Western author and adventurer Giles Tippette, whose rueful musings on the donkey baseball games of his youth appear in this week's issue (NOSTALGIA, page 10), has a bigger-than-life reputation. After the Texan's last visit, the rumor around our offices was that he had singlehandedly subdued four muggers in an elevator—without, as regional editor Linda Verigan had it, "so much as losing his comb."
Well, it turns out there were only three muggers, and they had the upper hand. Tippette lost several hundred dollars and a gold pendant. "It might have been a match," he says, "but they had one thing I didn't. Drawn pistols."
As the author of seven novels about an Old West bank robber (the Wilson Young series, Dell), Tippette knows not to tussle with armed outlaws. On the other hand, he didn't acquire his daring reputation for nothing: before becoming a writer, he had been a rodeo cowboy, a bonded diamond courier, the owner-operator of a Mexican gold mine, a freelance private investigator and a fly-anywhere-for-anybody pilot. To research his 1976 book, The Mercenaries, he spent seven months as a mercenary pilot in South Africa, secretly flying troops into Rhodesia. "As a writer I couldn't get inside the army [which was fighting a Rhodesian rebel group]," he says. "So I just showed them my commercial multiengine flier's license and told them I was looking for a job."
On another parlous assignment, this one for SI, he went to the Caribbean to investigate yacht hijackings. "I was in a hotel in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, one night, and I guess I'd been asking around about the wrong people," he says. "About 2 a.m., I had some visitors who didn't have nice intentions for me at all. I jumped out the window two stories to a courtyard and took off. Y'all don't have expense vouchers for that sort of thing, either. Nothing to reimburse for sheer terror."
April 20, 1981
Most of Tippette's dozen or so SI pieces have been reminiscences about his athletic career, particularly his rodeo days. He spent enough time riding broncs and bulls to break his neck, his right leg, both collarbones "and my nose about 20 times." His donkey baseball story mentions "an embittered third baseman who failed his tryout with the Cardinals." That was Tippette in 1953. "My arm did me in," he says. "I couldn't throw even to minor-league standards." He also played football at four different colleges, ran a 9.6 100 and set a high school conference record in the 180-yard hurdles. "These days, exercise means reading with my glasses off," he says.
Tippette, 43, took up writing one night 20 years ago when, with a pregnant wife and no money, he suddenly realized he couldn't afford Baylor med school. "I sat down and wrote a short story called The Summer Piggy Was 13," he says. "At the time I used nothing but balanced sentences: two clauses connected by 'and.' " Since then his style has become more varied, and he has written 13 books, scripts for children's TV and dispatches for the Houston bureaus of both TIME and Newsweek. "Me and my writing are like Wilson Young, who would like to escape his criminal ways," says Tippette. "But you get committed to this desperado life and you can't escape."
The onset of Urban Cowboy chic is one thing Tippette would love to escape. "Don't talk to me about those mechanical bulls," he says. "They ain't nothin' like the live ones. They don't swell up their neck muscles to pull the rope from your hands, or horn you, or whip you down on their heads. And I want to end that myth about rodeo cowboys always getting into brawls. Fighting another rodeo cowboy is just too long a process. I should know. I once had a running fight with a bull rider for a year and a half."
Now, alas, nearly two months into his third marriage, Tippette is talking about settling into a placid life-style. For one thing, he wants more time to make his special chili, which in 1974 was chosen as Texas' finest—but so far his image is undamaged. A New York waiter, after staring at Tippette and his $350 cowboy hat recently, told Giles, "You know, you're the first person I ever saw who really looks right in one of those things."