June 7, 2012

The Education of a Young Magician: Ray Bradbury recalls the visit to the circus that changed his life


The problem with death, Ray Bradbury once said to me, is that “it is so damned permanent.”

Bradbury, who died Tuesday at 91, was a legend of sci-fi and a “poet of the rocket age,” but for the past 12 years, Bradbury—whom I chronicled in a 2005 biography and more recently in a book-length conversation—was also a mentor, father, and friend to me.

Despite declining health, he maintained a childlike sense of wonder during his final years. Indeed, on the recent occasions when we’ve appeared together in Los Angeles (or more recently via Skype with bookstore audiences in New York and Chicago), Bradbury always turned back to his childhood. He often told what he called his “favorite childhood story,” about a visiting carnival performer named Mr. Electrico. It’s a tale that I recorded for Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews. There’s a lot to read and remember from Ray’s life, but here’s my choice… a story of a 12-year-old Bradbury discovering the world. —Sam Weller

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I was in love with circuses and their mystery: I suppose the most important memory is of Mr. Electrico. On Labor Day weekend, 1932, when I was twelve years old, he came to my hometown with the Dill Brothers…. He was a performer sitting in an electric chair and a stagehand pulled a switch and he was charged with fifty thousand volts of pure electricity. Lightning flashed in his eyes and his hair stood on end. I sat below, in the front row, and he reached down with a flaming sword full of electricity and he tapped me on both shoulders and then the tip of my nose and he cried, “Live, forever!” And I thought, “God, that’s wonderful. How do you do that?” The next day, I had to go to the funeral of one of my favorite uncles. Driving back from the graveyard with my family, I looked down the hill toward the shoreline of Lake Michigan and I saw the tents and the flags of the carnival and I said to my father, “Stop the car,” and he said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “I have to get out.”

Here I was, a twelve-year-old kid saying this, and my father stopped the car and I got out and he was furious with me. He expected me to stay with the family to mourn. But I got out of the car anyway and I ran down the hill toward the carnival. Until a few years ago, I’d forgotten about that funeral. But I was running away from death, wasn’t I? I was running toward life. Mr. Electrico was down with the carnival at the bottom of the hill. And by God I got there and he was sitting on the platform out in front of the carnival and I didn’t know what to say. I was sort of scared of making a fool of myself. I had a magic trick in my pocket, one of those little ball-and-vase tricks—a little container that had a ball in it that you made disappear and reappear—and I got that out and asked, “Can you show me how to do this?” It was the right thing to do. It made a contact. He knew he was talking to a young magician.

He took it, showed me how to do it, gave it back to me, then he looked at my face and said, “Would you like to meet those people in that tent over there? Those strange people?” And I said, “Yes, sir, I would.” He said, “C’mon.” So he led me over there and he hit the tent with his cane and said, “Clean up your language! Clean up your language!”

He took me in, and the first person I met was the Illustrated Man. Isn’t that wonderful? The Illustrated Man! I didn’t call him that, he was the Tattooed Man. I changed his name later for my book. But I met the Strong Man, I met the Fat Lady, I met the trapeze people, I met the dwarf and the skeleton. They all became characters later in my life.

Then we went out and sat on the dunes near the lake and talked, and all of a sudden, I don’t know why he said it, he leaned over and he said, “I’m glad you’re back in my life.” I said, “What do you mean? I don’t know you.” He said, “Yes. You were my best friend outside of Paris in 1918. You were wounded in the battle of the Argonne Forest and you died in my arms outside there, twenty-two years ago. I’m glad you’re back in the world. You have a different face, a different name, but the soul shining out of your face is the same as my friend. Welcome back.” Now why did he say that? Explain that to me, why? It could be that he saw the intensity for which I live.

Every once in a while at a book signing I see a young boy or girl who is so full of fire that it shines out of their face and you pay more attention to that. Because they are so alert, and everything you say, they are hanging on it. It could be that maybe at the age of twelve there was something in my face that I couldn’t see, of course, but he did. Maybe that’s what attracted him.

So when I left the carnival that day I stood by the carousel and I watched the horses running around and around to the music of “Beautiful Ohio” and I cried. Tears streamed down my cheeks because I knew something important had happened to me that day because of Mr. Electrico. I felt changed. And so I went home and within days I started to write. And I’ve never stopped. Isn’t that amazing? It makes me cold all over to think about it. My life was turned around completely.

Sam Weller is the biographer of Ray Bradbury and the editor of Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews.