Big Written Production on JFK

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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

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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

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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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Writing Stardom

Writing Star -- 1958 6th Grade

Writing Star — 1958 6th Grade

Fifth and Sixth Grades at Holgate Elementary School in the fifties featured a combined teacher rotation that was brand new to us. We had come through the first four grades to begin a more mature experience.

In the fifth grade, I reached that hotly pursued pinnacle — writing stardom.

My first stories were about animals, primarily horses and dogs. Perhaps that wasn’t so surprising coming from a farm girl whose life involved the world of animals — although we never had horses — and who was attending a rural farm community school. As far as horses were concerned, I think the Grey Ghost of Sagamore had a lasting impression on me! (Many years later, I would write about horse racing at the Internet’s Suite101 article-writing site 2007–.) A few of my girlfriends also wrote stories about animals, and we would read each other’s papers.

While my stories had four, or five, paragraphs in that small beginning of storyland, my classmates wrote two, or three, paragraphs. I had words, lots of words, that flowed onto the paper in first drafts. I never thought to perfect sentences, or paragraphs, in first attempts to create a story. I enjoyed the editing and rearranging of thoughts and words, and of finding better words for describing situations, all of which I reveled in — and still do — after a story was completely written.

I knew I was a writer when my story-report on our fifth grade class trip to a caverns state park was chosen by our English teacher to be read in front of the class. My story wasn’t a first version. Our teacher was angry — an emotion he was prone to display in the classroom — at our first weak efforts on our essays.

In the first version of my story, I didn’t use the words stalagmites, stalactites, and “however”. I did, however, in the second (final) version, letting the feelings and sights and excitement of our trip soar from my head and glide down through my pencil to splash onto the paper. It was a creation, not just a bare bones story-report, and I discovered in those moments — never to forget — the true exhilaration one could experience in the passion to write down words in an entertaining manner.

When our teacher read my presentation — particularly when he paused appropriately at my use of the word “however” and surveyed the classroom in a mini-second of emphasis — I shivered with a sublime tingle. My story was the chosen one.

I was in Heaven!

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Then Came School

4th Grade, 1956

4th Grade, 1956

At an early age, my interest in sports became a second addiction — second to the written word and writing. With my Dad, I listened to the Cleveland Indians’ (baseball) games on the radio. The Indians were my Dad’s team. So, already having picked up on the value of competition, I began to root for the Detroit Tigers. Dad took our family to games in Detroit when the Indians came to town.

I remember being fiercely disappointed, years later, when Detroit traded the great Jim Bunning, and he went elsewhere (to Philadelphia) to pitch a no-hitter. By then, however, “Mr. Tiger” Al Kaline had become my first real sports hero, and my sports interests had increased to include Thoroughbred horse racing. There was the Grey Ghost of Sagamore.

Baseball and horse racing were the first two major sports shown on black and white television.

The first day I boarded a big yellow bus that took me to school, my life was forever distracted. Although sports became something I later learned to write about, it, too, was an early distraction.

School and the ability to learn so much about such a large world captured the majority of my time. If I wasn’t in school, I was in the yard, playing baseball with my brothers and Dad, or up in the hayloft, playing basketball with the same company, or watching the Grey Ghost authoritatively wipe out the competition, or screaming for the Tigers running around the bases on TV.

I was six when I started the first grade. There was no kindergarten in the early ’50s.

As the above picture may indicate, I wasn’t eager about my life being turned over to school. (I was one of those late bloomers who later on really began to appreciate the life of learning and its benefits rather than letting it act as a distraction from my writing.) Although, in school, I began to learn more about getting words onto paper, there were too many other activities, things in which one was required to participate: distractions like arithmetic, which quickly got out of hand in my head, and group reading, and spelling drills, and socializing discussion periods, and blackboard exercises.

All, and everything else around me, were giant distractions that steered me away from the joy of connecting words into sentences, rather than contributed enhancement to my love of pen and paper.

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Learning My Way With Imagination

The post-coloring book Cowgirl is the one seated wearing the black hat. In a mask behind me is my older brother.

The post-coloring book Cowgirl is the one seated wearing the black hat. In a mask behind me is my older brother.

Somewhere in the early going of my learning to write words and sentences, I heard the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

A thousand words seemed a lifetime’s work at the time, plus I was terribly disappointed with the news that a picture could say more than I, apparently, ever would be capable of producing!

However, I also became aware that things to write about were all around me. My coloring books already had been thrust aside as too bland in my new writing world, and my dear Mother provided me with oodles of paper and pencils with which to create the next best, mini-sentence, mini-story I could write.

My first choices of subject matter were animals, since I was fond of them and we had dogs, cows, pigs, and chickens all about the farm.

But the biggest burst of imagination for me revolved around my most cherished possession — a whole miniature Western play town of metal buildings. A Christmas present from the all-knowing Santa Claus, it was a connected line of institutions like a modern strip mall, complete with Saloon, Livery, Hotel, Sheriff’s Office, Seamstress Parlor, Mercantile, and Doctor’s Office.

Plastic horses, cowboys — no Cowgirls included, actually, as we were back in the dark ages of unequal rights –Indians, cows, and wagons and carts, and a stagecoach all were part of the refined Western scene.

I loved that set. It inspired my imagination. From some of Dad’s empty farm grain burlap sacks, I sewed together a desert and plains rug to put the set onto when I played with it. I used green thread to make cactus plants and added rocks and stones from our driveway outside to create rough terrain.

And I wrote Cowboy and Indian sentences. I wrote about horses pulling stagecoaches, and about guys in masks robbing the saloon.

My imagination, the biggest part of a writer’s psyche, had been sparked. But I had miles yet to go!

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