Monday, June 11, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 2: October 30, 1947

Here is a transcript of the second installment of John D MacDonald’s Clinton Courier newspaper column "From the Top of the Hill," written back in 1947 when he was two years into his new job as a full-time writer. He reminisces about the war, tells a stale old joke, and opines on local matters.

The author once used Clinton as a model for the fictional town of Dalton in his 1956 murder mystery Death Trap.

The other night we stood on the sidewalk in front of the darkened shops at twelve fifteen, looking over toward the post office. The night was warm and quiet, with no car in sight.

Up over the post office, the windows were lighted and we could hear the hearty, solid stomp of a square dance step -- being done to the tune of "Roll Out the Barrel." Maybe it wasn't a square dance. At least it was something where a whole batch of shoes landed on the boards at the same time with a wonderful, vital thump.

The solid stamping was something in the present -- but the music was pure nostalgia. Maybe we are a sucker for symbolism. That tinny old tune made faraway sounds under the big elms. If the war ever had a universal tune, that was it. A half dozen nations picked it up and used it as their own.

Once we stood at the rail of a troopship and looked down at an Australian dock where the local band brayed and oom-pahed their way through it. We heard an Indian dance band at a swank New Delhi hotel fight their way through it. We heard British troops singing it as they swung down the main drag of captured Bahmo.

It is a song that somehow brings back the manic-depressive unreality of that big fat war. The other night it seemed strangely fitting that it should ring out across our peacetime village square. On the floor below the music were the empty mailboxes which were once cluttered with those stampless letters from APO numbers, from men under strange foreign suns.

It was very nice and somehow very sad to hear that tune the other night.

* * *

We shamelessly borrow jokes and tailor them for out purposes. Here is one.

It was dusk, and there were but a few minutes left to play in the bitter small-boy football game under the lengthening shadows of the elms in the village square.

The score was six to nothing, and Billy, a thin, imaginative boy with a streak of dirt across one cheek was desperately quarter-backing the losing team. Billy's team took over the ball on their own twenty, and as Billy hurried toward the huddle, he heard a deep, hollow-sounding voice just behind him say, "Around left end!"

Billy stopped and turned. No one there! Just for an instant he got the impression of a hulking, semi-transparent figure wearing the nose guard of yesteryear.

He gave directions in the huddle. The ball was snapped. Billy went around left end for a long gain. First down, minutes to play.

As Billy trotted toward the huddle, he slowed down and listened for the mysterious voice from the shadows of evening.

"Around right end!" the voice ordered. The quality of it sent shivers down Billy's spine.

He went around right end for a large gain.

The third time, he stopped and waited for orders. There was but one minute to play. "Right through the middle!" the voice ordered.

The ball was snapped. Billy juggled it for a moment. His line gave way. The opposition came through. Billy was hit and the ball bounced right out of his hands into the arm of an opponent who ran for a touchdown.

Billy stood up. Close in his ear the mysterious voice sounded.

"Oh, shucks!" it said.

* * *

Here is a statement of beliefs, and a guess about the future. We would very much like to join in a few arguments about this subject. We don't yet know enough about it. It concerns the future of Clinton.

Twenty years ago any design for living which contemplated commuting between Clinton and Utica was pretty optimistic. At that time Clinton was composed of two groups: the college and the village.

Now Clinton has three heads: the college, the village and the commuters. It appears that with the increase in the number of commuters, the village and the college have drawn closer together than ever before.

Once upon a time we lived in Fayetteville, just outside of Syracuse. Since it is a bit closer to Syracuse than Clinton is to Utica, its development as a commuter community has been more rapid.

At the present time it is a pretty deadly place. It is deadly because attempts at community integration have been feeble. As far as community unity is concerned, it is quite similar to a New York City apartment building.

We wondered how Fayetteville could have avoided becoming a residential satellite of Syracuse. Our guess is that a concerted community effort to make each new resident feel himself a part of the village structure would have helped.

We feel that Clinton is, in a sense, in the same position that Fayetteville was quite a while ago. The village, as an integrated unit, will be weakened by the influx of people who live here and work in Utica unless they can be made to consider themselves Clintonians who just happen to work in Utica. Every resident who feels that he is a Utican who just happens to live in Clinton weakens community structure, helps to make us a village of strangers and of cliques.

From a practical point of view, we can plan on continued growth, on a continuation of this migration. It can swallow us up. We feel that the answer is to absorb the new residents into community life. It is the best line of defense to maintain our integrity as a separate and distinct place.

Write us some nasty letters, will you? We can be talked out of this point of view -- if your arguments are good.

* * *

See you next week.

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