I have confessed before in print that I am a cat person, not a dog person. But since I am committed to the twin concepts of equal time and fair play, I'm going to recommend a very good dog book, "My Dog Skip" by Willie Morris. It has just been released in paperback (Vintage, 1996). It's a dog book and a memoir about growing up in Yazoo City, Miss., during the 1940s.
As I read about the wonderful adventures of Morris and Skip, a black and white smooth-haired fox terrier, I was struck by several really disloyal thoughts. Chief among them was this: My cats could never be persuaded to do half the things Skip did.
For instance, Morris taught Skip to play football and drive a car. Yes.
"I cut the lace on a football," explained Morris, "and taught Old Skip how to carry it in his mouth, and how to hold it so he could avoid fumbles when he was tackled. I instructed him how to move on a quarterback's signals, to take a snap from center on the first bounce, and to follow me down the field. 'Look at that dog playin' football,' someone passing by would shout."
Teaching Skip to drive was only slightly more difficult.
"Cruising through the fringes of town, I would spot a group of old men standing around up the road. I would get Skip to prop himself against the steering wheel, his black head peering out of the windshield, while I crouched out of sight under the dashboard. Slowing the car to 10 or 15, I would guide the steering wheel with my right hand while Skip, with his paws, kept it steady. As we drove by the Blue Front Café, I could hear one of the men shout: 'Look at that ol' dog drivin' a car!' "
Skip wasn't Lassie-perfect. He was a good sport, but he had his limits. One day Morris and a buddy decided to play a trick on Skip, who loved above all to fetch. Morris and his friend threw the stick for Skip to retrieve, then hid in a tree.
"It took him half an hour to find us. We watched with superior smirks and stifled laughter as he dropped the stick and roamed everywhere in his search for us, looking on top of the garage and inside the toolshed and in the gullies abutting the alley, even going into Mrs. Graeber's back porch and into her wisteria vines in his quest. When he finally located us in the tree he became extremely angry. He refused to let us out of that tree. Every time one of us descended, he snapped at our feet with his long white teeth. We sought to soothe him with assuaging talk - 'You're a good old boy, Skip' - but we might just as well have been courting Hitler or Tojo or Mussolini. Since no one was around to come to our rescue, we were trapped up there for over two hours until Skip got tired and dozed asleep...."
Skip also liked to run errands. He sometimes wore a small leather pouch attached to his collar. When Bozo at the local grocery store saw Skip come in by himself with a nickel in the pouch he knew that Skip had been dispatched to get the Jackson newspaper. Bozo would roll up the newspaper with a rubber band and Skip would return home with it in his mouth. One day, however, he came back with the Memphis newspaper. Skip was admonished and set back for the right paper. Skip appeared a few minutes later with the Memphis paper in his mouth again. In the pouch there was a note from Bozo: "It ain't the dog's fault. We run out of Jackson papers."
Morris now lives in Jackson, Miss., with his wife and several cats - no dog.
I'm going to guess that even a talented writer like Morris would probably have a difficult time writing another book using cats as his subjects instead of a dog. For, the truth is, cats don't DO much. They don't like football or cars. They have been known to tree animals, but rarely humans. It's very hard to get them to trot downtown and pick up a newspaper. Hmm, I wonder why. Could it be...that cats are much smarter than dogs? And their owners? When I ask Shug to go outside and get the newspaper, he yawns widely, licks his orange fur quickly once or twice, and goes back to sleep.