I wasn't really sure about this book because while Bryson's story about his trek around the continental United States was very entertaining, and quite informative, the idea about reading about somebody's childhood didn't really appeal to me – I've never been a big fan of autobiographies (or biographies in general). However I never really thought much of travelogues either before I read [book:The Lost Continent], but then I guess it had a lot to do with Bryson's rather casual, and somewhat humorous, style of writing. Anyway, this book had been sitting on myself for a while so I decided it might be worth giving it a shot.
While the book is technically an autobiography, it is more of an exploration of America in the 50s, and the way that Bryson paints the era leaves one shaking their heads at times. For instance, before Vegas was Vegas apparently people went there to watch nuclear bombs be detonated. As for television, well, the interesting thing that I noted that was in the fifties product placement wasn't just a vending machine in the background, it was somebody walking onto the set and actually plugging the product – it's something that I simply cannot imagine happening these days – even product placement, as blatant as it is at times, is nowhere as bad as what Bryson was describing.
In a way it seems that the fifties, especially as a child, was a much more innocent age, but then again I wouldn't consider driving a truck around the suburbs spraying DDT everywhere, or cigarette advertising using doctors to actually plug their product, as innocent – ignorant maybe, but not innocent. Yet in another sense there does seem to be something a lot more innocent about that time, but then again it is a filter that tends to fall over our eyes when we look back on our younger years. For instance it seems as if children were a lot less delicate then than they are now – play equipment had rough edges and we seemed to be able to get away with a lot more then than kids are able to do today. Mind you, some of reasons that the rough edges have been taken off the play equipment is because people are always looking to blame somebody for their misfortunes, and lawyers seem to have no problems encouraging people to look for that someone. I still remember when I took a couch home from work because they no longer needed it, or food was given to the homeless – not anymore, because the legal team have identified that as being too risky and exposes the company to unnecessary litigation.
In a way the fifties was certainly a special time, even though it covered are a lot of dark (or not so dark) secrets. The United States had come out on top during World War II and had almost an endless period of peace and prosperity before them. Sure, the Iron Curtain pretty quickly descended across Europe, but that was a minor issue that needed to be solved – particularly since it was a European problem as there were two massive moats separating the United States from any potential threat (and Canada is technicality an eternal friend, while Mexico ...). As such it seemed that the citizens of the United States could live a life of blissful freedom and enjoy the wealth and prosperity that had fallen upon its citizens.
Mind you, as I mentioned, there was a dark underside of all of this, particularly in relation to the idea of free speech – there really wasn't any. Okay, there was, as long as you didn't identify with certain groups, such as communists, socialists, or pretty much anybody left of Joseph McCarthy (though he did end up getting himself in a lot of trouble when he started suggesting that the Army was full of communist sympathisers). Actually the whole McCarthy era, and the idea of the reds under the beds, seems to be quite similar to another time period that we are quite familiar with, though the difference is that during the McCarthy period one couldn't necessarily blame immigrants (or people of a particular religious grouping) because the concern was entirely political, and in reality anybody could actually be a communist.
The Cold War did create a rather different environment though – as was suggested that the United States actually spent more on the military during a time of peace than they actually did throughout World War II. Mind you, while it may have been technically a time of peace, the spectre of war was always hanging over their heads, especially with the development of long range bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Actually, what is interesting is that despite all of the military spending it was the Russians that made the advances – such as with space flight and with the development of the ICBM, and it was the Americans that were, at least until the 60s, playing catchup.
Yet interestingly when we come to the 1960s everything seems to change – I guess it was then that America technically lost its innocence (or at least the innocence of the 50s). Not only were they confronted with a Russia that was technologically ahead of them (namely because the business of the United States was business, so if it didn't make money then there was no point in investing in it), but we also had the Vietnam War, which turned out to be pretty disastrous. Actually, the whole kafuffle with Cuba was pretty disastrous as well (and it is interesting that there is a suggestion that the whole missile crisis, which came about when the CIA believed that the Russians were trying to install missile sites in Cuba, completely missed the fact that there were quite a lot of missiles in Cuba anyway, and when the Russians agreed to remove the missiles, the United States reneged on their agreement to dismantle in missiles in Turkey – and my Dad said that the Russians couldn't be trusted).
So, what we have here is the life of your typical Baby Boomer (well, probably not your typical one because Bryson has written a number of books), the generation who actually probably had it the best. Okay, I got away with a lot more in my childhood and teenage years than what kids of today would get away with, but it seems as if this particular generation, when they grew up, literally walked into a job, and if they didn't get the first one they applied for, they would certainly get the second. In many ways they are also the ones that seem to own all of the properties, thanks to financial advisors who informed them that the value of property never falls (and they also were able to pay of their houses in much shorter times, as well has had a great environment in which to save, and to invest – which is certainly not the case at the moment). Sure, they may not have had video arcades, or Nintendoes, and when it came to special effects the movies were pretty shocking, but the impression that I got was that they had fun, and they had fun outside.
The thing that struck me the most with this book though was how Bryson describes the city of Des Moines. Sure, it is a small city (probably not much different to the city I grew up in, though I do get the impression that maybe Adelaide was a little bigger), but what he loved about it was all the different stores that lined main street. It is something that I actually quite like a well – variety. Sure, the idea that it doesn't matter what McDonalds you walk into you know what you are going to get does have its appeal, but there is something enchanting about the little coffee shop, or the independent bookshop, or even the hole in the wall bar. These little businesses gives us some character, and some life, to a city, or even a town, something that chain stores don't. They are what makes every city and town unique, because if all you end up having are chain stores, and big box department stores, then in end it simply becomes some plastic carbon copy of the place just down the road.