When I was a kid, I loved The Hardy Boys. Not the terrible TV show starring Shawn Cassidy and that dude who was married to Kirstie Alley when she was still super-hot. No–I mean the series of books penned by Franklin W. Dixon. I was enamored of the boys and their chums Biff Hooper (athletic chum) and Chet Morton (portly chum) and the way they worked together to solve mysteries. I love the books so passionately that I didn’t want to see them end. I decided that, someday, I would write to Franklin W. Dixon and ask him if, when he was finished, I could write Hardy Boys mysteries. I imagined him receiving my letter, pushing back his chair, stroking his manicured mustache and taking a drag on his pipe and saying to himself, “Yes. What a remarkable idea! I’ll make this young fan my apprentice, and Frank and Joe Hardy will have new adventures long after I’ve retired.”
Little did I know that, if I’d actually pursed it, I could have had a career writing Hardy Boys books. “Franklin W. Dixon” was not a real person, but a group pseudonym; over the years, the Hardy Boys series was written by a number of ghostwriters.
So I never got to meet Franklin W. Dixon. But I have met at least two people over the years who I counted among the heroes of my youth.
The first was Graham Nash. My friend Dave Miller had hooked up with Graham for a project, and Dave and I took in a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young show at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. We met Graham backstage in his dressing room after the show, and he was friendly and gracious. I told him that when I was in high school, I’d played his album Wild Tales more times than anything else I owned. (Wild Tales was a critical failure, and I don’t think it sold a lot of copies, but I loved it like mad.) Dave had brought some stuff for him to sign, but it hadn’t occurred to me to do so. I had my ticket and offered that. Graham said, “No–I have something for you,” and grabbed his set list off the coffee table. That autographed set list is now hanging in my family room.
The second was Ray Bradbury. I’m sure the gap between the time I stopped reading the Hardy Boys and started reading The Martian Chronicles was a matter of months. It was dreamy and lyrical, sentimental without being sappy. He spoke to my
"It was a story about a whale," he said, "and a crazy sea captain and a guy named Ishmael and--well, you'll just have to read it."
wildest fantasies and my deepest fears. I read Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, The Illustrated Man, Something Wicked This Way Comes,everything he ever wrote, then read it again. And again. (You could do worse than read Zen and the Art of Writing right now.)
In early 2000, our friend and Butler University English Professor Susan Neville walked into my office and said, “The science department has some money to bring in speakers that they’re not going to use, and I thought we could bring in some science fiction authors. Who would you like to see?”
Scott Woolgar said, “Douglas Adams.”
I said, “Ray Bradbury.”
Susan said, “How about both?”
So she booked them both. Clowes Hall at Butler was jammed to the rafters with fans. I was in heaven.
Until Adams started reading. Adams was a big, tall, charismatic Brit whose Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series was hilarious and beloved. He strutted around the stage reading passages from his books, and had the house roaring. He went a good 30 minutes past his alloted time, and left the stage to a standing ovation.
My heart sank. What I mistake, I thought. My idol was an eighty-year-old man who’d had a stroke. In a wheelchair. He couldn’t possibly top the performance we’d just seen.
How wrong I was. Bradbury was mesmerizing and brilliant. He didn’t read. He sold stories from his life. About how he wrote Fahrenheit 451 pumping dimes into a pay typewriter in the basement of the UCLA library. About the movies made from his books. The anecdote that got me: “I’d just returned home after a trip to a used book store, looking for dinosaur books with Ray Harryhausen, when my wife told me I’d gotten a call from John Huston asking me if I’d be interested in working on the screenplay for Moby Dick.” Wow.
After the show, we all met backstage. I was walking on air. I shook Ray Bradbury’s hand. He signed an old paperback copy of The Martian Chronicles for my son Nick; because of his stroke, it was the only thing he signed all night. I told Ray I was a writer today because of him. I was so nervous that I couldn’t really say anything else.
But I’ll always remember that night. I’ll always remember what a privilege that was–to tell my hero what a profound impact he’d had on my life. When I consider all the magic Ray Bradbury brought into my life over the years, that was the most magical moment of all.