Monday, 13 November 2006
Bryson on the 50s
Like about everyone else I know, I just finished Bill Bryson's book The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, his memoir of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950s. "Memoir" here is a little loose, and the book might have been subtitled "(With imaginative embellishments)", though only the most literal-minded would accuse him of being a James Frey, one hopes.
Bryson has many observations to make -- civil defense drills, McCarthy hearings, the excitement of color TV, his much-beloved comic books -- all of which he describes in his trademark bemused style. Here is one observation that also sort of sums up the decade:
I don't know how they managed it, but the people responsible for the 1950s made a world in which pretty much everything was good for you. Drinks before dinner? The more the better! Smoke? You bet! Cigarettes actually made you healthier, by soothing jangly nerves and sharpening jaded minds, according to the advertisements. "Just what the doctor ordered!" read ads for L&M cigarettes, some of them in The Journal of the American Medical Association where cigarette ads were gladly accepted right up to the 1960s. X-rays were so benign that shoe stores installed special machines that used them to measure foot sizes, sending penetrating rays up through the soles of your feet and right out the top of your head. There wasn't a particle of tissue within you that wasn't bathed in their magical glow. No wonder you felt energized and ready for a new pair of Keds when you stepped down.
Happily, we were indestructible. We didn't need seat belts, air bags, smoke detectors, bottled water, or the Heimlich maneuver. We didn't require child-safety caps on our medicines. We didn't need helmets when we rode our bikes or pads for our knees and elbows when we went skating. We knew without a written reminder that bleach was not a refreshing drink and the gasoline exposed to a match had a tendency to combust. We didn't have to worry about what we ate because nearly all foods were good for us: sugar gave us energy, red meat made us strong, ice cream gave us healthy bones, coffee kept us alert and purring productively.
That last is, of course, still orthodoxy, at least around here. :-) One wonders what the memoirists of the next generation will shake their heads at, marveling at the cluelessness of their elders.