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February 20, 2008

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

A Memoir
Bill Bryson – ISBN 9780767919371

Bryson writes well in so many genres that “his best” would be misstatement, sort of. Nonetheless, I must note that this one hits the mark. A memoir of growing up in the best country in the world . . . when it was at its peak! For me it was an exhilarating trip down memory lane.

People of later generations will read his comic genius-laced anecdotal hyperbole with glee and admiration. Those of us who grew up during the period of the 40’s and 50’s will be regaled as well, but sadly recall the lost times and our long gone country, while being reminded of the sheer joy of being young during that time. The book is boundless in its production of rollicking laughter. Between guffaws, causes one is caused to fondly “remember when.” You’ll laugh till your belly hurts! Do not read this while drinking! It’ll jettison from your nose at the least expected moment.

He captures youth in general, and that period in particular, as he revisits everything from childhood fantasies (he was the “thunderbolt kid”), to Saturday morning cowboy flicks, elegant tea rooms in downtown department stores (back when there was a downtown), Bishop’s cafeterias with their “atomic” toilet seats, boys fixation on girls bodies, sneaking into “strip shows” at carnivals, blowing things up, sneaking beer and cigarettes, and being able to disappear—safely—for the entire day. As well; nutty toys from hula hoops and Mr. Potato Heads to silly putty and slinkys, Lincoln Logs to Erector Sets. His discussion of making models, and getting stuck to everything by the glues of the day, is hilarious.

He delves into the appearance of convenience foods in Supermarkets by noting that they usually contained some of the 2,000 available additives, including “nine emulsifiers, thirty-one stabilizers and thickeners, eighty-five surfactants, seven anti-caking agents, twenty-eight anti-oxidants and forty-four sequestrants.” Sometimes they even contained food.

It is impossible for subsequent generations to understand how enormous the world was then. Even nearby places seemed distant. Few privately owned vehicles meant that you traveled by trolley, bus or train to wherever they went, and no further; no freeways, even for those with cars, made drives infinitely longer. Most anything more than a couple of hundred miles away seemed alien. T.V. was new and seldom showed anything foreign. The occasional commercial aircraft had propellers. Air Mail was a big deal. The size of the universe, while incomprehensible, was likewise just another unknown to which we gave little thought until Sputnik, and “going to the moon.” Forty percent of people believed thought the world would end in global war, yet they were busy buying homes, digging swimming pools, starting pension plans, and investing in the future. Bryson observes: “I grew up in possibly the scariest period in American history and had no idea of it.”

By 1960 most people had “pretty much everything;” far more than expected. There wasn’t much to do with their wealth but buy more and larger versions of things they didn’t require: second homes, lawn tractors, double-wide refrigerators, intercoms, gas grills, extra phones or cars, bigger TV’s, etc. “Soon millions of people were caught in a spiral in which they worked harder and harder [graduating to two income families] in order to buy labor-saving devices they wouldn’t have needed if they hadn’t been working so hard in the first place.” Productivity was enormous, and in theory people could make more in two days than they had in five, but instead of opting for more leisure time they decided to work instead—to buy more stuff!

“The best I can say is that I saw the last of something really special; something I seem to say a lot these days.” That’s how it goes. Stuff gets thrown out. Life goes on. But: “Imagine those palatial downtown movie theaters with their vast screens and Egyptian décor, but thrillingly enlivened with Dolby sound and slick computer graphics. Now that would be magic. Imagine having all of public life—offices, stores, restaurants, entertainments—conveniently clustered in the heart of the city and experiencing fresh air and daylight each time you moved from one to another.”

“What a wonderful world it was. We won’t see its like again.”

He misses it. I miss it. As I write this I find myself a little melancholic. An ever diminishing few in the world miss it, but you can’t if you weren’t there. No one born after 1960 will ever experience it. That is unfortunate . . . 2,500 sq. ft. starter homes, 700 series Beemers, home-brewed lattes, gimongous flat-screen HDTV’s with surround sound, I-Pods and online gambling notwithstanding.

Read and enjoy this splendid memoir and tribute to America when it was the envy of the world. I consider myself exceedingly blessed to have been there, and wish I could share it with the kids—and theirs. But then, sadly, they hardly want to hear about it.

Posted by respeto at February 20, 2008 8:47 AM