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The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir

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The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Burns Unit

The only downside of my mothers working was that it put a little pressure on her with regard to running the home and particularly with regard to dinner, which frankly was not her strong suit anyway. My mother always ran late and was dangerously forgetful into the bargain. You soon learned to stand aside about ten to six every evening, for it was then that she would fly in the back door, throw something in the oven, and disappear into some other quarter of the house to embark on the thousand other household tasks that greeted her each evening. In consequence she nearly always forgot about dinner until a point slightly beyond way too late.  As a rule you knew it was time to eat when you could hear baked potatoes exploding in the oven.

We didnt call it the kitchen in our house. We called it the Burns Unit.  

“Its a bit burned,” my mother would say apologetically at every meal, presenting you with a piece of meat that looked like something — a much-loved pet perhaps — salvaged from a tragic house fire. “But I think I scraped off most of the burned part,” she would add, overlooking that this included every bit of it that had once been flesh. 

Happily, all this suited my father.  His palate only responded to two tastes — burnt and ice cream — so everything suited him so long as it was sufficiently dark and not too startlingly flavorful.  Theirs truly was a marriage made in heaven for no one could burn food like my mother or eat it like my dad. 

As part of her job, my mother bought stacks of housekeeping magazines — House Beautiful, House and Garden, Better Homes and Gardens — and I read these with a curious avidity, partly because they were always lying around and in our house all idle moments were spent reading something, and partly because they depicted lives so absorbingly at variance with our own. The housewives in my mothers magazines were so collected, so organized, so calmly on top of things, and their food was perfect — their lives were perfect. They dressed up to take their food out of the oven!  There were no black circles on the ceiling above their stoves, no mutating goo climbing over the sides of their forgotten saucepans. Children didnt have to be ordered to stand back every time they opened their oven doors.  And their foods — baked Alaska, lobster Newburg, chicken cacciatore — why, these were dishes we didnt even dream of, much less encounter, in Iowa.  

Like most people in Iowa in the 1950s, we were more cautious eaters in our house.* On the rare occasions when we were presented with food with which we were not comfortable or familiar — on planes or trains or when invited to a meal cooked by someone who was not herself from Iowa — we tended to tilt it up carefully with a knife and examine it from every angle as if it determining whether it might need to be defused.  Once on a trip to San Francisco my father was taken by friends to a Chinese restaurant and he described it to us afterwards in the somber tones of someone recounting a near-death experience. 

“And they eat it with sticks, you know,” he added knowledgeably.

“Goodness!” said my mother.

“I would rather have gas gangrene than go through that again,” my father added grimly.

In our house we didnt eat:

• pasta, rice, cream cheese, sour cream, garlic, mayonnaise, onions, corned beef, pastrami, salami, or foreign food of any type, except French toast;

• bread that wasnt white and at least 65 percent air;

• spices other than salt, pepper and maple syrup; 

• fish that was any shape other than rectangular and not coated in bright orange breadcrumbs, and then only on Fridays and only when my mother remembered it was Friday, which in fact was not often;

• seafood of any type but especially seafood that looked like large insects; 

• soups not blessed by Campbells and only a very few of those;

• anything with dubious regional names like “pone,” or “gumbo” or foods that had at any time been an esteemed staple of slaves or peasants.

All other foods of all types — curries, enchiladas, tofu, bagels, sushi, couscous, yogurt, kale, rocket, Parma ham, any cheese that was not a vivid bright yellow and shiny enough to see your reflection in — had either not yet been invented or was yet unknown to us. We really were radiantly unsophisticated. I remember being surprised to learn at quite an advanced age that a shrimp cocktail was not, as I had always imagined, a pre-dinner alcoholic drink with a shrimp in it. 

All our meals consisted of leftovers. My mother had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of foods that had already been to the table, sometimes many times.  Apart from a few perishable dairy products, everything in the fridge was older than I was, sometimes by many years. (Her oldest food possession of all, it more or less goes without saying, was a fruitcake that was kept in a metal tin and dated from the colonial period.)  I can only assume that my mother did all of her cooking in the 1940s so that she could spend the rest of her life surprising herself with what she could find under cover at the back of the fridge.  I never knew her to reject a food.  The rule of thumb seemed to be that if you opened the lid and the stuff inside didnt make you actually recoil and take at least one staggered step backwards, it was deemed OK to eat.

Both of my parents had grown up in the Great Depression and neither of them ever threw anything away if they could possibly avoid it.  My mother routinely washed and dried paper plates, and smoothed out for reuse spare aluminum foil. If you left a pea on your plate, it became part of future meal. All our sugar came in little packets spirited out of restaurants in deep coat pockets, as did our jams, jellies, crackers (oyster and saltine), tartar sauces, some of our ketchup and butter, all of our napkins, and a very occasional ashtray; anything that came with a restaurant table really. One of the happiest moments in my parents life was when maple syrup started to be served in small disposable packets and they could add those to the household hoard.

*In fact like most other people in America. It is perhaps worth noting that the leading American food writer of the age, Duncan Hines, author of the hugely successful Adventures in Eating, declared with pride that he never ate food with French names if he could possibly help it. Hiness other boast was that he did not venture out of America until he was seventy years old, when he made a trip to Europe. He disliked nearly everything he found there, especially the food.

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Tara Adams, August 26, 2012 (view all comments by Tara Adams)
I have read reviews from the twenty-something crowd who complains about "not getting it". Perhaps, they have something to complain about. However, at the time of this review I am twenty eight years old and I thought this book was drop dead, couldn't stop laughing out loud funny. Granted, I was raised by my grandparents and I am also a history teacher, so between these two things I felt I was perhaps a little more prepared for the book than some. My husband is twenty-six-years old and was also raised by "older-than-most" parents, so he too picked up on references that maybe some our age wouldn't.

I got this book on audio and the author narrates his own craft. His dry voice and matter-of-fact tone only makes this more hilarious. My husband and I listened to this on the road while on vacation. I had to pull over and make my husband drive because it was not safe to laugh that hard and drive at the same time. Really. Truly. Not kidding. I was glad we were in an enclosed car, because my husband was guffawing so hard that it would have been embarrassing had the general public witnessed it. Being raised the way we were, we are normally a quiet and serious couple. The best you could usually get out of us is a small smirk or a surprise giggle.

As well as the comedic value...this book provides a very good glimpse at the 50's that could only be seen through someone who has lived through it. So, if you are a twenty-something-year old...don't write this book off. Look up the things that this guy is talking about, because this time period is really quite amazing. Consider this book historical education as well as a good laugh.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)
Tara Adams, August 26, 2012 (view all comments by Tara Adams)
I have read reviews from the twenty-something crowd who complains about "not getting it". Perhaps, they have something to complain about. However, at the time of this review I am twenty eight years old and I thought this book was drop dead, couldn't stop laughing out loud funny. Granted, I was raised by my grandparents and I am also a history teacher, so between these two things I felt I was perhaps a little more prepared for the book than some. My husband is twenty-six-years old and was also raised by "older-than-most" parents, so he too picked up on references that maybe some our age wouldn't.

I got this book on audio and the author narrates his own craft. His dry voice and matter-of-fact tone only makes this more hilarious. My husband and I listened to this on the road while on vacation. I had to pull over and make my husband drive because it was not safe to laugh that hard and drive at the same time. Really. Truly. Not kidding. I was glad we were in an enclosed car, because my husband was guffawing so hard that it would have been embarrassing had the general public witnessed it. Being raised the way we were, we are normally a quiet and serious couple. The best you could usually get out of us is a small smirk or a surprise giggle.

As well as the comedic value...this book provides a very good glimpse at the 50's that could only be seen through someone who has lived through it. So, if you are a twenty-something-year old...don't write this book off. Look up the things that this guy is talking about, because this time period is really quite amazing. Consider this book historical education as well as a good laugh.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)
smiley reader, August 5, 2012 (view all comments by smiley reader)
Bill Bryson is one of my favorite authors and this book is one of the reasons. Born the same year I was, and growing up in the Midwest (he in Iowa, I in Indiana), Mr. Bryson hits a chord of recognition that brought my childhood back to me. Along with his understated, humorous style, his story makes me want to read it again and again.
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(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780767919364
Author:
Bryson, Bill
Publisher:
Broadway Books
Subject:
General
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
United states
Subject:
Regional Subjects - Midwest
Subject:
Childhood Memoir
Subject:
Bryson, Bill
Subject:
Personal Memoirs
Subject:
Travel writers - United States
Subject:
Biography-Literary
Copyright:
Publication Date:
October 2006
Binding:
HARDCOVER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
Y
Pages:
288
Dimensions:
9.38x6.40x1.02 in. 1.17 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Arts and Entertainment » Humor » Anthologies
Arts and Entertainment » Humor » General
Biography » Literary
Featured Titles » History and Social Science
History and Social Science » Americana » General

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir Used Hardcover
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Product details 288 pages Broadway Books - English 9780767919364 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Bill Bryson has tackled the Appalachian Trail, troublesome words, Captain James Cook, and repatriation. After the entertaining (and just slightly ambitious) Short History of Nearly Everything, he turns the spotlight back on himself. "This is a book about not very much," Bryson assures readers. It's "about being small and getting larger slowly." Right: it's about life. And as you'd expect, hardly a page goes by without serving up a laugh or one of the author's trademark, go-tell-somebody details. Fans will not be disappointed, and plenty more just might jump on the bandwagon for the ride.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Though billed as memoir, Bryson's follow-up to A Short History of Nearly Everything can only be considered one in the broadest sense. Sure, it's filled with Bryson's recollections of his Des Moines, Iowa, childhood. But it's also a clear foray into Jean Shepherd territory, where nostalgia for one's youth is suffused with comic hyperbole: 'All sneakers in the 1950s had over seven dozen lace holes,' we're told; though all the toys were crummy, it didn't matter because boys had plenty of fun throwing lit matches at each other; and mimeograph paper smelled wonderful. The titular Thunderbolt Kid is little more than a recurring gag, a self-image Bryson invokes to lash out at the 'morons' that plague every child's existence. At other times, he offers a glib pop history of the decade, which works fine when discussing teen culture or the Cold War but falls flat when trying to rope in the Civil Rights movement. And sometimes he just wants to reminisce about his favorite TV shows or the Dick and Jane books. The book is held together by sheer force of personality — but when you've got a personality as big as Bryson's, sometimes that's enough." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day" by , "Bill Bryson is such a funny and evocative writer that he can transform the least promising material into something memorably hilarious....Bryson's sardonic wit and absurdist sense of fun fuel every 'uneventful' page, bringing to life a schizophrenic decade of wild optimism mixed with rampant fear." (read the entire CSM review)
"Review" by , "Bryson has produced a book so outlandishly and improbably entertaining, you begin to doubt its veracity....As a humorist, Bryson falls somewhere between the one-liner genius of Dave Barry and the narrative brilliance of David Sedaris."
"Review" by , "A charming, funny recounting of growing up in Des Moines during the sleepy 1950s.... A great, fun read, especially for Baby Boomers nostalgic for the good old days."
"Review" by , "Bryson pokes fun at the place and the era, but he also makes fun of himself — and conveys his nostalgia and compassion for his hometown and childhood."
"Review" by , "This affectionate portrait wistfully recalls the bygone days of 'Burns and Allen' and downtown department stores but with a good-natured elbow poke to the ribs."
"Review" by , "Students of the decade's popular culture will marvel at the insular innocence described, even as the world moved toward nuclear weapons and civil unrest."
"Review" by , "Bill Bryson's laugh-out-loud pilgrimage through his Fifties childhood in heartland America is a national treasure. It's full of insights, wit, and wicked adolescent fantasies."
"Synopsis" by , From one of the most beloved and bestselling authors in the English language comes a vivid, nostalgic, and utterly hilarious memoir of growing up in the middle of the United States in the middle of the last century.
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