"My Dog Skip" and Remembering Willie
By Jack Bales
My Dog Skip, the motion picture adaptation of Willie Morris's touching, coming-of-age memoir of the same name, had just been released the day before, and I told my children that we would not miss the Saturday matinee during the film's opening weekend.
As the movie began, the camera slowly panned across what is obviously a boy's bedroom, lingering on such youthful trappings as a baseball glove and well-thumbed books. This scene instantly evoked memories of the close, albeit brief, friendship I had shared with Willie (few people ever seemed to bother with his surname). In September 1995 I wrote him what can only be called a "fan letter," asking questions about his widely acclaimed North Toward Home and his many other works of fiction, nonfiction, and autobiography. His immediate reply prompted another question-filled letter from me. More followed, and during the next few years we exchanged hundreds of letters, numerous phone calls, several visits, and even one or two practical jokes. (Overnight guests at the Morris home in Jackson, Mississippi, were likely to find rubber snakes, spiders, and other assorted creatures surreptitiously planted in their beds by their impish host, who often described himself as the "oldest living sixth grader.")
Willie's far-reaching career would take him during the turbulent 1960s to New York City, where he served as the youngest editor in chief in the history of Harper's magazine. His thoughts, however, were never far from his hometown, tiny Yazoo City, Mississippi. "My town is the place which shaped me into the creature I am now," he frequently acknowledged. Each time I visited him he proudly took me on his self-styled "$64,000 tour" of Yazoo City. As we drove along virtually every street and road in his boyhood community, he would talk about his formative years, reminisce about family and friends, and point out buildings, streets, and other touchstones of his youth.
Willie transferred these memories to the pages of My Dog Skip, which was published in 1995. Willie told that he decided to write these recollections because he felt emotionally drained upon the completion of his 1993 New York Days, an autobiographical account of his frenetic and controversial years at Harper's. He wanted to relax by writing something just for pleasure "and what's more fun," he often asked, "than the dog of your boyhood?"
The dog of Willie's boyhood in the early 1940s was Skip, an English smooth-haired fox terrier his parents bought for him when he was nine years old. Skip could play football, go on errands, run the 100-yard dash in 7.8 seconds, and even drive a car (with a little help). But this bestseller which dog owners frequently asked the author to autograph to their beloved pets is more than just a bittersweet tribute to the canine companion of his youth. It is also a memoir of a bygone era of Saturday morning matinees, cane-pole fishing, Nehi sodas, and Fourth-of-July political rallies in a World War II-era small Southern town.
For Willie, these elements of time and place were crucial in filming the movie version of his book. Yazoo City had changed so much over the years that much of the motion picture was actually filmed in less-developed Canton, Mississippi, and Willie was pleased with the results. "I'm grateful," he said, "that the producers paid zealous attention to the spirit of those years in making the details authentic."
As the two of us drove around Canton, he noted that the town retained the anachronistic features he deemed essential, such as antebellum mansions, a square with storefront awnings and a venerable, carefully preserved county courthouse.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of the setting was a picturesque clearing that the movie producers had converted into an old-fashioned baseball field, complete with manual scoreboard and vintage advertising signs. As Willie and I entered this "field of dreams," I spontaneously assumed a batter's stance, pointed skyward- à la Babe Ruth's legendary "called shot"-took a mighty phantom swing, and dashed around the bases. Willie, an erstwhile ballplayer whose cherubic face bore a remarkable resemblance to that of The Babe himself, seemed to take delight in this nonsensical pantomime.
Here, I thought, is one contented man. And throughout our visits, letters, and phone conversations, I discovered (as have countless others) that Willie had an unlimited capacity for kindness and generosity his "great sweetness" was how intimate friends privately described it. He wrote letters to my children on special occasions and shared their grief when their dog was killed by a car; he even contributed an essay to my son's self-published newsletter. A gifted editor and writer, he occasionally read through an article of mine and, like an artist altering the facial expression on a portrait with a few deft strokes of a brush, changed a few words or added a phrase to capture precisely what I was struggling to put on paper.
In November 1998 he and his wife, JoAnne Prichard, drove to Virginia to visit me, where he charmed audiences during public lectures and discussions at Mary Washington College. At that time the cinematic My Dog Skip was, of course, at the center of Willie's stories and anecdotes. He found it fascinating, for example, that makeup is applied on dogs, just as on people. He also revealed that eight Jack Russell terriers (one of which was the well-known Eddie on the NBC sitcom Frasier) were used in the title role, adding that the producers had difficulties finding suitable dogs "who could bark with a Southern accent like Skip."
Though no stranger to Hollywood he was a consultant on the 1996 Ghosts of Mississippi and later wrote a book, The Ghosts of Medgar Evers, about that experience he nonetheless found the filming of My Dog Skip to be especially poignant. "It was déjà vu of the most stunning kind," he said, to see actors and actresses portraying him, his parents, and his childhood friends.
Eyes twinkling, he recalled that when the attractive Diane Lane, playing his mother, asked if there was something she could do to help her more clearly understand her role, he mischievously replied, "Well, I kissed my mamma a lot."
After he and JoAnne returned to Mississippi he wrote me often about the movie's progress. On August 1, 1999, he telephoned to say that they had just returned from New York, where they viewed a preliminary screening. "My Dog Skip is by any measure an absolute classic," he exuberantly wrote me later that evening, "and I know you'll love it. Come here for the premiere. I miss talking with you."
The next afternoon I received another phone call, this one from my editor at the University Press of Mississippi, who told me that Willie had suffered a heart attack earlier in the day. He died that evening, and I quietly made plans to travel once again to Mississippi to be with him.
The movie was drawing to a close. "The dog of your boyhood teaches you a great deal about friendship, and love, and death," Willie observed on the last page of My Dog Skip. As the film's narrator, Harry Connick, Jr., sonorously echoes these words, the camera once again plays across the same bedroom as before. The passing of the years is evident. Although the books and ball glove are still there, other mementos vie for position on the crowded shelves, and a much older Skip laboriously breathes on his master's bed.
We left the theater, blinking not only against the harsh sunlight, but also in response to the memories evoked by Willie's story-and, even more, by the realization of the loss of that friend who made those memories so vivid.
Jack Bales, Reference and Humanities Librarian at Mary Washington College,is the author of several articles on writer Willie Morris, as well as Conversations with Willie Morris, published by the University Press of Mississippi.
Copyright © The Southerner 2000.