My Great American Life-Sustaining Novel Influenced by the Film Ship of Fools Is Born

Of course, when one is in Columbus, Ohio, and is an Ohio native, one goes as The Ohio State University Buckeyes go!


Students walk the Oval on The Ohio State University campus in Columbus, Ohio, 1966.

When I decided to start my after-high school life in Columbus, I had a brother attending The Ohio State University, so I was assured of help to adjust to city life if I needed it.

Actually, I did, a few weeks into my first apartment. I had adopted a dog from an area rescue shelter, and he became unwelcomed, so to speak, where I lived in sort of an OSU student housing building off campus.

I bunked with brother and his wife for about a week until I found another, single apartment to move into. It was at 1 East Lane Avenue, at the northeast corner across from the north end of campus, close to where I had quickly found employment as a Clerk-Typist II at the OSU College of Education. The apartment, half of a duplex, has long since become the location for a gas station.

However, before I left the duplex, something very important happened in my writing life. There was a movie theatre just down the block from 1 East Lane Avenue. The theatre, too, is long gone. But it was easy to walk to the theatre, then, in 1966, and the price was right.

One evening, after work, I went to the theatre and became mesmerized by the German actor Oskar Werner in the 1965 film “Ship of Fools”. Also in the cast were Lee Marvin, Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, Jose Ferrer, Elizabeth Ashley, George Segal, all stars of the era. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and was based on the book by the same name written by Katherine Anne Porter.

I walked home, under stars, with ships and doctors and captains and lovers on my mind. Pencil and paper, with my typewriter nearby, were at once in my hand when I arrived back at my apartment. I barely took time to let Mick relieve himself outside.


Mick, my Columbus companion, a ballplayer like his owner, enjoys time near Mirror Lake, his favorite water-fetching source at The Ohio State University.

In “Ship of Fools”, Werner plays the ship’s doctor on a German ocean liner. He has a life-threatening illness. His best friend is the ship’s captain, and the woman who becomes the doctor’s lover is an addicted Countess who boards with the fate of a deportee.

As my life-long sustaining, Great American novel was being born, influenced by the themes of “Ship of Fools”, I returned to see the movie night after night until it was no longer running at that theatre.

“Ship of Fools” had a number of other provoking storylines born of and important to the times — 1930s Nazi Germany — played out by the other stars. The entire story took place on board the ship, from boarding to debarkation at Boston Harbor.

My fascination, however, was with the doctor’s easy, legitimate friendship with the captain and his relationship (as a married man) with the Countess (Signoret.) The doctor had a wife and two teenage sons waiting for him in Boston.

I hadn’t arrived in Columbus with first-hand knowledge of married men taking lovers, even though, of course, it was already a world-wide practice. I was the farm girl daughter of a faithful family couple.

My erupting novel centered on a ship’s doctor and captain friendship, but my non-Countess woman became a lover of both men at different times, and my story began to evolve into espionage and double-crossing on dry land, as well. As time went on, I ran through the alphabet with it, from Venezuela to Boston, to murder and mayhem, from sky’s the limit to known villains, to surprise hero, enjoying every inventive moment.

And as time goes on, here, at “My Writing Life Xposed”, you’ll hear more about it, as well!


My apartment building in 1966 Columbus



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Second Chances


In the Summer months before my Senior year in high school, after gaining my parents’ confidence to paint my own room upstairs by myself (trim and all!) and while painting away for several days and contemplating my Senior year and our class boys entering their final year of playing varsity basketball, I came up with the little gem below. (It’s presented in its original — 1964/’65 and final-edited, 1995 form — page by page as final typed.)

By Barbara Anne Helberg










Basketball at Holgate High was important to its small, farm town community — still is! “Second Chance” was my only extended attempt at writing a fictional sports short story during my high school days. Although singular, it led to a growing and more serious, wider interest in sports and the sports-writing genre.

More detailed and complicated sports stories followed, leading my imagination to wonder if I could make a career in sports. Unfortunately, the “times” weren’t right. The story didn’t lead me anywhere special. Upon reflection, though, I know sports was an arena in which I (hind-sightedly) think would have been ideal for me. At the time, the middle 1960s, becoming independent enough as a young female to leave home was in itself my burning priority.

However, portions of “Second Chance” that I later used in a Famous Writers School assignment did receive good reviews, and my instructor told me, “Of course, you (as a female) can write about sports!”

That instructor was one of several who encouraged me along my way in life to pursue my own desires. And my Mother always told me, “Follow your dreams”. I believe I have, in part, accomplished that, but distractions in life as you plan other things are many and varied.





Xtra Credit:
Bottom basketball photo courtesy of

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School Bases Covered


After high school graduation, I worked at several area jobs — including one year at the city newspaper, The Northwest-Signal — before moving to Columbus, Ohio, to explore my independence from Mom and Dad and seven siblings and to begin to experience the twists and turns we call “life”.

I also had signed on for a correspondence course in “Fiction Writing” with the Famous Writers School of Westport, Connecticut, rather than go to college. On the FWS board of directors at that time were such greats as Rod Serling, Red Smith, Mignon G. Eberhart, Max Schulman, Bruce Catton, Bennett Cerf, and others.

My year at the newspaper didn’t turn into a permanent, can’t-leave-this-opportunity situation because there was no appropriate position for me to grow into and from which to launch a wider career. The Sports Editor, who had become a fixture at the Signal, did give me opportunities to cover sports events and write some fun articles on county events. However, I soon learned that local sports were a hot-bed of who supported who and for what reasons, none of which I wanted to add to my resume.

The best thing that came from my newspaper work was my discovery that Fiction — without a doubt — forever and always would be my first love.

More of my newspaper career, which came in two different eras of my life, may be followed at —
where I intertwine my life with that of Hollywood comedian Joe E. Brown, who was born in my hometown, Holgate, Ohio, 54 years ahead of me.

During this period, I didn’t write anything of importance that stayed with me other than my correspondence course assignments. The “Fiction Writing” course showed me the errors I needed to fix in the few short stories I had written in my elementary and high school years. Those stories had been left in a notebook. Some of them formed the basis of FWS homework and helped me shape my writing skills.

I had a lot to learn about writing and about living life.

Now that I’m on the down hill side of life at the age of 70, I’ve come to think of writing as my wonderful hobby that allowed me to create projects and that sustained me through everything. It really did, and it still does.

I’ve added two new blogs to my WordPress endeavors; one complains —
and one praises —

and together they will continue to be a place where my life sort of wraps itself, a place of purge, so to speak, that reveals much of what life means to me and expresses the blessings I’ve had along the way.

Here, at “My Writing Life Xposed”, I’ll continue my story of the Great American Novel that began in Columbus and how it kept me going through…well, every single day.



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Big Written Production on JFK


By the time I was a senior in high school, I knew my part in life would involve writing, and when that Fall my President was murdered before the eyes of thousands in Dallas, Texas, I was inspired to write of him. I didn’t know him personally, but I was full of passion and in shock concerning the crime that took him from us.

For our school newspaper, The Tatler, I wrote an impassioned, four page “Tribute to JFK”, the longest work I’d done to that date. My English teacher approved our The Tatler articles, as our newspaper advisor, and he pointed out to me that my article was written from an emotional viewpoint, that it was based on facts I stated but didn’t know about JFK, the President I’d never met.

I later realized the article also was a wonderful example of the writing truism, “Less Shall Be More”, for it was grossly redundant and ran on to unnecessary lengths with biographical material. However, recognizing my unstoppable passion and grief over JFK’s demise, my English teacher approved the article for The Tatler and it ran as written. It is the most out-of-control piece of writing that I ever produced, but it allowed me to spiel my emotional shock over the assassination. Adding to my distress over the murder was the fact that he would have been the front-running candidate in my first political voting experience, something I’d been relishing.

Here’s the opening paragraph of “Tribute to JFK”:
“When America lost John Fitzgerald Kennedy, it lost not only its President and great leader, but also a man who feared God and loved his country; a man who was faithfully devoted to family and friends; a man who recognized and challenged his many responsibilities; a man who figured it was too easy to quit and go home when the waters got rough; a man who was an ardent supporter of sports and physical fitness; a man who, although the first Roman Catholic ever elected to the Presidency, was not hesitant about speaking of his religion — which was a deep and faithful one — because of political involvements; a man who despised hatred and bigotry, fought against them, but in the end lost because he was himself struck down by one who cared nothing for these very things.”

Can you imagine three more pages like this beginning? Well… as I said, I was in shock.

The Tribute ended like this:
“Will America’s peoples now learn a lesson? Will we throw off our cloak of complacency, resetting our goals and once again putting our shoulders to the task of keeping American great, a land of freedom and equality for all? Or will we, after the initial shock of this underhanded act and national grief, allow America to return to her state of listlessness and Americans to their state of unjustified complacency? Our President, “a great and good man,” is dead, but our nation is not dead and it must not play dead. However sadly, however morosely, our nation must move on now more than ever. Let us do take heed.
“The best way we can memorialize John Kennedy is to continue to strive for the values and objectives which he began and for which he fought so valiantly and vigorously. To make and keep America greater in every aspect is what he wanted. That is what we, behind our new capable President, must do.”

I don’t at this point in time belittle my passion of 1963, for JFK’s horrific demise became part of who I became, and I still loathe that day in Dallas. But, of course, my wise English teacher was correct in his assessment of my Tribute. Probably, the article would have been better effective with the first paragraph revised to facts; then the last two paragraphs of plea would have been enough added to it to complete the Tribute written from my viewpoint.

Through passion, I learned. “Tribute to JFK” was my last written production of note before I graduated high school in the Spring of 1964. Our class trip included a tour of New York City and Washington, D.C., and the original gravesite of JFK.

In 1968, I traveled to D.C. with a friend, and we visited the Eternal Flame (right). In the left-hand photo is the JFK permanent gravesite which I took from the hill above it.

Later in 1968, JFK’s brother, Bobby, and the Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr. were also assassinated.

My grief never has ended…



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“Babe” By Another Name


Of course, as a youngster, I thought “Babe” (Mildred) Didrikson Zaharias was wonderful. I continued to admire her sports enthusiasm and prowess all my life.

I’m standing outside the cement barn floor, where our basket was located before Dad built the full basketball court in the hayloft above. You can see hay stuffed in the corner of the loft.

Notice the gloved hands. Cold weather rarely stopped me from getting a little shooting practice in after school was out!


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The Sports Distraction


In the above 8th Grade photo, you may see more of the “player” (especially if you note the scab on the end of the nose) than the budding writer. I do! But I think, also, what can be seen is a happy, family-oriented person growing and finding out who she might become.

It wasn’t quite the right timing in American culture in the 1960s for me to become a “player”. Unfortunately, that ambition on my small farm community stage served mostly to enrapture me to the point that it distracted me from actively pursuing writing as a career choice. The choice of writing was possible and available, but the sports distraction at this time was too great.

I chose to write only about sports — horse racing and baseball and basketball, primarily — when I wasn’t playing sports.

My Dad and the two brothers between whom I grew up were great competitors. They taught me grit and grind and that practice makes perfect and to compete as though one’s life depended on it — to win. All of this I did with all my bodily fiber.

We played two-on-two, or one-on-one (depending on the available personnel), in the hayloft that Dad had fenced off with chicken wire to keep the basketball from bouncing out of the court down to the barn floor some ten feet below. We broke through the hayloft’s thick floor boards on hard rebounds, grunted, jostled, and screamed through games that determined little more than bragging rights. We all were players.

In Summer, we played the old baseball “three dollars” game. One player self-hit the ball to the others, with a catch in the air being worth a dollar. A one-bounce catch equaled a value of 75 cents, two bounces earned 50 cents, and a ground ball paid 25 cents. The first player to score three dollars worth of balls then went to the batter’s box and the game started over. I always scraped more skin off my knees on the barnyard driveway going for catches than my brothers did. But they tolerated my competitive spirit.

We played those games endlessly.

In high school, I became totally immersed in our school’s Intra-mural Basketball League. It was my main sports outlet with persons other than family members because our school had no “girls teams” in uniform to play other schools in sanctioned competition in the ’60s. In our voluntary Intra-mural Basketball League — one for boys and one for girls — classes played each other in 10-minute games on our lunch periods. It was serious business, with records being kept and championships being held at the end of “league” play. My class won the girls’ title every year of our last three years of high school.

All this sports distraction became obsessive and led to my doing less writing, although at no point in my life did I ever abandon the written word, or lose my passion for it. In later years, too, I realized I had probably missed my chance to become one of the first female sports broadcasters, or some other person of interest in the sporting ranks.

So my next writing stardom after stalagmite and stalactite fame was modest. I won an award as a high school Freshman in an American Legion essay contest on Democracy and Americanism.

By then, my English teachers had begun to notice my writing abilities.


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Family Get-Togethers

In this writing story blog, I certainly would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to mention and feature the hundreds of family get-togethers, reunions, and celebratory gatherings, both happy and sad, that brought us into each others arms and homes through the years.

At Grandpa and Grandma Knapp's house

At Grandpa and Grandma Knapp’s house

This photo, taken in 1952, represents most of the Knapp (Mother’s) side of my family heritage at the time. I’m the one turned around in the chair giving the camera a full-mouth scowl (XME). Around the table are two of my young cousins; my only two siblings at the time (that grew to seven altogether in the years to come), both brothers; my parents; my grandparents Knapp (at the far end of the table); and two uncles and two aunts.

Most of my upbringing included these get-togethers without fail at holidays, and they were also part of how we spent family time when my farming parents were free from farm duties to travel to their brothers and sisters’ houses.

While my Grandparents Knapp lived in town (Holgate, Ohio) all the years I knew them, my other grandparents, Dad’s parents, were from a farming ancestry and lived on a farm in the Malinta-Grelton school district when I was a youngster. Their farm was close to ours, and my two brothers and I would walk there to visit and, mostly, to get those yummy slices of buttered bread with brown sugar with which Grandma Helberg “spoiled” us.

A holiday celebration at Grandpa and Grandma Helberg's house

A holiday celebration at Grandpa and Grandma Helberg’s house

In this second photo, my Grandpa Helberg is the gentleman standing in the background. Next to him on the left is an aunt, then standing next to her is my Grandma Helberg. The children are all cousins, as each of my two brothers and I always had a cousin the same age as each of us. That circumstance gave all of us friends for life.

Most of our aunts and uncles are gone now, and a few cousins have passed on also, but the memories that a picture like this evokes — in any family — are priceless! And every family has them!

Over the years of my growing, I never met a family member, other than my Mother, who was interested in writing. She loved poetry. Much later in life, one of my younger brothers attended journalism school and remains a journalist as of this blog entry. He never took an interest in writing Fiction, however, or blogs, for that matter.  So, just where that creative writing gene of mine came from, other than from Mother’s prowess at poetry, I’m not certain. The only certainty is, that writing gene stuck in my bloodstream from day one.


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