Friday, December 9, 2016

A great time to be a kid

In The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson reminds those of us of a certain age what a privilege it was to grow up in the 1950s. Sure there was polio, the McCarthy hearings and the threat of nuclear annihilation, but those were things our parents worried about, not us kids. For children, it was a golden time. We were allowed, no encouraged, to wander around our neighborhoods most of the day -- my friend and I called it "exploring" -- and our parents never seemed to worry about us or even place limits on how far we could go or, as long as we didn't miss a meal, when we had to be back.

Bryson, a few years younger than me, spent his childhood in Des Moines, the son of one of the best baseball writers in America, never mind that Des Moines has never had a major league baseball team. Even so his father went to spring training every year and to the World Series every fall and won many writing awards. Bryson's mother, too, worked for the Des Moines Register, so if writing skill is something that can be inherited, which I doubt, we know where he got it from.

His memoir devotes attention to the toys of that era (who can forget electric football, Lincoln Logs and, my favorite, chemistry sets?), school, family vacations (like my own family, Bryson's didn't travel much, but even so we both made it to Disneyland somehow), early television, grandparents, the discovery of sex and other topics related to growing up.

Although he has never been known as a writer of fiction, Bryson strays close in this memoir, as when he tells of his adventures as his own superhero, the Thunderbolt Kid, or when he tells about a roller coaster "about four miles long, I believe, and some twelve thousand feet high." Exaggeration works in creating an amusing, sometimes outrageously funny, book.

"One of the great myths of life is that childhood passes quickly," Bryson writes. Indeed, time passes at glacier speed for children, if not for their parents, who like to tell each other how "they grow up so fast." I continue to marvel at how much I managed to pack into each day back in the 1950s, and it seems even more marvelous now at an age when if I can accomplish one thing in the morning and another thing in the afternoon, I think I have had a productive day. It was as if I, too, were the Thunderbolt Kid.

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