"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

Any Baby Boomer who thinks fondly on a childhood in the 1950s will enjoy this book immensely. Born in 1951 and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, Bill Bryson had what I might consider the average middle-class life in the geographic center of America. As such, it's easy for me to nod in agreement at many of the details he recalls: spider-web-like strands of airplane glue that stuck to everything except small plastic model pieces; the confusion of having two different actors play the Lone Ranger on TV; the stilted and unrealistic conversations I read in our Dick and Jane textbooks; and the fact that I spent my free time outside, making up our my games.

Bryson additionally got into a few unusual scrapes with some of his neighborhood buddies, and the distance of time makes each one of their escapades a real hoot. Those post-war days were indeed the best of times and the worst of times. The nation grew wealthy and happier and stronger, and technological advances like television made us feel more powerful. Simultaneously the Cold War intensified, and we grew ever more fearful of a nuclear attack from Russia. It was a unique and great time to be a kid.

"Happily," Bryson writes, "we were indestructible. We didn't need seat belts, air bags, smoke detectors, bottled water, or the Heimlich maneuver. We didn't require child-safety caps on our medicines. We didn't need helmets when we rode our bikes or pads for our knees and elbows when we went skating. We knew without a written reminder that bleach was not a refreshing drink and that gasoline when exposed to a match had a tendency to combust. 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."

To his own experiences, Bryson adds historical tidbits that now seem unbelievable, except that I suddenly remember when they were true. Everyone smoked. TV dinners were invented and enjoyed, even though each of the food components had an aluminum taste. The civil rights movement hadn't yet taken full form. No one knew or cared about the dangers of DDT or witnessing a nuclear test from a ridge a hundred miles away. And yet, most of us survived the decade.

Reading this memoir will make you wistful for those days of atomic toilets, comic book Kiddie Corrals, unrated movies, and grape Nehi bubbles up your nose. It'll also have you laughing right out of your chaise longue and Capri pants.

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