Friday, April 22, 2011

"Fast Loose Money"

When the United States entered the Second World War in December 1941 John D MacDonald was already a member of the armed forces. He had joined the Army in June of 1940 in an act of near desperation, having failed in several attempts at a career in the financial industry. With a recent Harvard MBA on his resume, he managed to snag a position as an ordinance officer and was stationed in a variety of locations in upstate New York before being sent overseas in 1943 to serve in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater of war. He remained there until the war's end in 1945, having been stationed in both India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). So it is no surprise that once MacDonald began his writing career in 1946 much of the early work he produced drew heavily on his war experiences. And although he never saw any real action -- he worked in procurement and supply-- he had obviously seen enough and remembered enough to use many of the things he has witnessed in his fiction.

MacDonald produced a glut of war-related stories in the very early years of his writing career, so much so that he had to eventually be dissuaded by one of his pulp magazine editors. Stories with titles such as "Blame Those Who Die," "The Flying Elephants," "Muddy Gun," "Justice in the Sun" and "The Chinese Pit" filled the pages of long forgotten pulp magazines such as Best Stories, Doc Savage and Short Stories. But he never really stopped writing about people who had served in the war, about how the conflict had shaped them, the massive waste on a nearly unimaginable scale, and -- especially -- the bonds of friendship and enmity that were forged when young men were separated by thousands of miles from their homes and living in a strange land. Some died, some merely survived, others were made better for their time overseas, and some made out like bandits.

In the early spring of 1958 MacDonald must have been reliving his war days, for he produced at least two memorable works that drew upon his experiences in the conflict. His novella titled "Taint of the Tiger" appeared in the March issue of Cosmopolitan, and was later expanded and published as a paperback original called Soft Touch. It's the story of two war buddies who are reunited after the war and attempt to pull off a grand heist. They met serving in "Detachment 404" of the OSS, precisely the same unit the author was assigned to, and while these two characters were behind-the-lines combat veterans, their past experiences were clearly drawn from MacDonald's own.

Four months after "Taint of the Tiger" was published, another MacDonald work appeared in the pages of Cosmopolitan. The July issue featured his short story "Fast Loose Money," a tale that again featured two old war buddies who had served in the CBI, but this time their experience drew directly on MacDonald's. Jerry Thompson and Arnie Sloan spent the war serving in C Company of the 8612th Quartermaster Battalion stationed thirty-five miles north of Calcutta, and they used their decidedly non-combat war time to make the most of a bad situation. It is a behavior that has carried over into their post-war lives in the States: as Jerry puts it to the reader, "... if you play by the rules, you're a sucker."

The pair met when Arnie Sloan was transferred to the QM Battalion, where Jerry was already stationed as a sergeant. Life in the railway junction of Deladun was hot, monotonous and ripe for picking.

"We had warehouses there and plenty of six-ton trucks, and it was a soft deal. Go load stuff off the Calcutta docks, check it in, warehouse it, then either ship it north by rail, or run priority items by truck to Dum Dum Airfield for air transportation or turn it over to a QM truck company."

At first Jerry eyes the newcomer Arnie warily, as he "had a lot of things going on the side" and he kept his guard up in case Arnie was an "I.G. plant." But after a while they recognize each other as birds of a feather and become friends and partners in the art of skimming. "We were both hungry, and for hungry guys that station was paradise."

Their enterprises were aided by the fact that C Company was headed by an indifferent leader, a South Carolinian named Lucius Lee Brevard. Captain Brevard "just plain didn't give a damn, and neither did his lieutenants. The officers kept themselves stoned and ran down to Calcutta to the big officers' club almost every night."

Jerry recalls many of the crooked deals he and Arnie undertook in their quest to acquire personal wealth, including everything from PX watches, to stolen liquor, to a complicated scam involving exchanged missionary bonds. When the money got too big for those small-time swindles, they devised a way to melt gold into airplane parts and fly them over the hump to China for exchange. "You could make 10 percent on your money every trip." At first the pair sent their profits home via "those hundred-dollar money orders you could get." But when their earnings became too great they had to devise alternate methods.

After Captain Brevard crashed his jeep on the way back from Calcutta one evening, a new leader is assigned to C Company. Captain Richard E. Driscoll is everything Brevard is not, and it spells immediate trouble for Jerry and Arnie's money machine.

"He was a little blonde guy with long eyelashes, chilly blue eyes and a way of holding himself very erect. He did absolutely nothing for three days. Just when we were beginning to relax, he made his move. He conducted an official inspection without warning. Then he called a company formation. It had been so long since anything like that, the boys felt they were being imposed upon."

Jerry describes Driscoll's first address to the unit as "G.I. chicken, right out of the book."

"All officers and enlisted personnel are restricted to the company area until further notice... No vehicle will leave the motor pool without a proper trip ticket countersigned by me. All personnel will wear the uniform. There will be a complete showdown inspection tomorrow morning at nine. All non-coms in the three top grades will assemble at the orderly room in ten minutes. Dismissed!"

After a week under Driscoll's command Jerry and Arnie's income is severely affected. They get together and, along with a few of Brevard's leftover slacker officers, devise a plan to slowly drive Driscoll out.

"Arnie summarized it. 'Okay, guys. Get the word around. Whatever you do, you do slow. Whatever can be dropped, you drop it. And follow every order right to the letter. The stuff everybody has been doing as routine, you don't do it unless you're ordered to do it.'"

And within two weeks the company "went to hell." Simple tasks never got done, or if they did they were done poorly. Driscoll soon recognized what was happening but couldn't respond with discipline because no one had done anything technically wrong. Instead of relaxing his grip, Driscoll was "too stubborn to quit" and he tried to be everywhere at once. With no one on his staff he could actually trust, the task of running the company "peeled the weight off of him" and the battalion brass "was on his neck every minute." After a mere seven weeks of this Driscoll was relieved of command.

It only took a week to "break in" his replacement, and by then the boys were back in business.

 When they were finally discharged and sent home, Jerry and Arnie came up with alternate methods of getting their loot home. Jerry converted all of his gains to US currency and hid it inside a hollowed-out wood carving from Java. Arnie had his earnings converted to star rubies and sapphires, put them in the bottom of his canteen, poured wax on top of them and filled the canteen with water. (Sound familiar?)

Once back home the boys use their money to go into business, but in separate enterprises. Arnie now owns a fancy restaurant and Jerry operates three downtown parking lots. Both are married, have remained friends and live next door to each other. And both have continued their "off-the-books" way of life, Arnie by cash kickbacks from suppliers and large, undeclared tips, and Jerry by rigging the time stamp machines at his lots. They are careful about spending too much of their illegal profits and keep much of it in cash, hidden in safes inside their homes.

The story opens after an unusual day at the parking lot for Jerry. He's been paid a visit by a special someone, and when he arrives home he is too upset to eat. He ignores his wife's questions and heads over to Arnie's back yard, where he waits until late in the evening for his friend to come home. He has something to tell him...

Stripped of its background and setting, the plot for "Fast Loose Money" is as old as O. Henry. The ending is fairly predictable and is prefigured in the opening of the story. But MacDonald's background, his character construction and the structure he uses to tell the tale are really terrific. From the opening interaction between Jerry and his wife, to his recollections of times past, MacDonald keeps the narrative going a breakneck speed. At only 3,000 words MacDonald creates several real and recognizable worlds, where the reader can almost feel the tropical Indian heat and smell the backyard cigar smoke. It is one of JDM's better short stories, a fact he himself recognized by including it in his first "mainstream" anthology, End of the Tiger and Other Stories.

Just exactly how autobiographical "Fast Loose Money" is cannot be known. Company C is clearly modeled on the unit MacDonald was originally assigned to once he arrived in the CBI, before being reassigned to the O.S.S. in Ceylon. I've always wondered if the character of Captain Richard E. Driscoll was based on the author himself. His rank was the same as MacDonald's when he arrived in India, he was blonde and blue-eyed like MacDonald, but his height and demeanor are polar opposites to the author's. Although he is hardly a sympathetic character, Driscoll was only trying to straighten out a bad situation, much as MacDonald may have tried to do. One can certainly imagine a young captain arriving in a theater of war, heading up his first command and trying his best to run things the right way, even if it really was nothing but "G.I. chicken." And there were people like Jerry and Arnie in every unit of the war, especially in areas where combat was but a faint sound in the distance.

The bit about the hundred dollar money orders was clearly drawn from MacDonald's own experience. He won a large sum of cash in a "very fortunate session at the poker table with some people heavy with flight pay" and sent it home in "a little sheaf of hundred-dollar money orders." The funds were used to purchase the MacDonald's summer camp on Lake Piseco in upstate New York.

And the attentive reader really has to wonder about that bit with the jewels-hidden-in-wax-in-the-canteen bit. How autobiographical was that? It was easily the most oft-used method of secretly moving ill-gotten riches in the JDM oeuvre, appearing in many different places, including the early stories "The Flying Elephants" and "Sepulchre of the Living," the first Travis McGee novel The Deep Blue Good-By, and a couple of other tales I can't recall to mind right now. Did MacDonald bring anything back to the states that way?

Copies of End of the Tiger and Other Stories are relatively easy to find on eBay or Amazon. MacDonald changed the name of the story slightly ("The Fast Loose Money") for the anthology.

A special thanks to Leif Peng of Today's Inspiration for the scans of the original Cosmopolitan story art, illustrated by the great Bob Peak.

1 comment:

  1. I like this story quite a bit. I found the body of it very amusing, reminiscent of classic military based sitcoms like Sgt. Bilko, McHale's Navy or M*A*S*H*. The end twist caught me by surprise. I should have known better. As you noted, it is interesting to ponder just how much of this may have been autobiographical.