Oh, How Sweet It Was! ; Bill Bryson Hilariously Recalls a 1950s Childhood in Iowa, 'The Most Peaceful Place on Earth.'

Article excerpt

Bill Bryson is such a funny and evocative writer that he can transform the least promising material into something memorably hilarious. He's written a memoir about his 1950s boyhood in Des Moines, Iowa, that begins by warning us that "what follows isn't terribly eventful" and apologetically concludes "No one died. Nothing ever went seriously wrong." In a typical moment, Bryson describes a school field trip to the museum of the Iowa State Historical Society "where you discovered that not a great deal had ever happened in Iowa; nothing at all if you excluded ice ages."

Yet 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. Bryson writes glowingly about how proud his parents were in 1955 to buy a new "Amana Stor-Mor refrigerator," and how his sportswriter father would hold endless conversations with houseguests about the various newfangled features of the appliance. Yet Bryson also describes school civil defense drills where his classmates would dive under their desks for protection against possible atomic annihilation and recounts much of the decade's anticommunist hysteria, infamously embodied by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Despite the decade's perils, young Bryson felt indestructible. He contrasts the era's "can-do confidence" with today's climate of anxiety: "We didn't need seat belts, air bags, smoke detectors, bottled water.... We didn't require child safety caps on our medicines. We didn't need helmets when we rode our bikes.... We knew without reminding that bleach was not a refreshing drink and that gasoline when exposed to a match had a tendency to combust."

Indeed, Bryson writes almost lovingly about being bitten by a dog while delivering newspapers and crashing his head into a wall during a tackle football game.

As the book's title suggests, young Bryson loved comic books. Some of his favorite times were spent in the Kiddie Corrall of Dahl's Supermarket where, while his mother shopped, he was left to explore a collection of comic books so abundant that one might "find a child buried under a foot or so of comic books fast asleep." At age 6, while playing in the basement, Bryson discovers an oversized woolen jersey with a thunderbolt on the front. In his comic-book powered imagination, it becomes "the Sacred Jersey of Zap, left to me by King Volton, my late natural father, who had brought me to Earth in a silver spaceship. …