James Frank Kotera, or the real "JFK" as he calls himself, stopped drinking on April 3, 1975. Four years later, he weaved a new hobby into his life.
He hasn't stopped in 34 years.
The yield: two balls of twine — a monstrous one that he says weighs about 20,545 pounds and "Junior," a 47-pound one that he carries around town in Highland, Wis.
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Most evenings, Kotera can be found in his backyard under a canopy that protects his ball, slowly weaving in new red, yellow, green and blue twine scraps. He welcomes visitors and says he gets "anywhere from six to eight people a day."
So who would visit such a backwoods ball?
Jerome Pohlen would, and he's writing about it in his "Oddball" books, a series of travel guides that chronicle the weirdest and wackiest roadside attractions America has to offer.
Kotera's twine ball "is just the craziest thing in the world and that is what I love about it," Pohlen said during a recent interview at a Starbucks near the world's largest wagon outside the Radio Flyer headquarters in Elmwood Park. Pohlen included the wagon in his "Oddball: Illinois" travel guide. "(The twine ball) is not something profound, but it's something he has been dedicated to for decades," he said. "In that way, it is actually kind of beautiful."
For more than 20 years, Pohlen, 49, has been discovering beauty where most people would find oversized junk. His newest guide, the second edition of "Oddball: Wisconsin," features about 400 sites, double the amount of places in his first edition. Some of the locations include the world's largest corkscrew (in Hurley), the coffee cup museum (in Sister Bay) and the birthplaces of the hamburger (in Seymour) and the sundae (in Two Rivers).
Pohlen got interested in roadside sculptures and statues as an offshoot of his curiosity in outsider or "visionary" art, which the American Visionary Art Museum defines as "art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision"
His enthusiasm for oddities expanded in 1992 when he escaped the crowds of Wrigleyville during a Cubs game and drove with a friend to Milwaukee, making stops at unique places along the way.
"That was when I became interested in the goofy stuff," he said. "So I started this database of unique sites and collected information about famous graves, for example, or local stories. At first it was just to amuse myself and then I got the idea to make zines."
In 1993, Pohlen self-published "Cool Spots: Arizona," the first in his series of "Cool Spots" zines. Each of Pohlen's zines clocked in between 50-70 pages, mammoth in zine terms. Over the next six years, he printed and stapled separate zines for 40 states.
One of these zines caught the attention of Cynthia Sherry, publisher of the Chicago Review Press.
"I thought it was quirky and fun," she said during a phone call from her River North office. "I was drawn in by his writing. The places he finds are the antidote to the chain restaurants, big box stores and generic tourist attractions. He really uncovers places that are unique and make these little towns unique."
The first "Oddball" book focused on Illinois and was published in 2000 by the Chicago Review Press, where Pohlen is a senior editor. Since then, Pohlen has written one of his zany travel guides for Wisconsin, Florida, Texas, Colorado, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio and Iowa. The books focusing on Midwestern states have consistently sold well, Sherry said.
"I think they work best because they are not your typical travel destinations," she said. "Nobody thinks of Indiana as a travel destination they way they do for Florida. There are tons of guidebooks on Florida, but there are not very many on Indiana or Iowa or Illinois."
Uncle Fun, a Chicago curio store, has sold more of Pohlen's guides than anywhere else. Uncle Fun owner Ted Frankel said Pohlen's books sell well because they are "family friendly" and "visually driven."
"His books are easy to follow and written really well, and he has a great sense of humor and a good eye," Frankel said. "When you read his books, you discover the places that you would love to take your family or your friends."
When Pohlen sets out to write a new guides — as he has with "Oddball: Michigan," due out in the spring — he has years of research to fall back on. In his "Cool Spots" days, Pohlen started a database of unique locations mentioned in magazines and books and began collecting self-published periodicals and pamphlets from everywhere he visited. Today, he keeps a thick folder filled with possible sites for each state, and he looks and listens for leads.