Sunday, 13 January 2008


Writer Bill Bryson's recently-released memoir, The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid is both really funny and very scary; funny because it's written with Bryson's trademark dry humour, and scary because it provides an unblinking insight into the birth of a superpower that today dominates the world.

As Bryson put it in his first book, "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to". And older South Africans will recognise in his story of growing up in the United States during the boom years of the 1950's and 1960's not only a time now long gone, but the strange innocence of looking at the truly menacing through the eyes of a child.

In this book, Bryson deftly paints a picture of the blossoming of middle class America and the nuclear age, liberally spicing it up with off-hand and often hilarious accounts of his juvenile view of this world.

This was the era of the appliance, when television and refrigerators took over the home, when spray-on mayonnaise and frozen dinners invaded supermarkets shelves, when the flat-top haircut made its appearance (perhaps in cultural opposition to the evil that was Elvis), and absolutely everything was good for you (or, at least, innocuous). Magazine ads, for instance authoritatively proclaimed that more doctors smoked Camel than any other cigarette brand(!), kids were left to play in the colourful spray of the municipal insecticide truck, and atom bombs were set off like fireworks. And all of this took place in a climate of unerring optimism that today seems nothing less than naive.

Yet that was the spirit of the times; the war was over, the US had suffered little damage on home soil, it boasted scores of new factories that had been built as part of the war effort, and had coffers full of cash from war bonds. It was, in Shakespeare's words, a brave new world, and everything held promise, even that legendary haircut:

"In 1955, my father and brother went to the barber and came back with every hair on their heads standing to attention and sheared off in a perfect horizontal plane. This arresting style was known as a flat-top. They spent most of the rest of the decade looking as if they were prepared in emergencies to provide landing spots for some very small experimental aircraft, or perhaps special delivery messages sent by miniature missile. Never have people looked so ridiculous and so happy at the same time."

But the money and the power and the optimism bred something chilling too. Amongst other things, it bred McCarthyism, the Cold War and the nuclear arms race which, in retrospect, was undertaken with a nonchalance that seems almost impossible to believe.

As Bryson puts it:

"What was scary about the bomb (the first hydrogen bomb, detonated by the US in 1952), wasn't so much the growth of the bomb as the people in charge of the growth of the bomb ... Edward Teller, the semi-crazed Hungarian-born physicist who was one of the presiding geniuses behind the development of the H-bomb, was dreaming up exciting peacetime uses for nuclear devices ... to alter the course of rivers in our favour (ensuring that the Danube, for instance, served only capitalist countries), (and) to blow away irksome impediments to commerce and shipping like the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.

"In short, the creators of the hydrogen bomb wished to wrap the world in unpredictable levels of radiation, obliterate whole ecosystems, despoil the face of the planet, and provoke and antagonize our enemies at every opportunity - and those were their peacetime dreams."

We need look little further than this to see the road that lead to 9/11, and need not wonder why the World Trade Center, that great bastion of trade before all else, was a primary target.

But the threat of annihilation didn't stop Bryson from just being a kid, from learning to read from outdated Dick and Jane books, racking up 26 ¼ absences from school in one semester alone, stirring up havoc in the movie theatre on Saturday afternoons, being enthralled by the advent of colour TV, and enduring surreal visits to the Riverview Amusement Park.

In the face of all that's extraordinary, that's how life is. As Bryson so lightly and skilfully shows, the truth of living is ultimately in the ordinary.

For more about this book, or to order a copy, click here:
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