Dandelion Wine

imageproxyThe Cruiser’s Lounge is a place of refuge for sailors the world over. Tucked into the nooks of a million waterborne destinations, they harbor the boisterous seagoing conversations of nautical vagabonds, noticeboards silently pleading rides for shore-bound crew and crew for dock-stranded skippers. They are repositories of abandoned hardware looking to book passage on someone else’s boat. Best of all, they are coves subject to an ever flowing tide of books, surging in to clutter their shores with four-by-six inch blocks of imagination made real, only to float out again with the next sailor that has hours to kill on the open sea.

As per custom, I headed towards Marina Mazatlan’s lounge, a place of cool, air-conditioned respite from the thick, humid Mexican air, with a small pile of recently consumed fictional fare under my arm. My magnetic key card worked this time, an iffy occurrence at best, and let me into the afterthought of a space. A black naugahyde sectional sofa had commandeered the lower, left hand corner of the L-shaped room under the clattering A/C unit. Upon it’s shoulder perched a disused potato salad container poised to catch the condensation dripping from five feet above its open mouth. The sofa had abandoned the right side of the L’s downward stroke to a long countertop that was partitioned into a battery of five computer cubbies. Each had its own power outlet and ethernet plug to be commanded by visiting sailors from an equal number of discarded office chairs with arms akimbo and backs that sullenly threatened not to support their occupants.

My own back to the internet access portals, I faced a wall of books and placed three John LeCarre spy novels stuffed full with mystery and subterfuge on the open shelf at the bottom so that they would stand out as new additions for recently arriving readers. Running my index finger along the spines of my potential next victims, I idled past dozens of author’s names standing bold beside titles that shouted romance and death and war, health and philosophy and politics.

But from over the sharp ridge of the upper shelf, barely visible even from my eye level at six foot two, peeked the desiccated brown corner of a forlorn paperback. Reaching it down, I thought for an instant I’d stumbled into a pharaoh’s tomb and that this relic, dehydrated under the blaze of hundreds of supplicant readers’ eyes, might crumble to dust if I handled it irreverently, leaving me with a literate mummy’s curse. The covers were gone, front and back, and only the tattered middle strip of the spine remained to wrap the body and protect it from the ages. “Dandelion Wine – Ray Bradbury”, it said.

Mr. Ray Douglas Bradbury, claims About the Author at the back of the book, was born in Waukegan, Illinois in 1920. It doesn’t say how long he lived there, only that he abandoned his mid-Western town roots in time to gain his high school diploma in Los Angeles eighteen years later and implying a struggle of some additional years to start a career that commenced quietly in 1931 with the publication of his first science fiction short story. Since then and as I have known him, Ray Bradbury became an icon of imagination that has taken me and countless others to the far reaches of space, time, and scientific innovation, so it was with such expectations that I put Dandelion Wine into my satchel with a couple of other selections to take back to my boat.

I have to say that it was with some disappointment that I closed the book after my first delicate exploration between those fragile pages. I’d been promised no space ships, time warps, aliens, or futuristic mechanical men. Instead, Bradbury had commenced with an introduction to a made-up town that he’d assembled out of his recollection of Waukegan and filled with his imaginings of all the Mid-Western towns dotted like stars across the vast grain belt of America. He’d populated his Green Town, Illinois with the aspects of a million Dougs and Toms and Charlies that had grown up in distant companionship to his own youthful summer in 1928. The book bore witness to a place which, like John Doe, gives an amalgamated face to the unknown stranger that we have all met.

Once over my initial dismay, I realized that, having folded the first dozen pages into my mind, I would go ahead and make my usual commitment to this author’s effort, seeing if the words he’d paint upon my imagination would catch and carry me along. I was glad I did, for they were indeed filled with magical tools of science fiction that had been disguised in the likes of parched old Colonel Freeleigh who transported young Doug (and thus, me) back to times of great, thundering herds of buffalo that left the ancient western landscape shrouded in echoes and dust. Wizened captains stood on their front porch quarterdecks, commanding two-storied, clap-sided, shake-roofed schooners across prairie lands of wheat, dodging hidden shoals of macadamed streets and navigating around islands of elm and oak. Tattered old Madame Tarot offered fortunes and predicted futures from within her glass case in the penny arcade.

There, too, was the gully that ran jagged through the Woodland Hills of my youth, called The Ravine by Bradbury in his own Green Town of 1928. I explored The Gully’s root-laced shadows once again with my old friend, Claude Ingersoll, filling long, hot summer days with the forgetting of chores at home and of school books of winter and fall and spring. Ray’s boys didn’t dig forts, but we did. On the magic carpet of imagination, Claude and I were whisked back 50 years to risk the same early deaths that Doug and his brother, Tom did, crouched in the worm-scented dungeons we’d excavated, known by our parents or not, in our back yards. Claude’s dad, Gene, was the magical Mr. Leo Auffmann who’d conjured up the ill-fated happiness machine, only to discover that it had long since been invented and made real in the intimate workings of his home and family. For Claude and I, though, it was go-carts and snake cages and cardboard boxes formed into sleds that slid in swooping, brown blurs down the dried grass of Tarantula Hill across the street.

Except Doug was much more attuned to his awakening that summer than I ever was. So were the other characters of Dandelion Wine, each one erecting monuments of insight into their lives that beckoned the lessons of the past to splay themselves out in illuminated displays for their younger and even their older cohabitants of Green Town. The ultimate lesson for me was that the rich, fullness of life passes most of us by, only to be looked back upon when its gifts are no longer within reach except by the tenuous journeys of mind.

That’s where this book took me, back into the adventures of childhood, but with the wisdom of life’s decades projected through the amazed and sometimes dismayed eyes of a twelve year old boy. It also helped to solidify a vision for my present journey, challenging me with an example of youthful wonder and naive daring that I might apply to my course through the Sea of Cortez and southward to French Polynesia, not worrying so much about the outcome that it dampens the adventure.

Live fully onward, Douglas Spauldings of the world, unmarked youth and scarred old man alike. Escape from the digital worlds offered free of scrapes and bruises. Get out from behind your desks burdened with bureaucracy and file folders. Breathe the air and wear out your tennis shoes. Sail the seas in youth, risking a penniless, but sea-wise old age, or turn back time and spend your dotage remaking your unlived, early years with new tales of exotic isles and pirate encounters. If you don’t believe this is salve for the soul, then read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. You won’t be disappointed.

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