By Bill Bryson
Writing nostalgia can be tricky. Experiencing sentimental longings or wistful affections for the past is one thing. Presenting these emotions in a way that enables a reader to readily identify with the writer’s past, well that’s another.
So, should any creative writing teachers out there find themselves looking for a textbook, one that might help students better understand this delicate, challenging genre, here’s a thought.
Try The Life and Times of the THUNDERBOLT KID, by Bill Bryson.
In this hilarious, keenly insightful memoir one will find all the ingredients that make for a great reminiscence–identifiable characters (parents, teachers, adults in general), annoying traits (the human condition so fill in the blank here), historic markers (products, entertainment, America’s Civil Defense), the setting of time and place (home town when the good old USA was the good old USA).
If we don’t know Bryson’s characters or relate to all of his references that’s okay. As readers we’ll recall OUR characters and then, before we know it, we’ll be enjoying our moments from the past.
And that’s the trick of writing nostalgia! When the work is so damned full of pitch-perfect observations we (in a sense) think the book’s about us.
Hey, we all didn’t all grow up in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950s. Many of us aren’t 60-year-old males who once ran around in cape and costume imagining that we had super powers that would allow us to see Mary O’Leary naked (even if many of us had similar thoughts). Maybe we didn’t have a paper route, one with senile slow paying customers who kept vicious attack dogs. Not all of us were comic book freaks or glued to our TVs just to hear the Lone Ranger’s faithful sidekick Tonto, shout, “Get ‘um up, Scout!” Hell, there are probably a few of us who never even caught our dad and mom doing it!
But those of us in the 1950s club—at one time or another—have certainly pondered some of the questions that gave Bryson pause. Why were those freakin’ TV dinners that we loved always steamy hot in the mashed potatoes compartment and frosty cold on the fried chicken side? Why wasn’t’ Dale Evans named Dale Rogers and why did Roy’s wife always dress as a man? Why do we ALL have an uncle who spews food while he eats? And why did Donald Duck and his flock of nephews wear caps and shirts but were naked from the waist down?
Through the Kid, we can enjoy Bryson’s edgy observational humor (another key to writing great nostalgia) but do so knowing that with his eye for reality, a turn of the page may NOT always offer up that “. . . sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past!”
Bryson on the atomic bomb: “What was scary about the growth of the bomb wasn’t so much the growth of the bomb as the people in charge of the growth of the bomb. The big hats at the Pentagon were actively thinking of ways to put this baby to use. One idea, seriously considered, was to build a device somewhere near the front lines in Korea, induce large numbers of North Koreans and Chinese troops to wander over to have a look, and then set it off.”
Bryson’s Kid, makes us think!
The Kid? Well the creation of the Thunderbolt Kid was a childhood must for Bryson, enabling him to deal with the fact that parents, most adults in fact, must—due to their boring, mundane behavior—be aliens, life form from another planet. This called for the drastic creation of the TK, a character when assembled would have young Bryson decked out in a most eclectic costume—a sacred jersey of Zap sporting an electric thunderbolt, X-ray goggles, a Zorro whip and sword, a Sky King neckerchief, a Roy Rogers decorative vest (you get the idea).
And Bryson would take this creation he lived through (lived, hell, survived Adult World through) to a day when he would be forced to jumpstart his X-ray vision to something more (remembering Mary O’Leary) functional and in fact more suited to his needs:
Bryson: “. . . it was necessary to perfect ThunderVision, a laser like gaze that allowed me to strip away undergarments without damaging skin or outer clothing. That ThunderVision, stepped up a grade and focused more intensely, could also be used as a powerful weapon to vaporize irritating people (adults—a key target of the Kid) was a pleasing but entirely incidental benefit.”
There are moments in The Kid splashed with laughter, passages when we stop and say, “Hey, my family didn’t walk around naked but I had a neighbor, Bunky, a kid whose mother, Mrs. D cup, thought their house was a nudist colony with windows and walls! If one just happened by (which it was my habit to do almost daily) she could be caught wandering the house like a naked free range chicken.
Bryson on his father’s penchant for “dressing” as Donald Duck when building his mid-night snacks: “There was one other notable thing about my father’s making of snacks that must be mentioned. He was bare-assed when he made them. It wasn’t, let me quickly add, that he thought being bare-assed somehow made for a better snack; it was just the he was bare-assed already (believing it healthy he slept naked from the waist down). And when he went downstairs late at night to concoct a snack he always went so attired (or unattired). Goodness knows what Mr. and Mrs. Bukowski next door must have thought as they drew their drapes and saw across the way (as surely they must) my father, bare-assed, padding about his kitchen reaching into high cupboards and assembling the raw materials of his nightly feast.”
With my apologies to Mr. Bryson for this review’s condensations: “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear!”
On time and place: “I can’t imagine there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive than America in the 1950s. No country had ever known such prosperity. When the war ended the United States had $26 billion worth of factories that hadn’t existed before the war, $140 billion in savings and war bonds just waiting to be spent, no bomb damage, and practically no competition. All that American companies had to do was stop making tanks and battleships and start making Buicks and Frigidaires—and boy did they.”
On the average Kid’s day in Des Moines during those booming 50s?: “. . . long periods of the day were devoted to just seeing what would happen—what would happen if you pinched a match head while it was still hot or made a vile drink and took a sip of it or focused a white-hot beam of sunlight with a magnifying glass on your Uncle Dick’s bald spot while he was napping. (What happened was that you burned an amazing swift, deep hole that would leave Dick and a team of specialists at Iowa Lutheran Hospital puzzled for weeks.)
On the question of what good is a dim witted friend? “Then, realizing the enormity of what we had just done (wiped out a neighbor’s prize zinnia garden with wooden swords)—I told Buddy that this was not a good time for me to be in trouble on account of my father had a fatal disease that no one knew about, so would he mind taking the blame? And he did. From this I leaned that lying is always an option worth trying. I spent the next six years blaming Buddy for everything bad that happened in my life. I believe that he even eventually took the rap for burning the hole in my Uncle Dick’s head even though he had never met my Uncle Dick.”
On school, which the Kid hated: “I probably wouldn’t have gone at all if it hadn’t been for mimeograph paper. Of all the tragic losses since the 1950s, mimeograph paper may be the greatest. With its rapturously fragrant, sweetly aromatic pale blue ink, mimeograph paper was literally intoxicating. Two deep drafts of a freshly run-off mimeograph worksheet and I would be the education system’s willing slave for up to seven hours. Go to any crack house and ask people where their dependency problems started and they will tell you, I’m certain, that it was with mimeograph paper in the second grade.”
On teachers: “They were never going to like me anyway. There was something about me—my dreaminess and hopeless forgetfulness, my lack of button-cuteness, my permanent default expression of pained dubiousness—that rubbed them the wrong way. I always did everything wrong. I forgot to bring official forms back on time. I forgot to bring cookies for class parties, and Christmas cards and valentines on the appropriate festive days. I always turned up empty-handed for show-and-tell. I remember once in kindergarten, in a kind of desperation, I just showed my fingers.”
On the tree house: where it was the boys of Des Moines habit to take their clothes off. “The only girl in the neighborhood anybody really wanted to see naked was Mary O’Leary (hence the rationale for Thunderbolt Kid’s ThunderVision glasses). She was the prettiest child within a million galaxies, but she wouldn’t take her clothes off. She would play in the tree house happily with us when it was wholesome fun, but the moment things got fruity she would depart by the way of the ladder and stand below and tell us with a clenched fury that was nearly tearful that we were gross and loathsome. This made me admire her very much, very much indeed (but not quite enough to ditch the idea of the Kids ThunderVision glasses crafted to allow one to see no deeper than articles of clothing).”
On TV: “In 1950, not many private homes in America had televisions. Forty percent of the people still hadn’t even seen a single program. Then I was born and the country went crazy (through the two events were not precisely connected). By late 1952, one-third of American households—twenty million homes or thereabouts—had purchased TVs. In May 1953, United Press reported that Boston now had more television sets than bathtubs and people admitted in an opinion poll that they would rather go hungry than go without their television. Many probably did.”
On the indestructible 1950s: “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. Drinks before dinner? The more the better! Smoke? You bet! Cigarettes actually made you healthier, by soothing jangly nerves and sharpening jaded minds, according to advertisements. “Just what the doctor ordered!” read ads for L&M cigarettes, some of them in The Journal of American Medical Association where cigarette ads were gladly accepted right up to the 1960s. X-rays were so benign that shoe stores installed special machines that used them to measure foot sizes, sending penetrating rays up through the soles of your feet and right out the top of your head
As Bryson and Des Moines move into the 1960s we see change and, again, not the change that makes (at least for this reader) those “wistful affections for the past.” As old edifices come down and shopping centers pop up we join Bryson in his longing for the 1950s. In the end, as he gives us this dose of reality, we turn the pages (of time) with reluctance, and do so with only a sliver of hope, the hope that perhaps another reader’s 1960s might just be the 1950s Bill and I recall with such fondness.
One never knows how others will relate to the written word, in this case humorous memories and reminiscences from Bill Bryson’s childhood in the The Life and Times of the THUNDERBOLT KID. But having read this outlandishly entertaining book . . . this KID of the ‘50s is going to get himself fitted for cape, costume and ThunderVision goggles. Just on the off-chance that I might be able to flush out an adult version of Mary O’Leary.
For a copy of THE THUNDERBOLT KID check a local library, order through your independent bookseller or purchase in used paperback at Amazon for less than what the average creative writing student spends for a cup of Starbucks Mocha. Just click above on the book’s cover.