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SAWDUST STORIES
A toast for Ray Bradbury's 100th

On August 22, author Ray Bradbury — were he still with us — would have turned 100 years old. It’s the kind of round number he’d have loved to see. I can only imagine the boyish grin that would’ve erupted across his face at the sight of 100 candles atop his cake. Enough fire to burn a book, no doubt, though I imagine Bradbury, author of “Fahrenheit 451,” might’ve found another use for it.

If you and I have ever crossed paths, reader, then I’ve surely shared with you my Ray Bradbury story. How during my junior year of high school, I won an essay contest which asked young writers to reflect on a person who “changed America.” Having just gorged on every Bradbury book I could find, the choice seemed obvious. I bypassed the presidents and the astronauts in favor of the man who’d transported me to Mars more times than I could count. Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” instilled within me the same wondrous dreaminess that many of my contemporaries had discovered in Narnia, and Middle Earth and aboard the Starship Enterprise. But Mars was my preferred escape, though were it not for Ray, I’d have never made it there.

Fast forward to a letter I received from Ray, in which he not only thanked me for my essay (the contest had kindly forwarded it on to him), but also — in perfect hyperbolic style — deemed it “one of the finest essays” he’d ever read.

“I was brought to tears,” Ray continued. “It reminded me, once again, that I am in essence a teacher, and for this gift you have given me I am deeply appreciative.”

And I was deeply awestruck.

After I’d lifted my jaw from the floor, I knew what had to be done. I reached for the phone, dialed the Los Angeles number atop the letterhead, and listened —with equal parts excitement and terror — as the phone began to ring.

“Hello?” came a voice.

“Mr. Bradbury?” I tried. “It’s me. B.J. Hollars. I wrote an essay.”

Silence.

“An essay about you,” I clarified.

“Well of course!”

Ray and I chatted for some time on topics as wide ranging as books to dinosaurs, though as our conversation wound down — and as I ran out of ways to prolong it — I found myself saying words that weren’t even remotely true.

“You know, I’m in the area,” I said. “I’d love to swing by and shake your hand.”

“Well come on over!” he cried.

Click.

If by “in the area” I’d meant 2,200 miles away in Indiana, then perhaps it was less of a lie than a lapse in geography. Whatever it was, there was no undoing it now.

Sheepishly, I knocked on my parents’ door.

“Good news,” I gulped. “I’m going to L.A.!”

Surprise registered across their faces.

“Is that so?” my mother asked.

Months later, one cold December day my senior year, I boarded a plane from the heartland to the coast. If you’d asked me the previous spring which was likelier — spending time with my literary hero or roaming the red sands of Mars — I’d have leaned toward the latter.

Upon touchdown in Los Angeles, I took a shuttle from LAX to Ray’s Cheviot Hills home. Novice traveler that I was, I arrived a few hours early, then perched on a low wall across the street from the Bradbury home, reading a collection of Ray’s stories while glancing at the silhouette of the man himself through his window.

At the appointed hour, I made my way up the steps, wiped my shoes on Ray’s Halloween-themed welcome mat, and knocked twice. His wife, Maggie, answered in her bathrobe.

“Well what are you waiting for?” she smiled. “Come on in!”

For hours, Ray and I chatted like the pair of young Midwestern schoolboys we once were. We couldn’t talk fast enough. Though half a lifetime has passed since that meeting, my memories remains perfectly intact. But what stands out wasn’t what we did, but what I felt: a warmth and supportiveness I’d never known elsewhere. If pressed, Ray was glad to share a few stories, but he was far more interested in me.

“What are you writing?” he asked. “Tell me all about it.”

For the next decade, I did. We regularly wrote to one another, our letters zooming through the mail as he continued to take an interest in me for reasons beyond my understanding. Did 18-year-old me think I had any chance of being a writer? Not really. But if Ray thought otherwise, then I felt I owed it to him to try. So I continued to write. And to read. And to fall deeper in love with books.

Though “The Martian Chronicles” and “Fahrenheit 451” remain prominently displayed on my bookshelf, it’s “Dandelion Wine” — Bradbury’s love letter to growing up in a Midwestern town in the summer of 1928 — that’s affixed itself closest to my heart. Set in the fictional town of Greentown, Ill. (a stand-in for Bradbury’s childhood home in Waukegan, Ill.), the book recounts the story of a pair of brothers who navigate the strangeness of growing up, and growing older, amidst a backdrop of ice cream cones and trolley cars. The book’s title speaks to its central metaphor: the folly of trying to stopper summer in a bottle, when in fact, it’s our inability to hold tight to such memories that makes them all the more wondrous.

Nostalgia junkie that I am, I reread it at the start of each summer. Every time I crack wide its pages, I see my own childhood reflected back at me in a funhouse mirror. The book reminds me of the zest and gusto of growing up, even if I can no longer recall those feelings precisely. But it also reminds me of life’s darker truth: that summers aren’t the only things to come to an end.

Since Ray’s death in 2012 at age 91, I’ve become a particularly diligent reader of “Dandelion Wine.” I savor it, beginning in June and reaching the final page right around Ray’s birthday.

This year, given the world’s circumstances, I find myself yearning more than ever for the book’s quiet and melancholic charms. What I wouldn’t give to be an 8-year-old in 1928 unencumbered by the ravages of a virus. Or at least to allow my own 8-year-old son to know something of that simplicity.

Ray, quite fortunately, was spared pandemics on both ends of his life. Perhaps avoiding such horrors was what allowed him to dream so freely on the page. For Ray, dreaming was the key ingredient to his creativity — twin pillars that balanced gently against one another.

Were it not for this partnership, how else could Ray have built us a rocket ship to Mars or a trolley car to Greentown?

This year, for Ray’s 100th, a friend and I will toast our dream maker in style. And express our gratitude for the innocence that helped fuel these dreams.

From a socially safe distance, we’ll fill our cups with dandelion wine and lift them to the sky.

“To Ray,” I’ll say, “a man who imagined the future, preserved the past, and dreamed us to today.”

We’ll clink cups, drink deep from that vintage, then tilt our head skyward, imagining a rocket-filled sky.


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Stanley prison remains COVID-free as workers, inmates follow strict rules

CHIPPEWA FALLS — In mid-July, every corrections worker and inmate at Stanley Correctional Institution was tested for COVID-19. Of the 1,783 tests conducted, zero confirmed cases turned up.

Nationwide, COVID-19 cases and deaths among inmates and corrections workers have spiraled upward, but that hasn’t been the trend in Wisconsin.

Stanley deputy warden Mario Canziani said there is some luck involved in zero total cases, but he added that everyone at the prison has taken the protocols seriously to prevent an outbreak.

Canziani said the state agency immediately ordered several rule changes this spring to curb the spread of the disease. The changes include:

• Reduced transfers of inmates between facilities around the state.

• Quarantine of all new inmate arrivals for two weeks before released into general prison population.

• Visits from outside the prison were canceled and replaced with video visits.

• Graduation programs, which have typically brought people in from outside the prison, were canceled.

• Daily screening of staff upon entering the building.

• Separating the maintenance staff, with half of those employees working outside the fence and never entering the prison grounds.

• Meals served and eaten in cells.

• Daily cleaning of all surfaces.

• Reduced number of classes, and fewer people allowed in each class.

• Following mask mandates indoors, and wearing them outside when spacing isn’t available.

• Allowing some staff to work from home.

• Reduced travel for conferences by corrections workers.

“We’ve done a lot of education and training,” Canziani said. “Our staff has taken it seriously.”

Cleanliness

The most obvious change is the frequent cleaning of all surfaces.

“The cleaning is nonstop out here,” Canziani said. “It’s actually causing damage to the doors, because they are using so much bleach on them.”

When a male inmate enters the state’s prison system, he is sent to Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun. Prior to the pandemic, many county jails would ship their inmates to the Stanley prison on the night before a transfer bus was headed to Waupun. However, Canziani said that program was halted because they didn’t want to bring additional people into the building. Jails are now responsible for transporting their own inmates all the way to Waupun rather than dropping them off at the nearby Stanley site.

“I know it’s a bit of an inconvenience for those jails, but we had to do that,” Canziani said. “Once this (pandemic) is done, we’ll go back to being a hub.”

Transfers between prisons halted on March 23. With no new inmates entering the Stanley prison for a few months, the population dropped from 1,580 to 1,472, as inmates completed their sentences and left the institution but weren’t replaced, Canziani said.

Dodge Correctional Institution reached capacity, which led to restarting inmate movement. When inmate transfers resumed in June, a system was put in place where the Stanley prison allowed 20 new inmates at a time. Those new inmates are placed in an isolation wing for two weeks. At that time, they are all given a swab test before being allowed to enter the general prison population. The prison was receiving 20 new arrivals on Thursday.

Video visits

Among the changes that affected inmates was the elimination of in-person family visits.

“We went to video visits, which has been really popular,” Canziani said.

Computers were set up for Zoom meetings, with 45 allowed daily during the week and 65 visits on weekends.

“We’ve been filling in all those slots,” he said.

One reason Canziani believes they have been so successful is that staff were already heavily cleaning the building over the winter because of a norovirus outbreak that left many inmates with intestinal issues.

“We had actually slowed movement back in January,” he said. “So, we had a little bit of a head start.”

The entire prison staff will have another round of testing next week, he added.

Chippewa County Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk, who lives in nearby Boyd, routinely picks up and drops off inmates at the prison for their court appearances. Kowalczyk said his jail has just had one positive COVID case for one worker, who has since recovered and returned to work. Kowalczyk praised the Stanley prison for doing a great job with their rules, particularly with the temperature checks and daily employee screenings.

“Your biggest risk is the employees, because they are going home and coming back,” Kowalczyk said.

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections media relations said 1,709 tests were done facility wide at Jackson Correctional Institution, showing three positive cases, with all those infected having recovered. Out of 577 tests given at the Chippewa Valley Correctional Treatment Facility in Chippewa Falls, two positive tests were identified, and those people also have recovered. The state agency has its COVID-19 testing statistics available at doc.wi.gov.

COVID numbers at prisons

Other prisons in the state haven’t been as successful. This week, the Green Bay Correction Institution announced 57 COVID-19-positive cases in that prison.

Nationwide, the number of cases has grown. According to media group The Marshall Project, 95,398 inmates and 21,063 correctional workers nationwide have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Aug. 11. That has led to 847 inmate deaths and 65 correctional worker deaths.

The San Quentin State Prison in California went from zero positive cases in late May to 26 deaths and 2,200 cases by early August, according to the report.

However, in Wisconsin, only 319 inmates and 136 workers have tested positive for the virus, resulting in no deaths, through Aug. 11. To see their state-by-state data, visit themarshallproject.org.

Canziani said his staff are well aware of the problems at other prisons across the country, which is why everyone has been so vigilant in making sure the facility is frequently cleaned, staff who are feeling sick are told to stay at home, and daily health checks are done prior to entering the building. He knows that all those measures aren’t a guarantee the prison will stay COVID-19-free, either.

“There has been a little bit of Lady Luck involved,” he said.

The Stanley Correctional Institution was built in 1998 by Oklahoma-based Dominion Venture, who then sold it to the state for $82 million. The medium-securty prison opened in September 2002.

Wisconsin COVID statistics