Carnett: 200 columns and still having fun

It was as lame a salutation as I've ever penned.

Here's how it went:

"Have you ever tried skateboarding down the side of Mt. Everest wearing nothing but your insulated skivvies?

"You haven't?

"Well, I've never written a sports column for (this newspaper) before, so I guess that makes us about even."

It was June 1965 and I was a 20-year-old U.S. Army corporal who'd just landed the sports editor position for a weekly Army newspaper in Seoul, Korea. As part of my new assignment, I was required to cover the local Army sports beat and write a weekly column. The material quoted above was my feeble opening salvo.

I fancied my nom de plume to be Cpl. Wit T. N. Clever.

The weekly column, by the way, was labeled "Bird's Eye View," as in ramblings hatched from on high — in a press box — by a sports scribe.

Three or four weeks after publishing consistently sparkling material in my new column, I received an unsigned note from someone — I think a fellow Army correspondent — stationed with I Corps near the DMZ. "Carnett, we've heard enough from you," he wrote. "You're a lousy columnist. Try some other vocation."

Thanks for noticing!

I was crushed. But I didn't give up. I kept churning out column after column for more than a year, until Uncle Sam reassigned me to head up a public information outpost in Inchon.

From about age 10, I'd dreamed of someday becoming a big-time sports columnist. In fact, for a while I published a little newspaper in my Eastside Costa Mesa neighborhood. I wrote the copy and my mom typed it up for me and made five or six carbon copies. I distributed it to lucky neighbors.

I took journalism classes in high school and college.

In 1961, as a 16-year-old Costa Mesa High School sports editor, I discovered Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray. It was love at first read. I savored Murray's wit, irreverence and gentle sarcasm.

He didn't simply offer bullet points or address a dozen brief topics per column. He wrote — really wrote! Virtually every column was a flawlessly constructed 800-word essay — crafted to Michelangelic and Beethovenesque perfection.

He was a colossus, a veritable writing machine! It's been speculated that he wrote more than 10,000 columns during his career.

I read Murray for decades and even followed him while stationed in Korea. His syndicated column appeared several times weekly in Pacific Stars and Stripes. GI's loved him.

First thing in the morning when my Army journalist buddies and I would arrive at our Seoul news bureau, one of us would invariably ask, "Seen Murray yet this mornin'?"

As an Army sports columnist, I tried to emulate him. Every young journalist did.

After my discharge in 1967, I arrived back in Orange County and enrolled in college. I set my sights on a career in public relations and, though I would continue to write news and public relations stuff for decades, my column-writing days were over.

At least until four years ago this week.

I'd been retired for a year from my 37-year assignment as Orange Coast College's community relations director when I received a phone call from the Daily Pilot asking me if I'd be interested in a weekly column gig.

Frankly, I figured I'd be tapped out of ideas in a fortnight or two, but I couldn't resist the challenge.

It's turned out to be one of the adventures of my life. I haven't missed a deadline. Who knew I had 200 columns in me? That number pales in comparison to Murray's 10,000, but it's far bigger than what I expected to produce — by a factor of about 10.

So, I think I'll keep writing this for as long as folks at my hometown newspaper tolerate me, or until I suffer writer's block for two successive weeks.

Maybe then I'll take up skateboarding in my insulated skivvies.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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