Essay from Jeff Rasley

Memories of a Childhood Hero; Nostalgia and the Cost of Hero Worship

by Jeff Rasley


Chip Hilton was perfect – at least in the mind of this boy growing up in a small town in Indiana before the Beatles were big. He was tall, rangy, with blue-grey eyes and short-cropped blond hair. Chip’s square jaw was always clean shaven. A lock of hair would drift down his forehead and need to be brushed back while he was playing ball.

Chip was shy around girls but popular at school with the guys. He was the star player on his high school football, basketball, and baseball teams. Chip was doted on by his hardworking, graceful and lovely mother, Mary Hilton. She always had homemade cookies ready when the guys came over after team practice.

Chip’s dad, a factory foreman, died in an industrial accident saving the life of one of his crew members. Chip suffered stoically the aching loss of his father. The Hiltons were not well off, but managed. Mary worked at the factory as a secretary. Chip had to work part-time as a stock boy at the local drugstore to help with family finances.

All the good kids from the right side of the railroad tracks dividing the town liked him. Younger boys even idolized Chip because he was the best athlete in Valley Falls. But some of the tough kids from the wrong side of the tracks thought Chip was a goody-two shoes and gave him a hard time. The richest kid in town, Fats Olsen, hated Chip and was envious of his success in school and on the playing field. Fats and his henchman, Stinky Ferris, tried to sabotage Chip every chance they got.

Chip’s life wasn’t easy. He had school, team practices, and homework. He had to work at the drug store in the evenings and weekends. He also had chores at home, and he had to be “the man of the house”.

With all these responsibilities Chip still managed to make the honor roll every semester, was the star on the Valley Falls High School teams, was a valued employee by his boss at the drug store, and never let his mom down. On and off the playing field, Chip faced up to every challenge with integrity and responsibly.

If a teammate was struggling with a personal problem, Chip was there to help. He’d give the fellow manful advice and back it up by his own example. Chip was the kind of team leader that would encourage a little horsing around during a water break in practice. But he expected the guys to be all business when Coach blew the whistle to resume drills or scrimmage.

Chip never show-boated. He’d take the blame if the team was underperforming. Once, in a football game, Chip let himself be tackled in his team’s end zone, which gave the opposing team a two-point safety and made Chip look bad. It was actually a smart play, because Chip prevented a defender from recovering a fumble in the end zone which would have given the opposing team six points instead of only two. To win the game for his team, Chip was willing to look like he’d screwed up. He cared less about tarnishing his reputation in the eyes of the fans than winning the game for the team. Coach Rock and Chip’s teammates understood his sacrifice.

There was a not-so-subtle similarity between Chip Hilton and the Jesus I learned about in Sunday School at our Presbyterian church. Chip’s mother’s name was Mary. His father was in Heaven. Chip sacrificed and suffered for his team, but he always triumphed in the end. That is, by the end of the book.

Chip Hilton is the protagonist in a series of books written for boys and set in the 1950s. Clair Bee was the author. He was also the basketball coach at Long Island University.

Thankfully, Chip didn’t have to die, like Jesus, to save the team. But every season in each sport, all four years of high school, things got tough and it looked like Chipper’s ability to come through for the team might fail. By the end of the last chapter, Chip always figured out a way to outsmart, outwork, and overcome tough opponents, bullies at school, or financial problems at home. A sports scholarship to State University was his final reward.

— Memory, imagination, and story —

What I’ve written about Chip Hilton is entirely from memory. I can recall these memories of Chip’s fictional life that I have carried since childhood with what seems like perfect clarity. I have not rooted through our home library, boxes of books in the attic, or gone online to re-read any of Clair Bee’s Chip Hilton Sports Series books. But I also know that what I remember is somewhat different than what I experienced when I read the books at ages nine and ten. There are huge gaps in my memories about specific events in the books. I have forgotten much more about what I read as a kid than what I can remember. In fact, some of the “facts” related in the preceding paragraphs about the fictional character Chip Hilton might be imagined or unintentionally invented to fill in gaps about Chip’s life story. Yet, what I’ve written are the impressions left in my consciousness, whether or not I actually read it in Clair Bee’s books.

For example, I don’t remember which book it is in, but my mind “recalls” Mary Hilton being disappointed that she would be unable to attend the Company Ball for lack of a formal dress. Is that incident actually in one of the books? Details well up — from my sub-consciousness? Mr. Olsen, the company owner, fancies Mary, but is too much the gentleman even to suggest crossing proscribed boundaries, despite his unhappy marriage to the bitchy Mrs. Olsen. He finds a way to provide Mary with the materials to fashion her own dress and appear as the beauty at the Ball. Chip and his gang chauffeured Mary in Speed Morris’s souped-up convertible.

Did I make that up, or did Clair Bee? It feels so right. It might be in one of the books. Or, is it the Cinderella archetype-story surfacing from deep in my preconscious mind and polluting my memories of the Chip Hilton books. I’m not really sure.

The mind wants a complete a story to make our memories coherent. Don’t you hate it when you miss the end of a show or you lose power when reading an eBook or listening to an audio-book? (I was watching the television series Manhattan while I was working on this book and missed the last ten minutes of the final episode. Despite efforts to procure the show through pay TV and watch the last episode, I’ve been unable to do so and it bugs the hell out of me!) Aristotle describes a complete literary work as simply having a beginning, middle, and end. We don’t like to miss out on any one of those parts. If we do, it’s unsatisfying.

There’s a similar aspect to memory. We try to preserve our cherished memories in forms that have coherent meanings. We prefer our favorite memories to be complete. Dreams are often troubling because what we remember doesn’t make sense and we’re not sure what they mean. A bear is chasing you (is that really you, or is it someone else?). All of a sudden you’re on an escalator in a large department store and you see someone you know and something else happens, but when you wake up you can’t remember who the other person was for sure and what happened next. It’s an inconclusive and disturbing experience. It lacks coherent meaning because the dream didn’t have a beginning, middle, and end.

Disturbing dreams drift into unreachable places in our subconscious. What lingers is the feeling of disturbance. This is what dementia is like. All memories begin to fade and leave the person grasping for some bit of control.

We have a need to create and preserve meaningful and coherent memories from our past. It’s unsatisfying and maddening to live with chopped up bits and chunks from our past which we can’t make sense of. We want a complete narrative. So, the subconscious and conscious aspects of the mind try to fill in the gaps, to organize, and to create some kind of logic and consistency out of the scramble of data retained in our brains. A symptom of insanity is the inability to do so.

Creating and telling stories is one way humans have dealt sanely with the random data and half-finished narratives floating in and out of their consciousness.

Shamans enter the dream world of sub-consciousness to wrestle with demons and rally angels. They return with tales of their encounters which become the myths and legends of their communities. The Griots of West Africa maintain and renew the oral traditions of their villages by telling the stories passed from one generation to the next. Many of the stories in the holy books of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions began as oral traditions and morphed into the written versions set down by priestly scholars who wanted to rationalize the narratives of oral tradition into canonical works. The greatest bard of Hellenic civilization, Homer, wove together a patchwork of stories about Greek and Trojan heroes to create a coherent whole, The Iliad and Odyssey. Homer’s Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Aeneas, and the other legendary heroes have since populated thousands of different stories for more than a hundred generations.

Cultural archetypes are created through this process of fitting together bits of memory, visions bubbling up from the subconscious, and using imagination creatively. The process culminates in a story. Stories about an extraordinary character, whether Achilles or Chip Hilton, are the sources from which our heroes arise. A hero in a story which is compelling and meaningful can take on a life of his own which transcends the boundaries of the original story. New stories about the heroes of the Iliad have been written and produced every generation since Homer’s original began circulating around the ancient Hellenic world. For me, Chip Hilton exists outside of the books in which I met him. He’s no longer contained within their old worn covers.

I’m sure the same is true for many others who loved Clair Bee’s books as kids. Chip became an idealized figure for his fans. He represents traditional values like courage, integrity, grit, compassion, and fidelity. His character is a model for what kids (and maybe adults) ought to be like. In that sense he is an archetypal hero for the community of the thousands who read and remember the Chip Hilton Sports Series.

— Haunted by heroes —

It’s important to realize and admit that our memories are not immutable. We’ve all had the experience of re-telling some event with family or old friends and discovering that one of the intimate participants in the event has a different memory of what happened. Remember the game “Telephone”? A message travels around a circle of friends and by the time it gets back to the person who composed it the message has changed. “It’s not exactly a comforting thought, but every time we return to the incident, we take a different route to reach it and, in turn, come home with a slightly — or not so slightly — different story. The mind never remembers the same way twice.” (The American Scholar, “The Examined Lie”, James McWilliams, Summer 2015, p. 20)

The classic Japanese film Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa, makes this point more artfully. The four main characters in the film remember and re-tell the same event in four different, even contradictory, ways. Although I have the elements of the Mary Hilton at-the-Company-Ball story in my mind along with the other memorable “facts” about Chip’s fictional life related above, what I actually read in the books might be slightly, significantly, or completely different. Because I have changed in the many years since I read about Chip, his mom, and his buddies in Valley Falls, my memories are different than my original encounter with those characters.

“… [M]emories are not unchanging physical traces in the brain. Instead, they are malleable constructs that may be rebuilt every time they are recalled.” (MIT Technology Review, “Repairing Bad Memories”, Stephen S. Hall, June 17, 2013, citing research by Daniela Schiller at Mount Sinai School of Medicine) Recent research by Schiller and others indicates that every time we access a memory, at the chemical level of brain function, that memory is changed if ever so slightly. In other words, our brain chemistry is changed by remembering and a memory is changed by our brain chemistry changing.

Chip Hilton has transmogrified in my consciousness from a fictional character grounded in the words Clair Bee wrote into an archetypal hero. To some extent, I’ve lost touch with the actuality of Chip created by the author, but my mind preserves him, changed but still accessible in flashes of images and bits of events. My mind struggles to piece together coherent narratives from these chunks of memory and imagination. But what is most clear is the impression left in my consciousness of an ideal boy, who stood for what is good and right, and how I ought to try to be like Chip.

Chip Hilton was one of my first loves, in the sense of being a devoted fan, a childish-boyhood hero worship. Maybe there was a Freudian-homoerotic element to that love. I did read the books during the pre-adolescent latency period of psychological development. But that’s not my focus here, and I’m much too shy for that sort of public self-analysis. I loved Chip in a Platonic-idealistic way — the way my Sunday School teachers wanted me to love Jesus. (Chip was definitely more fun than Jesus and his buddies much more interesting than The Disciples.)

Clair Bee’s books were very entertaining to my pre-adolescent male-taste. The sports action scenes were packed with excitement; Chip throwing the game-winning pass or making the crucial basket. The characters were well developed; Speed, Biggie, Soapy, Red, and the gang were more than just cardboard characters hung around Chip’s glowing star. They seemed authentic in their own right. The books were more affecting than many of the other books I read, TV shows I watched, and movies I saw. They have stayed with me because they were compelling stories which had special meaning to me during that pre-adolescent stage of development, and beyond it.

The lingering effect is that I am indebted to, and in a way cursed by, Chip Hilton. (I suppose, more accurately, it is Clair Bee, Chip’s creator, I should credit and blame.) As Chip developed in my consciousness as the ideal of what I thought a boy ought to be like, he also became an inspiration, to be like Chip. But my dream, as for most of Chip’s fans, of following in his footsteps to glory on high school and college sports teams eventually died at some point during adolescence. Since then, Chip has sat in lofty judgment of my failings. He haunts me, because I will never be as good, on or off the field, as Chip Hilton.

Of course, Chip Hilton could not be my hero after childhood passed away. And now, I am much older than he will ever be. Yet, there is a ghostly aspect to my memories of Chip. He doesn’t stir passions as he did in my nine year-old self. He can fade in and out of my consciousness like a dream, changing uniforms, ethereal, but forever young. He haunts me for who I did not become. Because there is still the vestige of that nine year-old self which wants to be like Chip within me. That is an unanticipated consequence of childish hero worship.

Our heroes inspire us. But the vast vast majority of us will not live up to the expectations we develop for ourselves by idealizing them.

Adapted from Hero’s Journey: John Ritter, the Chip Hilton of Goshen, Indiana: a Memoir. You may order Jeff Rasley’s Hero’s Journey here.