Book Review Archives

The Bucyrus That Was: Growing Up in Small Town, America, in the 1950s

By Bill Elder
Mill City Press, 2010
$16.95, Paper

Nonfiction

Reviewed by Bill Plott

Bill Elder is the winningest men’s basketball coach in University of Montevallo history. He started the athletic program at the University of Mobile. He has had successful coaching/athletic director stops at several other schools and has been inducted into the National Intercollegiate Athletic Association Hall of Fame.

But you won’t learn about any of those things in reading this book. The Bucyrus That Was is a joyous celebration of being a boy in the 1950s. Elder loved the ’50s, and why not? It was a time of simpler pleasures and safer environments. Growing up in Bucyrus was only geographically different than growing up in Opelika or Demopolis or Waycross, Georgia. It was an era in which few people felt the need to lock their doors and kids could be out with their friends all day long without parents seriously worrying about them. It was a time when so much of children’s growing up was spent outdoors, utilizing imagination and whatever was available. Physical activity was de rigueur, unplanned and unstructured. A world of electronics and thumb exercises was unimaginable. Whether it was sports, hide-and-seek, or building club houses, Elder embraced it all.

Elder writes with humor of such teenage rituals as cruising, describing a friend out in the family car alone for the first time with the admonition not to leave the city limits. He didn’t leave town, but he circled the drive-ins and other youth hangouts so many times that, to his father’s consternation, he rolled 187 miles on the odometer in one evening.

Elder can laugh at himself when he talks of his dating mishaps, being the victim of youthful pranks, working in a funeral home, growing up in a severely fundamentalist Baptist church, and dealing with teachers and coaches.

But Elder does not sugarcoat the era. In Part Ten he writes about “The Dark Side of the 1950s,” the racism and sexism that were commonplace whether it was in Alabama where he was born or in Ohio where he grew up. While racism was blatantly obvious on visits back to Alabama, it was more subtle in Ohio where the local black football star dating a blonde white girl was not well received by many. He writes of a female classmate who wanted to be a doctor but was pushed instead toward nursing. He writes, “I asked her how she feels about this situation now, since she knows that she had the intellect and the drive to become a doctor, and yet was denied the opportunity….She said, ‘I adjusted to it. That’s just how it was at the time and there wasn’t anything that I could do about it.’”

This is not great prose, largely because of too many clichés (far too many “needless to say,” “it was an understatement,” and “to say the least” qualifiers). But it is great storytelling. Elder had this reviewer reminiscing about his own home town frequently while reading about Bucyrus. And reading about Elder and his friends in Bucyrus was as enjoyable as recalling my own childhood. Dec. 2010

Bill Plott, a retired journalist, is a freelance writer in Montevallo.