Growing Up With Ray Bradbury’s Ghost in Waukegan, Illinois
Colleen Abel on the Inescapable Distortions of Childhood Nostalgia
When I was a child, I thought Ray Bradbury lived in my grandmother’s basement. The misunderstanding was born over the opening credits of Ray Bradbury Theater, a half-hour horror anthology heavily indebted to the Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents (both of which based episodes on stories by Bradbury.) Most Saturday nights in the 80s, my parents and I would head to my grandmother’s for dinner and after pot roast and potatoes, we’d sit and watch Saturday Nightmares on the USA Network. I’d sit on the carpet at my grandmother’s feet, a child too small to be watching shows so scary, even if they were on network television.
The opening credits of Ray Bradbury Theater gave me a particular thrill: like some sort of eerie X-Files precursor, synth-drenched music plays while a shadowy figure climbs out of an clanging old elevator and makes his way through a series of cluttered rooms. It’s Bradbury, intoning gravely over shots of the artefacts: People ask, Where do you get your ideas? Well, right here. As the camera pans, Bradbury says, Somewhere in this room is an African veldt. Beyond that, the small Illinois town where I grew up. He sits at a typewriter and the keys clatter. One night, watching these credits, my grandmother said to me, “You know, he’s from here.” She meant, of course, from Waukegan, “that small Illinois town” where he grew up and where we sat now in her neighborhood of tiny homes called The Gardens. But I, at age seven, thought she meant here, here in the house we sat in, that he had grown up in the house, perhaps even still lived in the basement which resembled, in its murk and books and clutter, the same office Bradbury sat down to write in during the opening credits of his tv show.
It wouldn’t be a bad premise for a Bradbury story: a young girl, bookish and morbid, discovers an author living in her grandmother’s musty basement. And in a way, he was there. My father’s old room was part of that basement, still set up the way it had been when he lived there, commuting to college and working part-time at a bookstore. One room was floor to ceiling bookshelves and by the time I was in junior high school, I would go down there regularly and pick something out to read. Most of the books were yellowed and falling apart, their covers marked with their original prices: fifteen cents. Among these were a few volumes of Bradbury’s short stories. I would pick one, often The Illustrated Man, and take it back upstairs to the velour armchair and settle in. I’d never get very far, but I gave it a great many tries; I must have read the opening line “It was a warm afternoon in early September when I first met the Illustrated Man” a half dozen times at least. But my tastes at that age ran more toward Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine. I wasn’t ready for Bradbury yet. And the older I got, the more I felt that I was obliged to love him simply because he was my town’s most famous son. And with typical teenage rebellion, I was not interested in loving anything that felt like an obligation.
One source of my skepticism had to do with the fact that I couldn’t square what I did know of Bradbury and his work with my own experience of Waukegan. Even listening to the opening credits of Ray Bradbury Theater and hearing him describe Waukegan as a “small Illinois town” didn’t ring true for me. Waukegan was not a small place even in 1930, when Bradbury would have been ten years old; that year’s census lists its population as a touch over 40,000 people. By the time I was ten, in 1990, the population had nearly doubled; it’s currently one of the ten most populous cities in Illinois. The vast majority of that population increase has been Black and Latinx residents: today, Waukegan is a little over half Latinx population, the other half divided about equally between Black and white residents. The Waukegan I grew up in was a working- and lower-middle-class place, racially diverse, but unable often to capitalize on that diversity, rough around the edges and, to tell the truth, rough everywhere else, too. Our employment rates and poverty rates were, and are, significantly higher than the national average.
The truth is that I wasn’t sure I trusted Waukegan’s worship of Bradbury, a man who, it seemed to me, had abandoned us for California, for wealth, and for fame and who, in his nostalgia-soaked adulthood, wrote books that made growing up in Waukegan sound like Dorothy’s trip to Oz. When I was in high school, I was taught that Bradbury rewrote Waukegan into Green Town, Illinois, and that it featured prominently in a number of his works, including Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Farewell Summer. The excerpts we read in my high school English classes seemed nostalgia-soaked, idyllic, and I was baffled by the gap between the Waukegan I saw around me and the one I thought Bradbury had grown up in.
I’m not the first, either, to have trouble squaring Bradbury’s rosy vision of Waukegan with the reality. In the 1974 introduction in my copy of Dandelion Wine, Bradbury notes that a critic took him to task for growing up in Waukegan and not noticing “how ugly the harbor was and how depressing the coal docks and railyards down below the town.” Bradbury’s explanation is that he is a poet: of course he noticed these things, but found them beautiful too. Bradbury then includes a poem to underscore his point, a riff on Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and labelling Waukegan, by its proper name, as his Byzantium:
A name with neither love nor grace
Was Waukegan, there I came from
And not, good friends, Byzantium.
And yet in looking back I see
From topmost part of farthest tree
A land as bright, beloved, and blue
As any Yeats found to be true.
I understand what Bradbury’s going for, I suppose: the source of an artist’s soul is, in part, the place where that soul came into consciousness of itself and learned to see the world for the first time, the way Douglas Spaulding does laying in the grass after picking fox grapes, looking up at the prairie sky early on in Dandelion Wine.
But that anyone should compare Waukegan to Byzantium, or invoke Yeats in describing a family on a dusky summer lawn at night there, strikes me as surreal to the point of disorientation. I think of the gypsum plant that squats on our lakefront disgorging steam, the abandoned railway, the factories drooling asbestos into the water. When Bradbury was ten, he was sending up fire-balloons into the twilight sky with his grandfather, tearful at their beauty. When I was ten, the harbor I swam in was declared a Superfund site. Even after I read “Sailing to Byzantium” in high school, it certainly would have never occurred to me looking at Lake Michigan from the vantage of my town that these were like the waters Yeats sailed on to get to the holy city. How did it occur to Bradbury?
Clearly, Bradbury loved the past, the way he also loved the future: they are spaces where the imagination can be more expansive. The canvas of the past isn’t entirely blank—events did happen; there are facts to grapple with—but we must fill in the spaces around them, narrativize them to make them make sense, just as much as we need a narrative imagination to invent a future of Martian colonists. And I do believe that Bradbury came to writing because he loved the world: each wonder-soaked sentence he wrote makes that clear. And my city has benefitted from his generosity. He came back again and again: when we dedicated the festival to him, when we dedicated Ray Bradbury Park, which contained the famous ravine featured in Dandelion Wine.
That ravine, it’s true, introduces a dark note into the idyll of Green Town. Part of that darkness is the terra incognita of the natural world, the “wilderness on the edge of town.” (This wilderness no longer exists, either; Waukegan is firmly an exurb, a far stop on the northern line out of Chicago through the suburbs, straggling into the station after you’ve passed through the leafy, wealthy towns where Chicago athletes buy mansions and send their kids to school.) But the ravine is also home in the novel to the serial killer, “The Lonely One.” This figure, Bradbury says in his introduction, was real; Bradbury explains he “moved around my town at night” and was never caught. This is both true and not.
The Lonely One was, according to the Waukegan Historical Society, a cat burglar, not a serial killer. He broke into Waukegan stores and gas stations, helping himself to money from the tills and merchandise, and leaving notes for police signed “The Lonely One.” This is thrillingly eerie: it’s easy to see how it looms large in a mind like Bradbury’s, who wrote from that nexus of creepiness and compassion. But the Lonely One was caught in 1928 and spent a year behind bars. Perhaps Bradbury never knew this. In any case, the Lonely One isn’t really a representation of Waukegan’s dark side, lurking in that shadowy ravine. That, I would have recognized, finally reading Dandelion Wine in my thirties, having put down roots in a town hours from where I grew up.
The Lonely One is no more specific than the specter of Death itself, the fear of loss that thrums just underneath our happiest moments, something most of us first realize in childhood, like Douglas and his brother in the novel. When Douglas’ brother and mother fear that he’s been lost in the ravine, his brother thinks, as they search in the dark, “There were a million small towns like this all over the world … Oh, the vast swelling loneliness of them. The secret damp ravines of them … threatened by an ogre called Death.” But for Douglas, Bradbury’s alter ego, that threat snaps like a soap bubble, and Douglas comes running out of the dark, breathless and cheerful, having simply lost track of time playing with friends.
This is Bradbury all over, always reaching after Big Ideas, after archetypes and morals, using Green Town as a ladder to climb to the bigger truths written across the entire world, and even beyond. But did he do this at the expense of the real struggles of the place he came from? It’s not that I expect the Waukegan of 1928 to look like the Waukegan of 1988 when I sat on my grandmother’s brown carpet and watched Saturday Night Horrors.
But I also know that the seeds of what Waukegan would become would have been obvious in 1928, just eight years after, to give one example, a well-publicized incident when a white lynch mob from the nearby Great Lakes Naval Base terrorized a predominantly Black hotel on the city’s south side (where Bradbury grew up), after an alleged incident of Black teens throwing rocks at passing cars. And if Bradbury was unaware of Waukegan’s struggles in his youth, they would have certainly been clear in 1957 when Bradbury was writing Dandelion Wine, or in 1974, writing the intro to a new edition.
Perhaps it’s that the political climate of the past four years has reminded us to be wary of nostalgia, with the ways it’s been politicized and coded, though of course, that’s nothing new. (Bradbury himself claimed to hate politics and government, though in the years before he died he expressed admiration for conservative politicians like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.) Bradbury’s anachronism, on the page and in real life, could seem charming or curmudgeonly. The refusal to use computers or the internet, for example, and his advice that writers “should do very little reading in [their] own field” suggest someone who prefers to live in a world like the one depicted in the opening credits of Ray Bradbury Theater: full of sentimental personal objects and blocking out any beams of light from the outside.
The last time I attended the Dandelion Wine festival, I walked around to the different artist booths, talking to the weaver and the watercolorists displaying their work. Park district employees were grilling hot dogs. A drum circle sent its off-kilter rhythms off into the trees while a boy I knew from high school joined them, playing a didgeridoo. I said the only thing there was to say, “Great festival! Nice turnout!” And it wasn’t untrue. The festival is a nice thing, run by lovely people in a tough town.
But I know by now another truth about Waukegan: we often seem unable to face our own dark places. In 2016, when actress America Ferrera visited as part of the National Geographic series “Years of Living Dangerously” to document the city’s active coal plant and the environmental toll the city’s industries have taken on its primarily Black and brown citizens, the one small article that ran in the local paper is gently defensive, the journalist noting glumly that the outdoor shots were done on a “particularly bleak day.”
When you grow up in Waukegan, even if you never read a word he’s written, you’ll contend with Ray Bradbury somehow, running through the park that bears his name or driving past the mural from which his face smiles down, overlooking one of the city’s most crime-ridden streets. But especially when it comes to those who have held power there, part of me can’t help but wonder if Bradbury’s rosy view of Waukegan plays any role in the city’s blinkered sense of itself. Would we be more willing to address the ways we’ve failed the people there if Bradbury had held up a mirror to us instead of shot us in soft focus like a Hollywood film? I know that some of what I feel is just a keen difference between Bradbury and me as people, as writers, a difference of taste and of temperament. I’m not much given to sentiment or romance—or nostalgia. But if I’m unsentimental, it’s because Waukegan, my Waukegan, raised me to be. There is too much truth there.
Featured photo, Ray Bradbury, c. 1942. From Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, by Sam Weller (Hat and Beard Press).