SCOTT SIMON, host:
When Bill Bryson was growing up in the middle of the country, in the middle of the century, among the largest spawn of babies in U.S. history, everything about his childhood was the best. Bishop's Downtown was the best restaurant, with cream pies and atomic toilets. Dahl's, the local supermarket, had a kiddy corral filled with the mother lode of comic books. A kid could get swallowed up in there. Younkers, the local department store, had a tea room that looked like a postcard of Buckingham Palace and gave children little gifts wrapped in crisp white paper. It's a wonderful thing for a child to think he or she had the best childhood. When the memoirist is Bill Bryson, the acclaimed author of A Walk in the Woods, A Short History of Nearly Everything, and Notes From a Small Island, his mix of exquisite detail and inspired exaggeration all add up to truth with a capital T that rhymes with G that stands for out loud guffaws. Bill Bryson has lived in England for years. He joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. BILL BRYSON (Author): Well, thank you Scott. It's a pleasure to be here.
SIMON: And I shouldn't let that phrase atomic toilets go un-probed. What do you mean exactly?
Mr. BRYSON: Well, I don't know exactly whether they were atomic toilets. That's the way we referred to them. The toilet seat - when you flush the toilet, the toilet seat automatically elevated and went into a recess in the wall, where it was bathed in this purply light. And it seemed to be being irradiated in some way. And it made this wonderful thrumming noise.
SIMON: I'd like you to read a section of the book, if you could, where you set the time for people. If you could read that section for us.
Mr. BRYSON: Of course.
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 jangling nerves and sharpening jaded minds, according to 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 until 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 written reminding that bleach was not a refreshing drink and that gasoline when 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.
SIMON: That's a delightful passage. From your description of your life in Iowa in the 1950s, you grew up in a family and among people who were not unmindful about the crime of segregation and fear of witchhunts. But you also seemed to fear poison sumac more than the nuclear bomb.
Mr. BRYSON: You know my recollection, my personal recollection of the '50s was one of a period of great happiness and prosperity and tranquility and this wonderful feeling that the future was nothing but good, that pretty soon, and I mean, really, pretty soon we would all have our own jet packs and be going on vacations to Mars and traveling around in rocket ships and having holidays in resorts that were built in big domes underwater off the coast of Florida and that kind of thing. And it felt like a really, really good happy time.
And yet, you know, when you look at - when you read histories of the period, you realize that it was a time of - exactly the opposite in the wider world, that it was a time of really quite a lot of ugliness. There was huge amounts of racism, I mean really, really virulent racism with lynchings still quite common in the South. And you know, the Cold War and communist witchhunts and fears of polio and all of that. But happily, I was so small that most of that slipped me by.
SIMON: And you were really concerned about poison sumac.
Mr. BRYSON: Whatever it is. We used to go out in the woods and it was always, you know, better not go down there because I think there might be some sumac down there. Nobody knew where it was or what it was, so we just spent sort of our whole lives trying not to brush up against any kind of foliage for fear that, you know, you would fall over dead a few moments later.
SIMON: Well, would mind telling us about the time that you and a friend bleached Lincoln Logs?
Mr. BRYSON: A slightly delicate subject, but we discovered - you know, we were - always had inquiring minds, Buddy Doberman and I, my best friend - and we discovered that if you urinated on a Lincoln Log, it turned white. And it was just something that I don't think anyone even in the company that made them was aware of.
SIMON: Albino Lincoln Logs.
Mr. BRYSON: So we made the world's first albino Lincoln Log cabin, which took a lot of time because, you know, it takes a lot of fluid to bleach a whole cabin. And...
SIMON: Time and Kool-Aid.
Mr. BRYSON: Yes indeed. And we took it to school and it - where it was genuinely widely admired. And the moment of most wonderful glory was when people were trying to figure out how we did it. And this teacher who I called Mr. Sipwitz(ph) in the book actually licked the back wall of it to see if he could detect what agent we had used, thinking it was lemon juice, which was a delusion we didn't correct him about.
SIMON: Your father was a sportswriter at the Register for many years. And he had opportunities as you describe it to go to St. Louis and San Francisco. You seem a little wistful for both of you that at one point he didn't grab at the next ring up.
Mr. BRYSON: Yeah. I mean I certainly feel a sense of sadness for him because he was - he was a great and gifted sportswriter and he was particularly great at baseball. And within baseball the thing that he did that nobody could do better was getting reports. You know, he could go and see a game, an important moment, and he could write about it for publication the next day better than anybody who's ever lived. I mean I'm absolutely convinced of that. That if somebody like Don Larson is going to pitch a perfect game in the World Series, my dad is the guy that you'd want to have written about it. And yet he was always happy to stay in Des Moines, Iowa, and really only to visit the world of Major League Baseball very occasionally, usually just for the All Star Game and for the World Series.
And when I was growing up, I always felt bitterly disappointed that we weren't moving to San Diego or wherever. I felt kind of punished by living in a place like Des Moines. But now that I'm older and have a different perspective on it, I can see that actually I was really quite lucky to grow up there and to have the rootedness that living there for the whole of my upbringing gave me.
SIMON: And without twisting ourselves into knots trying to reach for something, do you just sometimes think the career that you've had moving to the United Kingdom, traveling around the world and writing about it, in some ways do you see that as a fulfillment of some aspiration that smoldered in your father?
Mr. BRYSON: I don't know, but I can certainly say that it was because we were in Iowa, that's the reason I ended up having the life I've had, and it's been a great life. But I can remember very powerfully feeling, as I was growing up, that Iowa, pleasant though it was, Iowa wasn't anywhere very important, and that the real world was elsewhere. The fact that we stayed in Des Moines was very good in terms of providing an incentive to go elsewhere, but then it's also a great place to go back to. I mean I'm still just absolutely delighted to go back there and think this is my home.
SIMON: Mr. Bryson it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much.
Mr. BRYSON: Oh no, thank you. Thank you very much for having me.
SIMON: And to read a selection from Bill Bryson's book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, you can head to our Web site, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.