I’ve been reading The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson’s memoir of growing up in 1950s Iowa. I curl up with the book late at night after the children have gone to sleep and muddle through a few humorous pages before I hear the sound of the book hitting the floor and I drift off into slumber.
Bryson and I have some things in common. He was a kid from Iowa who by some twist of fate wound up as a writer in the UK. And I am just a kid from New York who by some other, more hilarious twist of fate, wound up as a writer in Estonia.
Anyway, I like Bryson and, moreover, I envy him. I envy him because the America he writes about is one I never knew, and yet long for, as does every American a little bit in his or her heart. The 1950s have been skewered for their open racism and intractable gender roles, their dismissal of everything ancient or spiritual for better living through chemistry. But they still sound good after all these years.
Case in point: Chuck Berry. I listen to his songs as I zoom around Viljandi, which might as well be some place in Iowa. “Maybellene” “School Days” “Brown-eyed Handsome Man” “Thirty Days” “Carol” “Memphis, Tennessee” There is so much energy in the music, energy and hopefulness. You get the sense of what it must have felt like when people got their first cars and were suddenly free to go wherever they wanted to, on their own, at any time, if they just had a few nickles and dimes for gas. Over the mountains. Across the desert. Just like that. Free.
Sometimes I imagine myself following suit, hopping in a car and setting out to explore the roads of America, spending the nights in seedy motels, breakfasts at local greasy spoon diners. Intriguing stories, colorful people, bacon at every meal, and all the time the revving guitar licks of Chuck Berry propelling me forward. But then I think that most of America probably doesn’t look much like that anymore. These days it’s probably “big box” chain stores from sea to shining sea. Starbucks, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Walmart.
I recently told a colleague from Alabama of my desire to see the South, to sip mint juleps on mossy plantations, to encounter the mystical land where the trees sink into the earth at night and the natives speak some twangy, Huckleberry Finn-worthy dialect, to boldly go where it’s not unusual to find a reptile in your sink in the morning. He looked at me like I was crazy. “We’ve got all the same shit you have up North,” he said. “Starbucks, Lowe’s, Chick-fil-A. Except there’s even more of it down South.” I don’t want to believe him, but I fear he may be right.
Best not to take the family along for the ride then. My eldest daughter doesn’t care too much for Chuck Berry anyway. She doesn’t understand why he talks that “weird way,” and why he has such a “strange name.” I thought this was a function of her ambiguous national outlook, but then again, when was the last time you met a seven-year-old boy named Chuck? While the last rays of the “golden days” of America still warm my shoulders, to my daughter they are more like the redshift of some distant, long-dead stars as measured through a high-powered telescope. “How weird.” “How strange.” “What does it all mean?” Get out those calculators!
I have a hard time comparing my ideas of America to the Estonians’ ideas of their own country. Sometimes I get the feeling that I am living through the country’s “golden days” though — a time when everyone suddenly had their own car and the freedom to drive it wherever he or she wanted, to Narva or Pärnu, or even straight to Portugal, stopping at little mom-and-pop cafes along the way.
The current adult generation of Estonia was born into cramped Khruschevka flats and leaning, wooden 19th century ghettos, and now many occupy grand, well-furnished apartments, drive respectable automobiles, spend their summers at their personal cottages, and take off in winter to sunbathe alongside the Britons and Germans and other Western European purveyors of horrible haircuts in places like the Canary Islands, Turkey, and Thailand.
The country has experienced a “big bang” of improved living standards and increased access to material goods. Some of them are still using wood furnaces and dry toilets, but now they have mobile phones and big screen TVs — whatever they are good for. Of course, the elderly have been screwed in the scramble, but, lest we forget, the elderly were the poorest group in 1950s America too, afforded a spare bedroom in the homes of their more successful children.
I wonder if Estonians of the future will look back on these years as an era of “happy days,” but I doubt it. Despite the efforts of the best song smiths, they are still cranking out crappy europop, and there is no Chuck Berry-like savior in sight. And the country seems to carry on a perpetual doomsday mentality, where the silver lining of every cloud is overlooked to focus on its dark and stormy center. “Don’t worry, it will get worse.” This is the country’s graveyard mindset. While their Nordic neighbors profess to be the happiest on earth, the Estonians often proclaim their deep dissatisfaction with each other and everything else.
Even now, as warm summer sets in, people are openly friendly to one another, but probably think the country is heading in the wrong direction. Given that most of them have never had it so good, I wonder why that is.