Memoir takes an edgy, but fond look at the 1950s

November 13, 2007|By DAVE THOMPSON

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

By Bill Bryson

Softcover | 270 pages | Broadway Books | 2006

Ah, the 1950s. As you watch them unfold on nostalgia cable television stations such as TVLand, you'll find there wasn't a care in the world in the '50s.

"Leave It to Beaver," "Father Knows Best," "Ozzie and Harriet," and folks wrap up their problems in a single black-and-white episodes. Later, in "Happy Days," we learned that the Fonz, the show's resident leather-jacketed gang leader, was really just a sensitive guy who wanted to be everyone's buddy.

The only problem with all this is that many of us on the leading edge of the baby boom actually grew up in the '50s. While we have our own fond memories of that era, we also encountered a few things that were seemingly not on Beaver's radar.


Bill Bryson recalls some of these things in "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid," his hilarious look at growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, in the '50s.

Remember ducking under the desk in school during the nuclear air raid drills? Bryson does. Even as a kid, he didn't think the desk would be much protection.

"Anyway, what were the chances that the Soviets would bomb Des Moines? I mean, come on."

Then he had one of those conversations with Dad that many of us remember as the straight pins that punctured holes into our balloons of innocence back then.

When he broached the nuclear subject to his father, "... he responded with a strange chuckle that Omaha, just a hundred or so miles to the west of Des Moines, was the headquarters of Strategic Air Command, from which all American operations would be directed in the event of war. SAC would be hit by everything the Soviets could throw at it, which of course was a great deal. We in Des Moines would be up to our keisters in fallout within ninety minutes if the wind was blowing to the east, my father told me. 'You'd be dead before bedtime,' he added brightly. 'We all would.'

Remember the toys of the 1950s? Bryson does.

"It would be difficult to say which was the most stupid or disappointing toy of the 1950s since most of them were one or the other, except for those that were both. The one that always leaps to mind for me as the most incontestably unsatisfactory was Silly Putty, an oily pink plastic material that did nothing but bounce erratically a dozen or so times before disappearing down a storm drain."

Mr. Potato Head, Slinky, Hula-Hoops, Erector Sets and, most of all, electric football also weren't high on Bryson's list.

But Bryson's wry recollections are by no means all negative, and nostalgia for a past age creeps in on many occasions. Indeed, the opening paragraph in his foreword could have described the childhoods of many boys who grew up then.

"My kid days were pretty good ones, on the whole. My parents were patient and kind and approximately normal. They didn't chain me in the cellar. They didn't call me 'It.' I was born a boy and allowed to stay that way. My mother, as you'll see, sent me to school once in Capri pants, but otherwise there was little trauma in my upbringing."

Bryson's Des Moines is a city of 200,000 with such '50s delights such as majestic movie palaces, Dahl's supermarket with a "Kiddie Corral" full of comic books and an underground conveyer to take bags to the parking lot, Bishop's Cafeteria with its "atomic toilets" and much more.

Bryson also invokes some of the glories of that simpler time for baby boomers' parents, who'd come of age during the Depression and World War II.

"Suddenly they were able to have the things they had never dreamed of having, and they couldn't believe their luck. There was, too, a wonderful simplicity of desire. It was the last time that people would be thrilled to own a toaster or waffle iron. If you bought a major appliance, you invited the neighbors around to have a look at it."

He signs off with rose-colored glasses intact.

"... Imagine having a city full of things that no other city had.

"What a wonderful world that would be. What a wonderful world it was. We won't see its like again, I'm afraid."

And what a wonderful book this is. If you grew up during the '50s or are simply interested in the era, put it on your must-read list.


By Erik Larson

Softcove | 465 pages | Crown Publishers | 2006

With "Thunderstruck," Erik Larson revisits the formula that worked so well for him with "The Devil in the White City."

That 2004 work, a finalist for the National Book Award, detailed the challenges architect Daniel Burnham faced in building the "White City" for Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition. The side story was that of Dr. H.H. Holmes, a diabolical serial killer who used the occasion to attract victims to his World's Fair Hotel, which was designed with murder in mind.

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