I was deeply touched last week when reading Ray Bradbury's 1974 introduction to Dandelion Wine. He was writing about Waukegan, but while reading it I was thinking of places I've lived: Canoga Park; that part of Van Nuys at Sepulveda and Roscoe near the Busch Brewery; Helena, Montana; the South Side of Peoria. Nearly 30 years ago, a woman in my home church said I had been "born 40." And while I wouldn't deny the compliment she was offering me, I'm glad I've never lost touch with little boy inside of me.
I was amused and somewhat astonished at a critic a few years a few years back who wrote an article analyzing Dandelion Wine plus the more realistic works of Sinclair Lewis, wondering how I could have been born and raised in Waukegan, which I renamed Green Town for my novel, and not noticed how ugly the harbor was and how depressing the coal docks and railyards down below the town.from "Just This Side of Byzantium," pages ix-xii of Dandelion Wine.
But, of course, I had noticed them and, genetic enchanter that I was, was fascinated by their beauty. Trains and boxcars and the smell of coal and fire are not ugly to children. Ulginess is a concept that we happen on later and become self-conscious about. Counting boxcars is a prime activity of boys. Their elders fret and fume and jeer at the train that holds them up, but boys happily count and cry the names of the cars as they pass from far places.
And again, that supposedly ugly railyard was where carnivals and circuses arrived with elephants who washed the brick pavements with mighty steaming acid waters at five in the dark morning.
As for the coal from the docks, I went down in my basement every autumn to await the arrival of the truck and its metal chute, which clanged down and released a ton of beauteous meteors that fell out of far space into my cellar and threatened to bury me beneath dark treasures.
In other words, if your boy is a poet, horse manure can only mean flowers to him; which is, of course, what horse manure has always been about.
Perhaps a new poem of mine will explain more than this introduction about the germination of all the summers of my life into one book.
Here's the start of the poem:Byzantium, I come not from,The poem continues, describing my lifelong relationship to my birthplace:
But from another time and place
Whose race was simple, tried and true;
I dropped me forth in Illinois.
A name with neither love nor grace
Was Waukegan, there I came from
And not, good friends, ByzantiumAnd yet in looking back I seeWaukegan, visited by me often since, is neither homelier nor more beautiful than any other small midwestern town. Much of it is green. The trees do touch in the middle of streets. The street in front of my old home is still paved with red bricks. In what way then was the town special? Why, I was born there. It was my life. I had to write of it as I saw fit:
From topmost part of farthest tree
A land as bright, beloved and blue
As any Yeats found to be true.So we grew up with mythic deadWaukegan/Green Town/Byzantium.
To spoon upon midwestern bread
And spread old gods' bright marmalade
To slake in peanut-butter shade,
Pretending there beneath our sky
That it was Aprodite's thigh . . .
While by the porch-rail calm and bold
His words pure wisdom, stare pure gold
My grandfather, a myth indeed,
Did all of Plato supersede
While Grandmama in rockingchair
Sewed up the raveled sleeve of card
Crocheted cool snowflakes rare and bright
To winter us on summer night.
And uncles, gathered with their smokes
Emitted wisdoms masked as jokes,
And aunts as wise as Delphic maids
Dispensed prophetic lemonades
To boys knelt there as acolytes
To Grecian porch on summer nights;
Then went to bed, there to repent
The evils of the innocent;
The gnat-sins sizzling in their ears
Said, through the nights and through the years
Not Illinois nor Waukegan
But blither sky and blither sun.
Though mediocre all our Fates
And Mayor not as bright as Yeats
Yet still we knew ourselves. The sum?
Green Town did exist, then?
Yes, and again, yes.
I hear the voice of Ray Bradbury -- yes, I've heard it on the radio and TV -- while reading this.
And, just to make this entry's title more appropo, while I'm typing this up I'm Iistening on XM Radio to my Los Angeles Angels play the Dodgers, as Spring Training is winding down, in the annual Freeway Series. Since the game is at Chavez Ravine (Dodger Stadium), it's the home team's announcer: Vin Scully. (Alas, the score is 6-1 Dodgers, bottom of the 3rd.) Maybe I am a little boy again!
"You really live on the South Side of Peoria?" I get asked. Yup, right next to the church. Wouldn't have it any other way. I wonder what the kids playing outside going to remember of this coming summer 2007?
Home, Sweet, Home.