William "Chip" Hilton felt as though all the scrubs and half the varsity were using him for a pillow. He could scarcely breathe, but in spite of his discomfort, he felt a glow of satisfaction. The football was safely cradled against his ribs.
These were the first of some one million words that Clair Bee wrote in his series of Chip Hilton books for boys. Touchdown Pass. Book One. I began reading it on Christmas Day 1959, when I was 10.
Ah, Chip, where have you gone, you and your great natural talent? And where's Speed Morris, your mercurial sidekick with the beat-up jalopy? And Soapy Smith, your redheaded, joking-through-thick-and-thin comrade? And Biggie Cohen, the first baseman with ham hocks for hands?
And where, oh where, is Hank Rockwell, that tough but warmhearted coach of football, basketball, baseball and life's lessons, a man who was equal parts Rockne, Landry, Shula and saint.
Excuse me, please. Very out of date of me to be pining for storybook characters. Unhealthy. Suppose my sons were to find out? But they were there once—alive on the pages and in my imagination. Now they're gone, and I watch Jimmy the Greek on TV. Coach Hank Rockwell would not have liked Jimmy the Greek. Would have reminded him of the "element" that Chip and Rockwell had to deal with in Pitchers' Duel (Book Six).
The time has come to reveal who I am. I think of myself as the world's greatest expert on Chip Hilton books, which might not get me a tumble in The New York Review of Books or a table at Elaine's, but at least it means something to people my age. A college friend once challenged my supremacy during a late-night literary discussion that was fueled, as I recall, by a case of Colt .45. The clincher was this: he could name the "touchdown twins" in Triple Threat Trouble (Book 18), but he didn't know which twin ran to the left (Eddie Aker) and which to the right (Jack Jacobs). I did. My title was secure.
My generation, born in the late 1940s, was the last to buy (or ask for) the Hilton books that Bee cranked out in the 1940s and '50s. We were the last of a breed, too, because the Hilton series was the last of its kind, the final representative of what might be called the Frank Merriwell genre, which is now deader than the d.a. haircut. Under the name Burt L. Standish, Gilbert Patten began writing Merriwell stories in 1896 for Street & Smith, a leading publisher of dime novels and nickel magazines. During the first 20 years of this century, his stories were more widely read than any others for boys, and "Merriwell finish" entered the language as a stock description for a dramatic ending to a game.
After Frank Merriwell became "too old," Patten embarked on a Dick Merriwell series, made possible by the discovery of Frank's half brother, a contrivance that would have made James Fenimore Cooper cringe. Similar series followed (Dink Stover by Owen Johnson was one of the most popular), including the Gary Grayson and Baseball Joe books churned out by the Stratemeyer syndicate, which later produced the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and other successful juvenile novels. The Hilton books and the 11-volume Bronc Burnett series, written by Wilfred McCormick, were the last of the athletic breed that started with Frank Merriwell.
You can't get Chip Hilton books anymore. The 1979 edition of Books in Print lists only one title by Clair Bee, and that is Make the Team in Basketball, one of 19 technical books on sport also written by the former Long Island University basketball coach. The Strand Book Store in New York City, which specializes in out-of-print volumes, has none of the Hilton series on its shelves. Bee himself used to have about 500 Hilton books lying around, but after years of lending them out here and there, he doesn't even own a complete set. About the only place to find a Hilton book now is at a flea market, among old National Geographies.
I therefore sense the importance of the moment. This may be the last piece ever written about the Chip Hilton books. It may also be the first, because Chip never spawned a cottage industry of nostalgic scholarship like that which grew out of the Merriwell stories. Grosset & Dunlap, which published Chip Hilton and Bronc Burnett and a lot of other juvenile sports fiction, no longer employs any of the editors who worked on the Hilton books, can't remember who they were and, frankly, doesn't seem to care very much. Obviously, Bee doesn't mean as much to Grosset & Dun-lap as Ernest Hemingway does to Scribners. And no one at G&D seems able to explain precisely why Chip Hilton and boys' sports books in general are a dead issue while the Hardy Boys, abetted by their TV series, are thriving to the tune of $5 million in sales each year. To be fair, it must be admitted that Dave Lande, vice-president of special marketing for G&D, does have a theory. "Kids don't read sports fiction anymore," he says, "because they get real athletes on television. Their interest today is in the stars. The real-life stars. Like O. J. Simpson, people like that. They don't want to read fiction."
My set of Hilton books, all 23 of them, occupies a featured place on my bookshelves. Perhaps they look a little out of place nestling as they do next to a copy of Martin Esslin's The Theatre of The Absurd, but not really, not in a collection that places Ball Four above Lord Jim. Besides, if you're going to say things like "Don't you think Artaud is fantastic?" and then snicker at Touchdown Pass, I don't want you looking at my books. Modern drama was college. Hilton was boyhood, for gosh sakes, as Chip used to say.
Ah, those hours with Chip. Until I was 17 and entered a period of intellectual snobbery, I always had a Hilton book stashed in the bathroom, which, as we all know, is where the real reading material is kept. Twenty-three books and five or more readings of each. Is it any wonder I can tell you without looking the starting lineups of Chip's high school and college teams? In all three sports.
I've tried to imagine the Hilton series with "contemporary themes," a kind of The Young and the Restless set in a gymnasium. The star basketball guard getting the captain of the cheerleading squad pregnant, for example. (That was the subject of a White Shadow episode last season.) Or the menacing linebacker with a big Quaalude problem. Things that Hank Rockwell never had to deal with. But, then, with those kinds of themes you wouldn't have a Chip Hilton sports series. You wouldn't be merchandising what G&D and those other publishers were selling in those old books—heroism. Sure, O. J. Simpson was a hero, but he took his heroism to the marketplace. We saw him on the field, but we also see him running through airports and we see him on The Dinah Shore Show. William (Chip) Hilton, who never had a tax shelter in Florida, was—is—a hero for all times.
At some points the Bee books flirted with issues. Hoop Crazy (Book Five) was about a white town's reluctance to accept a black basketball player. Tournament Crisis (Book 14) had a similar theme—Occidental prejudice against an Oriental player. Ten Seconds To Play (Book 12) involved a football player's psychosis, the manifestation of which was his inability to catch the slant-in pass. And to Bee's credit, Hilton's team occasionally lost, although all manner of extraordinary stuff had to occur for that to happen. Like a swinging bunt hitting a pebble and rolling back into fair ground in Pitchers' Duel. Or a player on the opposing team kicking the ball away from Chip's team for a safety in Triple Threat Trouble. Or the alltime classic: a basketball deflating on the rim in Hoop Crazy.
But the essence of the series was that a champion like Chip will usually win...and that he will usually do so in the final seconds. That is good heroism and good sports fiction.
My desire to talk to Bee, the man who had woven this spell of words over me many years ago, came suddenly one afternoon last year. For a long time I had assumed that he was gone, like my boyhood reading habits. But the LIU athletic office told me that he was living in Roscoe, N.Y., a village in the foothills of the Catskills not far from Kutsher's resort hotel, with which Bee has been associated for a long time and where he often coached in the off-season. Campers at Kutsher's Sports Academy, in fact, now play basketball in the Clair F. Bee Fieldhouse.
It took me a long time to get around to dialing Bee's number. A phone call across the miles is no problem, but one across time is something else again. We've all made one: "Hello, you'll never guess...I was just thinking when..." and it usually doesn't work out. And why was I making the call? To find again the secret spot in my imagination where only the Hilton books could take me? Or was it to recapture the essence of a simpler time, of which Chip Hilton was a part? That was it. I couldn't go back to Cub Scouts or dance cheek-to-cheek in the gym or talk to my friend who died in Vietnam, but I could talk to Bee, this fink to my boyhood. Was that fair—to intrude on his privacy to recapture a bit of my own? And what if he disappointed me? What if he was too old now and remembered very little of the Hilton books? What if they weren't very important to him? What if he said, "Oh, the Hilton books? I just wrote them for the money." It was with the you-can't-go-home-again leitmotif running through my brain that I finally dialed the number.
"Is this Clair Bee?"
"Yes, it is," a thin voice on the other end replied.
I suddenly recalled the story of Budd Schulberg and F. Scott Fitzgerald. One day in Hollywood the young Schulberg, who had long worshiped Fitzgerald's writing, found himself unexpectedly working on a script with his faded idol. His first words to Fitzgerald were, "Oh, I thought you were dead." I didn't blow it quite that badly, although I did tell Bee, "I was surprised to find you." But I quickly recovered and asked him if I could visit him. "Sure thing," he said. "I'd love to talk about the books. Why don't you come up?"
Chip and his freshman pals could have warned the eager athletes that Henry-Rockwell was a Simon Legree when it came to mastering athletic skills, that every minute of every practice session would be grueling work...Rockwell's voice was sharp and strong and came clear as a bell to the spectators in the bleachers as he counted for the hard-running shooting drills: "One, two, and up! One, two, and up!"
—BACKBOARD FEVER (Book 10)
"Yes," Bee said with a smile that came from long ago, "Rockwell was me. I was the coach. Not exactly, you know, but I had myself in mind. I guess I couldn't help making it that way."
We were sitting at the C.B. Ranch in the hills near Roscoe. It was a bright warm day but it was dark in the house, and Bee was wearing a sport coat and sweater. His blood was very thin, he said. He was still not quite sure why someone would travel more than a hundred miles to talk about the books he had written so long ago, but he was glad to talk and the memories came tumbling out. He said it was better for him to talk because he could hardly see. He was 83—an old 83.
But the mind, ah, the Clair Bee mind, was still razor-sharp. No, he can no longer dash to the blackboard and instantly sketch a winning game plan—something he was known for at LIU—but he can still talk basketball for hours, his knowledge of the basics cutting across the decades since he was an active coach. He was, in fact, currently working on a five-part instructional basketball series for Medalist Industries, sending out cassettes of what Rockwell used to call "chalk talk."
Many have called Bee the greatest basketball mind ever, so it was natural that he would take himself as the model for his fictional coach. He probably never met a better one. He coached many sports, although he is best remembered for his basketball teams at LIU from 1932 to 1951, where he once won 43 straight games over two seasons. In more than 20 years of coaching basketball at Rider College in New Jersey and at LIU, Bee won 82.7% of his games, the best percentage ever. He originated the 1-3-1 zone defense, and his suggestions led to the three-second rule. Bee claims to have thought up the 24-second clock, too, though Danny Biasone, the owner of the Syracuse Nats, is generally given most of the credit.
The dates and characters of the Hilton books were rather fuzzy to him now but Bee tried to sort them out.
"I remember that I wrote the first book as a novelty," he said. "A friend of mine said to take it over to Grosset & Dunlap and let them look at it. They liked it right away, but they wanted a series. So I wrote two more for them, one for each sports season. From the beginning, they sold like crazy.
"The inspiration to write came from those 5¬¨¬®¬¨¢ paperbacks. I was brought up on them. Nick Carter was one set. Frank Merriwell. God, I loved those. Then Dick Merriwell. I read them all. I'd read all night. I'd take a candle or lantern and put it by the side of my bed."
I hadn't needed a candle, but I told Bee that I sometimes read his books all night, too, sneaking into the bathroom and sitting on the commode so I'd have an excuse if a parent came investigating.
"You don't say," Bee said. "Why, that makes me happy. Very happy."
Only one rock has been thrown. One of the younger boys had hurled wide of the mark and the rock had skipped ahead of Chip and bounced down the street. Chip had not turned, nor had he quickened his pace. A shower of rocks would not have accelerated his deliberate withdrawal.
Bee was born near Clarksburg, W. Va. and raised in Grafton, a mountain town. About 10 miles away was the town of Valley Falls, which Bee took for the setting of the first eight books in the series, the ones in which Chip attends high school.
"Out behind the mountain was a level place near the Monongahela River we called Big Rock, and that's where we used to swim and play. You really weren't called a man until you dived off that rock," Bee said. "My outfit was the Hill-toppers. We'd have gang fights and chase each other with rocks. I was the leader, even though I was one of the smaller ones. I'd place rocks by certain trees so we'd know where to get supplies if we got attacked by another group. That's the way it was. It wasn't easy."
Bee had his own boyhood in mind when he wrote the high school part of the series, but he did a remarkable job of keeping regionalism out of the books. I always had a vague idea that Valley Falls was in Connecticut. One of my friends thought it was in Michigan, and another thought it was in California, although he had some difficulty explaining the blizzard in Hoop Crazy.
"I didn't know whether I could tell a mountain story," Bee said, "because then I'd have to get into all the characteristics of the mountaineers, which is very difficult because of the language and so forth. So I tried to make Valley Falls sound like it could be anywhere."
Anywhere was the setting for Chip's heroics at State College, too. Because Bee spent most of his life on college campuses, he had little trouble creating that atmosphere. All the stock characters are there—the nasty coaches who served as a foil to Rockwell, the intruding alumni and parents from whom Rockwell would take "no guff," the good-hearted but often overbearing members of the booster club, etc. Bee knew these people and he used them well. It is revealing that Bee chose a quiet small-town setting for State College, though he had spent most of his college-coaching career in a big city. Before he married, he lived in a hotel in New York, and it was in the bright spotlight of Madison Square Garden that LIU won its greatest victories. But it was also there that the shadow of the college basketball scandals of the 1950s fell on LIU, and it was toward a less complex college life that this mountain boy from West Virginia aspired.
"I always dreamed of being a college president, maybe at a small college," said Bee. "And I would've been a good one. I know I could raise money. I was comptroller at LIU, and I was comptroller and assistant to the president at Waynesburg College [back in the '20s, while he was still a student at the Pennsylvania school]. I knew all the angles. Of my ambitions in life, I think I made most of them. All except that one."
"Who's that guy? That 44?"
"That's Hilton! All-State! Best quarterback in the country!"
"You can say that again! Kicks off, makes the tackle, recovers the fumble, and passes for a touchdown!"
"And kicks the goal! He's terrif!"
—A PASS AND A PRAYER (Book Seven)
It was from his coaching experiences rather than from his boyhood that Bee drew the character of Chip Hilton. Bee's model was Bob Davies, a great all-round athlete for Seton Hall when Bee was coaching at LIU.
"I used Bobby as the hero," said Bee, "because I think that's the best way to write—to take a living person. I admired Bobby very much, even though I didn't coach him. Bobby's teams never beat us, but I respected and admired him."
It is even possible that the whole idea for the Hilton series arose out of the 1941 National Invitation Basketball Tournament in Madison Square Garden. Davies' Seton Hall team brought a 43-game winning streak into the semifinals against LIU, but Bee ordered his players to double-team Davies, and the other Seton Hall players couldn't pick up the slack.
"I told my players to talk to him all the time," Bee said, describing a bit of strategy that Rockwell undoubtedly would have considered unsportsmanlike. "You know, 'Shoot, Bobby! Dribble, Bobby!' Things like that. No profanity, understand. I didn't tolerate that. But I think it got to him a little bit, and we held him down." With Davies scoring only four points and eventually fouling out, LIU won 49-26 and went on to beat Ohio 56-42 in the finals.
Because Davies was the fair-haired boy of New York City basketball, the press criticized Bee for his team's street-smart tactics. Reporters claimed the LIU players had sworn at Davies in an effort to rattle him. Davies defended Bee and later wrote him a letter saying that he held no grudges and that everything in the game had been aboveboard. It was the poise Davies displayed in that game and afterward that moved Bee some years later to choose him as the model for Chip Hilton.
Davies didn't discover that until the series had long been a huge success. "I stopped in to see Clair on a business trip in 1957," says Davies, who now lives in Coral Springs, Fla., where he is in sales and promotion. "He gave me one of those books for my son, Jimmy. It was a football story. I had heard of the books, but I'd never heard anyone make the connection between me and Chip Hilton. I remember reading a chapter or two of the book, but I can't recall which book it was. It's kind of strange, isn't it, that I've never read an entire Chip Hilton book? But I was too old for them by then."
Davies was an ideal model. He starred in four sports at John Harris High School in Harrisburg, Pa., and the Boston Red Sox had signed him to an option contract. But after two years at Seton Hall as an All-America guard, Davies could write his own ticket in basketball and, after four years in the Navy, he went on to play 10 years in the NBA with the Royals. He's enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., as is, of course, Bee.
"Clair was the smartest basketball mind that ever lived," says Davies, whose respect for Bee parallels Chip's for Rockwell. "Hank Iba, I think, was second, but Clair was far and away the best. You know what he'd do? If he got behind in the first quarter, at the start of the second he'd put in the scrubs and take the first five into the locker room and, on a blackboard, run through what everybody had to do. And that was that. When they came back out, they were in charge. The game was over, period."
Oddly, I had come across a picture of Davies in his Seton Hall uniform a few years ago, before I knew about the Hilton connection, and I was struck then by how closely he matched the description of Chip that Bee had so painstakingly rendered in each of the books: tall, blue eyes, blond hair, wide sloping shoulders. Both Davies and Hilton were Golden Boys.
The fact that I was drawn to the Hilton character isn't surprising, I suppose. Athletically, Chip was everything I wanted to be but wasn't. As a football player at Valley Falls, he started out as a fullback in the single wing. By Chapter 3 of the first book Rockwell had moved him, inevitably, to quarterback in a T formation. From there, he ran, passed and kicked like no one since...well, since Merriwell. In basketball, he was a center in high school and later a forward, but he became a big guard in college. His main problem there, as you might suspect, was that he was too unselfish and unwilling to use his one-on-one ability. He would never have dribbled behind his back, a technique employed in the 1941 NIT by a player named Bob Davies. In baseball, Chip started out as a catcher—proving, as a hero must, that he could do it in the trenches—and ended up, again inevitably, as a pitcher with all the pitches. Bee never had Chip participate in any minor sports, although he did use his swimming skills to save a drowning boy in Ten Seconds To Play. The main thing about Chip was that he was smooth. Bronc Burnett, as his name implies, was a line-busting running back in football and a flame-throwing pitcher in baseball. He was too brutish for my money. This was borne out by the fact that he didn't play basketball. You have to be smooth to play basketball.
So he [Chip] stood his ground, his arms hanging loosely at his sides, content to let Tug take the initiative. But he made one last effort to avoid the fight. "Keep in mind, Tug," he said evenly, "that you're forcing me to fight. I'd still like to call it off."
...Chip met his lunging opponent more than halfway, driving inside Tug's grasping arms and smashing two heavy blows into Tug's face. Tug grabbed and held on and then wrestled Chip to the ground. But it was Chip who landed on top and straddled Tug's thick trunk with his long legs.
Tug tried to cover up, expecting Chip to batter away at his face, but Chip merely held his arms until Rankin ceased his struggles. Then Chip got up, picked up his sweater, and walked away without a word.
—A PASS AND A PRAYER
And then there was this—Chip could take care of himself. That was the great unspoken aspiration of the males of my generation, or perhaps of any generation. In many of the books, Chip would be forced beyond all human capacity for pacifism to take care of himself, and this he would do with great dispatch, as Bee did himself on the hills of Grafton. But there was no rock throwing for Chip. After a fight, he inevitably gave thanks to his late father, Big Chip, for his early boxing lessons at the YMCA. There was an air of civility about all of Chip's battles, even when he was involved in an alley fight in Fourth Down Showdown (Book 13) or when he took care of not one but two small-time hoodlums in both Ten Seconds To Play and Hungry Hurler (Book 23).
He [Chip] found himself staring into the lovely brown eyes of Peggy Armstrong. He didn't realize it until he saw the girl flush and turn her eyes away. There was a great deal that Chip did not know about girls...He'd always regarded girls as just a lot of noise and nuisance. Now, he knew he'd been right on that score all along...A lot of noise and nuisance!
—CLUTCH HITTER (Book Four)
About the only failure Chip ever had was with the opposite sex. Well, it couldn't be called a failure really; he just never "took it up." Though there was nothing resembling heavy breathing in the Merriwell series, Patten at least gave his hero Inza Burrage, "a brunette beauty," whom Merriwell later married, and Elsie Bellwood, "the exotic blonde daughter of an old sea captain," who turned his head for a while. In retrospect, the weakness of the Hilton books, written long after the Victorian Age, with which Patten had had to contend, was that none of the characters ever became romantically involved. Except for Soapy Smith's occasional slaverings over Mitzi Savrill—the little number who worked as a cashier at State Drug—Chip and his buddies might have been preparing for the priesthood. The only date Chip ever had occurred in Ten Seconds To Play, and that was only because he was using the date as a roundabout way of getting at a problem that had nothing to do with girls. Bee conceded this weakness and said that in his outlines of future Chip Hilton books, which were never published, he did get the hero "married off." Three sports can sustain you just so long, even if you do have a job on the side.
"When I was a boy on the hill in Grafton," Bee said, "we didn't have time for girls. Football, basketball, baseball, running and rock wars. Somebody at Grosset & Dunlap wanted me to get some female characters in there, so I came up with one [the aforementioned Mitzi], but I had no real desire to do it."
The one female character who appears throughout the series is Chip's mother. Compared to Mary Hilton, Mother Teresa is a a cold-hearted, indifferent clod. The perspicacity of Mary Hilton's decisions was surpassed only by the fluffiness of her chocolate cakes. And it was her small salary as a telephone operator that helped send Chip through college (he wouldn't accept an athletic scholarship), although she and Chip had both been tempted by big bucks. In Dugout Jinx (Book Eight) an unscrupulous scout named Gabby Breen used what he called "the old suitcase trick" to try to get Chip to sign a professional baseball contract. As Chip and Mary looked on in amazement, the scout held a valise over his head and showered the carpet of their "modest home" in Valley Falls with a thousand $5 bills. ("Why, $5,000 would pay off the mortgage on the house. Pay it in full. And if Breen got him a big league contract, why he'd get another bonus and his mother could stop working...forever!") Chip, of course, turned the loot down, and his mother was overcome with pride because Chip "had proved he was big enough to turn away from a tempting shortcut to fame and fortune."
And there is no question about who presented Bee with the model for the Mary Hilton character. "My mother was the only teacher I ever had," he said, obviously moved by the memory of her. "She was a brilliant woman but she died very young. She had consumption, and we had to travel around from place to place because of her health. I can remember burning the bloody rags she coughed into. It was rough for my mother. And I loved her very much."
Bee loved his mother, loved sports and loved to write. And the books gave Bee, a shrewd businessman, a pretty good nest egg. But while all these factors contributed to his creative impulse, it goes deeper than that.
...Chip was sitting by the window, gazing far out over the city toward the New Campus Inn and thinking about Jimmy's fervent hopes and dreams for this night. And ail at once Chip's spirits lifted and his heart sang with a great confidence.
The man who wrote that wrote it unflinchingly. Everyone's heart always sings with a great confidence at the end of a Hilton story, and the mixed metaphors be damned. There is no gray area, no glimmer of doubt, when you close the book. Things are all right and would always be all right, because Bee wanted it that way.
But in real life everything was not always all right for Bee. On this most idealistic of coaches fell the shadow of the college basketball scandals. Bee himself was not involved in a fix, of course—that was about as likely an occurrence in the 1940s as John Wooden's joining the SDS in the 1960s—but Bee's great forward at LIU, Sherman White, confessed. And though other schools were more deeply involved than LIU—like the entire 1950-51 Cinderella team of CCNY and the Alex Groza-Ralph Beard Kentucky club of which Adolph Rupp had said, "They couldn't touch our boys with a 10-foot pole"—nobody was more devastated by the scandal than Bee. As Neil D. Isaacs wrote in All the Moves: A History of College Basketball, "LIU was perhaps hardest hit, because Clair Bee took it to heart. He spoke as a moralist, taking the responsibility for not teaching or communicating with his players; yet his very moralism acted as protective blinders against the intrusion of unpleasant realities in the total environment of his sporting world...he could not rationalize away the burdens of guilt."
Bee has had more than 25 years to forget the scandals, but he never has. He was still writing the Hilton series—specifically, the college books—about the time they broke, but he never made the scandal part of his fiction.
"I thought about putting it in," he said, "because I figured nobody could write it as well as I could. But, then, I don't know.... Maybe today if I was writing I would have done it. But it didn't seem right, you know?"
On his wall is an illustration of a good-looking blond boy. Grosset & Dunlap had it drawn according to Bee's description of Chip Hilton, and it was used on the jackets and occasionally elsewhere in the books. Bee glanced at the portrait.
"Disillusioned? Oh, if anybody ever got disillusioned, it was me. I didn't believe it. I couldn't believe that anything like that went on. You know, Bobby Knight of Indiana and I are very close, but I disagree with some of the things I've heard him say about today's athletes. He had that trouble with the drugs on his team last season, and he said afterward that he believed there was going to be a breakdown in organized sports because of the use of drugs in high school and college. I didn't believe that then and I don't believe it now. I can't believe it. I have to believe there will always be enough players of good character to stop such things. O.K., Bobby may have had firsthand experience with it, but I still have to feel that a boy in sports is basically clean. And I hate to see a coach even admit that sort of thing is possible."
I pointed to the portrait and asked Bee if he felt there were still athletes like that out there someplace.
"Yes, I believe there are," he said. "I believe there are."
Bee met Ernest Hemingway, an idealist of a somewhat different cast, when Bee was conducting a basketball clinic in Cuba two decades ago. Bee had already written several of the Hilton stories, and he told Hemingway he wanted to write other things, too, and was considering taking courses at NYU or Columbia. "Don't take courses in writing," Hemingway told him, "Write!"
"I remember that day very well," Bee said. "Hemingway showed me the tower at the beach house where he wrote. He said he wrote every day. That's very important. To succeed at writing, you've got to do it every day. Out there in that office of mine I've got drawers full of plots. I used to tuck them away, hoping that one day I'd have the time to get back to them, write short stories and things like that. Now I have the time and I can't see to do it."
Tears formed in the corners of those old eyes.
"Yep, I put it off and I can't help but think that I really failed as a writer. I never did all the things I wanted to do."
One of the things Bee desperately wanted to do was keep the price of his Chip Hilton books at $1. But they went up in price, first by 25%, then 50%, then 100%. And they stopped selling. The outlines of future Hilton books (when Chip would venture to Cleveland and become a sportswriter) remained in the desk drawer.
"Sure, sales went down," Bee said. "There was radio and television. And kids couldn't pay as much as they were asking. Why, the books weren't worth $2. Even in my mind today I don't think they're worth $2."
His eyes misted over again.
"I think about getting them out in paperback. You know, sell them cheap. I think they'd go good. I don't know, but I think they would."
No, they probably wouldn't go good. They probably wouldn't sell at all. And the Hiltons still in circulation will never become collector's items of the class of, say, an original Merriwell. People like me, who wouldn't sell a Hilton for $500, are few and far between. But I wanted to tell Bee that he shouldn't worry about that and, most of all, that he shouldn't think of himself as a failed writer. Most writers don't do as well.
My time with him had been more than I had expected, a kind of reverse initiation rite that few are privileged to go through. In some novels and short stories the protagonist makes a kind of quantum leap into manhood and in the process puts away his childish things—which presumably would include his Chip Hilton books. But I have long thought that manhood appears or, rather, boyhood recedes in layers. Just as you tear away the leaves of an artichoke to reach the heart, so must you tear away the leaves of boyhood before you become a man. As long as you do not let all the layers of boyhood be stripped away, you are not totally a man, and there is something very comforting about that. That is why, since I returned from my visit with Bee, there has been a Hilton book in my bathroom, just as there was 20 years ago. The current one is, let's see, Strike Three (Book Three). It ends like this:
Chip tightened his grip on the shoulders of the two South-Siders. All the worries and trouble had been worth-while, after all! He was glad he had persisted in his efforts to win the friendship of these two. They were really on the team now. The eyes of the three boys met and they exchanged winks. Then, arm in arm, they turned toward the dugout where Rockwell stood with a happy smile and an outstretched hand.
Bee, 83, lives in Roscoe, N.Y. with his books and mementoes of his coaching career.
Seton Hall star Bob Davies, now living in Florida, was Bee's prototype for Chip.
THE CHIP HILTON SERIES
1. TOUCHDOWN PASS
2. CHAMPIONSHIP BALL
3. STRIKE THREE
4. CLUTCH HITTER
5. HOOP CRAZY
6. PITCHERS' DUEL
7. A PASS AND A PRAYER
8. DUGOUT JINX
9. FRESHMAN QUARTERBACK
10. BACKBOARD FEVER
11. FENCE BUSTERS
12. TEN SECONDS TO PLAY
13. FOURTH DOWN SHOWDOWN
14. TOURNAMENT CRISIS
15. HARDCOURT UPSET
16. PAY-OFF PITCH
18. TRIPLE-THREAT TROUBLE
19. BACKCOURT ACE
20. BUZZER BASKET
21. COMEBACK CAGERS
22. HOME RUN FEUD
23. HUNGRY HURLER