Monday, June 28, 2010

"College Man"

"College Man" is a passable John D MacDonald short story that originally appeared in the February 1958 issue of Cosmopolitan. It seems a rather odd entry for this particular magazine, concerning as it does the summer water skiing activities of a couple of high school boys, but by this time MacDonald already had eighteen pieces published in Cosmopolitan and they probably printed anything he sent to them. Still, one gets the feeling reading "College Man" that it was intended for a different kind of publication, like Argosy, Bluebook, or even Boy's Life. The author gets to show off his detailed knowledge of boats and skiing as he tells a fairly predictable tale of two guys pulling a prank on an older guy.

Told in the first person by eighteen-year-old Jud, "College Man" is the recounting of a botched attempt to show up a guy who has cut in on his girl Jean Anne. Jud's best friend is Dake, who also happens to be Jean Ann's brother. Jean is smart, pretty and an expert water skier. Jud and Dake own their own motorboat, the Banshee, which they rescued from a junkyard and fixed up into a superior speedboat, complete with a customized Cadillac engine. The three of them are a set and they love nothing more than to spend the summer boating and skiing along the west coast of Florida where they live.

"I'd been looking forward to our having a wonderful summer, like always, but this Foster Harmon had to show up. He and his folks moved down from Clearwater. He's nineteen, a college man. He's finished one year at Gainesville. That's where Dake and I are going, but not until fall... You get to thinking that a girl is your girl. So maybe you take it all a little too much for granted. And in comes another party. Name of Foster Harmon. And Jean Anne flips. And gets a gooey look in her eyes that could turn your stomach. So all of a sudden she doesn't have any time for all the old routines, and it's like something bit a hole out of the middle of summer."

Jud and Dake figure Harmon for "a phony" and devise a plan to show him up and reveal him as less-than-cool. That way they can "pry Jean Anne loose [and] open her eyes." Naturally, Jud doesn't trust this college man. "There was something too smooth about him," he worried.

Since water skiing is their thing, the plot to undo Harmon naturally involves that activity. The boys invite Harmon and Jean Anne for a day of water sports, and ask Harmon if he has ever skied before. "Some," he replies. "Not too much. I'm no expert." They all agree to go and the next Saturday finds them piling into the Banshee and heading south to Coquina Point, a favorite location on the gulf where many of their like-minded friends ski and scuba dive. On the way down Jean Anne decides to get on the skis, just to loosen up. As she rides expertly behind the boat both Jud and Harmon watch her.

"[She] came up like a feather and we headed south toward Narrow Pass. It was wonderful to watch her. Like a dance. Honey skin and white suit and the tangled auburn curls. She swung left and right in perfect form, skittering across the wake, dancing on the oyster bars, skidding toward the pilings, slanting the water up into temporary rainbows."

Harmon was "looking at her like a kid watching candy."

Once at the Point, Dake and Jud take turns on the skis, then coax Jean Anne to put on another exhibition, then finally ask Harmon if he is ready to give it a try. He agrees, so with Dake behind the wheel he begins what turns out to be a long and fast ride, far out into the gulf where the chop is heavy, farther than Jud or Jean Anne can see from the shore. When they finally return and Harmon coasts in, it is obvious that he is straining to keep erect.

"His face had a gray, twisted look. He had the most obvious case of spaghetti legs I have ever seen... You could tell from his face that he desperately wanted to land well. But thirty feet out his legs just folded on him and he went down.... Nobody razzed him. He was shaking all over when he climbed up. I helped him. I don't know why. He stretched out, rolled onto his back and closed his eyes, breathing hard. I could see the muscles in his thighs and calves jump and quiver. Jean Anne sat close to him and they began to talk in low tones. I wandered away. I knew that in a little while he'd feel all right, but when he tried to get out of bed the next morning, he would have a big surprise."

Sore that their trick didn't work, Jud and Dake vow to come up with a new plan. Meanwhile, there is more skiing to be done. Dake takes Jud and another friend Mickey out, skiing doubles, which requires a counterweight on the bow of the Banshee to keep it from slowing down. Jean Anne volunteers, stretching out in the sun while Harmon stays ashore attempting to recover.

Things go fine until they are ready to head ashore. A "damn-fool skin diver" pops up directly in front of the boat, and Dake yanks fiercely on the wheel to avoid him. The force of the turn knocks him out of the boat, the skiers are unloosed, and Jean Anne tumbles into the cockpit, knocked unconscious. The Banshee, at full throttle, is pilotless and running in wide circles. It is clear that its course will eventually widen and cause the Banshee to pile up onto a rocky portion of the shore. There is no other boat there fast enough to catch the it, and several attempts to intersect its course fail. The next sweep will bring the boat and the unconscious Jean Anne straight into the rocks at fifty miles per hour.

Then the "college man" springs into action...

It's a nice little story, full of fairly pat and predictable characters, but told in such a way that they seem fleshed out and fully realized. It's MacDonald's gift of using setting and situation to help build character, defining them by their actions rather than attempting to describe them. It was one of the earliest lessons in writing the author learned and he never tired of reminding interviewers, fans and would-be writers of it. He also never tired of deriding many of the best selling authors of his time for their inability or unwillingness to try and use less in an effort to create character. MacDonald's singular talent lay in his ability to take a simple plot like "College Man" and make it read like something more.

The wonderful story art for "College Man" was created by JDM friend and Sarasota neighbor Thornton Utz.

The story has never been anthologized.

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