Winfield, a home of Thunderbolt Kid
by Andy Dygert 06/05/2006

Bryson explains his history and relationship with the town of Winfield for the television cameras.
Andy Dygert
News reporter

The world is full of incredibly interesting places to write about. The sunny slopes of the Appalachians; the mysterious castles of Europe; the frigid, jagged peaks of the Rockies or the Alps and the tropical paradises of the Caribbean, just to name a few.
So why is it, when world-famous author, Bill Bryson, a wide traveler who writes about his extensive wanderings to the world's most beautiful places, decided to write an autobiography, he decided to focus on Iowa?

Bryson, who was raised in Des Moines and visited his grandparents in Winfield, returned to Winfield Friday with a camera crew from England to make a documentary about his new book, "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid." Sitting in Pork's diner having a tenderloin sandwich (the specialty of Pork's, which seemed to be the only eatery in town open at 1 p.m.) and later on the city street Bryson reflected about it in his acquired British lilt. He has lived in England for two decades.

"To me, Winfield was the perfect little place," Bryson said. "To me, this was as good as life could be. Ball games, church socials and the like all contributed."
Bryson talked ecstatically about the way he could simply walk down the street in the fifties and buy whatever the family needed or wanted at the various stores, or simply catch a ball game anytime down at the field. He also said, on a more sober note, that he was very sorry to see how much the town had changed.

Winfield, Iowa, 2006, Bryson revisits what once was the home of his grandfather.

"I think life in Iowa in the little towns was perfect," he said. "And I think that's changed. I don't think it is Winfield's fault though, it's just the way the world has changed."

In the "Thunderbolt Kid" Bryson will devote at least a chapter to his exploits in Winfield during his youth as he visited his grandparents. The title of the book came about from Bryson's youth when he would terrorize the inhabitants of his home with his superhero exploits. Dressing in a vast variety of costumes, including but Bryson assures, definitely not limited to, football helmets, towel capes, spaghetti strainers and most especially, a ragged old t-shirt with a lightning bolt across its front, Bryson would run from room to room defending the unsuspecting inhabitants of the world. One day Bryson's father christened him the Thunderbolt Kid because of the colorful shirt design. Bryson, now 54, glances back at those times with a feisty twinkle in his eye where the Kid still resides.

I don't usually boast about my superpowers," he said. "But in those days I would."

The book will contain a lot about the changes that have come about in Winfield and in Iowa in general. Bryson reflected about the new ways as he watched a convoy of John Deere tractors and combines make their way through the quiet main street of Winfield.

"The worrisome thing about old towns like Winfield is that these beautiful old buildings and things are basically allowed to become derelict and are torn down," he said. "The result is that the town becomes quite different. The book is about transitions. I'm mostly talking about things that have become either better or worse in the last 50 years here."

The British camera crew, employees of "The South Bank Show," a program of the ITV (Independent Television channel), were amazed by the machinery and think that Iowa is all like the play, "State Fair," Bryson said. "So in the documentary we're going to show them modern Iowa businesses like pig and turkey farms."

The crew, which arrived in Winfield after a week of filming in Des Moines, began filming at the Winfield Museum and Main St. They later planned to head out to the surrounding area and film a farm. (webmaster note: They filmed at the Lavonne Klopfenstein farm and interviewed Steve Klopfenstein about the changes in agriculture.)

The residents of Winfield did not seem to recognize Bryson, except for the older citizens, and it turned out that the Bryson they remembered was actually Bill Bryson, Sr., his father. Bill Sr. was a sports journalist and delivery person for the Winfield Beacon before accepting a job with The Des Moines Register. In fact the majority of the citizens had no idea who Bill Bryson was when asked.

"I think unless you're over 50 nobody knows of him," Mayor Larry Jennings said.

Bryson realizes that his popularity in Winfield, and the United States in general, is not as big as his European audience.

"I've been popular in Britain," Bryson said. "I don't know why I should be popular over here and that's probably why I'm not."

"The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" will be published in October and the ITV's documentary will air in September.

Bryson has no definite plans for future novels.

"I haven't got any particular travel books in mind," he said. "I really want to do a book on Canada, although no one wants to read a book on Canada. Not even Canadians."