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My biggest critic made me a better writer

I thought I was a writer when I worked as sports editor and columnist for a weekly U.S. Army newspaper in Korea, circa 1965-66.

At best, I was a hack writer.

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I still have those yellowed clippings in my possession, and I wouldn’t show them to anyone for any price. They stink.

And — just what I needed at the time — I had a critic. He was a fellow Army journalist who seemed bent upon crushing me. He apparently had too much time on his hands, so he decided to bait the new guy, Spc. 4 Carnett.

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(Did I mention I was insecure?)

Stationed many miles apart, he outranked me and had more time in the country than I. He savaged me weekly.

He’d send me copies of my latest column marked up in garish orange grease pencil: “This is trash, dimwit!” he said in an opening salvo.

Another bellowed: “A monumental misfire.”

And this: “Call yourself a writer? I’m underwhelmed!”

Frankly, I didn’t appreciate his editorial observations. They bruised my fragile ego.

“What would prompt this guy — a brother G.I. — to do something like this?” I pondered.

He wrote for another unit’s newspaper, but we weren’t rivals. I read his publication every week, and his stuff was good, darned good.

Obviously a pro, why would he go after me?

I attempted to laugh it off, but it stung. He called me out. I was a fraud, and actually had little confidence in my writing skills.

My experience at that time was limited to four semesters of high school journalism. I’d also been a stringer for the Daily Pilot (Globe-Herald) my junior year.

I enlisted for the Army’s Information School, was accepted and graduated. But, until my stint in Korea, my resume was paper-thin.

A writer I wasn’t.

I’d been a voracious newspaper reader since age 10. I loved reading syndicated columnists like Jim Murray, Erma Bombeck, Herb Caen and Art Buchwald.

My inclination in Korea was to send profane rejoinders back to Sgt. Bonehead by return mail. I’d let him know my opinion of his work. But I had more class than that.

Besides, his work was better than mine. So I ignored him.

I discovered that he was a couple of years older than I and had a professional writing background before being drafted. By comparison, I was a novice. I hadn’t actually attended college yet.

After a few weeks of his nasty correspondence, however, my personal critic became weary of the campaign and shut it down. As far as he knew, I’d never read his drivel.

But I never forgot the hurtful words. Because of them, I was motivated to become a better writer.

For a year beyond his final poison-pen missive I continued writing and editing in Korea. I worked alongside excellent professional journalists, and I improved.

When I came home, I saved his barbs with other artifacts in a footlocker in my garage. I didn’t get around to tossing them out until the mid-1990s. I wanted the painful reminders, though I only looked at them once or twice in 30 years.

After my discharge, I enrolled in college and earned a B.A. in communications. I took journalism courses and become an adequate writer.

In fact, when I took Journalism 101 my first semester in college, I was bumped up to 102 on the first day. We had to write a mock news story in class, and I was the first to finish, in 10 minutes.

I spent 37 years in public relations and churned out every form of writing imaginable: news articles, columns, op-eds, ad copy, class schedules, speeches, television scripts, sports media guides, special event scripts, newsletters, brochures, annual reports, meeting summaries, letters and radio public service announcements (PSAs).

I captured five first-place national feature-writing awards, but was smart enough to realize I was no H.L. Mencken.

I’ve been fortunate for the past 10 years to write this column for the Daily Pilot.

Thanks, Sgt. Horsefeathers, for motivating me. Without you, the trajectory of my life might have been different. If I remembered your name — which I don’t — I’d ring you up and say thanks.

But you’re probably still trying to figure out why you never became the next Hemingway.

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