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.