Don’s Place is off the beaten track. It is considered a locals place. Where one sits quietly and chats with a person on an adjoining stool. Nothing fancy about the bar. A bit on the run down.
The whole world stops into Don’s Place. Everyone. Whether local or a visitor, all with unique backgrounds and stories to tell. Don’s personality contributes to the atmosphere. People drop in to meet the man.
I am frequently excited by those I meet. Such personalities, such diverse backgrounds.
Last night was one of those occasions.
I stopped for a drink. Don and I were chatting. A couple sat at the bar next to me. Immediately next to me. I thought it strange. There were many empty stools. They could have sat elsewhere and enjoyed some privacy.
We talked. They were Karen and Dan from Pittsburgh. Karen and Dan immediately shared with me that they had been reading my blog every day for three years. And that they had read The World Upside Down. That was it! I immediately fell in love with them. It excites me when I run into people who read me. It never fails. I appreciate that people take the time to be interested in what I have to say.
Karen and Dan have been here three months. Renting somewhere near Don’s Place. In Key West till Thanksgiving. Dan is a retired medical technologist. Karen a Shaklee distributor. I sense they will someday move to Key West permanently.
They asked if I knew or was aware of John MacDonald. John D. MacDonald to be precise. He was from Utica. I never heard of him. They thought it strange. They mentioned Savage Arms. I knew of Savage Arms, but again not MacDonald. They mentioned MacDonald was a famous author. Again, I embarrassingly said I had no knowledge of him. I thought perhaps they had the wrong city. It was not Utica.
They mentioned Travis McGee. Who was Travis McGee?
When I returned home, I hit the internet. There was a John D. MacDonald, he was from Utica and he was a famous author. Primarily wrote mysteries. One of his claims to fame was The Executioners. You and I know the book as Cape Fear. Two movies were made. Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in 1962 and Robert DeNero and Nick Nolte in 1991.
Let me briefly share with you MacDonald’s story. My Utica friends especially, take note.
MacDonald’s time on earth was 1916-1986. He was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania. His family moved to Utica when he was 10. His father was Treasurer of the Savage Arms branch in Utica. The family summered at Piseco Lake.
MacDonald graduated from Utica Free academy. Eventually got a degree from Syracuse University and a Masters from Harvard.
He was not yet a writer.
He joined the US Army in 1940. Before the war. Stationed in the Burma-China-India area. He was involved with the OSS. Spy stuff. He went in a lieutenant and came out a lieutenant colonel.
While stationed in Asia, he decided he wanted to write. After discharge, he, his wife and 7 year old son settled in Utica. He gave himself one year to become a successful author. The family lived on State Street. In a second floor apartment of a large house. Money was tough. They were living on his Army severance pay.
State Street had a mill at one end and the new Utica College at the other. The homes in between were then considered middle class. Factory workers primarily. He worked extremely hard in the State Street apartment for four months. Seven days a week. Turned out 800,000 words. Sold only one story. To a pulp magazine for $40. He lost 20 pounds in the process. No air conditioning back then. Between the heat and his work ethic, it is not surprising he dropped the 20 pounds.
He then moved to Clinton, NY. Ten miles outside Utica. Home of Hamilton College. He thought associating with academia would help his writing efforts. It did not. All it did was get him involved in deciding which tea party to attend and listening to college gossip regarding who was sleeping with who.
He then moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico. He had read it was a good place for a writer to work. It was not, at least for him.
He finally discovered Florida. Settled in Sarasota and then Siesta Key. Here he blossomed. Spent his summers at Piseco Lake.
MacDonald captured the sense of Florida at the time. The sense of promise, the breath taking beauty, the languid sleaze, the raciness. The short stories came tumbling out. Followed by novels. Paperbacks. Then hardbacks. He was a success! He wrote 500 short stories and 78 novels during the span of his career. His books sold 75 million copies world wide.
Even today, almost 30 years after his death, his books continue to sell. So much so that Random House is planning to publish all his books again in paperback and e-mail.
How did I miss MacDonald? I lived and worked in Utica more than 70 years. I am sure even my friends are unaware of him. My former community never made mention of him. Even stranger since MacDonald’s contemporary Walter Edmonds of Drums Along The Mohawk fame lived in the Utica area for many years and was part of our lives.
The best thing that happened to me yesterday was meeting Karen and Dan. I am excited they introduced me to John D. MacDonald.
Enjoy your day!
While I’ve only read the Travis McGee series from MacDonald, I’m sure his other works are just as compelling. Do yourself a favor, Lou, and go to Key West Island Books on Fleming St. and pick up the first in the series The Deep Blue Goodbye. I always target a used paperback and I’ve accumulated all but three of them. Each book is truly exceptional, his writing style is similar to an artist’s painting. I wouldn’t be surprised if you got hooked just as I!
Great commentary regarding social issues regarding Florida in MacDonald’s writings. He allows the main character, McGee, to provide his personal views and insights of the time. Strange how many of those observations seem to hold true even today. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the McGee series, plus much more of what MacDonald produced. He left us too early but left us great gifts.
I’m surprised, too, that you’re not familiar with MacDonald! I’m not big mystery fan, either– but MacDonald is a great read. Scott’s description is spot on!
I remember how depressed I was when MacDonald died in ’86, realizing there would be no more Travis McGee. I started reading that series as a teen and read, and sometimes reread, every one. I am still in love with Travis McGee, the ultimate man. His life on a Ft. Lauderdale houseboat sounded awesome both then and now.
I also enjoyed MacDonald’s non-series book Condominium, a fascinating commentary on such Florida issues as corrupt politicians, shady bankers, corner-cutting construction crews, shady real estate salespeople and crooked developers, set at a SW Florida condominium as a Cat 5 hurricane bears down, it’s a wild expose and page-turner.
Happy reading Lou!
I have the whole Travis McGee series! read them decades a go, saved them to read when I hit retirement. I’ve retired – they await!!