BOXED SET -- A novel by Bernie Kohn & Gina M. Smith

An unemployed Chicago sports writer quickly finds himself broke and homeless, but he uses his gift with words and some inspiration from Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac to turn his life around, help his fellow homeless and to get the girl, a perky tech at the local plasma clinic who thinks a boob job will solve everything.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A writer is born and wrapped in newsprint (but so are fish)

My first real memory of wanting to be a writer or journalist is from eighth grade. Oh sure, I'd always loved literature, grammar, even spelling -- from the first day of kindergarten. And no one would dispute I was an A+ teacher's pet (a.k.a. Suck-Up). That sucking up paid off when my eighth grade art teacher took me under her wing and directed me to the school newspaper, which she sponsored.
I don't even think I displaced any freshmen when, within a few days after volunteering, I was not only writing but typing the entire thing. We used some kind of multi-part legal-size blue tissue "thingy" to type on, the kind that required a special liquid to repair the tissue in the event of a typo. Having never had a typing lesson (as it was called then, as opposed to keyboarding), I ruined many an expensive master with globs of correction fluid. The paper was run off on a Gestetner machine and hand-stapled. I was in love immediately, although I felt more like I was playing teacher than a 13-year-old Lois Lane, since I got to hang out in the teachers' work room to copy and assemble my new baby.
Two junior high years of newspaper staff pointed me directly to journalism classes in high school, even with a healthy dose of drama club and lead roles that might have lead me elsewhere. I was smitten with covering and reporting the news! I also didn't mind editorializing- awarding "Onions or Orchids" to anyone and anything around the school I deemed worthy.
In high school I was lucky enough to be able to take a journalism class every semester for three years and to have a journalism teacher who took me under his wing. I owe my college choice, academic scholarship and early career to the late Mr. Lee Pursley, an Ernie Pyle sort who also taught me to play euchre in our spare time. And he taught me everything very well.
At the same time I studied journalism and ascended the ranks of our school newsletter, The X-Ray, I also wrote for the literary magazine, The Little Chief, and worked on the News Bureau. I had a wonderful creative writing teacher, Toni Shoemaker, and a masterful honors English teacher, Dr. Susan Mullarkey, both of whom still cheer me on today.
While serving as editor-in-chief of both the school newspaper and literary magazine at the same time, I didn't have enough high school periods left to both run the News Bureau and take all the classes I wanted (not needed), so I convinced the school system to let me take two classes during the same period with the blessing of both teachers. Told ya, first class suck-up!
I also managed to find time in my school day to go across town to the vocational school, where The X-Ray was printed so I could generally bug the daylights out of the print shop teacher, a grouchy old cuss who somehow found the patience to teach me about printing and finishing in his spare time. I'm very young, but old enough to have seen both hot and cold type being set! Egads, my kids would think I went to school with Gutenberg, and no, not Steve.
My fondest memory of that adventure was driving the student teacher's very hot and very new red Firebird to the print shop and ending up in a snow bank facing a fence. No harm done to the car, and the student teacher went on to become managing editor of the local daily, the Anderson Herald, now Herald-Bulletin, where I was a youth correspondent for three years, working with the likes of Holly Miller, a future author and editor for The Saturday Evening Post.
One of my fellow editors-in-chief two years ahead of me at The X-Ray went on to become Washington DC Bureau Chief for Bloomberg News, where he recently worked with my co-author before moving on to The New York Times. If I was a geek back in the day, so were you, Mike Tackett!
All this writing stuff did get me the Emens Scholarship, a nearly full-ride academic scholarship to Ball State University in Muncie, IN and the Sharley B. DeMotte (not Shirley) honorary journalism scholarship. (Honorary scholarship = oxymoron). On a sunny fall day in September 1978 looking as I did pictured here, I drove my metallic turquoise Mustang hatchback (geek) 20 minutes east to college, having decided to commute for the first quarter (who knows why?).
I am sure I parked my car plenty early to get a front row seat for my 8 a.m. Journalism 110 (newswriting) class with legendary professor Ken Atwell. Although the class was taught by a memorable graduate assistant, Fred Blevens, it was Atwell who kept me on my newspaper course, cheering on my dream of being the next Woodward or Bernstein.
Atwell helped me get my first paying internship at The Warsaw Times-Union, a daily which has touched my life every day since. A second summer there allowed me not only more experience, pay and college credit, but also counted towards a separate diploma from the Honors College  as an independent class and allowed me to test out of feature writing for still more credit. I'm seeing my own pattern here: not much patience for sitting still or spending four years locked away at high school or college when I could be out beating the streets for news!
While at BSU two other professors had lasting impact. Lois Breiner sponsored the literary magazine and put me to work on it. Gerry Chaney instilled in me a lifetime love of hyper-correct grammar, punctuation and copy-editing. I probably would have pursued that direction had I not loved to write so very much.
With college diploma firmly in hand, I returned to the Warsaw newspaper just a couple weeks after early graduation in 1980, where I remained until 1985 when I moved into public relations. As the first person in my family or on either parent's side as far back as known to graduate from college, you could have popped my puffed up little head with a ballpoint. I was justifiably proud, but at the same time pretty sure I knew absolutely everything about everything -- and that the world was just waiting for me to write about it.
But back to Newswriting 110....first day of college, 8 a.m. class, front row, shiny new No. 2 pencils, groovy hippy sophisticated college student threads...I took the far left seat. A tall, tan, curly-permed guy with those very 1970s, very short shorts sat beside me. Piercing blue, sparkling, lively eyes, friendly smile, he was chatty and had tennis legs to go with the short shorts. I remember this much well.
Bernie Kohn and I went on to have all three quarters of our freshman year together in Newswriting, Copyediting and Photojournalism. We both trotted over to the Ball State Daily News early on to become reporters. I was busy zooming through college; Bernie took the proper route and became editor-in-chief of our college newspaper.
Our paths crossed a lot our first year, and I am quite sure there was friendly flirting. But nothing more. We only saw each other once a few years after college when Bernie came up from The Wabash Plain Dealer to interview at The Times-Union. Lucky for him on two counts: he didn't take the Warsaw job, and he quickly left Wabash and the Midwest. We wouldn't meet again until July 2008, when we both drove to central Ohio-- he from the Baltimore area and I from the same Midwest locale where I had been for 30 years.
The collaboration that became our novel, Boxed Set, and our entertwined lives began that hot and humid summer day during a mosquito-infested canal boat ride, some Pad Thai at sunset and a convertible ride in the dark with malfunctioning headlights. It was all perhaps indicative of our path these last few years. But we still completed our first fiction work together without fatalities.

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