This past Saturday evening, my friend Phil passed along a 2012 New Yorker essay by Ray Bradbury. Phil knows that Ray‘s my favorite author. But he probably didn’t realize that Saturday was also Ray’s birth date (a cause for celebration at my house).
Phil texted the article to a group of friends, because it’s about “fire balloons” – also known as sky lanterns, Kongming lanterns or Chinese lanterns. They’re small hot air balloons made of paper and fueled by a small fire source at the bottom.
I can neither confirm nor deny that Phil and his “biker gang” (a bunch of middle-aged folks who go on a late night bicycle ride on the night of the full moon) have launched a few fire balloons during their evening excursions on the bike trail.
Ray Bradbury’s essay about fire balloons is really a lovely tribute to his grandfather, and his childhood memories of Fourth of July and family:
I’d helped my grandpa carry the box in which lay, like a gossamer spirit, the paper-tissue ghost of a fire balloon waiting to be breathed into, filled, and set adrift toward the midnight sky. My grandfather was the high priest and I his altar boy. I helped take the red-white-and-blue tissue out of the box and watched as Grandpa lit a little cup of dry straw that hung beneath it. Once the fire got going, the balloon whispered itself fat with the hot air rising inside.
“The balloon whispered itself fat…” — most of us who fancy ourselves writers would give our right hand and our Smith-Corona for the ability to craft such gorgeous imagery.
But I could not let it go. It was so beautiful, with the light and shadows dancing inside. Only when Grandpa gave me a look, and a gentle nod of his head, did I at last let the balloon drift free, up past the porch, illuminating the faces of my family. It floated up above the apple trees, over the beginning-to-sleep town, and across the night among the stars.
Ray Bradbury’s writing was magical, but the process wasn’t. The dude got up every morning, sat down at his typewriter, and cranked out “content.”
Ray wrote brilliant short stories, novels, essays, TV and movie screenplays, poems… In interviews, he often recounted a story from his childhood, when he went to a traveling carnival and saw a performance from a magician named “Mr. Electrico”:
Seventy-seven years ago, and I’ve remembered it perfectly. I went back and saw him that night. He sat in the chair with his sword, they pulled the switch, and his hair stood up. He reached out with his sword and touched everyone in the front row, boys and girls, men and women, with the electricity that sizzled from the sword. When he came to me, he touched me on the brow, and on the nose, and on the chin, and he said to me, in a whisper, “Live forever.” And I decided to.From this article
Ray does live forever, though the magic of his words.
We can’t all be like him. But we can certainly try.