I was maybe 20 when a few of my friends and I decided to pool some cash and rent a beach house on the Gulf for a week's vacation.
The best description of the house was "homey." It was old, and had that lived-in feel, down to plenty of pots and pans in the kitchen and a cabinet containing every spice and seasoning you could want, especially for seafood.
Plus, its bookshelves were well-stocked — mostly with mysteries, suspense, and horror novels, which were right down my alley. And there was a whole shelf of books by an author I'd never heard of. Guy by the name of John D. MacDonald.
Several of his books had a color in their title..."A Deadly Shade of Gold," "The Deep Blue Goodbye," "Nightmare in Pink"...and I discovered these were part of a series featuring sort-of private eye Travis McGee, a loner who tells people his profession is "salvage consultant."
But what he salvages are people's lives. Strangers seek him out, people who have gotten a raw deal when something was taken from them by an unscrupulous bad guy. Like Don Quixote on a white steed, McGee charges forth into the world to right the wrong. Unlike Quixote, Travis charges a fee: one-half of whatever money or property he recovers. The fees go to support his retirement, which he says he's taking "a chunk at a time rather than all at once."
At 20, I liked the fact that McGee was a sort of outcast, a strange dude who lived in a houseboat named The Busted Flush (he won it in a poker game), and drove what he called "the only Rolls Royce in America that's been converted into a pickup truck." A 1936 model, it's nonetheless so well kept up that it "retains the family knack of going 80 miles an hour all day long in a kind of ghastly silence."
But, back to the beach house. Because there were more people than beds, we'd brought an air mattress so we could take turns sleeping on the screened side porch. I discovered I liked the porch, with its strong breeze and stronger sound of the ocean, better than the air-conditioned bedrooms.
My compadres said that was fine with them. So I lay on the porch in each night's darkness, reading every John D. MacDonald book on the shelf, by the light of an emergency storm lantern we found in the garage.
I came home with a craving for more and set a goal of owning a copy of every John D. MacDonald book in existence. This proved harder than I expected, because MacDonald had published millions of words of fiction before he even imagined Travis McGee. So I decided I would own every Travis McGee book instead. In the days before Amazon, this quest involved haunting used book stores from here to yonder, and it took me almost two years to find the full set. And I was one righteously happy young person.
What brings MacDonald to mind is that I was looking through the Carl Elliott Library's online catalog this week and, like magic, "The Deep Blue Goodbye" popped up as available on Kindle.
This was magic because over the years my paperback copies of the McGee series have, through tornado and flood and divorce and other natural disasters, been strewn to the four winds. So I downloaded "Deep Blue" to the Kindle at a speed that would have made Travis's Rolls Royce proud.
I was not disappointed. To say the book has aged well is an understatement. It's still great stuff, grim and violent and funny all at once, demonstrating why Stephen King says of MacDonald (who died in 1986 with 26 McGee books to his credit) "To diggers a thousand years from now, the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen."
During my repeated reading, I realized something I hadn't in the beach house all those years ago: Life imitates art.
At one point in "Deep Blue Goodbye" Travis McGee is describing life aboard his houseboat at night: "Home is where the privacy is. Draw all the opaque curtains, button the hatches, and with the whispering drone of the air conditioning masking all the sounds of the outside world, you could be in a rocket beyond Venus, or under the icecap."
By pure chance, I read this section around midnight in an upstairs bedroom, with opaque blinds shut and the whispering drone of an air conditioner masking all the sounds of the outside world. Even my Kindle was silent, its electronic pages turning with the same ghastly silence as Travis's speeding Rolls Royce.
A mighty contrast with 40-plus years ago, on a cranky air mattress on a porch with the crashing ocean just outside, a storm lantern and the smell of salt waves.
Technology changes, I thought, but can't you turn back its clock? My Kindle’s memory holds a ton of music files, for instance, and I could easily play an hour of the sound of waves washing ashore at Gulf Shores that I recorded, digitally, a few years ago. There's probably a fragrance oil somewhere with a sea breeze variety, and I'm betting there's already a Kindle model that can simulate the crisp audio of an old-fashioned paperback page, turning.
The one thing I don't want to change is John D. and Travis. A thousand years from now, their stories will still be a solid gold treasure.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, books, photos, and radio features are available on his website, http://carrolldaleshort.com". His weekly radio program "Music from Home" airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 and is archived afterward on his website.