Ray Bradbury's most significant contribution to our culture is showing us that the imagination has no foreseeable boundaries. His skills as a storyteller have inspired and empowered generations to tell their stories no matter how bizarre or improbable. Today we need Ray Bradbury's gifts more than ever, and his stories have made him immortal.
-- Steven Spielberg, Academy Awardwinning director
"I remember the day I was born."
With this Dickensian flourish, so begins the life story of Ray Bradbury. The birth recollection was one of Ray's favorite stories to tell. Not surprisingly, it often provoked audible incredulity from his audiences --whether one person or a room full of Bradbury devotees.
"I have what might be called almost total recall back to my birth," he continued. "This is a thing I have debated with psychologists and with friends over the years. They say, 'It's impossible.' Yet I remember."
This much is certain: Ray Douglas Bradbury arrived in the world, in Waukegan, Illinois, at 4:50 p.m. on August 22, 1920, with Dr. Charles Pierce presiding at Maternity Hospital, a few blocks west of the small Bradbury family home. Ray had overstayed his time in the womb by a month, and it was his theory that the additional incubation time may have heightened his senses. "When you stay in the womb for ten months, you develop your eyesight and your hearing. So when I was born, I remember it," he insisted. And who is to argue?
"Born to Mr. and Mrs. Leo Bradbury, 11 South St. James Street, a son," proclaimed the birth announcement in the Waukegan Daily Sun. Although the name on his birth certificate was spelled "R-a-y," Ray said he was originally given the name "Rae" after Rae Williams, a cousin on his father's side, and that it was not until the first grade that, at a teacher's recommendation, his parents changed the spelling of his first name. The name was too feminine, the teacher said, and the boy would be teased.
The origin of his middle name, however, is not in dispute. Ray's mother, a great cinema fan who would soon pass this love on to her son, chose his middle name, Douglas, for the swashbuckling screen star Douglas Fairbanks.
Of his birth, Ray claimed to remember "the camera angle" as he emerged into the world. He recalled the terrific pain of being born, the sensation of going from darkness to light, and the desperate desire to remain enshrouded in the shadowy realm of the womb. Lending further Freudian fodder to skeptical developmental psychologists everywhere, Ray added, "I remember suckling, the taste of my mother's breast milk, and nightmares about being born experienced in my crib in the first weeks of my life."
Two days after the birth, Ray recalled his first encounter with real fear. His father wrapped him in a blanket and carried him into downtown Waukegan. They climbed a dark stairwell and entered a second-floor doctor's office. Ray remembered the bright, otherworldly light and the cold tiled room and what he would later realize was the scent of Lysol. He distinctly recalled the milk-white ghost face of a doctor holding a stainless steel scalpel. And then he felt the sharp pain of circumcision.
Many years later, a friend of Ray's, the author, critic, and editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Anthony Boucher, remarked that Ray Bradbury had a "back to the womb complex." Ray responded, with typical Bradburian aplomb, "Yes ... but whose womb?"
The birthplace of Ray Bradbury, Waukegan, Illinois, is perched on the edge of a gently rising bluff that overlooks the slate-green waters of Lake Michigan. The city stands some forty miles north of downtown Chicago, as the raven flies. Centuries ago, this land was densely forested. Carved at the end of the ice age by melting glaciers that scored the soft heartland soil, it is marked by deep ravines that scar the landscape, eventually opening out into Lake Michigan. While the land to the west of the city is level farmland, Waukegan, with these dramatic, densely forested ravines, coldwater creeks, and the bluff the city stands on, offers a gentle contrast to the popular image of table-flat American heartland.
Today, Waukegan is a city at a crossroads. The turn-of-the-century grandeur of this lakefront community has given way to a long economic decline. In Ray's childhood, the Waukegan lakefront, with its sandy beaches, was a popular destination, vibrant and crowded with people. On warm summer days, it bloomed with colorful parasols, and men, women, and children swam in the cool lake. But decades passed and the crown jewel of Waukegan, its beachfront, shriveled under industry and pollution. Though the factories are mostly abandoned today, they still stand, like rust-laden skeletons on cold winter days as the winds gust in off Lake Michigan. Downtown Waukegan has also changed. Storefronts stand vacant; For Lease signs are propped up in many window displays. While some of the wealthiest suburbs in the nation are nestled on the lakefront between Waukegan and Chicago, Waukegan remains peculiar in its decaying isolation, an aging town with a rich history and the high hopes of future revitalization.
Ray Bradbury's connections to fantasy, space, cinema, to the macabre and the melancholy, were all born of his years spent running, jumping, galloping through the woods, across the fields, and down the brick-paved streets of Waukegan. His lifelong love of comics was born here, along with his connection to magic and his symbiotic relationship to Halloween. Although he moved away from the Midwest for good at the age of thirteen, Ray Bradbury is a prairie writer. The prairie is in his voice and it is his moral compass. It is his years spent in Waukegan, Illinois -- later rechristened by Ray as "Green Town" in many books and stories -- that forever shaped him.Continues...
Excerpted from The Bradbury Chronicles by Weller, Sam Excerpted by permission.
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