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Though we didn't meet, I'll miss you

An old friend of mine passed away last week.

Actually, I had never met him, although I would have jumped at the chance to spend a few hours chatting with him about his views on everything from astrophysics to zymurgy — that branch of chemistry dealing with fermentation.

Although we were strangers, he was there for me for more than half a century. I could always turn to him when the world seemed particularly dark and dreary.

Indeed, Ray Bradbury, 91, was a loyal friend to all who love to pore over books that expand our horizons. His vivid mind took readers into the future and off to distant planets, where they met out-of-this-world characters with everyday concerns. He was often irreverently funny, invariably insightful and always entertaining.

When I first read Bradbury, I was an urchin existing with my four siblings and widowed mom in a ramshackle little house in Kerby in the mid-1960s. Our father had died of cancer a few years earlier.

The word "bleak" barely describes our dire straits. As far as my juvenile mind could envision, the future promised more of the same into infinity.

After all, when you are a dozen years old, the prospect of a few years down the road seems an eternity.

Books were my salvation. I was with Jim Hawkins when he landed on Treasure Island. I slipped into the secret garden with strong-willed Mary Lennox. I found freedom on the mighty Mississippi with Jim and Huck. I cried when Old Yeller died.

I even managed to work my way through "The Odyssey," the epic poem ascribed to Homer about the wanderings of Odysseus after the Trojan War. It had been among the books my father had left. Hard slogging at first, but I finally got into the swing of it. To this day, I still wonder why Penelope didn't give her wanderlust hubby the boot when he returned.

Bradbury's 1950 book, "The Martian Chronicles," opened up my imagination like no other. When I finished the book, I flipped back to the beginning to read it again.

No longer was I a prisoner in our drab home. I left Kerby to travel to Mars, where Earthlings were colonizing the Red Planet, ruining what had been an idyllic Martian civilization.

Even as a kid, I felt Bradbury's anger against greed and racism, against superpower bullies and wanton destruction. Even then, I knew it was a commentary on the third rock from the sun.

His book also foretold the banning of books that challenged the governmental powers that be.

Of course, it was his 1953 book, "Fahrenheit 451," that focused on the dirty business of book burning as a central theme. Firefighters routinely burned books instead of putting out fires. The ignition temperature of paper is said to be 451 degrees Fahrenheit.

In that classic, you may recall Bradbury foretold of electronic surveillance and what amounted to e-books. Incidentally, book lovers probably don't have to worry about the ignition temperature of an e-book. The threat to them is not a lit match but a planted computer virus.

While I never totally left my old friend, I went on to countless other writers over the years.

I've dipped my toe into Walden's Pond, Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and feasted with The Man Who Ate his Boots. I've dated the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen and traveled through the minds of Jules Verne, Kurt Vonnegut and hundreds of other writers over the years.

In college, I even trudged halfway through Tolstoy's tome, "War and Peace." Someday I may even finish it.

But Bradbury has remained a favorite through the decades.

A co-worker wisely observed that while a great writer such as Mark Twain could write interestingly about something as mundane as a cookbook, the man from the October Country could always be counted on to come up with some memorable recipes.

Ray Bradbury may be gone but he will always be there for his old friends. All we have to do is open one of his books, be it paper or electronic.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.