Thursday, December 28, 2006

Thunderbolt Kid

I've just finished reading the latest Bill Bryson book The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Its about his early life growing up in Des Moines.

I lived in Iowa when I was a kid. We moved there when I was about 13 from Minnesota. A few of the memories that our Bill writes about struck the homesickness chord pretty strongly. In fact, Mr Bryson and I have been practically living parallel lives. Childhood in Iowa and then settling in the UK. We also share the same love of Bishops restaurant. For those of you who never lived in Iowa (and Bishops is gone now - so it only lives on in our memory) Bishops was a genteel buffet style restaurant. We used to go to the Cedar Rapids branch of Bishops quite often with Grandma Blaul for Sunday lunch. It was the first time in my life I had ever been confronted with a "carvery". Some Bishops employee, dressed in chef whites and chef hat, had the job of standing behind an enormous slab of prime rib and slice off a slab of it to anybody who gave him the nod. The big decision for me was, do I have mashed potatoes with my prime rib or do I have a baked potato. You see, some would say that mashed would be best, especially when you've got all those lovely juices from the prime rib waiting to mix into it. On the other hand, the baked potato came with sour cream and butter. There may be no better way to serve the humble potato in Iowa than baked with sour cream, possibly with chives and butter. (Later on in life I learned about chip shop chips but that's another story.) When you finished going through the buffet, an aproned waitress would take your tray for you and set it all out at your table. As is mentioned in the book, there were little lights in the centre of each table. If you needed anything at all, you didn't have to crane your neck to find a member of staff, you merely turned on the little light and the waitress would be at your elbow in a flash. As we were not so very sophisticated, a rule had to be enforced for us. Nobody was allowed to turn on the light without permission from an adult at the table. We would have had that light on for any reason and prevented a host of other Bishops customers from being served as everybody would have been bustling to our table, filling water glasses, bringing more jello and replacing forks.

It is not mentioned in the book, perhaps because they didn't have it in the Des Moines branch of Bishops, but our family's favourite thing was the ambrosia pie. It was a chocolate cream pie of biblical proportion. The cut the pie in to sixths so the slabs were wide. The whipped cream on the top of the pie was as high as the slab-o-pie was wide. The crust was always flaky, never sodden. It exploded with crumby goodness at the mere touch of a fork. How they ever got the pie sliced neatly was a miracle on its own. To top this pie off, it was garnished with chocolate shavings. Curls of really good chocolate that looked like they had been peeled off the mother of all chocolate bars with a potato peeler. I would leave dollars worth of prime rib on my plate so that I ensured room for the pie.

Its been almost fifteen years since I lived in Iowa. From what I read there are even fewer small family farms than there were when I left. This is SO sad. A great deal of the land has been taken over by corporate farms. Because of this, the small towns that supported the family farm are dying. It isn't going to be long before there are no more 4H clubs and Future Farmers of America. By the way, Future Farmers of America or FFA had the best jackets ever. You got one if you joined. They were dark blue corduroy with an enormous golden symbol elaborately embroidered across the back of the jacket with your state. I always wanted one but we weren't farmers. I was willing to date any member of the FFA to have access to the jacket but there wasn't a chapter in our town.

I love family farms. Though, I stated earlier that we weren't farmers, we lived on a family farm for a while. My sisters and I worked in the fields in the summer. A large proportion of our friends were from family farms. We had to know the terminology if we were to survive a bulk of the casual conversations in our town. We went to all the county fairs. Not only did we attend for the fun of the fair itself, but we had to visit our friends and see how their calves or horses did at the fairs' livestock judging. You wouldn't believe how long it takes to brush up a cow for showing at a fair. I can't remember whose cow it was, in fact, I can't remember which friend it was, but I was walking a cow around the Johnson County fair one summer afternoon and the cow, who was in season, started to jump around a bit. The silly thing stepped on my foot. I shouted and the cow moved. Thank heaven I was in the grass, it could have been a lot worse.

I always went to the poultry barn first when visiting the fair. I'm glad I did. It is years later and I know my Rhode Island Reds from my Leghorns. The craft tents held fascination for me too. I loved looking at the quilts. I later learned how to make quilts, but mine never got to a standard where they could reasonably be shown at an Iowa county fair. With the loss of family farms, is all that craft going to go too? Are folks are going to forget how to make jam and pickles? Will they forget how to make good pie crusts and preserve peaches in glass jars?

Reading Bryson's latest book also had me laughing. He's a funny guy and a sharp writer. I was still living in Iowa when his first book, Lost Continent was published. Local boy done good. Then we read the book. Dang! It was good! Funny and peppered with local references I could identify. I remember the uproar in Iowa when he stated quite casually in that book that Iowa women got fat. The trouble was that he was right, Iowa women do get fat. Some don't and some don't want to think they're fat and took great exception to the statement. I got fat when I left Iowa so go figure.

As much as I love living here and I would never move, thanks to Bill's book I am hit with a terrible wave of homesickness. Iowa is a wonderful place. You will never find a state populated with friendlier people. The landscape of rolling farmland is dull to some but nothing is more beautiful to me. It is my theory that we imprint like ducklings to the landscapes where we spend our formative years. Because of this, flat farmlands and prairies mean home to me.

A couple of old friends of mine live in Des Moines, Iowa where this book is set. They have two boys. I wonder if their boys' childhoods today are anything like the one that happened 50 years ago?

The book has hit the best seller's list. Reading it was almost like re-reading The Lost Continent for me. It was written about a place I know and know well. Perhaps now people will know what I'm talking about when I tell them where I'm from. I can say that I lived in the same place the Thunderbolt Kid lived.


Joe said...

Great post.

I'm sure the boys have a very different life than they would have had 50 years ago, or in our youth not so long ago. I will have to think about that and work up a post on it.

Jay said...

I'm a Bill Bryson fan too. Although I haven't read all of his books.

I've been to Iowa twice. It is a very nice place. And I really never have encountered a nicer people anywhere. Heck, in Iowa City I didn't eve get cutt off in traffic once!

And we had a chapter of FFA at my high school. Complete with the blue jackets and lettering on the back. People in FFA were more proud of those jackets than the jocks were of their letter jackets.

Mad Cabbie said...

Great stuff Peggy,

"Iowa women do get fat. Some don't and some don't want to think they're fat and took great exception to the statement. I got fat when I left Iowa so go figure."

That was funny!

Have a great New Year!

Xtreme English said...

Here's my favorite quote from
Bryson on the fat women of Iowa:

"I will say this, however--and it's a strange, strange thing--the teenaged daughters of these fat women are always utterly delectable ... I don't know what it is that happens to them, but it must be awful to marry one of those nubile cuties knowing that there is a time bomb ticking away in her that will at some unknown date make her bloat out into something huge and grotesque, presumably all of a sudden and without much notice, like a self-inflating raft from which the pin has been yanked."

Then there are all the Iowa jokes going around in Minnesota:

Q: "What's the difference between an Iowa boy's prize sow and his girlfriend?"

A: "35 pounds and a mustache."

I agree, though...Iowa used to be a wonderful place when we lived there. Most of the family farmers had degrees in agriculture from Iowa State, and they were not only friendly but also cultured.

Don't know what it's like now. They still have ice storms.

susan said...

How delightful to find an author that reminds you so much of your childhood. I'll have to find this book and read it...and possibly some other Bill Bryson books!

tom said...

Thanks Peggy...

I also remember Bishop's from visiting my Grandpa and Grandma in Des Moines. The taste of the pies is much clearer in my memory than the exact location, but the character of the place is definitely memorable.

As for Bryson, I am now reading his book on hiking the Appalachian Trail. The guy has so much in common with me it's spooky- he's into the English language, Iowa, hiking, world travel, etc. But still I like everything he writes.

My other Grandpa lived in Ames and worked for the ISU agricultural extension agent system...he would take us to farm shows, and liked nothing better than hanging around discussing hybrids and fertilizers with local farmers in 100-degree heat in the shadow of some huge tractor wheel, which would be attached to a tractor that young tots like me would crawl up into.

By the way I assume Thunderbolt refers to the roller coaster at the fair?

Cheers & thanks for the memories!

J-Funk said...

Peggy - I've never heard of this guy but it will definitely be the next thing I check out from the library. Thanks for the post! I also miss Iowa. The more I roam the more I realize that Iowa really has it all. Where I'm from (Iowa City) the women don't get fat so I hope I'm exempt from that. They are also not as agriculturally oriented in Iowa City and I have never seen one of those FFA jackets. They sound super-cool though.