Monday, March 9, 2015

Muñequita

Once John D MacDonald began writing the Travis McGee novels in 1964 he went on to produce eight of them over a period of three years before publishing another stand-alone novel. That book was The Last One Left, a terrific hardcover suspense tale that spanned 369 pages and which featured a dedication to a fictional character: Travis McGee, of course. (“I dedicate this novel to Travis McGee who lent invaluable support and encouragement.”) But that dedication wasn’t the only connection to the Fort Lauderdale salvage expert. Readers of the novel in 1967 wouldn’t know it for another year, but a prominent character in the book eventually makes its way into the McGee canon with the very next installment, Pale Gray for Guilt. That character was a boat, named Muñequita, which is Spanish for Little Doll. It went on to become a semi-regular feature of the series.

Readers first meet Muñequita early in The Last One Left, and it is not under good circumstances. The 22-foot T-Craft is adrift in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Florida. From the author’s description it is obviously a special craft.

Under considerably more power this same T-Craft hull design had won some savage ocean races. Fiberglass, teak, aluminum, stainless steel, plastic, perhaps ten thousand dollars for such a special plaything. With the twin Chrysler-Volvo inboard, outboards, 120 horsepower each, she could scat at forty-seven miles an hour, the deep Vee hull slicing through the chop, the wake flat… With her fuel capacity increased by the two saddle tanks to over eighty gallons, at her cruising speed of thirty-two miles an hour, the engines turning at 4500 rpm, her maximum range was almost three hundred miles, without safety factor… She had been bought on whim and loaded with extras -- convertible top… searchlight, rod holders, windshield wipers, bow rails, anchor chocks, electric horn, screens, a transistorized Pearce-Simpson ship-to-shore radio tucked under the Teleflex instrument panel, pedestal helmsman’s seats, two bunks and a head fitted into the small area forward…  The graceful hull was a medium Nassau  blue, her topsides white with just enough trace of smoke blue to cut the sunglare… She had lifted and dipped and danced her way with an agile grace which matched her name. Muñequita. Little Doll.

I’m giving nothing away by revealing that the owner of the Muñequita in The Last One Left does not survive. And that’s where Travis comes in.

The opening pages of Pale Gray for Guilt features a happy McGee, as happy as anyone enjoying a new plaything before the novelty has worn off. Purchased at an estate sale, the Muñequita is carrying its new owner up the coast, from Lauderdale to Broward Beach to visit old friend Tush Bannon.

It's a funny thing about boat names. She had that Muñequita across the stern in four-inch white letters against that nice shade of Gulf Stream blue when I brought her on back to Bahia Mar. Spanish for 'little doll.' One night Meyer and Irv Deibert and Johnny Dow and I sat around trying to dream up a name that would match the Busted Flush. Little Flush? Inside Straight? Hole Card? The Ante? And I forget which one we decided was best because when I got around to changing it, I looked at the name it had and I decided that trying to match it to the name on the mother ship was a case of the quaints and the cutes, and I liked the name just fine. It was a little doll and had begun to acquire in my mind a personality that could very well resent being called anything else, and would sulk and wallow.

The Muñequita went on to become a semi-permanent fixture of McGee’s world, mentioned in all but five of the subsequent novels in the series, and featured prominently in one of them: The Scarlet Ruse. By the time of the last McGee, The Lonely Silver Rain, the boat was almost an afterthought, ignored completely in the two previous books. But in Silver MacDonald seems to have realized his -- and McGee’s -- neglect and puts things to right. He practically has to re-introduce the boat to the series’ readers.

When I had worked out a plan, I hurried back to Bahia Mar and began working on overdue maintenance on my aging runabout, the Muñequita, a two-ton T-Craft with a pair of one-hundred-and-twenty-horsepower stern-drive units. It shares the same slip with the houseboat. Usually I am very good about taking care of my gear, but it had been too long since I had given the Muñequita the loving attention she needs. I had not noticed the five-inch rip in the custom tarp cover near the gunwale on the port side, amidships. It was damp and grungy under the tarp, with mildew thriving. The automatic bilge pump had tried to take care of the incoming rain until it killed the batteries. The tarp was faded, the paint was faded and the white letters of her name on the transom had turned to ivory.


We all do penance in our own strange ways. Mine was to risk getting killed while I paid my dues. By late Wednesday afternoon, the sixteenth, the batteries were up, bilge dry, mildew swabbed away, tanks topped, tarp, mended. I had taken her outside into a pretty good sea and punished my spine and kidneys jumping her head-on into the swells to knock a lot of the accumulated marine crud off the bottom. The Calmec autopilot was working again. The bilge pump was operational, the ice chest cleaned and stocked, the power lifts greased, the lights checked and replaced where necessary. She wasn't at her best, but she was hell of a lot better than before.

If most readers of the McGee novels are unaware of Muñequita’s pre existence outside of the canon, then it’s a sure bet that nearly all of them are ignorant of the fact that the boat had a real life counterpart and that its owner was none other than John D MacDonald. He wrote an article about it in the January 1968 issue of Rudder magazine titled "The Little Doll and the Mousetrap," and his excitement over his new plaything is every bit as enthusiastic as was McGee’s. In fact he blamed McGee for “trapping” him into the purchase.

He writes that while composing The Last One Left he found the plot requiring “a very safe and sturdy little boat… I checked it out with some of those muscular, cool-eyed maniacs who try to knock their kidneys loose racing from Miami to Nassau” and created the fictional Muñequita. Then, when writing Gray he found himself wanting “McGee to have a little more nautical mobility” and had him purchase the boat from the estate. Then the rationalizations began…

Long before I made the acquaintance of T. McGee, I was living right here at the end of a point of land that sticks out into Little Sarasota Bay on Florida's west coast… As a perennial and practiced boat guest, I had no intention of owning a boat of my own until, somehow, I got mousetrapped into it by McGee. If it sounds a little fat-headed for a writer to walk around talking about one of his own fictional characters as if he exists, I think I can best explain that by talking about a bunch of extra-bright highschool kids I agreed to talk to last year. They asked questions. They got into a little argument among themselves because one intense and pretty little gal had spoken of ol’ Trav as if he might very well be in the next room. She said solidly in her own defense, “Travis exists because if Mr. MacDonald didn’t believe in him, he couldn’t make me believe in him!


And I remember how many times the books had come to a shuddering halt when I tried to make the McGee do something that did not seem suitable to him. A couple of times I have tried to imperil him by getting him into some small disaster afloat through carelessness or recklessness, Not him. He is convinced that when anything goes wrong on the water, two other things are going to go sour at just about the same time, so you had better be rigged and equipped to be able to withstand any three things going bad all at once.


So when he mousetrapped me into owning a boat, the specifications took into account not only the McGee Triple Threat Theory, but also the unique characteristics of the water and weather in Florida, and my own special brand of laziness, ineptitude and pattern of living…. After putting her into the hands of McGee and watching the use he made of Muñequita, I began to realize that, insofar as my own use of such a boat is concerned, the state of the art had turned some invisible corner where there is now enough utility in such a craft that it becomes, in this particular area where we live, more than a pleasure boat. Pleasure, yes, but in an increasingly marina-oriented culture, it is also transportation often faster, more effective, and certainly a lot safer than the seven mile trip to town on wheels… Once I had made this rationalization, I assembled a duplicate of McGee’s small boat, and in a moment of promotional self-interest, put the same name on it.

The MacDonald’s moved to their house on Point Crisp Road on Siesta Key in 1952. Point Crisp is a tiny little peninsula that contains no more than a dozen residences, and all are right on the water. The fact that the family didn’t own their own boat until 1968 is a bit of a surprise, but the article goes on to enumerate all of the various uses John and Dorothy would put to the small craft. They could zip on down to Key West, Lake Okeechobee, Biscayne Bay and the east coast of the state, all thanks to the protected Inland Waterway. But not directly to Key West, as MacDonald admits, “I am too much of a chicken of the sea to set out into heavy water.” Or they could “poke around in out-of-the-way bayous and around the mangrove islands and rookeries,” even though this often leads to running aground on the flowing silt, littoral drift, or migratory sand bars.

But for MacDonald the primary “rationalization” is it replacement as a means of travel, keeping him off the roads he grew to dislike the older he got. And here he sounds very much like his fictional creation:


So it sits out there at the dock, and when I have to run into town, it seems safer, more pleasant, healthier and certainly just as fast to go out and cast off and run on up to Sarasota and tie her up at Marina Mar which is right next to the whole downtown shopping area of Sarasota. Errands done, and with a little time to spare, one can run out big Pass and troll a little spoon down the length of Siesta Key, pick up the random Spanish mackerel, and come in Midnight Pass and run north up the bay to the house. When I am idling along I find myself listening for the sound, on shore, of somebody leaving rubber on the pavement just before they gnash fenders with somebody.

Compare that with this passage from Gray:

So I went looking for a boat I could use as a car. I would keep Miss Agnes for back roads and the Flush for open waters, and use the Muñequita for errands, and if I had to have a car, there was Mr. Hertz trying hard, and Mr. Avis trying harder, and Mr. National hoping they'd run each other into the ground. Anything in Lauderdale that I wanted to buy, and I could lift, if I couldn't buy it right at Bahia Mar, I could go off in the Muñequita and buy it. And it was nice to poot along an urban waterway and hear the distant clashing of fenders, gnashing of bumpers, and the song of the ambulances.

The MacDonald’s would reside at the Point Crisp Road house for only another year and a half after this article was written. Their new home, custom built on a then-secluded point of land on the northern end of Siesta Key, was right on the gulf and a small inlet which is now filled. I don’t know if the Muñequita followed them, or if they even had a dock built, but as can be seen from The Lonely Silver Rain, he was still thinking about this fun little craft and was, perhaps, riding vicariously along with Travis as he took the Muñequita out for a long overdue test run:

With an hour of daylight left, and the day growing chillier, I headed down toward Miami, traveling inside. Black leather jacket and watch cap, and the winds of passage strumming the canvas overhead, an NPR station on the FM, speaking mildly of the news of the day on All Things Considered, without hype or fury. The little doll growled along, at the lowest speed that would keep her on plane, white wake hissing behind her. There was comfort in being able to enjoy the boat. I had driven myself hard to get her back in shape. I had sore muscles, barked knuckles, a torn thumbnail and tired knees. Penance. Memory of the rumbling voice of the grandpa long ago: 'Anything you can't take care of, kid, you don't deserve to own. A dog, a gun, a reel, a bike or a woman. You learn how to do it and you do it, because if you don't you hate yourself.'

An out-of-date morality. Anything you don't take care of, you replace. Of course, the ERA wouldn't cotton to Grandpa's including a woman in his list of ownership items. Grandma seemed a happy woman, however.

2 comments:

  1. Fascinating! The Last One Left is one of JDM's best books IMHO.

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  2. Enjoyable read, Steve. You always enlighten me about something related to JDM or TM.

    This is my favorite quote (which I've never read) of JDM, "If it sounds a little fat-headed for a writer to walk around talking about one of his own fictional characters as if he exists, I think I can best explain that by talking about a bunch of extra-bright highschoolers...." I'm usually not agreeing with a highschooler but that young woman reader, well, I agree with her. To me Travis McGee is about as real as he comes and has been for many, many years.

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