Bill Bryson is president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, but he's still an Iowa boy.
A few years ago, the Des Moines, Iowa, native and internationally acclaimed writer Bill Bryson fielded the tombstone question.
Bryson, 57, had to have been in his forties or fifties when the query, clichéd but valid, came: What do you want people to be saying about you 100 years from now?
Easy answer, Bryson said: “And the amazing thing is he’s still sexually active.”
Bryson, author of best-sellers such as A Walk In The Woods and the more recent The Life And Times of The Thunderbolt Kid, spoke to an audience of more than 4,000 people at Drake University’s Knapp Center in Des Moines this past week. The humorist and rural advocate pulled one of the largest turnouts in the history of the prestigious Bucksbaum Lectures series.
Born in Des Moines in 1951, Bryson married an Englishwoman and has spent most of the last four decades living in Great Britain. He is now president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
But his roots are in Iowa – a fact made clear only moments into his speech. “I go so far back that I can remember Des Moines before it became a suburb of West Des Moines,” Bryson said.
He provided the audience with a rip-roaring list of questions to test others’ Iowa-ness. You know you’re from Iowa if …
“You can find nice things to say about Herbert Hoover.”
“No matter how small the plate is at the salad bar you can get 400 items on it.”
“You don’t think there’s anything funny about the name ‘Des Moines International Airport.’”
“You don’t freak out when you hear: ‘Tornado’s coming.’”
“You are out of state and meet someone else from Iowa and you both get really excited.”
Bryson came of age in the Iowa of the 1950s, and he read from “The Thunderbolt Kid,” a book that pays homage to life in Des Moines during that era. “It was the best time to be a kid if you ask me,” Bryson said.
Bryson, who now speaks with an British accent, says there are similarities between Iowans and the British, including senses of humor that rely heavily on dry wit and irony. “One of the best things about Iowa is you automatically have a good sense of humor,” Bryson said.
A great example: Bryson recalled one of the best phone answering-machine messages he’s encountered. The person left a voice recording telling callers he was making some changes to his life and, after this was done, he would get back to you. “But if I don’t get back to you, you’re one of the changes,” the message concluded.
Bryson’s writing is full of love for his mother, a lovely person who apparently was unable to cook. Bryson said his mother had a penchant for forgetting to take the packaging off meats before cooking them. Bryson jokes that he was fully grown before he realized Saran Wrap was not a special coating or flavor.
And the Bryson kitchen of the 1950s was known by a special name. “We called it the burn unit,” Bryson joked.
During the lecture Bryson’s mother, Mary, 96, received an award from Drake University for being the first editor of the school’s newspaper.