The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

I start a fair number of books, but I finish very few of them. However, I wished The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid would never end. In fact, if I could have transported myself into the world of that book, I would have. It’s that compelling and entertaining.

Author Bill Bryson’s classic is a laugh-out-loud memoir of his boyhood in the 1950s and 60s in Des Moines, Iowa. Like the TV show The Wonder Years, it’s a venerable anthem to that “Golden Age” of childhood in America. Toward the beginning of the book, Bryson writes:

“. . . kids were always outdoors – I knew kids who were pushed out the door at eight in the morning and not allowed back in until five unless they were on fire or actively bleeding – and they were always looking for something to do. If you stood on any corner with a bike – any corner anywhere – more than a hundred children, many of whom you had never seen before, would appear and ask you where you were going.” (p. 36)The kids in Bryson’s world were far more imaginative, irreverent, and, well, just plain “bad” compared to kids of today. Regarding imagination, the character’s name in the title of the book, “The Thunderbolt Kid,” refers to Bryson’s fantasy for himself that he was an alien from another planet who could vaporize “morons.”

Irreverence is Bryson’s vehicle for outrageous humor, as when he describes those vibrating electric football games that many kids had:

“In practice, what happened was that half the players instantly fell over and lay twitching from some extreme gastric disorder; while the others streamed off in as many different directions as there were upright players before eventually clumping in a corner, where they pushed against the unyielding sides like the victims of a nightclub fire at a locked exit. The one exception was the running back who just trembled in place for five or six minutes, then slowly turned on an unopposed glide toward the wrong end zone . . .” (p. 101)

Sometimes, his irreverence would lead him to be a nonconformist, as when he described air raid drills in his elementary school:

“I remember being profoundly amazed that anyone would suppose that a little wooden desk would provide a safe haven in the event of an atomic bomb being dropped on Des Moines. But evidently they all took the matter seriously, for even the teacher, Miss Squat Little Fat Thing, was inserted under her desk, too – or at least as much of her as she could get under, which was perhaps 40 percent. Once I realized that no one was watching, I elected not to take part. I already knew how to get under a desk and was confident that this was not a skill that would ever need refreshing. Anyway, what were the chances that the Soviets would bomb Des Moines? I mean, come on.” (p. 150)

Kids were more “bad” than I see kids being today, but often this “badness” was the by-product of some very creative, independent thinking. For instance, he describes how one of his friends in the “A/V Club” in high school

“…discovered a film-splicing kit and spent hours editing the films for his own amusement, putting goose-stepping Nazis into movies about the Oregon Trail and so on. His finest moment was in a sex-education film when the narrative “Johnny just experienced his first nocturnal emission” was immediately followed by a shot of Naval Academy cadets throwing their hats in the air.” (p. 245)

In short, kids had a lot more freedom and space back in Bryson’s childhood days, and this led to a great deal of fun, and a good measure of learning as well. How wonderful. Does anyone know how I can take my wife and kids back there?

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