Monday, September 17, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 10: December 25, 1947

Here a transcription of the tenth installment of John D MacDonald's 1947-1948 newspaper column "From the Top of the Hill," published in the Clinton (NY) Courier when the family was living there.

This will be the last post at The Trap of Solid Gold for several weeks, as family commitments and duties at my day job eat into all of my free time. I hope to be back in mid October.

Ten years ago this week, the Christian world was concerning itself with the annual Yuletide celebration.

In Japan there was an air of carefully concealed exaltation, because the Panay had just sunk and the Western world had lost face.

In Germany the little boys were charmed with light but massive-looking toy tanks in which they could ride around and around. The caterpillar treads didn't work, but that was almost the only flaw in the realism.

In Austria the Anti-Semiten Bund, upset about some of the poverty-stricken fellow members, had latched onto a very good thing. It seems that the year before, 1936, an obscure woodcarver had whittled out a lot of jolly Christmas tree ornaments. These gay little trinkets depicted a tiny gallows from which swung a little wooden Juden. Two carved wooden vultures perched on the cross frame of the gallows.

Recognizing the success of the trinket, the Anti-Semiten Bund put the item into mass production for the Christmas season and on Christmas morning, in thousands of Austrian homes, the children played with their new toys under the trees on which hung those cute little expressions of social-political opinion. The poorer members of the Bund benefited largely.

* * *

Germany, as you know, is the home of our Christmas customs. St. Nicholas, the protector of children and travelers, is said to have saved the three daughters of a poor man from being sold, by giving them dowries. That is the origin of the giving of presents. Santa Claus comes from the Dutch spelling of St. Nicholas.

One Christmas custom in Germany which we would like to see adopted over here is the giving of small presents to children on December sixth. The major presents must wait until Christmas morning. If this past week has been a typical example of what we can expect every year, we plan to give, on the sixth, a small, but efficient muzzle and a set of the best police bracelets available.

* * *

Our own Christmas spirit was a bit backward this year. We heard the carols and saw the store decorations and bought some cards and still we couldn't get into the swing of the thing.

Then about two weeks ago we were down in Utica and had parked over near the YWCA. As we returned to the car, we saw four little Negro girls, about eight years old, walking on the far side of the street. They were all of a height. They were arm in arm and singing, in marching tempo, "Come All Ye Faithful". They sang it loudly, defiantly and with fervor. At that point we decided Christmas was really coming.

* * *

In an early column we said that talking to a man who had been interviewed by a Gallup Pollster had convinced us that the poll isn't a myth. As a direct result of our comment, we became a guinea pig last week. A young member of an obscure local family named Hayes (something to do with a bank, we believe) came up to the house, and we found that there is indeed nothing casual about the poll. The forms used look something like a dilly devised by the Internal Revenue people. The questions go on and on.

They trap you neatly. They ask a rough question and you sweat out the answer and lean back and then the interviewer says, "Why do you feel like you do about this question?"

The question that intrigued us the most went something like this: "What single factors do you like least about the two major political parties?"

Kick that one around for a little while!

* * *

This is the tenth issue of this column. To all of you who have expressed interest in it, given advice, suggested topics -- Merry Christmas!

And to all of you who feel we waste valuable space in the Courier, talk about the wrong things, bore you to tears -- Merry Christmas, anyway!

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, September 10, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 9: December 18, 1947

Here's the Christmas edition of John D MacDonald 1947-1948 newspaper column, From the Top of the Hill, published in the Clinton Courier. I've posted this one before, or at least most of it. It's contains a great story, a very early example of MacDonald's amazing eye for detail.

This is a true Christmas story. 

In 1941 we were working in Rochester in the Mercantile Building which is just across the main drag from McCurdy's Department Store.


In the interests of good clean fun and advertising, McCurdy's had installed that year, in a front window, one of those huge bellowing Santa Clauses, three times life size, which rocks and rolls and slaps his crimson thigh with a hand as big as a ham.


Those particular monsters were quite a novelty in 1941, and the one at McCurdy's collected crowds of people who stood and laughed along with him, mildly hypnotized by the repetitive motions. There was something mammoth and awe inspiring about him, and if you stood too close to the plate glass, he gave you a vague sense of alarm.


Anyway, we went to work quite early one morning, before the stores were open and before the streets were crowded. Probably by prior arrangement with the orphanage concerned the big mechanical Santa had been activated and there he was, roaring and rocking and slapping his leg as he looked out at the empty street.


We were about to pass him by when we saw, coming from the opposite direction, about forty moppets in column of twos herded by two Sisters. It was a nice idea, bringing the little people down to see that over-size Santa. Having watched the parents of little children try to hush their horrified screams after one glance at the monster, we had a pretty fair idea of what would happen when those orderly kids arrived in front of the window.


We stuck around to watch.


The little people slowed their steps when they came close to the window, alarmed by the bellowing alone. When they got right up to him, all discipline vanished. They were green troops in the presence of the enemy. The wailing of the kids made almost as much noise as the bellowing of the Santa. About thirty of the forty tried to find refuge behind the billowing skirts of the Sisters, and the remaining ten, petrified, stood and watched the horrible giant.


They had been led to expect a mild, fat, jolly little man with a twinkle in his eye, and here was something the size of a small bungalow which made as much noise as a locomotive.


One little man broke from shelter, and with doubled fists and pumping legs, began to make time back in the direction from which he had come. In three running steps, a Sister got hold of him, but in so doing left numerous others exposed. They lost no time getting behind her again.


It appears that in all humor there must be elements of tragedy. It was sad and funny to think of the gap between anticipation and the actuality.


At that precise moment, the mechanical Santa broke into flames.


He couldn't have picked a worse time to acquire a short circuit in his red flannels. The Sisters were equal to the occasion. By superhuman effort, they got their little wards back into a column of twos and led them to the nearest crosswalk and across the street. A man on our side of the street put in the alarm while we were still thinking about it.


One of the most horrible sights we ever saw was that Santa Claus. If the fire had stopped him cold, it wouldn't have been so bad. But it apparently didn't damage his mechanism.


While the flames roared up around him, devouring his whiskers, he kept rocking back and forth, slapping himself on the leg with an arm which had turned into skeletal wires, and the sound of his, “Wah! Hah! Hah! Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho!” still roared in the empty street.


The little people clutched each other and their eyes bulged. After much effort, the Sisters got the line moving again and they went back down the street. But every little head was turned and every small mouth sagged open.


The fire engines came quickly and, as they squirted some kind of foam on Santa, he stopped moving and the sound of his laughter was stilled.


When the curtains in the Store window were drawn across the scene of horror, we turned away and went up to the office.


*     *     *

In last week's item on the hard water in Clinton, we left out one statistic which we would dearly love to have. We would like to know the total annual cost to all Clintonians in both cash and frayed dispositions.

Apparently a municipal water softening plant would cost fifty thousand plus. That is a very respectable hunk of money. But we don't feel that it is too much. The direct and indirect cost to Clintonians of using the present water would doubtless exceed that figure over a ten year period. Thus it can be said that we pay for water softening equipment every ten years without ever getting it.

Possibly the financial blow could be lightened by pegging the tax rate higher than village requirements and accumulating a reserve over a period of a few years so that the debt burden would not be too high.

*     *     *

Will someone who knows the Telephone Company's answer to the last petition about rates please get in touch with us.

*     *     *

Traffic continues to wallow around the square in both directions. Have you ruined any fenders lately?

*     *     *


See you next week.

Monday, September 3, 2018

A Portrait of John D MacDonald


Here’s a transcript of a lengthy profile of John D MacDonald written by a staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, one Gary Moore. It appeared in the newspaper’s Sunday supplement, The Floridian, on April 26, 1981, at a time when MacDonald had achieved a kind of fame and success he could only have dreamed of back in 1945 when he first decided to make a living as a writer. It took up six pages in the magazine and consisted of two parts: the first written in an arch, hard-boiled style as Moore prepares to interview his subject, followed by the article itself.

As profiles of this period go, it’s passable. Moore actually seems to have read a few McGee novels, although he seems fixated on the violence therein at the expense of the deeper charms of the series. There’s little new ground covered, but it’s always nice to read one of these things, especially to be reminded of just how big a deal JDM was back in the day, and to be amazed anew at just how fast his literary stature fell off the map after he died.

The John D MacDonald Caper: How a mild-mannered man makes millions from mayhem

by Gary Moore 

It was time to face facts.

I was burned out from too much booze, and the carburetor of "The Geisha Curse" (the junker Toyota I had picked up cheap after its late owner, a pilot, had dumped three marijuana bales from low altitude too near a high-tension line) was wheezing like a Kamikaze in a tail spin.

The Geisha Curse had probably known the comforts of shock absorbers, once upon a time, but those days were long gone. Just as well. The bouncing kept me awake as I barreled down Route 41, south from Sarasota through beach-bound traffic.

Facing facts, I was all for turning back. No more fool's errands. No more of this Knight In Shining Armor schlock. Hadn't I been burned enough by chasing after Truth?

Why not just pull off onto life's beer-can-littered road shoulder and sleep – under the stupefying sun, in a dreamy pit of unkept appointments? But I didn't. Somewhere up ahead of me waited a dubious appointment with Truth. And fool that I was, I was going to keep that date.

I was going to meet John D. MacDonald.

Ever heard of him? The Prince of the Paperbacks. Fitzgerald of Florida. The Writer's Writer. Maestro of the Mystery. The Whodunit King. Superauthor. Paperback Tiger …

From The New York Times to the Shreveport Journal, that's what they've called him. Over the years, no less than 171 glowing biographies of him have hit pages from People magazine to Esquire to the Siesta Key Outlook.

Now it was my turn.

Just in case you're one of the few souls who've never seen any of the 70-million copies of John D. MacDonald's 70 books, translated into 18 different languages, I will give you a little hint about what he writes. He writes hard-boiled. He writes about Tough Knights in Slightly Tarnished Armor. Knights half hungover, and half choked by the injustices of life. Knights who throw Karate punches or con county sheriffs. Modern day, detective-style Knights for whom women are pushovers but life in general is a long-odds game of craps.

Something about the way he writes, it kind of grabs you by the sleeve and yanks you into the book, like getting jerked kicking and screaming into a hay baler. His books have lots of blood. Lots.

It's like the words are swollen little plastic baglets full of blood and John D. MacDonald is massacring them with a meat cleaver all across the page. Not that it's at all clumsy, this verbal carnage. He squeezes adrenaline from a reader's pituitary gland like Picasso squeezing passion from a tube of scarlet paint.

Maybe you guessed that how I've introduced this whole thing is a stab at John D. MacDonald's style. Forget it. It's not. Let him keep his style. No hard-boiled self-respecting hero needs it. Let's just say instead that what I've shot for here is a kind of rough and tarnished approximation of his spectacularly successful tone. It translates terse: one man against the world. Very much himself. And very much alone. Hard-boiled.

It has made John D. MacDonald a very rich man.

These thoughts and many others went crawling through my hungover brain as The Geisha Curse bounced and yawed up a sandy lane hedged closely with thickets of palmettos and oaks. Where the lane ended, I looked up at a house as posh as it was strange - a stilt house - hiked high up on big pilings like some gray-weathered pier. Oak shade played on it like a treehouse, within easy spitting distance of the sighing Gulf. No beach. Just a zigzag concrete retaining wall at the edge of a short yard, holding back the surf. Lots of mourning doves and squirrels. Somewhere up in that house was John D. MacDonald.

When the Florida-staged expose-disaster novel Condominium hit the stands in 1977,
John D. MacDonald got ensconced in hardcover bestseller lists. But that's not what made him famous. That's not what earned him a worldwide fan club where even the groupies in Turkey and Japan call him "JDM." It's not why the Goteborg Post in Sweden ran a piece on "The Romantic Figure in John D. MacDonald."

No, the reason for all that is not Condominium. It is instead MacDonald's long-term prior success in a genre politely called "suspense novels." Or call them by their other name: Hard-boiled Detective Paperbacks.

"Roman Figur Travis McGee" was the way the Goteborg Post named the central jewel in John D. MacDonald's fiction crown: “The Romantic Figure of Travis McGee."

MacDonald wrote a lot of detective books before he invented the Florida beach bum-detective Travis McGee in 1963. But McGee is by far the favorite of avid MacDonald buffs. Huge of stature, brutal and honorable at the same time, Travis McGee gets people reading. He cuts a wide swath through Nazi torturers, biker maniacs, homicidal gigolos, tawny talk-show queens, voluptuous call girls, fiendish brain surgeons …

Violence in the 19 Travis McGee books races through a reader's blood like a strong shot of coffee. McGee is an unlicensed, unofficial detective. He seems to keep getting invited by people to help them recover money, or to find out who killed whom. The trails of corpses left behind him on these quests would fill a publisher's office. Often killed are the beautiful women who fall for McGee. They drop out of plots, in ways horrible and various, like flies before a can of literary Raid.

"Walk into the back of anybody's skull, be they born again, big mullah, or resident of the death house," growls Travis McGee to a Broad, "and you'll come to the edge of a swamp that stretches as far as the eye can see. It's part of the human condition."

“How cynical,” the sheltered damsel replies. But she'll learn.

Meanwhile, Travis McGee does not numb the reader with carte blanche viciousness. You couldn't relate to a man who is all vicious. The violence is relieved by McGee's world-weary concern for his fellow creatures. He does not double-cross. Sometimes, he even turns women down when they want mere superficial sexual flings. "The emotional life of McGee," he muses morosely. "A repressed libertine. A puritanical wastrel."

As if by rule, magazine articles about Travis McGee almost all mention this fictional hero's fictional abode. It is more than an abode, actually. It is the steed Rocinante to McGee-Quixote. This steed-abode where Travis McGee lives and headquarters his fever-pitched adventures is a houseboat named the Busted Flush. Moored in Fort Lauderdale, the Busted Flush came into the possession of beachbum McGee via a poker game.

Such is life.

The McGee books are ornate with the minute details of violence - calibers, concussions, fights soaked in the sounds of popping shoulder joints and the "coppery taste" of blood. Prison slang, mob hierarchies, the precise feel of hacked limbs and smashed noses. Somebody behind those words, I thought as I looked up at that gray-weathered beauty of a super-author's seaside treehouse, is filled right up to the gills with grim.

Blood-spiller to millions. They had told me he just got back from Mexico, that he would be a tough nut to crack. Travis McGee made flesh. And I had to go up there and wrest from this fire-breather some scrap of Truth. I gave a little sigh. Just like all the other times, all the other interviews. They faded together.

The Geisha Curse stood beside me with her battered door open, calling me to give it up. I sent the door smashing shut with my foot. Okay, Truth, I said to myself as I walked to the house, hearing the breakers gurgle out beyond the seawall, let's see who's toughest now.

*     *     *

The stairs - cypress, probably -- echoed beneath my feet. They led up to a wide veranda that ringed the stilt-house like a parapet.

Buried in my brain were images of other Florida extollers of The Rough Life.

Jimmy Buffett, that Key West pop-music troubadour of living wild and wanton sings of his "first scar," delivered by a crazed wino in a New Orleans bar brawl.

And if Buffett has bled what he sings, another Florida psalmist of the wild life has lived so much violence that his presence fairly shudders with it. The one time I met Harry Crews - author of such Deep South pastorals as Blood And Grits - he was just finishing a lecture in Gainesville, on a summer night at the University of Florida.

Possessed of a massive body, a helmet-like swath of forehead sheltering a warrior's beady little eyes, Harry Crews the ex-marine stretched himself with a wince and explained why he could not talk further. “See, there was several of them, and they wouldn't let me get out the door." He referred to a recent incident at an unnamed roadhouse. To light up his narrative, he unbuttoned his shirt. A monstrous black and green bruise bloomed all the way up his ribs and along the underside of one arm.

A tire iron? He wouldn't say. Word had gone around of another time when some angry men had followed him down from a high-stakes pitbull fight in south Georgia and had busted his knees. The understanding around Gainesville was that in some mystical way, Harry Crews knew life was raw, and he meant to live it. And when you read what he wrote about it, you knew he'd been there. Even if he didn't get back.

It was with this kind of stuff that I was primed, without even stopping to think about it, as I walked up the stairs into the stilt-house lair of John D. MacDonald.

"Hey, you want to hear a little Reaganesque joke?” he was laughing to some associate who had called up just as he was showing me to the living room. "You know what they call the killer up in Atlanta? Son of Sambo."

Not exactly your least racist kind of comment, but violent, anyway. Coarse. It could have lept just as easily from the lips of Travis McGee. So far so good.

But as my pocket tape recorder whirred on a glass coffee table, and he sat down opposite, surrounded by sliding glass doors full of majestic ocean view, I was marveling at him. Not as much at what I saw, as what I didn't see. What I didn't see as I looked at John D. MacDonald was Travis McGee.

Readers naturally expect them to be the same. MacDonald is forever getting letters from readers addressing him as if he were McGee. They assume MacDonald's books are an exaggerated account of his own life. How else could he have put it all down in words so convincingly?

But instead of glowering with McGee's surliness, the man who sat across from me was fairly bubbling with good humor. Rather than the craggy features one imagines on McGee, this man's face had a certain roundness, softened further by a halo of white hair. Like McGee he was tall, and his voice was deep. But violent? Wanton? Primeval?

All over the house were sculptures and carvings of animals. Especially cats. A fluffy black cat came to a glass door and looked in. Beneath the veranda, a squirrel and a mourning dove sat together happily in a bird feeder, watched by a little plaster replica of St. Francis. A washing machine was humming softly somewhere out of sight. MacDonald's wife walked out to feed a squirrel.

Travis McGee - fictional lone-wolf avenger adored by millions — never married. His whole being, when it appears via the printed word, seems to proclaim the bittersweet joys of bachelorhood - the man on horseback. Alone against the world.

Yet John D. MacDonald - loving creator of McGee's grandly defiant persona - has been happily married since 1946. His wife Dorothy encouraged him in writing. Now their grown son and his family come and visit them at their house in Mexico for months at a time. Lone wolf avenger?

MacDonald wore a neat gray velour pullover. I had interrupted not some post-orgiastic hangover recovery, but MacDonald's methodical testing of his new computer-terminal word processor. The phone would ring and he would laugh genially with some associate or another about consent-releases or contract clauses.





Geniality. It emanated from the man. If Travis McGee, lone backstreet hero would stand back cynically and make each new face prove it was not as corrupt as the rest of the world, then John D. MacDonald, stilt house creator, seemed to greet the world with the sunny, quizzical curiosity of a fascinated child.


It was like night and day. You couldn't even say that MacDonald was some bitter and frustrated Walter Mitty who was using Travis McGee for vicarious thrills. Never. Not genial John D. MacDonald.

"I got 20 years on him at least,” he said with a laugh, when asked if he saw himself as Travis McGee. "And also, my views are a little more ambivalent than his. I see things in shades of gray, where he would see them in black and white."

Out in the idyllic yard, beside the stilt house, bordered by the turquoise sea, three well-loved family cats lay buried. One lived to be 21 years old. The deep stability and security here seemed almost palpable. When had I ever sat in a house as magnificently peaceful as the one that roofs the king of printed blood and pain?

No interviewer has ever figured out exactly how much money John D. MacDonald
makes. One source quotes his latest contract at as high as $10-million, but MacDonald says that is just a maximum figure, possible only if his books see a tidal wave of sales. He doesn't like talking about money. There are a lot of crazies in the world.

He's got a house in Mexico and one in the Adirondacks. John D. MacDonald Inc. is the face he shows to the IRS. For a while he wrote only on a rented IBM typewriter - just to be able to write it off his taxes. Eleven TV shows and three movies have been made from his books. ABC has a two-hour made-for-TV Travis McGee movie in the works. Reprints even of the first novel MacDonald ever published - The Brass Cupcake, in 1950-are still selling briskly. And the pay? Don't ask. A lot of crazies in the world. That money goes into trusts for his grandchildren. Nothing left lying around the house to draw the crazies like bees to honey.

The last thing John D. MacDonald wants is to become the object of violence like you find in his books.

"What's the most violent thing that ever happened to you?" I asked the violence king.

"Hearing shots fired in anger," he replies, after musing, "and knowing that they were in the abstract or concrete or whatever being fired at me."

Abstract or concrete or whatever? What kind of violence is that?

He explains that it was in North Burma in World War II. He was in the OSS, working on a road. They heard shots fired and took cover. “I wouldn't consider it a combat experience." And that's it? No barroom brawls? No men with tire irons coming after you from South Georgia pitbull fights?

Could it be true, then, that violence has in no way been central to John D. MacDonald's actual experience? So how did his books get so full of it?

John Dann MacDonald was born in Sharon, Pa., in 1916, son of a corporation executive. There was a summer cottage on the Pymatuning River, plans laid for John's future in business school and beyond.

The raw world that fictional Travis McGee would someday muscle and smash his way through was as far away from the Pymatuning River as Mars. But into the staid MacDonald lifestyle there intruded an x-factor.

It was hard to put your finger on it exactly. Young John seemed to have an unusually strong urge to learn. Not learn how to do things, exactly. Just learn. He would go down the library shelves reading every book - an inexorable mental steam roller. Was it escapism or voracious intelligence? He didn't care.

His sensitivity was such then when he watched a neighborhood bully drown a black cat one day, the incident robbed him of sleep, and stayed with him throughout his life.

He was moderately athletic, but at the age of 12, scarlet fever put him in bed for a year. He would later tell Medical News magazine (everybody interviews John D. MacDonald) that during his childhood illness he performed "exercises of the imagination."

At 16, he wrote for a private school publication an odd and eloquent little poem. It began:

His is a bookshelf musty with age,
And the deeds of men gone by ...
... his small life is centered on
Some books, which all repay
His quiet road upon this sphere;
For from these tattered volumes here
He gathers all he's missed ...

The poem nowhere hinted who "he" was. The idea that "he" might be the someday potentate of paperback massacres would have seemed absurd. That was in 1932, when "Jack MacDonald” was voted Most Eligible Bachelor: "That popular fellow named Jack, who finds no task too hard to attack."

The Wharton School of Business, even a master's degree in business from Harvard, all passed behind him. There were jobs procured both with and without his father's contacts, usually ending soon and tempestuously. When forced to knuckle under to a hierarchy, his geniality tended to fade beneath the rebelliousness of his intelligence. He left the World War II Pacific a lieutenant colonel, but he was sick of orders from "manifest incompetents."

Then, quietly, he retired at age 30 to a $23-a-month rent-controlled apartment that his new wife Dorothy had in upstate New York, and he decided to try his hand at writing. One story he had sent back from the war had been published. His parents had once copied and passed around to friends an essay he had written.

But in none of those fleeting triumphs was there any sane grounds for him to spend four months in that small apartment, turning out 800,000 words - the equivalent of 10 average-sized novels, as later biographers would put it. And all 800,000 of those words went unsold.

He papered a whole wall with rejection slips. There was an awesomely methodical quality to him. After a while, the rejection-slipped wall grew so depressing that he and Dorothy painted it over. Everyone but Dorothy, he would later say, seemed to assume he had a postwar "readjustment problem.”

Within two years he was making comfortable money. He wrote "what I like to read," and would always insist that he had no "average reader" in mind when he turned out his tales of brutality and blood. It's just that brutality gets a reader reading. And that's what John D. MacDonald wanted. The boundaries of his art were drawn by the appetites (quite definite once you get them focused) of most-of-the-people-most-of-the-time. The hidden traceries of his plots got built along his ever increasing familiarity with the human subconscious: Tell 'em what they want to hear. And what they most want to hear (as any editor of such ax-murder tabloids as the National Enquirer can tell you) is what they most fear.

John and Dorothy MacDonald, living life as quietly and with the same confident serenity as always, moved to Texas, then to Florida. Writers can follow the sun. With the same inexorable resolve that had sent him reading his way across the bookshelves as a child, John D. MacDonald now sat down for eight-hour stints at the typewriter, day after day. Some 600 short stories followed. He could turn out a novel in four months. They included science fiction, non-fiction, and even personal memoirs. But the solid foundation of John D. MacDonald's meteoric career was still hard-boiled "suspense."

By 1963 he was such a darling of publishers that he was comfortable with the rarefied intrigues of the paperback game. When Fawcett Books lost a million-dollar detective-thriller series because the writer went off the deep end of right-wing politics, John D. MacDonald was approached to fill the void.

The Red Devil Restaurant in New York witnessed a luncheon of MacDonald, his agent, his editor, and a couple of friends. They wondered what to call the new series MacDonald had agreed to write. It would keep rolling for years, this series, maybe for decades. All planned out, in the peaceful mental crannies where John D. MacDonald mapped screaming mayhem. But this new series faced a problem:

When a guy grabs a book as he runs through an airport bookshop, and he hops aboard his flight and leans back to enjoy the latest gore in his favorite hard-boiled detective series, what if he finds ... that he grabbed a book he's already read?

Well, he gets mad, that's what. And he may even get mad at John D. MacDonald. And he may not buy any more books. All the wise presences at the Red Devil Restaurant luncheon agreed on that. Bad for profits. They knew the trade. But what can you do so these numbskulls who are grabbing books off the rack don't get fouled up? You give 'em a code, that's what. You give each book in the series a title with a different number, or with a different month of the year, or musical note, or …

A different color! The Deep Blue Good-By. Nightmare In Pink. A Purple Place For Dying ... "Have you read the green one yet?" "No, but I got that one about indigo, you know."

And the Hero. MacDonald wrote two test novels that never saw print before he got his new hero honed out just right - just the blend of philosophy and flippance that made the man easiest to want to have as your friend - easiest to read about and wish you were him. He was to have been named Dallas. Just the right heft of cowboy physical violence. Or maybe too prophetically much, as it turned out, for that year President Kennedy was shot to death by an assassin in Dallas, and nobody in his right mind - least of all a paperback potentate with his finger on the pulse of the psyches of millions - was going to name any hero after that town that year.

Undaunted, John D. MacDonald flipped through a list of U. S. Air Force bases. Just the right flavor of muscle and good American stock - eureka!

Travis. Travis McGee.

This month Free Fall In Crimson, the 19th of the Travis McGee novels comes out. They are literate, vivid, and tightly controlled. And so full of sex and violence that the blood screams through your veins like an overdose of Dexedrine as you read them.

“I like to insert violence into the books because it's about the only primitive thing we
have left, you know?" Uttered as MacDonald sits with his back to clouds of sea gulls above a turquoise cove, that statement is intriguing enough in itself. But it has a deeper message.
It says something about how a lot of fiction gets put together -- not as a reflection of what the author has verified by his own experience, but as a shrewd calculation that even the wildly improbable sounds like coldest fact if it gives the reader the right thrill. It's adrenaline, not truth, that keeps those pages turning.

This is a delicate thing to tell a reader straight out. MacDonald, the practiced wordsmith, is decorous about it: "What people want, I think, is something where you're curious to find out what happens next. And at the same time if there's some added values that keep it from being 100 percent escapist, I think it pleases the readers, because then they feel they're not wasting their time.”

Or he may wax suddenly more candid: “My problem is to present highly improbable things in such a manner as to create the suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.”

Or philosophical: "Maybe ... there is an atavistic sense of needing some kind of violence, that these books can trigger a release of that ... a release of the tension of anticipation of violence that doesn't occur.

“There’s a thing that the heart guys tell us -- that in olden times when adrenaline ran through our systems we were immediately in action. We were running away from the tiger or after the girl. But nowadays, people sit at a desk and they get this great rush of adrenaline, because they're afraid, say, of being fired. And they have no way to release it.”

So these "pictures of violence," as MacDonald calls them, may indeed be a kind of drug -- a print elixir to ease your poor, antiquated caveman's brain through the suffocated terrors of your paralyzed post-industrial day. Nothing to do with Truth at all.

Yet John D. MacDonald's books seem so ... real.

The details, indisputably authentic little details, stud the action like bright jewels. Details that seem to prove he must have experienced this, he must have been there.

Even way back in his first published novel, The Brass Cupcake, which moves rapidly but with nowhere near the subtlety of his latest work, there is such a detail. The very word "Cupcake."

"Once, as a kid on the bum," says the hero of the book, “I was stuck in a county can in the coal-mine area of southern Illinois. They had their own language in that jail. Anything you got by guile - extra cigarettes, more food, a pint bottle - was called a cupcake."

Beautiful. It sets the mood just right. But what was it in the sheltered upper middle class mind of John D. MacDonald that had given him the penchant for picking up such sociological gems? Where, in the name of all the blue-collar pool halls and drunk tanks, had he learned about Cupcakes?

He replied cheerfully, "I made it up."

But isn't that somehow cheating the reader of a glimpse at real life?

"I just want to take them on a little trip out of their own existence, and into somebody else's existence, for a period of time, and return them relatively intact."

Thus says the "Florida Fitzgerald,” whose villains and heroines live in such legendary locales as Citrus City or Tampa, whose heroes may rail against air pollution in Bradenton, or inhale the bracing air of the Keys. The backdrop is as real as the smell of suntan cream. But once John D. MacDonald starts populating that landscape with nonstop lust and carnage, does he really think he's telling us about the real world?

"Of course there you get into a philosophical kind of thing. Once you start to imitate reality, then you should perforce go the whole way and present the world where truth and justice do not prevail, in which the innocent are punished and the guilty go free. But if you follow reality philosophically to that point, you've created a dissatisfied reader.

"... That trip is too close to what they're experiencing anyway."

Monday, August 27, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 8: December 11, 1947

Another installment of John D MacDonald's Clinton Courier newspaper column. Here we can see what was possibly the first sentiment of dissatisfaction with the family's newfound home town: the local water supply. 

What we are about to discuss is an old and sore subject in Clinton. Many opinions have been kicked around -- but there has been a startling absence of facts to back up these opinions. We are talking, of course, about the Clinton water supply.

In this column we intend to present a few facts. That's all. Just facts. The facts presented have been extracted from an article in the November issue of The Hotel Monthly, which, in turn, was based on a survey report by Edward Engle, a graduate of the Department of Hotel Administration at Cornell.

In Mr. Engle's classification, 0 to 3.5 grains of hardening minerals to one gallon of water results in soft water. Anything over 20 grains of minerals per gallon is extremely hard. The Clinton rating is 39 to 40 grains per gallon. It is a fair guess that there is no other community in the United States with harder water.

What does this mean to you? What does it mean to Mr. and Mrs. John Doe and their two kids in their house on Kellogg Street?

Mrs. Doe knows that she has to use a great deal more soap than her Utica friends. She doesn't know why. Before soap can do a cleaning job, it has first to coagulate and precipitate out the hardening mineral salts in Clinton water. In effect, all the water she uses must first be softened by soap before it can be used to clean. Soap is about the most expensive and least effective softening agent available. Mrs. Doe has to use so much soap to soften the water that it forms unpleasant, sticky curds which float and attach themselves to whatever she is cleaning.

Mrs. Doe has to scrub finished surfaces harder in order to get them clean. the finish doesn't last as long.

Her kids and her guests use cake soap at an alarming rate.

When she rinses her sheets and pillow cases, she leaves a mineral deposit on the threads of the fabric. When they dry she has a harsh rough surface which tends to become dull and dingy. In addition, after the mineral salts dry on the fabric, the threads are weakened and her linens have a short life.

Mrs. Doe has a pretty rough time in the kitchen. The lime action in the water wrinkles the skins of peas and beans and toughens them. The fresh green color of other vegetables is affected. Longer boiling is required and the consequent loss of vitamins and texture results in overcooked food which lacks proper nourishment factors. The tea and coffee she serves are muddy and unpalatable and she doesn't know why. Mr. Doe has long since stopped complaining about the coffee. Her baked goods have a definite texture and taste loss. Her china, glass and silver are dull, spotted and streaked. Her pots and pans have white line rings boiled onto them.

Mr. Doe thinks that Clinton winters are getting colder. He uses more oil every year in his hot water system. He doesn't know that mineral deposits on the inside of his boiler and pipes form such an efficient insulating device that he is losing up to sixty percent of the original efficiency of the heating system. Three years from now Mr. Doe is going to have to replace a lot of pipes. The bill is going to be steep.

The daughter in the Doe family is fifteen. She has hair of that auburn shade which should be very lovely -- full of copper highlights. But when she washes her hair, she rinses it in Clinton water. When it dries, there is a deposit of lime and calcium which dulls those gleams and makes her hair lifeless. The Does don't care. They don't know how good that gal's hair could look.

Mr. Doe spends a great deal of money on various kinds of shaving cream. A tube lasts him about half as long as it lasts his Utica friends. In spite of all the shaving cream he uses, the razor still feels as though someone had used it to sharpen pencils. He goes to work every morning in a foul mood, his face smarting because hard water wouldn't soften his beard.

Mr. Doe washes his own car. But it never looks right. He can't seem to get all the pale streaks off of it. Every drop of water which dries on the surface leaves a pale white ring.

If you happen to meet the Does on the street, ask them about the hard water. They will look a little vague and say, "Yes, it is pretty hard, isn't it?"

Tell them that their life here in Clinton is made bothersome in a dozen little ways by hard water. Tell them that it is a constant drain on their pocketbook.

If they begin to look interested, tell them that there are 700 municipal water softening plants in the United States serving over 940 communities. Tell them that though Clinton has one of the worst hard water situations in the country, we are not one of the 940.

* * *

Ten years ago this week:

Two British Army officers purchased 376 U.S. mules for shipment to India.

Mrs. Roosevelt took Mrs. Doris Duke Cromwell on a tour of West Virginia coal towns and resettlement projects.

At the Empire Cat Club show in Manhattan a rodent owned by a Chicago doctor won a silver cup, 40¢ in cash and a rosette inscribed "Best Mouse."

President Roosevelt asked for 3,000,000 five thousand dollar dream houses, each house to include living room, dinette, kitchen, two bedrooms, tile bath, porch, garage, oak floors, gas stove, coal furnace and refrigerator.

Princess Elizabeth posed with a dog under the shade of parasol held by Margaret Rose.

U.S. Army observers stated that Madrid is proof that bombs cannot wreck a large city.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, August 20, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 7: December 4, 1947

Here's another installment of From the Top of the Hill, John D MacDonald's newspaper column from the Clinton Courier. I've presented the last portion of this one before -- where JDM recounts the family's winter stay in Texas -- with additional background. If you're interested you can read it here.

We'll call this section The Old World -- Glances Over the Shoulder at what was going on exactly ten years ago this week.

President Roosevelt spent a rugged week talking to business men and politicians about the 37-38 industrial recession.

Hirohito, Emperor of Japan, was pleased to call his reign the "era of radiant peace."

Congresswoman Virginia Jenckes of Indiana proposed to the Washington DAR that the Capital's famed Japanese cherry grove be cut down and sawed up for firewood.

The Japanese Second Army was consolidating its gains in Paoting, North China.

In Moscow's Red Square Stalin reviewed 1,750,000 of the faithful and introduced his fifth grade, eleven year old daughter, Svetlana, to the public.

Dr. Arthurs Holley Compton, physicist, obtained first empirical proof of the existence of a gimmick called a "neutrino."

Three hundred and fifty railroad cars and locomotives were torch-cut into scrap near Memphis for shipment to Italy's war machine.

We were enjoying Carole Lombard and Frederic March in Nothing Sacred. Remember that wonderful right cross to the Lombard chin?

* * *

World news of ten years ago has a wry flavor. Thirty million people went blissfully about their business, unaware that the war would pop them into untimely graves. There were enough houses for everyone and five dollars would buy a grocery order that was work to carry out to the car. Let us know if you want this feature continued.

* * *

Last winter we followed the sun to Texas. It was in the nature of a gamble, because the typewriter we took along had to bang out enough saleable wordage to get us back. We were looking for a place that wasn't expensive. Believe it or not, we found such a place and we herewith recommend it to all who wince at the thought of Florida tariffs.

Go to the Hill Country, seventy miles northwest of San Antonio. It is a resort section used by the people from the Gulf cities when the summer heat down there becomes unbearable. During the winter it is pretty quiet and thus accommodations that, during the summer months, rent for two and three hundred a month can be obtained for fifty and sixty. And it is almost as warm as Florida.

We stayed at a place called Bon Aire Lodge six miles from Ingram, Texas, "the only all rock town in the U.S.." They stamp that on outgoing letters. Bon Aire Lodge isn't a lodge. The proprietor purchased the mess hall from a P.W. camp, cut it into pieces and sprinkled the pieces around on a rocky hill. He paneled the inside in Mexican pine and had local stone masons rock the outside.

We rented a cabin that had yet to be rocked. After we were there a week, a truck dropped great slabs of white and brown stone beside the cabin. A few days later some lean and dusty men showed up with chipping hammers and went to work. During the chill of early morning we furnished the coffee.

The men talked to each other in a very normal fashion. "Mistuh Lee, would you kindly hand me that rock?' They has worked together for years and it was still on a mistuh basis.

They sang while they worked. It was a song we'd never heard before. No words to it. A mournful chant, plaintive and haunting.

We were sorry when the cabin was all rocked and they moved on.

This summer, as the FM tower diagonally across the street from us was being built, we were walking near it. Suddenly he heard that same song. We found out the next day that the steelworkers who put up the tower came from Texas.

Last night we looked at the red lights blinking on the tower and thought of that plaintive song. We thought of the live oaks, the hillside goats, the Guadalupe River. We remembered sitting out in the sun in a swim suit while we hacked at the typewriter during February, March and April. We remembered the big-hatted, slow-talking men gathering, with their weathered-looking women at the stone schoolhouse during the evening to play dominoes.

If you get tired of ice and want to head down in that direction, let us know. We'll tell you whom to write to. That is, if you don't mind being envied.

Monday, August 13, 2018

"So Sorry"

Sports Fiction magazine was a fiction pulp begun in 1938 by Louis Silberkleit’s Columbia Publications, a low-rent publisher even in the world of cheap fiction in the twentieth century. The magazine never really caught on and the neglect it suffered at the hands of its owners is evident when viewing its publishing history: only 43 issues of the magazine are known to have been published between 1938 and 1951, and even that’s questionable. It rarely published the same number of issues in any given year, and it shut down completely between 1944 and 1946. I only own one issue of Sports Fiction and just looking at it one can see all the corners that were cut in putting it together: second-rate artwork, messy, uneven printing, sleazy ads -- the kind one never sees in a Popular or Street and Smith publication -- and authors even pulp aficionados might have trouble recognizing.

John D MacDonald wrote three stories that appeared in Sports Fiction, all dating from his early years as a writer, years he was living in Clinton, New York (1947 and 48). The first was a boxing story, the third is unknown to me (at least by the title: “They Never Quit” -- probably a team sport) and the middle one was about golf. These were years when MacDonald was happy to get anything published, by any paying publisher, so he may not have cared where these tales ended up. And given Columbia’s reputation, he was probably paid the rock-bottom rate of a penny a word.

But there’s something about this middle tale -- titled “So Sorry” and appearing in the magazine’s July 1948 issue -- that transcends its sports setting and the cheap magazine it appeared in. Yes, it’s about a golf tournament and the competition between several disparate personalities, told by a non-participating bystander, but the real subject MacDonald deals with here is racism.

MacDonald had done this before in a sports pulp, and for another Columbia title no less (Super Sports), in 1947 with his “Big John Fights Again,” a boxing story featuring a black boxer. I own this magazine (it’s somewhere in the house) but I’ve never written about it. John Dinan, in his excellent 1998 study Sports in the Pulp Magazines, has, and here is what he had to say:

MacDonald’s boxing story in the December 1947 Super Sports was also as good a piece of fiction as one will find in the pulp mags. MacDonald uses terse first-person style to advantage in describing the dark underside of the world of boxing as the story moves toward the BIG fight. “Big John Fights Again” is a story reminiscent of The Harder They Fall and Requiem for a Heavyweight, told from the reporter’s point of view and with a bit of a twist -- the fighter is black. Not wanting to fight, Big John tells the reporter he’s afraid of what might happen to him. The reporter na├»vely responds: “That’s nonsense; people don’t do that.” Big John responds: “Maybe not to white folks,” and proceeds to enlighten the reporter on some hard facts about prejudice.

One has to wonder, was Columbia the only place MacDonald could sell stories with this kind of subject matter? Were they rejected by others before ending up with this publisher?

The setting is the Southland Open, a big, nationally coverd golf tournament played at the Upland Club, in an unnamed city and state. The story is told in the first person by Dave Able, a representative of the Miramar Sporting Equipment company of Los Angeles. Dave isn't there to play golf, he's there to sign golfers to endorsement contracts, always hoping to find a little-known golfer who suddenly breaks big. He's been around the game for a long time and knows many of the regular players.

For readers who don't know the rules of golf tournaments (read: me) MacDonald dutifully explains it all in a long paragraph: Following a qualifying round where the player must score 80 or less, the tournament is played for three days: two days of eighteen holes, the third for thirty-six. Each player plays against one other player, a process chosen by lots. At the end of the first day the high fifty percent of the group are eliminated. The same process is followed for the second day, usually leaving around twenty survivors. After the first eighteen holes on the morning of the third day, only eight players are still standing to play the final afternoon round. First money is $7,500 (around $75,000 in today's money), second place takes $1,750, and so on.

The story opens with Dave attending a get-together in a suite at the Upland Club. Four of the golfers who will play in the tournament are there and Dave briefly introduces each one to the reader.

You know them all. Mart Snyder is a thin, dark, expressionless man with ulcers. He's been on the circuit for thirteen years now and in spite of his dead pan, he's always tied in knots. Harry Crebson is the big blonde guy who started to knock them dead just after he got out of the army. He has freckles and a grin. Hal Lovelord is a Canadian who has a vague expression, a dim wispy mustache and a deadly eye on the putting green. Jimmy Ratchelder is, of course, the plump pink little guy with the shrewd grey eyes who has made more out of tournament golf than any man in the last twenty years. It's a business to Jimmy -- pure and simple... It was practically an even money bet that one of the four in the room would knock off the $7500 they give you for being best man.

There ostensibly to commiserate with a fifth golfer who failed to make the qualifying round that day (and who’s drunk and asleep on a couch), Dave finds the four in what sounds like a serious discussion. An unknown golfer qualified that day with a score (63) that broke the club’s course record. Are they worried about a young upstart who could possibly beat them all in the tournament? Yes, but only to a point. The real problem, at least with Snyder and, especially, Ratchelder, has less to do with how he plays and more to do with who he is.

He’s a Japanese American.

The boys were talking about Tommy Suragachi of Oregon... The press hadn't noticed Tommy, a slim, nervous acting boy, until he had banged out that miracle round of sixty-three... Then the press had picked him up. He had played golf before the war and had been a caddy. He served with the infantry in Italy during the war. He had brought himself and his clubs to the tournament on a bus. He was being staked by a whole bunch of Japanese farmers on the West Coast who had kicked in a little bit apiece. Apparently it was a very little bit because Tommy Sonagachi was living in a down-at-the-heels tourist cabin a mile and a quarter from the course.

Based on MacDonald's physical description of Ratchelder he's clearly the bad guy of the story, and he doesn't disappoint.

"You men better think about the game and what it means to the country... Golf is one of our biggest national games. It will hurt the game and hurt us if a Jap wins a big tournament like this one. It may be that some of the private clubs that have tournaments now will cancel them if they find they've got to put a Jap in the club...If this Sura-something wins they'll have a national holiday in Japan. What the hell was the use of licking them if we've got to make heroes out of them?"

The three others are in varying degrees of disinterest on the subject. Big, freckled Harry Crebson laughs it off, pointing out that “Japs” were pretty handy to have around when he fought in Italy. Snyder and Lovelord emphasize the fact that it is highly unlikely that a young player could win the tournament and that all they have to do to prevent Sonagachi from winning is for them to play their best. But Ratchelder is adamant. He even suggests that the four of them quit the tournament in protest, but Snyder points out that it would only make a martyr of the young man.

"Besides," Snyder continued, "the public might take the wrong slant on it. They wouldn't realize that we were doing it to help the game. They might think we were doing it because we were prejudiced or something. I'm not prejudiced against him."

"Neither am I," Ratchelder said. "I just don't think that a Jap ought to be given a chance to win the Southland Open or any other major tournament. Maybe they should be allowed to play in some of the small city tournaments on the public courses."

Crebson winked at me and said, "Well, to hear that you boys aren't prejudiced sure makes me happy. It surely does!"

The party breaks up with Ratchelder adamant about finding a way to “get to” Suragachi in order to rattle him .

Able drives over to the motel where Suragachi is staying and finds a very nervous young man. Naturally uptight, he bemoans his chances of winning and reveals that he is well aware of the racism he is the victim of.

"I saw the way Mr. Ratchelder looked at me today. And Mr. Snyder. You can tell when people look at you like that. I've gotten used to it out on the Coast. They hate all of us out there. Most of them do."

Able manages to sign Suragachi to an endorsement contract, provided he does well in the tournament.

Of course all four of the seasoned golfers make it to the final round, along with Suragachi, who plays spectacularly despite his obvious case of nerves. And, also of course, in the final round he is paired with none other than Ratchelder, giving the older golfer his perfect opportunity to rattle his opponent with an small act of racism that the observing crowd picks up on and imitates…

“So Sorry” works well on both the level of a sports story and as a tale of prejudice, although it would be too much to ascribe any real greatness to it. Its unusual characteristics and the fact that a heavy subject is dealt with in a cheap pulp magazine story is not completely out of the ordinary. Yet the fact that the editor of Sports Fiction made a special mention of the story’s connection to “Big John Fights Again” on the title page indicates that they knew they had something a bit different in their magazine and wanted readers to know it. I wonder how many other MacDonald stories like this are out there, a serious step up from the average penny-a-word tale, unread since their publication and mouldering away as time slowly destroys them.

“So Sorry” has never been anthologized or republished.

Monday, August 6, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 6: November 27, 1947

Another in the continuing series of newspaper columns John D MacDonald wrote for the Clinton [NY] Courier back in 1947-48, when the family were residents of that town.  In addition to a nice Thanksgiving message (which I have posted before) there's a humorous recollections of John's days in military procurement, his Army job before he was called up to serve overseas in the war. The man he refers to, General Benny Meyers, was Major General Bennett E. Meyers, the number two man in procurement for the Air Force. during the war, and his name came up as part of a Senate investigation into the government's contract practices back then with none other than Howard Hughes. Supervising billions of dollars of contracts for planes and other equipment, "Benny" somehow managed to enrich himself far beyond the means of an ordinary government employee. It was revealed that during the war he was a frequent player of high stakes poker, enjoyed the amenities of many a fine hotel on contractors' dimes, burned through three wives (the third was an "actress" named Ila Rhodes) and owned stock in numerous private aviation companies, all who were awarded contracts during the war. And when he retired from his post in 1945 (earning a pension of $5.500 a year) Meyers purchased a luxurious mansion on Long Island at a cost of $60,000.

In testimony he angrily denied any wrongdoing.

His initial appearance before the Senate committee took place two weeks before this column was published. Meyers may have been a partial role model for Colonel Dolson, a character in MacDonald's 1952 Collier's serial "My Brother's Widow", which later became the 1954 novel Area of Suspicion. Dolson was the on-site procurement officer at Dean Products, a company responsible for the production of top secret... well, if you haven't read the book yet perhaps I've already said too much.

This year, Thanksgiving has given us an oddly uncomfortable feeling. It is a time when, nationally, we shake hands with ourselves in the pugilistic fashion, and consider our multitudinous blessings, with emphasis on the food department.

This year, Thanksgiving is a time when two young American girls lost to their father a forfeit of twenty-five dollars each because they could not stand the official German food rationing system for two weeks.

It is a time when American magazines will go overseas, and they will contain pictures of our healthy families gathered around the well-set table. Remember that Norman Rockwell picture of a family at dinner? It was drawn as a part of that series of four to illustrate the four freedoms. Reproductions of that picture go overseas.

In many prisons where the convicts are permitted to read newspapers, someone goes over the papers first and cuts out any reference to crime. Maybe the United States periodicals that go over seas should have all reference to food removed.

Did you ever open a magazine and look at a color photograph of a great big steak, butter melting on top? We wonder how those advertisements strike such persona as Bill Mauldin's French philosopher— the man who said that a pessimist cuts off the loose end of his belt, while the optimist merely punches new holes.

Our ancestors gave thanks because they fought a wild and alien country with their hands and made the soil give them food. We give thanks because in this strange year of 1947, a blind throw of Fate's dice left us as an island in the midst of war, left us untouched by the hunger, cold and disease that afflict the rest of the world.

We must be thankful, but not complacent. We are in the midst of the second armistice in the war that began in 1914. Somehow, during these years of uncertain peace, we must find the strength with which to protect this way of life which makes our Thanksgiving possible.

* * *

Reading of General Benny Meyers' difficulties reminds us that it is only a question of time until an investigation committee comes boiling up here in black limousines and takes us back to Washington, probably handcuffed to a steering post.

We have a guilty conscience.

We were engaged in procurement activities for the War Department during the early war years, and one of our jobs was to help contractors get their tools and materials in ample time to meet contract schedules.

One Christmas we got a card from a very good shoe company which said that a friend was going to give us a pair of slippers and would we please send along the size. We ran through the mental list of aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and decided that the donor was one of two relatives. We sent the size and a few days before Christmas the slippers came along with a card from the... Corporation.

As they were made specifically for us, we kept them.

But, before we could get accustomed to a wonderful world where slippers fell out of the blue, we were sent overseas. Otherwise we would probably have gone on from slippers to bigger things and would have ended up as sort of a General Meyers, junior grade.

The slippers are still around and when the congressional thumb presses heavily on our doorbell, we will open the door with pallid face, shaking hands -- and the smell of burning leather in the house.

* * *

We have received two letters suggesting that we lean more heavily on this matter of the fifteen cent charge on Utica phone calls. We found out the other evening that once upon a time a petition was prepared, signed and presented to the telephone company.

Apparently nothing happened to alter the rate, but we have been unable to find out exactly what the official response was.

At any rate, the opinion of the telephone company may have changed in the interim.

To those persons who have taken an interest in this matter, it is suggested that they attend the next meeting of the Civic Group, ask Jim Sherman for the floor and move that a committee be formed to look up the response to the last petition and arrange for the preparation of a new petition if deemed advisable.

The Civic Group is the local, non-partisan medium for getting things done -- and as such, should be the mouthpiece for all citizens interested in the betterment of Clinton as a place to live.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, July 30, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 5: November 20, 1947

John D MacDonald's fifth column for the Clinton Courier,  written back when he was still a struggling pulp fiction author.

For students of JDM's biography, this column contains several interesting sections. He begins with a brief discussion on personal independence and conformity, which -- perhaps -- reveals the first seeds of his discontent with the town he had moved to, as discussed in detail in his 1965 non-fiction hardcover The House Guests. It also presages attitudes that would make up much of the character of one Travis McGee.

 And speaking of The House Guests, this column contains the first ever mention of the MacDonald's cats, Roger and Geoffrey, made "famous" by that cat-biography.

Finally, there is a piece on speeding cars, a favorite subject of the author's, explored over the years countless times, in short stories such as "Hit and Run[1952] ,"  "Eyewitness," "Hit and Run[1961]," and "The Man Who Almost Blew His Top," and in novels like Cry Hard, Cry Fast and Slam the Big Door.


We had lunch at the Inn last Tuesday -- as every Tuesday -- with the Clinton Chowder, Walking and Three No Trump Society, and we were subjected to various jeers and jibes from citizens named Stanley and Johnson and Robinson and Weber and others because we spurned regimentation and refused to accept the standardized lunch.

It turned out that our independence cost us the sum of fifteen cents, (15¢), and somehow it seems very nice to be in a place where some measure of individual liberty can be obtained for a nominal fee.

We make no cult of eccentricity or individualism, and yet we derive a certain feeling of contentment from the fact that if we should choose to diverge from the standard pattern, we will not be given a vacation behind barbed wire to think over the sin of deviation. Such would be a pretty grim situation.

In this day, in this country, an individual who refuses to conform can be punished only through the somewhat ineffectual medium of social ostracism. In a police state, a minor deviation from the norm implies freedom of thought and, as such, is deserving of direct and implacable punishment by the forces of the police state.

Of course, this has gone a long way from our fifteen cent fee for a small hunk of self-determination. We generalize too much... and we don't care for hash.

* * *

Last week's column led to a discussion with Ed Stanley. He objected to the criticism of the fifteen cent toll charge. Ed Stanley says, and I have his permission to quote, "If Clinton became a part of the Utica exchange, it would cost Clintonians a great deal more money each year in phone bills than it does now."

Since neither of us was able to quote sources and statistics, I will let it stand as is. Maybe we should haul in a statistician from the telephone company.

We can go on record as saying that we resent paying seventeen cents when we use our own phone and fifteen when we use a pay station.

* * *

In addition, we received some comments on our eulogy of a Beagle named Kelly, probably because the column happened to be printed alongside a long letter from a Pennsylvania gentleman who seems to have been nibbled by a canine once upon a time.

We'd be in a better position to argue, if we owned a dog. We'd like to own a dog right now, but we can't get permission from two domineering felines named Roger and Geoffrey. We obtained them from a market in Utica, and they would not look kindly on any whim of ours to obtain a dog.

They are representative of the Cat of the Future. Particularly Geoffrey. The anthropologists say that we would still be swinging from limb to limb were it not for the fact that we have a thumb which works in juxtaposition to our fingers so that we can grasp objects and use them as tools.

Geoffrey has a toe on each front foot that works as a thumb. He can pick up small objects in his hand and nibble on them.

When at last most of the earth's surface is vitrified by the atomic bombs and mankind is no more, a few surviving cats with rudimentary thumbs will be fashioning stone axes to hunt with.

A few thousand years hence, cat historians will be pondering over those strange two legged beings that once inhabited the earth. Where did they come from and where did they go? They were obviously unfit to rule the world.

We are being very nice to Geoffrey.

* * *

But in these years we have left, before atomic disintegration, maybe we can do something about a menace more easy to visualize.

Somehow anything you say about the automobile seems very trite.

There is nothing particularly trite about two tons of metal traveling at one hundred and eighty feet per second.

This is not an appeal to ninety percent of the people of Clinton. This is an appeal to ten per cent.

Clinton is a children's town. There isn't a better place in which to raise kids.

Except for one thing. Among us we have a few citizens who are very, very proud of a fast reaction time, and get a feeling of almost sensual joy out of swooping into the village at a speed that would be dangerous "for anyone else."

Under the hood are over a hundred horses that give a joyous leap with the least little touch on the gas.

Within twelve months in the Village of Clinton one of our children is going to be badly smashed by one of these high octane Knights.

It might be our boy. It may be yours.

The Knight is going to be sick with remorse. Maybe he'll give up driving for the rest of his life. Maybe he'll never go over thirty from that moment on.

Somehow his remorse isn't going to help very much.

Yes, this is a children's town -- except for that one little thing.

* * *

See you next week.