Bryson bottles and perfectly preserves 1950s

February 11, 2007|By SUSAN REIMER

BILL BRYSON, A HUMORIST and travel writer who has taken us on amusing journeys along the Appalachian Trail and across time and the cosmos, has turned his wit and his memory to growing up in the middle of the country, in the middle of the last century, in the middle of a delightfully dysfunctional family.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir is the latest from the author of A Walk in the Woods and A Short History of Nearly Everything.

He uses that same droll, jaundiced and deadpan voice -- this time, as a child -- to recall growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950s, a time of benign neglect, when kids were put out of the house at 8 in the morning and told not to return until dinnertime unless they were "on fire or actively bleeding."

It was a time when a kid's life at least seemed simpler, safer and more carefree. A time when childhood stretched out in front of you like a huge meadow or a long city block, and you were free to live it largely unsupervised by adults, who had not yet learned to worry about you.

"I don't know how they managed it, but the people responsible for the 1950s made a world in which pretty much everything was good for you," Bryson writes.

"Drinks before dinner? The more the better. Smoke? You bet. Cigarettes actually made you healthier by soothing jangled nerves and sharpening jaded minds. ...

"Happily, we were indestructible. We didn't need seat belts, air bags, smoke detectors, bottled water or the Heimlich maneuver. We didn't need helmets when we rode our bikes. ...

"We didn't have to worry about what we ate because nearly all foods were good for us. Sugar gave us energy. Red meat made us strong. Ice cream gave us healthy bones. Coffee kept us alert and purring productively."

Bryson recalls this time with a supernatural -- he was, after all, a child from another planet, born with super powers -- memory for detail and describes it with outlandish exaggeration that will have you snorting your uncontainable laughter through your nose.

(That's a reaction of which he and his bathroom humor boyhood buddies would no doubt approve.)

But Bryson does more than tell funny stories about growing up as the son of a penny-pinching if brilliant sportswriter and a delightfully loopy working mother, who kept Mason jars under the kitchen sink for emergency urination and cling peaches, but could never quite tell which was which.

He also remembers for us an incredibly stupid time in American history, when children were allowed to play in the clouds of DDT that bathed neighborhoods in summer, when children's feet were X-rayed in shoe stores to provide a better fit, when people planned family trips to watch nuclear tests, when polio was everywhere and might give you a three-day headache or paralyze you for life.

It was a time when African-Americans were beaten to death for looking at white women and people lost their livelihoods for refusing to name their friends as Communists. A time when even school children understood on some level that a desk could not protect you from a nuclear strike.

But Bryson also remembers the intoxicating scent of mimeograph paper, the wonder of comic books and the pride and delight every family took in a new appliance -- more so than in a new child.

And each of the adventures he undertakes with his goofy cast of school mates is more improbable than the last, especially when they pool money to rent an apartment and fill it with beer stolen from a railroad car -- twice.

Bryson's picture-perfect, word-perfect nostalgia for a time so many of us remember is such that I want to hand a copy of his book to my kids and tell them:

"Read this. It will explain a lot."

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