Another busy work week has thwarted my attempts at writing my weekly blog post, so I’m going to punt and post some of John D MacDonald’s own writing.
I’m slowly developing an essay on the next JDM novel in the order I have been covering them. This one requires my normal two readings of the work, in addition to reading the magazine version and, a rarity, watching the film version of the book. It’s Soft Touch and it will take a while before I have anything ready to read. There is an aspect to the novel that was a standard background point in much of MacDonald’s work, especially in his early short stories for the pulps, and that is a character’s military past, stationed in the China Burma India theater during the Second World War. This was, of course, MacDonald’s own past, and he drew on it heavily, even up to the point of the first Travis McGee novel.
MacDonald was stationed first in India and later in Ceylon. He hated India and loved Ceylon. In 1948 he wrote a brief memoir of the island nation (now known as Sri Lanka) in his weekly newspaper column for the Clinton (NY) Courier.
We picked up some students headed down the hill toward the village the other day, and they were talking about various types of summer work and the relative merits thereof.
We were reminded of Ceylon. The army graciously dropped us into that garden spot for a time. It is a fine island. We were particularly intrigued with the type of summer work that many of the students perform.
During the spring monsoon, the heavy rains swell the streams and semi-precious stones are torn out of the mountains and carried down the steep slopes. During the summer months in the vicinity of Ratnapura, in the heart of the gem area, the streams are alive with students picking over the pebbles in search of semi-precious gems. They find topaz, blue and yellow sapphires, cat's eyes and other varieties.
We tried it. The standard technique is to find a place where a stream curves and has thus heaped up a mound of small stones. You make yourself as comfortable as possible and then start picking up likely looking rocks and holding them up toward the sun. You spin the stone in your fingers and, when you get a glint of colored light through it at any point, you stuff it in a bag.
When the day's work is done, you take the stones down to the proper alley in Ratnapura where the grinders work, You have to watch those boys.If you find something good, they are inclined to tell you it is worthless in hopes that you will throw it away where they can pick it up.
We squatted in the blazing sun for about two hours, getting very bored with the whole process of trying to look through pebbles. We must have looked through a thousand of them. Then suddenly one jagged hunk of stone gave forth a little gleam of yellow light when we held it up. We felt like a forty-niner.
Down in that alley in Ratnapura, the boys who do the grinding sit on the ground by a crude looking lathe with a grinding wheel on one end. The motive power is a bow string with rawhide. The rawhide is looped once around the lathe spindle. The bow is shoved back and forth and the grinding wheel is crudely geared so that it spins, of course, in just one direction. The end of the bow is held in the bare toes of the operator leaving both hands free to hold the stone against the wheel.
An ancient citizen took our precious rock, which we were sure was a priceless yellow sapphire, and ground it without ever seeming to look at it. It made us nervous.
Instead of a sapphire, it turned out to be topaz, about fifteen carats. And a darn poor color.
The man charged eight rupees for the grinding operation (About $2.60.) We have our topaz here and it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever -- because we found it.
Had not the army suddenly awakened to the fact that we were in a garden spot and sent along a cruel travel order, we would still be ankle deep in one of those streams near Ratnapura trying to see through pebbles and acquiring a terrific sunburn.
It is our nomination for the perfect kind of summer work.
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Speaking of Ceylon...
Now that we are on the subject, it is a good time to do a sales job.
Go to Ceylon!
India, to the north, is a big, dusty miserable country that gives the impression of being a circus ground the day after the circus left.
But Ceylon is a garden spot. Lord Louis Mountbatten is nobody's fool. When he was the big wheel of the South-East Asia Command, he put his headquarters right smack in Kandy in the Ceylonese Hills.
In India you are expected to at least pick up a smattering of Urdu. In Ceylon it is recognized that Sinhalese is far too difficult to learn and nobody questions some of the British that have lived there twenty years without picking up a word of Sinhalese.
It isn't as hot as India and there are miles of perfect beaches where the white surf comes rolling in and you can, with a little practice, ride a surfboard for a quarter of a mile toward the beach.
For between thirty and fifty dollars a month you can rent a huge "bungalow" on Bambalapitiya Road in Colombo. Another nine dollars will provide a cook, a houseboy and a combination chauffeur-gardener.
For recreation you can play tennis and bridge at the Garden Club, dance at a very svelte nightclub called the Silver Faun, swim at the Hotel Mont Lavinia, shop in the bazaars.
So you see, it's very simple. All you have to do is save up a hundred thousand dollars and invest it at four percent. The income will enable you to live like a little king in Ceylon for the rest of your days, where you will enjoy all the languor of a tropical island plus all the comforts of city living.
I wonder how MacDonald got that topaz home. Did he hide it in the bottom of a wax-filled canteen?