Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson

Why I read it: ALready read A Walk in the Woods, and find this Bryson guy kind of funny.

Summary: Bill Bryson grew up in the 1950s and '60s in Des Moines, Iowa, and for him, kidhood was Saturday matinees in palatial movie theaters, the Golden Age of Television (in black and white), figuring out how to skip school and barely slide by grades-wise, learning that adults cannot be trusted in any way, shape or form and wondering at the bewildering antics of his parents. In many ways, a typical American upbringing.

His memoir wraps his boyhood frame in the snuggly blanket of 1950s America: buzzcuts, Sky King, Burns and Allen, state fairs and more. It ends sadly, as all memoirs must; the Des Monies of today is no longer the exciting place of his youth. But the journey is one of joyful remembrance and superhyperbolic tales. He even, in what was also the Golden Age of Comic Books, develops his own hero persona, the Thunderbolt Kid, able to disintegrate the inconsiderate and the downright mean with a single staring glance.

My Thoughts: Right out of the chute: when will the world be ready for a memoir of childhood in the 1970s and 1980s? While much of what Bryson writes about has direct parallels to my childhood - he had a paper route, I had a paper route, his father had a habit of walking around naked at the most inopportune times... - just those twenty years of difference are enough to paint a profoundly different picture.

As a troll in a cartoon I once saw said, "Let me give ya a frinstance." While plenty of what Bryson writes about is deeply funny, and, more importantly, driven by real-life statistics of the era, the one concept that jumps out at me is the notion that there were simply more kids around in that period than ever in American history. Think about it! The millions of baby boomers as pre-pubescent pains-in-the-asses. It must not have been a problem at all to find a kid to do anything in those days: hockey, baseball, hopscotch, whipping rocks at passing cars, whatever struck your fancy.

My generation was the one that followed. My parents are the baby boomers, and while they helped repopulate the country after World War II, their broods were smaller; there were many more families, just fewer kids per. Don't get me wrong, there was plenty to do, but I just can't imagine what the '50s must have been like from that perspective.

Bryson's book is a lesson in aging. It happens to all of us, but so gradually and relatively that we often don't realize what we're missing. I, for one, am writing my memories down now. I want them to be there when I'm older, so that I can tell my son what his great-great-grandmother was like, what Zarex tasted like, and why I turned out to be the person I am.

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