I love reading books written by Bill Bryson. His sense of humor is downright hilarious and his writing style is both captivating and moving. I just finished reading The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, which I would easily classify as his funniest book of all. It is also his most sentimental publication. Being a memoir, I guess that comes with the territory. What I did not count on while reading the book was how quickly my emotions would shift from hearty laughter to the verge of tears. Here are a couple of stellar examples of Bill Bryson’s charming wit:
“The restrooms at Bishop’s had the world’s only atomic toilets-at least the only ones I have ever encountered. When you flushed, the seat automatically lifted and retreated into a seat-shaped recess in the wall, where it was bathed in a purple light that thrummed in a warm, hygienic, scientifically advanced fashion, then gently came down again impeccably sanitized, nicely warmed, and practically pulsing with atomic thermoluminescence. Goodness knows how many Iowans died from unexplained cases of buttock cancer throughout the 1950s and ’60s, but it was worth every shriveled cheek.”
“They [Mr. Bryson's grade school teachers] insisted on knowing strange things, which I found bewildering. If you asked to go to the restroom, they wanted to know whether you intended to do Number 1 or Number 2, a curiosity that didn’t strike me as entirely healthy. Besides, these were not terms used in our house. In our house, you either went toity or had a BM (for bowel movement), but mostly you just ‘went to the bathroom’ and made no public declarations with regard to intent. So I hadn’t the faintest idea, the first time I requested to go, what the teacher meant when she asked me if I was going to do Number 1 or Number 2.
Well, ‘I don’t know,’ I replied frankly and in a clear voice. ‘I need to do a big BM. It could be as much as a three or a four.’ I got sent to the cloakroom for that.”
And an example of his sentimental nature:
“Winfield [his grandparents' hometown] is barely alive, all the businesses on Main Street-the dime store, the pool hall, the newspaper office, the banks, the grocery stores-long ago disappeared. There is nowhere to buy Nehi pop. You can’t purchase a single item of food in the town limits. My grandparents’ house is still there — at least it was the last time I passed — but its barn is gone as is its porch swing and the shade tree out back and the orchard and everything else that made it what it was. The best I can say is that I saw the last of something really special. It’s something I seem to say a lot these days.”
Another enjoyable aspect of this book pertains to Mr. Bryson’s memories of transforming himself into “The Thunderbolt Kid.” How many of us have at one time or another thought about magically vaporizing all the morons that exist on the planet? Well, Mr. Bryson does that figuratively throughout this heartwarming tale of his 1950s childhood in Des Moines, as each chapter is concluded with a whimsical tale related to “The Thunderbolt Kid.”
While I grew up in a similar Midwestern state capital (Indianapolis) some years behind him, many of his descriptions of being a kid in the 1950s are absolutely spot on the mark for the 1960s too.
I can recall very similar fond memories, such as:
- Eating lunch in the L.S. Ayres Tea Room in Indianapolis just as he described for the Younkers Tea Room in its downtown Des Moines flagship store.
- Listening to the World Series on a transistor radio during school recess.
- Traveling on a long family road trip to Disneyland.
- Playing backyard football games involving dozens of kids.
- Eating TV dinners.
- Reading “Dick and Jane” books.
- Stopping in to see your parents at work.
- Riding the bus to Acorn Farm Day Camp (now swallowed up by an endless sea of subdivisions and shopping complexes).
- Pretending to be a superhero.
- Spending wonderful days and weekends with grandparents.
- Eating potluck suppers in small farm towns.
Many of these memories seem like ages ago, which I guess they were. It is quite amazing (and a tad scary) how fast time does fly, whether you are having fun or not. Sadly, as Mr. Bryson so aptly notes in the quote below, a number of these lovely memories have faded from the American landscape in the past half-century.
“What a wonderful world it was. We won’t see its likes again, I’m afraid.”