The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Source: Bill Bryson, extract from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (London: Doubleday, 2007), pp. 54-56

Text: Saturdays and Sundays were the longest days in Kid World. Sunday mornings alone could last for up to three months depending on season. In central Iowa for much of the 1950s there was no television at all on Sunday mornings, so generally you just sat with a bowl of soggy Cheerios watching a test pattern until WOI-TV spluttered to life some time between about 11.25 and noon -they were fairly relaxed about Sunday starts at WOI – with an episode of Sky King, starring the neatly kerchiefed Kirby Grant, ‘America’s favourite flying cowboy’ (also its only flying cowboy; also the only one with reversible names). Sky was a rancher by trade, but spent most of his time cruising the Arizona skies in his beloved Cessna, The Songbird, spotting cattle rustlers and other earth-bound miscreants. He was assisted in these endeavours by his dimple-cheeked, pertly buttocked niece Penny, who provided many of us with our first tingly inkling that we were indeed on the road to robust heterosexuality.

Even at six years old, and even in an age as intellectually undemanding as the 1950s, you didn’t hav to be hugely astute to see that a flying cowboy was a fairly flimsy premise for an action series. Sky could only capture villains who lingered at the edge of grassy landing strips and to whom it didn’t occur to run for it until Sky had landed, taxied to a safe halt, climbed down from the cockpit, assumed an authoritative stance and shouted: ‘OK, boys, freeze!’ – a process that took a minute or two, for Kirby Grant was not, it must be said, in the first flush of youth. In consequence, the series was cancelled after just a year, so only about twenty episodes were made, all practically identical anyway. These WOI tirelessly (and, one presumes, economically) repeated for the first dozen years of my life and probably a good deal beyond. Almost the only thing that could be said in their favour was that they were more diverting than a test pattern.

Comments: Bill Bryson (born 1951) is an American travel writer. His memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid documents his 1950s childhood in Des Moines, Iowa. Sky King began as a radio show in 1946. It was first shown as a television series in 1951. It was cancelled in 1954, but new episodes were produced when it went into syndication in 1955, continuing to 1959. There were 72 episodes in total. Penny was played by Gloria Winters.

Links: Official Sky King website

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