June 6th, 2012
05:54 PM ET
By John Blake, CNN
The voice on the other line was slurred and halting. My childhood hero, I realized, was nearing the end of his life.
“Hello, Mr. Bradbury,” I shouted into the phone, so loud that one of my colleagues sitting nearby raised his eyebrows.
The call was supposed to be professional. I had called Ray Bradbury’s daughter to tell her that I wanted to write about a different side of her father: What did this science fiction giant think about God and the afterlife?
But that request was a smokescreen. I just needed an excuse to talk to the man whose books and stories had enriched my childhood. Would he be as fun to talk to as he is to read, I wondered?
He was better than I imagined. In more than 20 years of journalism, I have never encountered anyone quite like him.
Bradbury, who died at 91 Tuesday night, is already earning plenty of tributes. The author of classics such as “Fahrenheit 451” and “The Martian Chronicles” was one of the last living links to an era in early 20th century America in which children got lost in stargazing or pulp magazines like “Weird Tales” instead of video games.
There was something magical about Bradbury that went beyond his stories. Talking to him was like taking a Happy Pill. I had a loopy smile on my face hours after talking to him. I felt as if I had hitched a ride on a red balloon floating to the stars.
Part of it was his joy and spontaneity – he overflowed with both. It seemed to give him courage in his art and his life.
“I don’t think about what I do. I do it,” he told me. “That’s Buddhism. I jump off the cliff and build my wings on the way down.”
Then there was his boyish wonder. He sounded like a kid eating chocolate ice cream for the first time. He even lived like a boy until the very end, surrounding himself with stuffed dinosaurs and tin robots in a Los Angeles home painted dandelion yellow in honor of his favorite book, “Dandelion Wine.”
Most of us can relate to the effect children have on adults. Even the grumpiest expressions on adult’s faces evaporate when they see a child giggling and playing. It doesn’t matter if they know the child or not.
Talking to Bradbury made you smile. We only talked about 30 minutes because his stamina wouldn’t allow more. There was no guile or calculation in anything he said; he just felt it - and expressed it.
Here was a man who, upon meeting Walt Disney, said, “Mr. Disney, my name is Ray Bradbury and I love you.” Here was a man who was married 56 years to his muse and late wife, Maggie. Here was a man who loved to eat, laugh and sometimes open his books at night and cry out thanks to God because he was so grateful for his career.
I wanted to tell Bradbury how “The Martian Chronicles” had inspired me when I was in high school. I used to write wooden sci-fi stories and force my pouting younger brother to read them.
I never worked up the courage to tell him that, though. I suspect he heard plenty of tributes like that over the years.
But maybe the best tribute that can be paid to anyone is the reaction I had when I learned he had died. I didn’t feel sad. I smiled and thought, what a wonderful life.
Bradbury never stopped stargazing. Near the end of our conversation, he told me that mankind would eventually have to follow his example. We would have to explore the stars because the sun would flame out.
“We must move into the universe. Mankind must save itself,” he said. “We must become astronauts and go out into the universe and discover the god in ourselves.”
I like to think Bradbury is now taking that journey. Liberated from his body, I can imagine his wide-eyed wonder as he hurtles past stars, comets and all the alien worlds he wrote about.
Somehow I think the man who jumped off cliffs and built wings on the way down is still soaring.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.