Monday, July 29, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 25: April 8, 1948

Here’s the next installment of John D MacDonald’s 1947-1947 newspaper column for the Clinton (NY) Courier, "From the Top of the Hill". An article in Life magazine brought back memories of his days in the CBI theater in World War II. I’ll have a postscript after the column.

A few weeks back, Life magazine took a long look at some boys who, four years ago this spring, had a rough time with the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional). That outfit was more popularly known as Merrill's Marauders.

We met Frank Merrill before he received that assignment. We saw him a few times while the assignment was in process.

The Life article made us remember. And we began to think of what North Burma must be like this spring.

Four years ago, it was a busy little place. Engineer outfits, QM truck companies and ordnance groups were grubbing away at the Ledo Road, later to be renamed the Stilwell Road. The Marauders were hammering down through the madly scrambled terrain toward Myitkyina. The Chinese divisions, trained in India, were cluttering up the place. Kachin guerillas, organized and equipped by OSS, faded in and out of the shrubbery. Combat Cargo was airdropping supplies. And, far overhead, the ATC and CNAC ships were shuttling on the hump run to Kunming. And, of course, there were the Japanese.

It must be quiet there, now. Deathly still.

No guns, no planes. The Nagas and the Kachins have it all to themselves.

The road must be pretty well washed out after this past monsoon season. And the leeches will be hungry. Billions of them. Little grey worms, they cling with their back legs to twigs and leaves, waving their front portion in the air. When anything passes underneath, they drop.

Those weird and wonderful names for the little villages in the jungle lived for a short time in history four years ago. They will probably never be heard of again.

Strange names. Tagap Ga. Shingbwiyang. Nsopzup and Sumprabum. Kamjaw Ga and Shaduzup. Tumbuzut and Okkyi.

No decent history of that operation will ever be written. The Marauders restricted their files for the sake of mobility while operating behind Jap lines. A Jap artillery shell scored a direct hit on the mule which carried the few records that were maintained.

On the third mission, the heavy rains and humidity turned all the paper records into pulp. The unit's intelligence officer was killed at Myltkyina and his records were all washed away before they could be located.

But a few things will be remembered. Like Lieutenant Woomer, leader of a weapons platoon who worked himself up within twenty-five yards of a Jap machine gun emplacement, and then, when our mortar fire was a little over, phoned back for them to bring it in about 25 yards, saying, "If you don't hear from me, you'll know you came this way too far. Then shift it back a little and you'll be right on it."

Or Tec. 4 Matsumoto, creeping close enough to his countrymen to overhear the attack orders, and scuttling back in time to warn the battalion.

Yes, it must be quiet in Burma now, up near the Chin hills. The lush, wet, green thickets, once scorched by the flame throwers, raddled by the mortar fragments, have mended their wounds.

The streams are probably still depopulated. The Chinese fished them dry with hand grenades.

But at dusk tonight a thousand billion mosquitoes will be singing shrilly along the Salween. We didn't even make a dent in their multitudes.

* * *

We're all tangled up these days with a pretty strange enemy. In 1940 there was no organized, cellular Fascist Party or Nazi Party in this country. But the phone books of this country list various Communist Party offices.

Naturally, they must have checking accounts and charge accounts, and must prepare tax forms and Social Security forms.

Maybe we're getting too emotional about this thing, but it seems darn strange.

Wonder how many Democratic Party and Republican Party offices there are in Russia. Anybody want to take a quick trip over there and open one up?

* * *

See you next week.

In a letter quoted by Hugh Merrill in his biography The Red Hot Typewriter, MacDonald went into great detail about his dislike of General Joe Stilwell, citing his administrative deficiencies and his total lack of mercy. He mentioned Merrill's Marauders and was much more open about the difficulties they faced.

I read in the papers that someone has asked for a Congressional Investigation of the use this theater made of the long range penetration unit called Galahad, or Merrill's Marauders. They had better hurry and have the investigation because there aren’t so many of those boys left. They were thrown in again and again and again long after any sane field commander [referring to Stilwell] would have removed them for a rest. They were decimated by the Japanese and by disease. They performed unbelievable feats of marching and fighting long after they were thoroughly “browned off” by a commander that apparently had no regard whatsoever for their welfare… The true story of the blood, sweat, tears, madness, dysentery and cruelty of [those troops] will never be written. They were abandoned in the face of the enemy and left to fight over their destiny. There are damn few of them left.

Monday, July 15, 2019

New Hero Debuts in 2 Paperbacks

John D MacDonald was a well established author by 1964 when he began the Travis McGee series and he had a bit of a following among the book critics of the era. His most reliable champion was Anthony Boucher of the New York Times, whose Criminals at Large column almost always mentioned a new JDM title, beginning all the way back to 1953’s Dead Low Tide. Other pre-Travis fans included Clarence Petersen of the Chicago Tribune, James Sandoe of the New York Herald Tribune, and syndicated critic John R Breitlow.

When the first two McGee books were published Breitlow wrote a column where he showed both his familiarity and ignorance of MacDonald’s work, an unfortunately common affliction. Transcribed below, Breitlow astutely notes McGee’s similarity to previous JDM protagonists, but makes an erroneous generalization about the setting of the pre-McGee work (they were not “mainly” set on the east coast of Florida, or even in Florida itself) and ends with the most tiresome of all complaints about MacDonald, that he was “too good” to be writing such drivel and needed to work on more serious stuff. Had Breitlow never read books such as Slam the Big Door, The End of the Night, or A Key to the Suite?

This column appeared in papers nationwide and was transcribed from the Winona [Minnesota] Daily News. The headline read “New Hero Debuts in 2 Paperbacks”.

THE DEEP BLUE GOODBYE and NIGHTMARE IN PINK, by John D. MacDonald. Gold Medal Books, 144 pages each, 40 cents each.


The world of John D. MacDonald is a limited but fascinating one. Located mainly on the east coast with Florida as its base of operations, it contains large numbers of motels, modern offices and high-rise apartments, plus a proponderance of expensive boats. It is peopled by very worldly individuals, being mainly virile heroes, sinister villains, and attractive heroines with a tendency to meet a violent end.

Few of MacDonald's works begin life in hard cover, but they are found in profusion on thousands of paperback stands. Although their specific ingredients vary in fascination and timely detail, their general pattern has a consistency not unlike the great "Chateau - bottled" wines of Bordeaux.

A literary connoisseur might object to such a comparison on the qualitative level with considerable justice, yet the comparison is apt. MacDonald fans who regularly invest small sums at the newsstands of bus depots, drug stores and hotel lobbies, know exactly what they are getting and tend to like it just that way, to judge from the volume of sales and regular appearance of new titles.

Over the years, there has been such a similarity in John D. MacDonald's heroes that he has now taken the logical step which will save him inventing a new name and background every three months - he has inaugurated a series, having settled upon the name and character of Travis McGee.

Anyone who has read more than two MacDonald books has already met McGee. He lives on a lavish houseboat which he won in a poker game. He makes a precarious living by robbing thieves for a 50 per cent commission in an aura of slightly tarnished knight-errantry. Experienced with fishpole, fists and charm, Travis McGee is generally admired by women and respected by men. Some might call him a bum and others might label him the product of his age. Both would be correct.

John D. MacDonald introduces Travis McGee to the paperback world in two volumes which appeared on newsstands almost simultaneously: The Deep Blue Good-by and Nightmare in Pink. While usually strong on titles, MacDonald appears this time to have submitted to a publisher's whim. The only apparent reason for these colorful allusions is to justify the books' front covers, tinted to match the otherwise obscure titles.

The Deep Blue Good-by finds McGee helping two pleasantly - formed highly dissimilar females who have suffered damage to both purse and pride at the hands of one Junior Allen, a sinister character with muscle, sex appeal, a large cruiser, and the hidden charm of an angered perverted cobra. The loot involves some precious stones smuggled out of the Orient in the Second World War.

This particular crusade confronts Sir T. McGee with a successful New York contractor, a Texas playboy heading for destruction, and a motley gathering of young people whose quest for kicks lands them in troubled West Indian waters. (MacDonald's opinion of the adolescent generation is even lower than they warrant, if that is possible.) Also up for consideration is the author's rather philosophical treatment of what might be called the “Bunny Syndrome," rather harsh but not unfriendly view of the modern playgirl.

Nightmare in Pink, the second of the Travis McGee series, removes the kindly boat bum from his marina and sends him to New York to help the younger sister of a permanently disabled Korean War buddy. McGee falls for the girl (MacDonald is rarely above allowing his heroes to tamper with his heroines) but for reasons unclear they decide to go separate ways.

Nightmare in Pink actually has some frightening aspects to its plot, which involves the use of neurological drugs and surgery to control some large family fortunes and eliminate anyone who stumbles onto the scheme. McGee himself barely avoids this fate and in making his escape from a "Rest Home" of fiendish design, inserts a schizoid drug into the staff coffee maker. The results would be funny, if the clinical detail wasn't quite so realistic.

These columns have previously lamented the fact that John D. MacDonald obviously chooses to grind out this sort of thing when he could be doing something better. We consider him a good writer, and wish he would hurry and make enough money from his paperback empire so that he could quit being a hack. Until that time, we will, like Ian Fleming proclaims on the cover of one of the first Travis McGee books, automatically read everything John D. MacDonald writes, Everyone, it would seem, has his weaknesses.

Monday, July 1, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 24: April 1, 1948

Here’s the next installment of John D MacDonald’s 1947-1948 newspaper column in the Clinton Courier.

Students of MacDonald’s short fiction will immediately recognize the setting of the first few paragraphs. Twenty-three years later the author used it in his short story “Woodchuck,” which appeared in the 1971 anthology S*E*V*E*N.

A myth is exploded:

Way back when each week consisted of seven Saturdays, and there was always sunshine, we went out with the grandfather we once had near a fabulous village named Orangeville while he shot woodchucks with great efficiency and dispatch.

The excitement of the gun and the hunt and the sharp crack of the shot was all very fine, but in a sense we felt we were betraying something by being a party to the slaughter of a superb animal.

It wasn't manly to mourn the stricken 'chucks, but we did. Secretly. The books of childhood had pictures of him on many pages -- sitting erect and wise, looking for his shadow, predicting the weather.

We suspect that our grandpop was killing off our furry friends.

Last week when the kids left for school one morning, they paused to report some sort of a beast down in the concrete hole by one of the cellar windows. We hurried through coffee and went out and took a look.

At first we thought it was a 'chuck. He wasn't very big, and he looked pretty calm and quiet. The cellar hole isn't deep, so, for his convenience a flat board was obtained. As soon as the board was within six inches of him, he pulled his underjaw out of the way and, using some large upper-story teeth, he hit the board like a striking snake, knocking off one large splinter and nearly knocking the board out of our hands.

He continued to hack at it while we put it in place. And then, even when he was left alone, the darn thing wouldn't climb out.

As a bit of further assistance, we dropped a small cardboard carton in there with him. He hacked at the carton like a crazy goldminer attacking a mountain with a pickaxe.

With a ski pole we attempted to urge him up the improvised ramp. He grabbed at the ski pole in his front paws and made four or five determined chompings at the metal part of it, removing some enamel from his teeth.

It was then and there that we decided that he wasn't a 'chuck. First, he had a foul disposition. Second, he was stupid. Everybody knows that 'chucks are amiable and intelligent.

After a time, Charlie Locke appeared, bearing the usual stack of disappointments from our editor friends. We asked him to take a look.

"Woodchuck," he said without hesitation.

Herewith we furnish readers of the Courier with a method for removing 'chucks from cellar holes. (A) Place carton on side near 'chuck. (B) Slap 'chuck into carton with board plank. (C) Tip carton over onto its bottom before 'chuck can scramble back out. (D) Make threatening motions with plank so he won't climb out while other party gets something flat to cover the top of the carton. (E) Lift out covered carton, and do not permit the 'chuck to take a hack at your hand or he will remove fingers at random.

It is only fair to add that Mr. Locke performed the more risky portions of this procedure.

Liberated, the 'chuck waddled off across the Saunders' Strip without a backward look.

This buildup that has been given the character of the woodchuck over the years is completely fallacious. The 'chuck is an evil little animal with a filthy disposition. If he ever climbed out of his hole and saw his shadow, he'd bite a hole out of it. He is so stupid that he couldn't get himself out of a cardboard box if the directions were printed on the bottom. Also, once you do him a favor, he ungraciously ignores you.

A week ago last Tuesday, hoping to arouse professional interest, we told Dr. Francis about the 'chuck leaving tooth enamel on the ski pole.

"Bring him in,” said Dr. Francis without hesitation.

* * *

Things we learned on Easter Sunday:

We learned the following from a CBS program, largely wire-recorded, called "Our Northern Exposure" and dealing with Alaska.

There are less people in the Territory of Alaska than in Utica. There is no rail connection with Canada or the States. There are no surfaced roads. Military officials on the spot consider our defenses inadequate. Siberia is minutes away. Forced labor in Siberia has been constructing airfields and military installations. Alaska is the ideal base for the bombing of our industrial centers.

Alaska is the frontier we have in common with our enemy in the Cold War.

A common frontier is the logical jumping-off spot in case of conflict. Not only are we unprepared to do any jumping-off, we are unprepared to hold what we have.

It is silly to think of the Atlantic as being between us and Russia.

In Alaska we sit in each other's laps.

Ant they, on the roof of the world, hold aces -- back to back.

* * *

See you next week.