Search This Blog

Friday, 1 August 2014

FFB - The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

With nine books under his belt, it’s clear that no matter what Bill Bryson writes about, he can make it amusing and interesting. He has a way with words and employs them to good effect.  His tenth offering (2006) is a memoir of his time as an ordinary kid in Des Moines, Iowa.  ‘So this is a book about not very much; about being small and getting larger slowly.’

No great drama, no conflict, just an insight into the curious world of 1950s America, when everything was good for you, whether that was DDT, nuclear fallout or cigarettes.

            As the title suggests, this doesn’t just concern Bryson’s childhood. It’s about the 1950s too, when almost 90% of American families had fridges, nearly three-quarters had washing machines, telephones, vacuum cleaners and gas or electric cookers – all thanks to the thousands of factories that hadn’t existed before the war and which had changed from making tanks and battleships to making cars and labour-saving goods after the war.

            People felt good. They felt that they could actually have all those things they had dreamed of and even some things beyond their wildest dreams. Yet for all the acquisitiveness, they exhibited an amazing simplicity of desire. People were thrilled to own a toaster, for example. Nowadays, technology is taken for granted.

            Something new seemed to turn up every week if not every day. Men wore hats and ties almost everywhere they went and women prepared food from scratch. A policeman seized a youth on suspicion of possessing drugs when in fact the powder he had was called instant coffee.

            Before the war, half of the US states had laws making it illegal to employ a married woman. The war changed attitudes.

            Young Bryson had an older sister and brother – don’t miss the anecdote about his brother’s handkerchiefs... Apparently, his mother wasn’t a good cook – their kitchen was actually called the Burns Unit – and it had nothing to do with George and Gracie. His descriptions of the family diet are hilarious – ‘Apart from a few perishable dairy products, everything in the fridge was older than I was...’

            As Bryson remarks, time goes slowly when you’re a kid; it’s adult life that is over in a twinkling. Because childhood days were filled with nothing very much, kids were curious about everything. ‘I knew how to cross every room in the house without touching the floor,’ Bryson says and you can picture him clinging to wardrobe doors and bouncing on bed-heads, a veritable ‘Just William’.

             Nobody thought anything of the fact that kids were playing on lawns drenched in noxious insecticide. ‘Possibly it was thought that a generous dusting of DDT would do us good.’ Bryson says all the events are more or less true, though he has changed the names, which is understandable, considering. You don’t really want to know why Lumpy got his name, I assure you, yet you probably knew somebody just like him in your childhood.

            It seems that they were indestructible in those days. ‘We didn’t need seat belts, airbags, smoke detectors, bottled water, child-proof caps on medicines, helmets on bikes... We knew without a written reminder that bleach was not a refreshing drink and that gasoline when exposed to a match had a tendency to combust.’ These were the long lost days of common sense, before the lawyers really woke up.

            Thankfully, we in the UK never suffered any pressures from product advertisers. In America, the shows sponsored by Camel cigarettes were forbidden to show villains smoking cigarettes and no mention could be made of arson, flames or coughs! They even demanded a game-show re-filmed because a contestant said her astrological sign was Cancer; they made her Aries, instead. The script of ‘Judgement of Nuremberg’ was altered to remove all references to gas ovens and the gassing of Jews, by order of the sponsors, the American Gas Association. Only in America... 

            Inevitably, there are moving moments as memories evoke long-lost images and emotions. He writes about the time he visited his mom in the Women’s Department of the newspaper, sitting at her desk, hammering away at her Smith Corona upright. ‘I’d give anything, really almost anything at all, to pass just once more... to see... my dear old mom at her desk typing away.’ We all probably have at least one of those precious moments treasured in our hearts and minds.

            His mother took him to the movies regularly but he never got to see the films he fancied, such as The Blob and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Instead, they watched talk, talk, talk movies where ‘the characters always turned away when speaking so that they appeared inexplicably to be addressing a bookcase rather than the person standing behind them.’

            Where does the Thunderbolt Kid come into it? At some point Bryson was convinced that he was not of Planet Earth and his parents had simply adopted him. When he was about six he found an old jersey in the basement with a rather striking thunderbolt on the chest. Obviously, this was ‘the Sacred Jersey of Zap, left to me by King Volton, my late natural father...’ The creators of Superman have a lot to answer for, believe me.

            We’ve entered a boy’s magical world of make-believe that’s more real than anything happening in the so-called real world. Bryson captures the essence of this strange behaviour, when imagination ruled. They didn’t have much television or other imagination-sapping entertainments, they had to use their growing and endlessly curious brains to make their own amusements.

            The only girl in their neighbourhood anybody really wanted to see naked was Mary O’Leary but that wasn’t going to happen, at least not while Bryson was around. He didn’t have that much luck placating his burgeoning hormones, it seems, and it makes amusing reading.

            He also dwells on the absurdities of the Communist witch-hunts, the ignorance of the nuclear test officials, the obscene hypocrisy of the treatment of black Americans. And of course he mourns the passing of a way of life, where even a huge department store, once the centre of their universe, had to close its doors; a place where school records and photographs were recycled – destroyed - because nobody seemed interested.

In Bryson’s eyes, this was a wonderful world and he won’t see its like again. We can sympathise as the world continues to change around us, not always for the best.

            If you’ve read any Bryson book before, you won’t need urging to read this memoir. If you haven’t, try it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Recommended.


On the other side of the Atlantic we can read Richard Littlejohn’s reminiscences on the same period, Littlejohn’s Lost World (2014), which has picked up many good reviews on Amazon.

No comments: