Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid --Bill Bryson

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the 1950s. Bill Bryson's ten years younger than I, but he captures what it was like to grow up in those years in a way that makes me feel right at home. Of course much of what he says in this memoir is wildly exaggerated. There might even be some downright lying. But the facts of daily life and the statistics that Bryson uses are accurate.

One thing that struck me while I was reading the chapter about the Red Menace and Joe McCarthy is how Americans always seem to be given someone to fear. I can well remember the days when we were being told that there was a commie under every bed. The fear and hysteria that were stirred up over the commies returned in the '60s and early '70s, but that time it was the dirty hippies we were supposed to fear and loathe. They were probably commies. (In the later '70s and early '80s it was disco, but that was entirely justified.) More recently it's radical islamists. Old Tailgunner Joe would be right at home now, and he'd love Homeland Security and the TSA.

But I digress. This book was hilarious, it was true, and it engendered a veritable frenzy of nostalgia in me. Bryson talks about how optimistic everyone seemed to be in the '50s. I know I was. I really believed that the world would become a better place. I also believed that men would fly to other planets, probably within ten or twenty years. After that, to Infinity and beyond! This book reminded me of that feeling and of a lot more. Not everything was rosy, though, and Bryson doesn't forget that.

I don't know how someone who grew up in a later era would feel about this book, but it seems to have sold a heck of a lot of copies. Maybe growing up is a lot the same no matter where or when you do it. Bryson happened to grow up in Des Moines, where I've never been. I felt almost as if I'd visited it in a time machine, and now it's almost been washed off the map. Keep those folks in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids and other cities in mind. And read Bryson's book. Maybe you'll enjoy it as much as I did.


Doc Quatermass said...

Now I know which book I'll pick out of the pile of "To Be Read" to take to Monster Bash this weekend. After I read it I'll get "The Majestic" (one of my favorite movies) on DVD and watch it again.

"McCarthy experienced a meteoric rise in national profile on February 9, 1950, when he gave a Lincoln Day speech to the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia" (my hometown). The speech was given at the McClure House Hotel on Market Street. According to my one History professor at Wheeling College, the first Jesuit president of the college (I can't recall his name) suggested the anti-Communist theme to McCarthy as a re-election platform since Joe had pretty much not distinguished himself in any real way during his first term.





Fred Blosser said...

Well, the 1st English colonists in Roanoke and Jamestown were frightened of the Spanish ... the good people of Salem were terrified of witches ... the Revolutionary War patriots on the frontier were frightened by the Tories ... the settlers on the moving frontier were always terrified of "Indians" ... the McCarthy era was preceded in 1919 and 1920 by an earlier Red Scare ... so fear seems to be hardwired into the American personality. There does seem to be a free-flowing national anxiety these days that I don't remember from when I was a kid. Maybe because I was a kid. Or maybe because the commies were an easier menace to identify and come to grips with than "terrorists." Or maybe because, in those days, TV stations ran one hour of news and signed off at midnight.

Doc Quatermass said...

Don't forget the Sinophobia of the latter part of the 19th century and The Yellow Peril of the early part of the 20th century. Anti-German sentiment in America during America's involvement during the Great War (later WW I) which to some degree was understandable as more than eight million German-Americans lived in this country, and many were sympathetic to the cause of their homeland.

Internment on the West Coast of of approximately 110,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans to housing facilities called "War Relocation Camps." Over 11,000 Germans and German Americans were selectively detained and interned at the start of World War II, as well as over 4,500 ethnic Germans were brought to the U.S. from Latin America and detained.

The problem with the hippie counter culture (totally foreign and thus somewhat scary to our parents and grandparents generations) is that it in theory threw the baby out with the bathwater in rejecting everything about the "American Establishment", proved in the long run to be hypocritical, was the vanguard for the ME Decade and a lot of psychobabble nonsense in popular thought, and changed society in far more negative ways than it did positive.

Americans have always been xenophobic through out their history.