the fall of 1954, a member of the University of Texas’ Silver Spurs drove with
a fellow student from Austin to South
Bend, Ind. to see the fighting Irish of Norte Dame take on the UT Longhorns. In
the trailer behind them they carried Bevo,
UT’s 1,600-pound mascot.|
The driver, Dean Smith, was a UT track star who
had won a gold medal in the 1952 Olympics at Helsinki. Smith, now retired and
living on a ranch between Breckenridge
and Graham, went on to become a Hollywood
stunt man who played in 10 John Wayne movies and scores of other films and television
Smith’s traveling companion on the drive to Indiana was Willie Morris.
When I first listened to Smith’s humorous account of that trip, which I’ll be
telling in more detail down the road, it took me back to when I was 20.
Morris in later years|
Courtesy of the Yazoo City Historical Museum
|No, I’ve never wrangled
a Longhorn, but hearing Dean tell the story reminded me of the most miserable
birthday of my life to date. A young newspaper reporter and college student then
living in San
Angelo, I was 200 miles from my nearest family member and sick with the 1968
model virus called the Hong Kong flu. Merely getting out of bed was an effort.|
sympathetic friend did bring me a birthday cake and a card, but I was more concerned
with whether I would make it to 21 than with the fact it was my birthday. The
cake was all I ate for several days, too weak to leave my garage apartment and
way too sick to cook anything. What sustained me nearly as much as the birthday
cake was a book my mother had sent me: Willie Morris’ “North Toward Home.”|
book came out in 1967, the same year its 32-year-old author became the youngest
editor in the history of Harper’s Magazine. Morris’ memoir was engaging social
and political history laid over his evolution as a journalist, first for the Daily
Texan, the student newspaper at UT and later as editor of the Texas Observer.
The book spoke to me, keeping my mind occupied as the virus trampled me like a
riled up Longhorn.
|I obviously survived
the flu, but Morris only made it to Aug. 2, 1999, the day he died of heart failure
in Jackson, Miss. I never got to meet Morris, but Smith and two other good friends
of mine did spend some time with him. Two of those occasions involved the ingestion
of distilled spirits, more on Morris’ part than theirs.|
Speir, a University of Texas journalism graduate who’s done everything from play
minor league baseball in Mexico
to write news releases for the state, was living in San Francisco in the early
1970s. He’s retired now, living in Austin.
One day when he lived “in the city” (as they say in California), Speir
went to a small grocery in the Italian section to buy a certain type of olive
oil. Emerging from the store, he spotted a gentleman well-oiled in his own right.
In fact, he had been overserved to the point of being a clear and present danger
Seeing a stumbling inebriate in San Francisco is not a great
rarity, then or now, but as Speir got a better look at the man he realized it
was Morris. With the sun rapidly dissolving in the Pacific, Speir knew Morris
did not need to be in that neighborhood at night. Especially in his condition.
approached him, spoke to him as one expatriate Austinite to another, and persuaded
Morris to come home with him. A shower, pasta, plenty of coffee and the passage
of time eventually got Morris to the point of intelligent conversation and safe
In the mid-1980s, another friend ran into Morris on his own
turf in Oxford, Miss., where he had gone to write books after his days as a national
magazine editor. Ever the chivalrous Southerner, Morris asked her if she would
like to visit the grave of another notable writer from Mississippi, one William
Faulkner. My friend, a lover of the written word, readily agreed.
grave, Morris brought forth a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. They toasted
Faulkner and talked and drank into the night, though Morris was more prodigious
at both. Before they left, Morris obligingly poured a shot for Faulkner and sloshed
it on novelist’s final resting place.
who knows anything about Morris knows these were not isolated incidents. |
Morris,” the New York Times pointed out in his obituary, “drank too much bourbon
and red wine, smoked too many Viceroys, stayed up too late and caroused too much.”
Even so, Morris managed to write more than a dozen books. Some were better
than the others, but his “North Toward Home” will stand as a solid half of the
two best evocations of Austin in the 1950s and early 1960s, the other being Billy
Brammer’s “The Gay Place.”
Morris was a Southern
writer, not a Texas writer, but those of us who are prideful Texas nationalists
can rest assured that Morris’ Texas years added to the quality of his writing
in the same way that a charred oak barrel helped the bourbon he drank too much
of. A writer’s voice ferments from the sour mash of experience. Morris’ time in
Texas was one of the ingredients of that literary cocktail we call good writing.
Experience, of course, is what we see in the rearview mirror of life. Even in
his early 30s, Morris understood that. “The past is never dead,” he quoted from
“Intruder in the Dust.” “It’s not even past.”
© Mike Cox
27, 2010 column
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