Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir

It's cold here--but warmed up a bit overnight (it was -5 AM at 10 PM and 6 degrees F at 6 AM). Last night started out clear with brillant stars (or maybe they seemed that way as we have so seldom been able to see the sky over the past few months). Then it clouded back up and started snowing small flakes, the kind of snow you get with real cold temperatures. The snow squeaks under your feet. I've had night meetings ever night this week--which makes me sad as I haven't been able to curl up with a book in front of the fire place. I read this book back during the Christmas break--it's great.
Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir (New York: Broadway Books, 2006) 270 pages.

In The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bryson writes about his childhood years in the fifties and sixties in Des Moines, Iowa. With his keen memory and ability to take small, often absurd, things and blow them out proportion (a trait that Bryson has honed over the years), Bryson has written a very funny book. Writing must be in Bryson’s blood as both parents worked for The Des Moines Register. His father was a sportswriter and his mother an editor for the “Home Section.” I found myself both envious of his childhood (what boy wouldn’t love to have a father that was a sportswriter who would take you along on a trip every summer where you get to meet the greats of baseball). At first, like most children, he seems ashamed of the stupid stuff his parents did, but you a sense of his great love for both of them. In addition to writing about his childhood, he includes some of his fantasy life as the Thunderbolt Kid who, with his laser gun, could vaporize bad guys, morons and teachers. Bryson also provides insight and commentary into the changes that was going on in America during the 50s and 60s.

This was the era of rabid anti-communism and the fear of the bomb. Bryson couldn’t imagine any enemy wanting to bomb Des Moines, but his father informed him that since the Strategic Air Command was headquartered in Omaha, 100 miles away, they’d be bombed and Des Moines would have fallout and they’d all be dead before dinner. Knowing this, Bryson refused to participate in the schools nuclear drills, earning him the scorn of teachers and principals. It also leads to him nearly becoming the only American casualty in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Hearing the President somber words on TV, he stole the last piece of pie that had been saved for his sister and went out onto the porch to watch the fireworks over Omaha. They never came, but his sister did come home.

Bryson seems befuddled that the Gallup Organization named 1957 as the happiest year in America, even going so far as suggesting it might be because the next year the Giants and Dodgers moved west. (235) Unfortunately, living in the American heartland, he was unaware that in North Carolina a woman was giving birth to her first child, a son (and no, she didn’t wrap him in swaddling clothes, as he was also the first grandchild and thereby spoiled). This child now wishes he had thought to describe a tornado as a “killer apostrophe.” (181). He is also glad to see that Bryson paid due respect to Bill Mazeroski’s homerun in the 1960 World Series, giving the Pirates a victory over the loathsome Yankees. (82) Knowing that Bryson’s father was there, at Forbes Field, in the press books, gives Bryson more respect than he previously had as a slacker along the Appalachian Trail.

Most of this book is about his early years, but he does have a few stories about junior and senior high. Here, we meet Katz, who went from buying beer with a forged id (made by Bryson) to stealing cases of beer from railcars. Katz would later join Bryson in his feeble attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. (Told in Bryson’s best seller, A Walk in the Woods). He also tells about the Willoughby brothers, who built a confetti bomb. They set it to go off at 3 PM, as school was being released, but they set it the night before and was using a clock as the timer and when 3 AM came around, it went off in their bedroom, waking the community. Bryson also had his troubles in high school (he graduated in 1968). After having managed to stay out of reformed school for his “license forging ring,” he insulted a guidance counselor and found himself being required to write a letter of apology in order to remain in school. This he did, he says, for in 1968, “the only thing that stood between one’s soft tissue and a Vietcong bullet was the American education system.” After handing the letter to the counselor, the Thunderbolt kid struck one final time. (258) In his last chapter, Bryson admits he used pseudonyms for all but one of the characters in the book. A few months ago, while traveling and bored, I saw Bryson on C-Span (late at night, they often feature authors). It was a tape made just after the publication of this book and he said he and his family were moving back to Britain. According to him this was because he and his British wife wanted to give their children both the American and British experience. After reading this book, I can’t help but to think that another reason might be that a few folks in Iowa were planning an ambush.

This is a great read. If you’re in your 50s, fond memories will come to mind. If you are younger, you need to know what those who passed before you endured. In both cases, you’ll laugh.


  1. Loved that book! I even suffered from a few punches when reading about the confetti bomb one evening while in bed and the wife was sleeping. My laughter woke her up and thus the punches to my ribs. It was worth it.

    I hadn't heard that Bryson was moving back to England. My chances of meeting him decreased dramatically even if they were slim to begin with.

  2. Cold here too, though tomorrow night's supposed to be the worst of the week. Brrr! A fireplace - jealous. So jealous.

    I laughed at the part of your review when you said that the kid couldn't imagine anyone wanting to bomb Des Moines. I, on the other hand, have no problem imagining that O:) (I like DM a LOT more than Dubuque. I'm just saying.)

  3. It doesn't sound like his usual travel book. I loved "A Walk in the Woods," never expecting it to be so funny.

    This might be another one I'd like. Thanks for the review.

  4. Wiki said he has been living in Norfolk since 2003. Wait, in fact he hardly left England. He was in Yorkshire from 1977 to 1995, and in Norfolk from '03 onwards. Hhmm, if I ever meet him, I'm going to ask for a Yorkshire pudding recipe and he better knows! :)

  5. Ed, The confetti bomb was a classic!

    TC, fireplace isn't any good when you have to be out every evening.... Tonight I'm out of town even--it'll be cold driving back in

    Scarlet, I've read four of his travel books and have enjoyed them all.

    Mother Hen & Fact Checker, he must move back and forth often. I assume when you say Norfolk, you're not talking about Virginia.

  6. I enjoyed this book alot, and really enjoyed his story about Ernie Banks, who he described as "the nicest man on the planet."

  7. Ah, wasn't much of a fact checker, just wanna make sure this Bill and that Bill is the same Bill before I comment :)

    This Norfolk where he lives borders Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and the great North Sea.

  8. It tends to be 70 degrees in Phoenix and 42 at night right now. But that book cover is hilarious! His descriptions must be amazing!

  9. It sounds great and I will look for it

    Took me a sec to get the part about a baby being born in North Carolina duh me

  10. hey - long time since I visited

    i cant do that much COLD
    so we get single digits for a few hours a few days a year
    but then it soars to 50 in the middle of january. Plenty of snow on the ground though.
    Spring is on the way!

  11. any book with that cover would draw me. too cute!

    It's definitely now on my reading list.. now if I could only get through all the books I've yet to open...

  12. Happy birthday, Sage! You can try and be sly and keep it from us, but your fan club isn't going to :)

  13. Diane, he was a lucky kid meeting all those greats-was it Ernie Banks that he handed baseballs to as he signed them (I lent out my book).

    MH, there is also a Suffolk near the Virginia Norfolk--but then Virginia's ain't known for their creativity

    Michael, yeah, but when late spring comes and we're in the 70s, you'll be in the triple digits--I'll take the cold!

    Pia, don't worry, I missed a sentence in TC's post the other day--it changed everything--I just had to say something about 1957

    David, it's not that bad--you're also in a beautiful part of the country. Welcome back, I'll have to get back over and visit

    Lisa, too many books, not enough time, the story of life!

    Kenju and TC, thanks!

  14. sage - yep! And in retrospect, he realized how much he slowed Banks down, but nonetheless, every time he handed Banks a ball, he'd respond with a thank you.

  15. Oh hey...I didn't know today was your birthday. :-) Happy Birthday!

  16. Thanks for the review. His Short History of Nearly Everything is one of my favorite books. I've been picking up his memoir and putting it back down in bookstores, not sure if I'd like it or not. Sounds really good. I'll have to give it a try now. B.