Monday, August 27, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 8: December 11, 1947

Another installment of John D MacDonald's Clinton Courier newspaper column. Here we can see what was possibly the first sentiment of dissatisfaction with the family's newfound home town: the local water supply. 

What we are about to discuss is an old and sore subject in Clinton. Many opinions have been kicked around -- but there has been a startling absence of facts to back up these opinions. We are talking, of course, about the Clinton water supply.

In this column we intend to present a few facts. That's all. Just facts. The facts presented have been extracted from an article in the November issue of The Hotel Monthly, which, in turn, was based on a survey report by Edward Engle, a graduate of the Department of Hotel Administration at Cornell.

In Mr. Engle's classification, 0 to 3.5 grains of hardening minerals to one gallon of water results in soft water. Anything over 20 grains of minerals per gallon is extremely hard. The Clinton rating is 39 to 40 grains per gallon. It is a fair guess that there is no other community in the United States with harder water.

What does this mean to you? What does it mean to Mr. and Mrs. John Doe and their two kids in their house on Kellogg Street?

Mrs. Doe knows that she has to use a great deal more soap than her Utica friends. She doesn't know why. Before soap can do a cleaning job, it has first to coagulate and precipitate out the hardening mineral salts in Clinton water. In effect, all the water she uses must first be softened by soap before it can be used to clean. Soap is about the most expensive and least effective softening agent available. Mrs. Doe has to use so much soap to soften the water that it forms unpleasant, sticky curds which float and attach themselves to whatever she is cleaning.

Mrs. Doe has to scrub finished surfaces harder in order to get them clean. the finish doesn't last as long.

Her kids and her guests use cake soap at an alarming rate.

When she rinses her sheets and pillow cases, she leaves a mineral deposit on the threads of the fabric. When they dry she has a harsh rough surface which tends to become dull and dingy. In addition, after the mineral salts dry on the fabric, the threads are weakened and her linens have a short life.

Mrs. Doe has a pretty rough time in the kitchen. The lime action in the water wrinkles the skins of peas and beans and toughens them. The fresh green color of other vegetables is affected. Longer boiling is required and the consequent loss of vitamins and texture results in overcooked food which lacks proper nourishment factors. The tea and coffee she serves are muddy and unpalatable and she doesn't know why. Mr. Doe has long since stopped complaining about the coffee. Her baked goods have a definite texture and taste loss. Her china, glass and silver are dull, spotted and streaked. Her pots and pans have white line rings boiled onto them.

Mr. Doe thinks that Clinton winters are getting colder. He uses more oil every year in his hot water system. He doesn't know that mineral deposits on the inside of his boiler and pipes form such an efficient insulating device that he is losing up to sixty percent of the original efficiency of the heating system. Three years from now Mr. Doe is going to have to replace a lot of pipes. The bill is going to be steep.

The daughter in the Doe family is fifteen. She has hair of that auburn shade which should be very lovely -- full of copper highlights. But when she washes her hair, she rinses it in Clinton water. When it dries, there is a deposit of lime and calcium which dulls those gleams and makes her hair lifeless. The Does don't care. They don't know how good that gal's hair could look.

Mr. Doe spends a great deal of money on various kinds of shaving cream. A tube lasts him about half as long as it lasts his Utica friends. In spite of all the shaving cream he uses, the razor still feels as though someone had used it to sharpen pencils. He goes to work every morning in a foul mood, his face smarting because hard water wouldn't soften his beard.

Mr. Doe washes his own car. But it never looks right. He can't seem to get all the pale streaks off of it. Every drop of water which dries on the surface leaves a pale white ring.

If you happen to meet the Does on the street, ask them about the hard water. They will look a little vague and say, "Yes, it is pretty hard, isn't it?"

Tell them that their life here in Clinton is made bothersome in a dozen little ways by hard water. Tell them that it is a constant drain on their pocketbook.

If they begin to look interested, tell them that there are 700 municipal water softening plants in the United States serving over 940 communities. Tell them that though Clinton has one of the worst hard water situations in the country, we are not one of the 940.

* * *

Ten years ago this week:

Two British Army officers purchased 376 U.S. mules for shipment to India.

Mrs. Roosevelt took Mrs. Doris Duke Cromwell on a tour of West Virginia coal towns and resettlement projects.

At the Empire Cat Club show in Manhattan a rodent owned by a Chicago doctor won a silver cup, 40¢ in cash and a rosette inscribed "Best Mouse."

President Roosevelt asked for 3,000,000 five thousand dollar dream houses, each house to include living room, dinette, kitchen, two bedrooms, tile bath, porch, garage, oak floors, gas stove, coal furnace and refrigerator.

Princess Elizabeth posed with a dog under the shade of parasol held by Margaret Rose.

U.S. Army observers stated that Madrid is proof that bombs cannot wreck a large city.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, August 20, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 7: December 4, 1947

Here's another installment of From the Top of the Hill, John D MacDonald's newspaper column from the Clinton Courier. I've presented the last portion of this one before -- where JDM recounts the family's winter stay in Texas -- with additional background. If you're interested you can read it here.

We'll call this section The Old World -- Glances Over the Shoulder at what was going on exactly ten years ago this week.

President Roosevelt spent a rugged week talking to business men and politicians about the 37-38 industrial recession.

Hirohito, Emperor of Japan, was pleased to call his reign the "era of radiant peace."

Congresswoman Virginia Jenckes of Indiana proposed to the Washington DAR that the Capital's famed Japanese cherry grove be cut down and sawed up for firewood.

The Japanese Second Army was consolidating its gains in Paoting, North China.

In Moscow's Red Square Stalin reviewed 1,750,000 of the faithful and introduced his fifth grade, eleven year old daughter, Svetlana, to the public.

Dr. Arthurs Holley Compton, physicist, obtained first empirical proof of the existence of a gimmick called a "neutrino."

Three hundred and fifty railroad cars and locomotives were torch-cut into scrap near Memphis for shipment to Italy's war machine.

We were enjoying Carole Lombard and Frederic March in Nothing Sacred. Remember that wonderful right cross to the Lombard chin?

* * *

World news of ten years ago has a wry flavor. Thirty million people went blissfully about their business, unaware that the war would pop them into untimely graves. There were enough houses for everyone and five dollars would buy a grocery order that was work to carry out to the car. Let us know if you want this feature continued.

* * *

Last winter we followed the sun to Texas. It was in the nature of a gamble, because the typewriter we took along had to bang out enough saleable wordage to get us back. We were looking for a place that wasn't expensive. Believe it or not, we found such a place and we herewith recommend it to all who wince at the thought of Florida tariffs.

Go to the Hill Country, seventy miles northwest of San Antonio. It is a resort section used by the people from the Gulf cities when the summer heat down there becomes unbearable. During the winter it is pretty quiet and thus accommodations that, during the summer months, rent for two and three hundred a month can be obtained for fifty and sixty. And it is almost as warm as Florida.

We stayed at a place called Bon Aire Lodge six miles from Ingram, Texas, "the only all rock town in the U.S.." They stamp that on outgoing letters. Bon Aire Lodge isn't a lodge. The proprietor purchased the mess hall from a P.W. camp, cut it into pieces and sprinkled the pieces around on a rocky hill. He paneled the inside in Mexican pine and had local stone masons rock the outside.

We rented a cabin that had yet to be rocked. After we were there a week, a truck dropped great slabs of white and brown stone beside the cabin. A few days later some lean and dusty men showed up with chipping hammers and went to work. During the chill of early morning we furnished the coffee.

The men talked to each other in a very normal fashion. "Mistuh Lee, would you kindly hand me that rock?' They has worked together for years and it was still on a mistuh basis.

They sang while they worked. It was a song we'd never heard before. No words to it. A mournful chant, plaintive and haunting.

We were sorry when the cabin was all rocked and they moved on.

This summer, as the FM tower diagonally across the street from us was being built, we were walking near it. Suddenly he heard that same song. We found out the next day that the steelworkers who put up the tower came from Texas.

Last night we looked at the red lights blinking on the tower and thought of that plaintive song. We thought of the live oaks, the hillside goats, the Guadalupe River. We remembered sitting out in the sun in a swim suit while we hacked at the typewriter during February, March and April. We remembered the big-hatted, slow-talking men gathering, with their weathered-looking women at the stone schoolhouse during the evening to play dominoes.

If you get tired of ice and want to head down in that direction, let us know. We'll tell you whom to write to. That is, if you don't mind being envied.

Monday, August 13, 2018

"So Sorry"

Sports Fiction magazine was a fiction pulp begun in 1938 by Louis Silberkleit’s Columbia Publications, a low-rent publisher even in the world of cheap fiction in the twentieth century. The magazine never really caught on and the neglect it suffered at the hands of its owners is evident when viewing its publishing history: only 43 issues of the magazine are known to have been published between 1938 and 1951, and even that’s questionable. It rarely published the same number of issues in any given year, and it shut down completely between 1944 and 1946. I only own one issue of Sports Fiction and just looking at it one can see all the corners that were cut in putting it together: second-rate artwork, messy, uneven printing, sleazy ads -- the kind one never sees in a Popular or Street and Smith publication -- and authors even pulp aficionados might have trouble recognizing.

John D MacDonald wrote three stories that appeared in Sports Fiction, all dating from his early years as a writer, years he was living in Clinton, New York (1947 and 48). The first was a boxing story, the third is unknown to me (at least by the title: “They Never Quit” -- probably a team sport) and the middle one was about golf. These were years when MacDonald was happy to get anything published, by any paying publisher, so he may not have cared where these tales ended up. And given Columbia’s reputation, he was probably paid the rock-bottom rate of a penny a word.

But there’s something about this middle tale -- titled “So Sorry” and appearing in the magazine’s July 1948 issue -- that transcends its sports setting and the cheap magazine it appeared in. Yes, it’s about a golf tournament and the competition between several disparate personalities, told by a non-participating bystander, but the real subject MacDonald deals with here is racism.

MacDonald had done this before in a sports pulp, and for another Columbia title no less (Super Sports), in 1947 with his “Big John Fights Again,” a boxing story featuring a black boxer. I own this magazine (it’s somewhere in the house) but I’ve never written about it. John Dinan, in his excellent 1998 study Sports in the Pulp Magazines, has, and here is what he had to say:

MacDonald’s boxing story in the December 1947 Super Sports was also as good a piece of fiction as one will find in the pulp mags. MacDonald uses terse first-person style to advantage in describing the dark underside of the world of boxing as the story moves toward the BIG fight. “Big John Fights Again” is a story reminiscent of The Harder They Fall and Requiem for a Heavyweight, told from the reporter’s point of view and with a bit of a twist -- the fighter is black. Not wanting to fight, Big John tells the reporter he’s afraid of what might happen to him. The reporter na├»vely responds: “That’s nonsense; people don’t do that.” Big John responds: “Maybe not to white folks,” and proceeds to enlighten the reporter on some hard facts about prejudice.

One has to wonder, was Columbia the only place MacDonald could sell stories with this kind of subject matter? Were they rejected by others before ending up with this publisher?

The setting is the Southland Open, a big, nationally coverd golf tournament played at the Upland Club, in an unnamed city and state. The story is told in the first person by Dave Able, a representative of the Miramar Sporting Equipment company of Los Angeles. Dave isn't there to play golf, he's there to sign golfers to endorsement contracts, always hoping to find a little-known golfer who suddenly breaks big. He's been around the game for a long time and knows many of the regular players.

For readers who don't know the rules of golf tournaments (read: me) MacDonald dutifully explains it all in a long paragraph: Following a qualifying round where the player must score 80 or less, the tournament is played for three days: two days of eighteen holes, the third for thirty-six. Each player plays against one other player, a process chosen by lots. At the end of the first day the high fifty percent of the group are eliminated. The same process is followed for the second day, usually leaving around twenty survivors. After the first eighteen holes on the morning of the third day, only eight players are still standing to play the final afternoon round. First money is $7,500 (around $75,000 in today's money), second place takes $1,750, and so on.

The story opens with Dave attending a get-together in a suite at the Upland Club. Four of the golfers who will play in the tournament are there and Dave briefly introduces each one to the reader.

You know them all. Mart Snyder is a thin, dark, expressionless man with ulcers. He's been on the circuit for thirteen years now and in spite of his dead pan, he's always tied in knots. Harry Crebson is the big blonde guy who started to knock them dead just after he got out of the army. He has freckles and a grin. Hal Lovelord is a Canadian who has a vague expression, a dim wispy mustache and a deadly eye on the putting green. Jimmy Ratchelder is, of course, the plump pink little guy with the shrewd grey eyes who has made more out of tournament golf than any man in the last twenty years. It's a business to Jimmy -- pure and simple... It was practically an even money bet that one of the four in the room would knock off the $7500 they give you for being best man.

There ostensibly to commiserate with a fifth golfer who failed to make the qualifying round that day (and who’s drunk and asleep on a couch), Dave finds the four in what sounds like a serious discussion. An unknown golfer qualified that day with a score (63) that broke the club’s course record. Are they worried about a young upstart who could possibly beat them all in the tournament? Yes, but only to a point. The real problem, at least with Snyder and, especially, Ratchelder, has less to do with how he plays and more to do with who he is.

He’s a Japanese American.

The boys were talking about Tommy Suragachi of Oregon... The press hadn't noticed Tommy, a slim, nervous acting boy, until he had banged out that miracle round of sixty-three... Then the press had picked him up. He had played golf before the war and had been a caddy. He served with the infantry in Italy during the war. He had brought himself and his clubs to the tournament on a bus. He was being staked by a whole bunch of Japanese farmers on the West Coast who had kicked in a little bit apiece. Apparently it was a very little bit because Tommy Sonagachi was living in a down-at-the-heels tourist cabin a mile and a quarter from the course.

Based on MacDonald's physical description of Ratchelder he's clearly the bad guy of the story, and he doesn't disappoint.

"You men better think about the game and what it means to the country... Golf is one of our biggest national games. It will hurt the game and hurt us if a Jap wins a big tournament like this one. It may be that some of the private clubs that have tournaments now will cancel them if they find they've got to put a Jap in the club...If this Sura-something wins they'll have a national holiday in Japan. What the hell was the use of licking them if we've got to make heroes out of them?"

The three others are in varying degrees of disinterest on the subject. Big, freckled Harry Crebson laughs it off, pointing out that “Japs” were pretty handy to have around when he fought in Italy. Snyder and Lovelord emphasize the fact that it is highly unlikely that a young player could win the tournament and that all they have to do to prevent Sonagachi from winning is for them to play their best. But Ratchelder is adamant. He even suggests that the four of them quit the tournament in protest, but Snyder points out that it would only make a martyr of the young man.

"Besides," Snyder continued, "the public might take the wrong slant on it. They wouldn't realize that we were doing it to help the game. They might think we were doing it because we were prejudiced or something. I'm not prejudiced against him."

"Neither am I," Ratchelder said. "I just don't think that a Jap ought to be given a chance to win the Southland Open or any other major tournament. Maybe they should be allowed to play in some of the small city tournaments on the public courses."

Crebson winked at me and said, "Well, to hear that you boys aren't prejudiced sure makes me happy. It surely does!"

The party breaks up with Ratchelder adamant about finding a way to “get to” Suragachi in order to rattle him .

Able drives over to the motel where Suragachi is staying and finds a very nervous young man. Naturally uptight, he bemoans his chances of winning and reveals that he is well aware of the racism he is the victim of.

"I saw the way Mr. Ratchelder looked at me today. And Mr. Snyder. You can tell when people look at you like that. I've gotten used to it out on the Coast. They hate all of us out there. Most of them do."

Able manages to sign Suragachi to an endorsement contract, provided he does well in the tournament.

Of course all four of the seasoned golfers make it to the final round, along with Suragachi, who plays spectacularly despite his obvious case of nerves. And, also of course, in the final round he is paired with none other than Ratchelder, giving the older golfer his perfect opportunity to rattle his opponent with an small act of racism that the observing crowd picks up on and imitates…

“So Sorry” works well on both the level of a sports story and as a tale of prejudice, although it would be too much to ascribe any real greatness to it. Its unusual characteristics and the fact that a heavy subject is dealt with in a cheap pulp magazine story is not completely out of the ordinary. Yet the fact that the editor of Sports Fiction made a special mention of the story’s connection to “Big John Fights Again” on the title page indicates that they knew they had something a bit different in their magazine and wanted readers to know it. I wonder how many other MacDonald stories like this are out there, a serious step up from the average penny-a-word tale, unread since their publication and mouldering away as time slowly destroys them.

“So Sorry” has never been anthologized or republished.

Monday, August 6, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 6: November 27, 1947

Another in the continuing series of newspaper columns John D MacDonald wrote for the Clinton [NY] Courier back in 1947-48, when the family were residents of that town.  In addition to a nice Thanksgiving message (which I have posted before) there's a humorous recollections of John's days in military procurement, his Army job before he was called up to serve overseas in the war. The man he refers to, General Benny Meyers, was Major General Bennett E. Meyers, the number two man in procurement for the Air Force. during the war, and his name came up as part of a Senate investigation into the government's contract practices back then with none other than Howard Hughes. Supervising billions of dollars of contracts for planes and other equipment, "Benny" somehow managed to enrich himself far beyond the means of an ordinary government employee. It was revealed that during the war he was a frequent player of high stakes poker, enjoyed the amenities of many a fine hotel on contractors' dimes, burned through three wives (the third was an "actress" named Ila Rhodes) and owned stock in numerous private aviation companies, all who were awarded contracts during the war. And when he retired from his post in 1945 (earning a pension of $5.500 a year) Meyers purchased a luxurious mansion on Long Island at a cost of $60,000.

In testimony he angrily denied any wrongdoing.

His initial appearance before the Senate committee took place two weeks before this column was published. Meyers may have been a partial role model for Colonel Dolson, a character in MacDonald's 1952 Collier's serial "My Brother's Widow", which later became the 1954 novel Area of Suspicion. Dolson was the on-site procurement officer at Dean Products, a company responsible for the production of top secret... well, if you haven't read the book yet perhaps I've already said too much.

This year, Thanksgiving has given us an oddly uncomfortable feeling. It is a time when, nationally, we shake hands with ourselves in the pugilistic fashion, and consider our multitudinous blessings, with emphasis on the food department.

This year, Thanksgiving is a time when two young American girls lost to their father a forfeit of twenty-five dollars each because they could not stand the official German food rationing system for two weeks.

It is a time when American magazines will go overseas, and they will contain pictures of our healthy families gathered around the well-set table. Remember that Norman Rockwell picture of a family at dinner? It was drawn as a part of that series of four to illustrate the four freedoms. Reproductions of that picture go overseas.

In many prisons where the convicts are permitted to read newspapers, someone goes over the papers first and cuts out any reference to crime. Maybe the United States periodicals that go over seas should have all reference to food removed.

Did you ever open a magazine and look at a color photograph of a great big steak, butter melting on top? We wonder how those advertisements strike such persona as Bill Mauldin's French philosopher— the man who said that a pessimist cuts off the loose end of his belt, while the optimist merely punches new holes.

Our ancestors gave thanks because they fought a wild and alien country with their hands and made the soil give them food. We give thanks because in this strange year of 1947, a blind throw of Fate's dice left us as an island in the midst of war, left us untouched by the hunger, cold and disease that afflict the rest of the world.

We must be thankful, but not complacent. We are in the midst of the second armistice in the war that began in 1914. Somehow, during these years of uncertain peace, we must find the strength with which to protect this way of life which makes our Thanksgiving possible.

* * *

Reading of General Benny Meyers' difficulties reminds us that it is only a question of time until an investigation committee comes boiling up here in black limousines and takes us back to Washington, probably handcuffed to a steering post.

We have a guilty conscience.

We were engaged in procurement activities for the War Department during the early war years, and one of our jobs was to help contractors get their tools and materials in ample time to meet contract schedules.

One Christmas we got a card from a very good shoe company which said that a friend was going to give us a pair of slippers and would we please send along the size. We ran through the mental list of aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and decided that the donor was one of two relatives. We sent the size and a few days before Christmas the slippers came along with a card from the... Corporation.

As they were made specifically for us, we kept them.

But, before we could get accustomed to a wonderful world where slippers fell out of the blue, we were sent overseas. Otherwise we would probably have gone on from slippers to bigger things and would have ended up as sort of a General Meyers, junior grade.

The slippers are still around and when the congressional thumb presses heavily on our doorbell, we will open the door with pallid face, shaking hands -- and the smell of burning leather in the house.

* * *

We have received two letters suggesting that we lean more heavily on this matter of the fifteen cent charge on Utica phone calls. We found out the other evening that once upon a time a petition was prepared, signed and presented to the telephone company.

Apparently nothing happened to alter the rate, but we have been unable to find out exactly what the official response was.

At any rate, the opinion of the telephone company may have changed in the interim.

To those persons who have taken an interest in this matter, it is suggested that they attend the next meeting of the Civic Group, ask Jim Sherman for the floor and move that a committee be formed to look up the response to the last petition and arrange for the preparation of a new petition if deemed advisable.

The Civic Group is the local, non-partisan medium for getting things done -- and as such, should be the mouthpiece for all citizens interested in the betterment of Clinton as a place to live.

* * *

See you next week.