Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Book Review: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
By Bill Bryson
(Blogger Note: This review was previously published in "The LamLight", the physician newsletter of the Lynchburg Academy of Medicine in Lynchburg, Virginia.)
I am not usually one to enjoy a memoir. There always seems to be a certain smugness that someone must possess to have the audacity to think that their story is better than, well, mine. This memoir, however, is different. Bill Bryson’s childhood ruminations could belong to anybody who grew up in the 1950s. Change Des Moines, Iowa to Arlington, Virginia and this story could even be mine. If you are under 40 you probably won’t enjoy this book as much as those of us who actually endured this particular decade. This book reads like a “Saturday Night Live” send-up of David Halberstam’s The Fifties. Like Halberstam, Bryson touches on the many social and cultural events and changes of the 1950s including the space race, the development of the nuclear bomb, the evolution of the suburbs coupled with the decline of the inner cities and the emergence of television. This author, however, takes great pride in pointing out the absurdities and ironic inconsistencies of that era. He describes his refusal to participate in the required civil defense drills, pointing out to his elementary school teacher the absolute irrationality of thinking that crawling under a desk could protect a child from a nuclear explosion. I remember thinking these same thoughts as I toted bottled water and canned goods to St. Ann’s School in Arlington which happened to be three miles from the Pentagon. Unlike Bill Bryson, I did get under the desk when told to. I feared for my life, not from an A-bomb, but from the wrath of Sister Mary Angelus.
The author was able to jog my feeble memory about certain items which are long gone. In one hilarious segment he describes the cumbersome winter boots we all had. Bill Bryson claims that the clasps, which required an incredible dexterity to fasten, were actually made from razor blades. He is equally as funny when describing how kids passed their time during the fifties. He explains that parents would kick the kids outdoors in the early morning and not expect to see them again until dinner time. The ridiculous toys of the era are recalled in great detail. The authors favorites were Lincoln Logs (where the box shows all of these great forts and structures and the contents are only enough to construct a small hut with one window), erector sets and electric football. It is hard to imagine in this day of Xbox and Playstation that electric football ever existed. I actually had two of these sets, one a hand-me-down from my cousin Mike. The author wryly and accurately describes setting up the players on the metal “field” and turning on the electricity which caused the field to vibrate and all of the plastic players to fall over or migrate towards the wrong goal line. There is also an awesome description of the complete disaster which was constructing plastic model airplane kits.
The name of the book comes from the author’s fascination with comic book heroes. He constructed his own alter-ego and named him Thunderbolt Kid. He imagined his super powers and practiced making teachers and principals disappear.
The greatest segments of Thunderbolt are when Bill Bryson recalls the early days of television. He muses over the physical differences between the comic book Superman and the flabby television version. He fondly recalls the Sky King show (and how Sky would fly around endlessly in his airplane for no particular reason) and his crush on Sky’s niece Penny. Tell the truth: didn’t we all have a crush on Penny? He also points out that television cowboys in the 50s never really shot anybody. They shot AT people, for sure, but usually just shot guns out of the bad guys’ hands or shot their hats off. Yes, it was a different era.
The television anecdote that evoked the most vivid memory for me was his description of how Walt Disney used his television show to make every kid in America dream of going to Disneyland in Anaheim. For you youngsters, this was when Orlando was still a backwater town and Disney World didn’t exist. Bill Bryson’s family finally went and, by golly, so did mine. My sister and her husband moved to California in the sixties and I remember going to visit them and getting to go to Disneyland. I was about twelve or thirteen, I guess, and I remember standing on Main Street and looking at Cinderella’s Castle in absolute awe. They gave you a book of coupons on admission in those days when you paid to get in. The coupons had different values and colors and the E coupons were the good ones (for the Matterhorn ride and Space Mountain). I remember not wanting to use the last E coupon because then it would be time to leave.
There are some serious moments here as well. Mr. Bryson notes that with the passage of time the family farm has basically disappeared from the American landscape. He also regrets the loss of the supreme optimism and sense of innocence which pervaded America in the 1950s.
This is a must read for anyone born before 1955. For you youngsters, this book may help you understand why we boomers are as odd as we are. One warning, though: there are segments that are so funny you want to stop and tell everyone around you about them.