleague, and I were brainstorming one day, and we came up with the idea of the college sponsoring a creative writing contest for high school students. To make the event attractive, we decided to invite a famous writer to speak at a banquet and later give a public lecture. “I know the perfect author to launch this event,” I said. “Ray Bradbury, and I hope we can afford him.” Nancy and I sold the idea to three key campus administrators, who promised their support; and after some negotiations with Ray’s agent, our Dean of Students offered him a contract. Ray’s agent told me that Ray reduced his fee out of kindness to me.

Still, I wondered what Ray would be like in person. Some famous writers turn out to be disagreeable, even nasty, in person. Hoping for the best, I took two students with me to meet him at the Peoria Airport and take him out to dinner. He was wonderful! He was even better in person than I expected. I quickly discovered that Ray has the amazing and rare gift to make people feel completely comfortable in his presence. Within ten minutes, the students and I were conversing with him, as though he were an old friend whom we were taking out to dine. The next day, he completely charmed the high school students, and in the evening, he spoke to an overflowing crowd in our auditorium. He gave an eloquent lecture without once referring to notes, and he received an enthusiastic standing ovation. As he left, he said to me, “If you like me, invite me back in three or four years.” I wanted to reply, “What do you mean by if we like you?” But I didn’t say that. I thought he could tell that we liked him.
I published three scholarly articles on Ray’s work, and one time I took a risk and sent him the article I was most proud of. I was hoping he would respond by saying how perceptive I was, how brilliant even, but he was rather diplomatic. He wrote, “It is interesting to see myself through your eyes.” I suspect that he thought I intellectualized too much. Ray has said several times that people think too much instead of following their heart, their intuition.

True to his word, Ray came back three years later. This time I asked my wife to accompany me to meet him. She was somewhat reluctant to do so. “What can I say to a famous author like Ray Bradbury?”

“Ask him about his cats or his grandchildren,” I said. But she didn’t have to do that. In five minutes they were conversing as if they were old friends getting back together after years apart. Once again Ray charmed the audience. Addressing especially the young writers in the audience, he told them about his career. He said that the turning point was being asked by John Huston to write the film script for Moby-Dick, and he advised the young writers to believe in themselves—to follow their talent and their loves. He urged them to do what they loved or love what they do. He said, “I was born with the capacity to love many things.” He explained that he had never abandoned those things he loved; instead he grew with them, cherished them, and was rewarded by them.

My finest moment with Ray Bradbury came on the night of November 19, 2008. The Illinois State Library was honoring Ray as an Illinois writer. I was given the assignment of interviewing him via satellite hookup from Springfield, Illinois, to his home in Los Angeles. I began the interview by confessing that if I were a book person in Fahrenheit 451, I would choose to memorize Dandelion Wine. Once more Ray surprised me—with the greatest surprise of all—and his response will warm the cockles of my heart on many a long, cold, starless winter nights. Ray said, “And I would memorize the letters of Loren Logsdon.”

Author: Jeff

I teach English at Westside High School and Composition at Metropolitan Community College. I have been an online editor for Fine Lines since we revamped to Wordpress some time in 2009.

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