Don Skiles was my dad’s best friend. He died suddenly of a stroke at age 81 last May, and the whole world grew a little dimmer. He was an English professor, and author of one novel, poetry and 4 collections of short stories. I have looked on line for an obituary, but there’s nothing much out there, so I’ll write my own idea of one from my perspective, the kid of his best friend.
Don Moved to San Francisco for the final time, from Pennsylvania, in the summer of 1976, while I was living with my dad during the long school break. Don, his wife Marian and a friend of theirs named Tim who was also an aspiring writer, stayed at my dad’s house for a couple months that summer while they got settled. I must have been 13. That summer was a time of constant uproarious laughter. Don was a lover of words – not just for their meaning, but simply the way they sounded. A funny-sounding word would set him off & his laughter would infect the entire house. Once we were perusing a map of Europe, and he pointed out the town name of Smolensk, which his simply found to be hilarious to say. No reason, just a hilarious sounding word. It was not a surprise to me to see that place-name listed amongst others many years later, when i read this book.
I put on a Firesign theater album one day that he hadn’t head of before, & when they uttered the phrase “Trussrippers will be persecuted,” it put him on the floor gasping for air. I think we all ended up on the floor, laughing with him. I will always cherish this memory of a man who helped teach me to love words and language. Not only did he set an example for me as a writer, but he genuinely and uncritically encouraged me to write, and despite me being a kid, he never treated me like one. Inspired by him, I wrote some poems and character sketches, which he read with earnestness, and once said “I admire your writing.” His influence on me and my journey to create art is incalculable. I didn’t go on to write much, but everything I’ve ever put to paper has a bit of Don in it.
3 of his books are still in print at Peleikenisis: Rain After Midnight, the novel Football and Across The Street From The Ordinary. If you can find a used copy of Miss America or The James Dean Jacket Story, grab them.
This book is about places, and his memories of them. Don has a simple way of telling you how it was, and transporting you there within a couple of paragraphs. I recall him being a massive fan of the Beats back in the 70’s – City Lights is his Sistine Chapel, and is mentioned reverently in a story here. There are also stories about his time in the Air Force in England, visits to Paris, his childhood & college years in Pennsylvania but it’s the stories about San Francisco that transport me in particular, because I was there & he gets them right. There’s obviously a lot of Brautigan in here – in fact, he name-checks him in this book twice. Don is a bit more matter-of-fact, though he possesses the same ability to write an entire novel in 2 pages.
My dad turns up, too. He finishes off a story about his early job in SF in ’62 called On Foot with the final sentences Harry grinned, a grape posied between two fingers. “You fucking English Majors,” He said, and Popped The Grape into his mouth.
I may be biased here, but 5 of 5 thumbs up. 👍👍👍👍👍
I was browsing through my book shelf a while back, and opened up my copy of the long out-of-print Miss America, Don’s first book, and found that he had left me a nice inscription that I had entirely forgotten about. II’ve been meaning to post this here for a while, and was finally motivated to do so by this nice MetaFilter post about used book stores.