Thrown upon the shore, on half pay


Having mentioned my speech to the local chapter of the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association, I thought I’d go ahead and share with you the first part of my remarks, which as you can see I tailored to my audience:

First, I want to apologize for showing up at a Navy event wearing vaguely Army colors [brown camel coat, green shirt]. I don’t know what I was thinking when I got dressed this morning. I do know better, having grown up in the Navy. In fact, I’d like you all to meet my Dad, Capt. Don Warthen, USN, ret.

I never rose above the rank of dependent in the Navy myself, but the values that were instilled in my have informed my work over the years. Although I refuse to subscribe to either the liberal or conservative worldview, a couple of years back, I wrote a column headlined “Give Me that Old-Time Conservatism,” meaning the kind that I felt John McCain embodied (as opposed to that of a Mark Sanford or a Sarah Palin). I ended it this way:

By now some of you think I have it in for all things “conservative.” I don’t. I just grew up with a different concept of it from that which has in recent years been appropriated by extremists. I grew up in a conservative family — a Navy family, as a matter of fact. To the extent that “conservative ideas” were instilled in me, they weren’t the kind that make a person fume over paying his taxes, or get apoplectic at the sound of spoken Spanish. They were instead the old-fashioned ones: Traditional moral values. Respect for others. Good stewardship. Plain speaking.

And finally, the concept that no passing fancy, no merely political idea, is worth as much as Duty, Honor and Country.

That column ran on Feb. 3, 2008.

I’m very fond – obsessively fond – of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring tales about Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. I got my Dad to read them, and I urge any of you who haven’t to do so. Those novels recreate a wonderful world that has in it many things that resonate with me. One of them is the way Jack always refers to the Navy as “the Service,” and he’s always about what’s best for the Service. It’s a different Navy and a different century, but that’s the way I always heard of the Navy referred to growing up. In our household, it was The Service – and all that implies.

Jack Aubrey lives in dread of being without a ship – of being cast upon the shore on half pay, with no chance to distinguish himself, not to mention no chance to get prize money (different century, indeed).

Well, I can really identify. After 35 years of “the Service” of newspapers – 22 of it at The State – I found myself suddenly thrown upon the shore essentially on half pay, if that.

How did this happen?

After that, it was essentially the same speech I gave to the Five Points Rotary last fall (picking up after the anecdote about getting my thumbnail polished). Both groups had asked me to explain what on Earth was happening to newspapers. Both groups were largely made up of avid newspaper readers who were distressed that I was no longer at the paper, but even more distressed over what was happening to newspapers that would cause that to happen.

By the way, about my “on the shore on half pay” analogy — I almost used instead the plot of The Reverse of the Medal, in which Jack was actually thrown out of the Service for a crime he didn’t commit. In some ways, that was a better analogy, since I was out of my newspaper’s service for good, and would likely have to become a privateer (go into PR or advertising or consulting or some other line of work aimed at the private good of the client), since there was no point in joining another Navy, all of them being in decline.

But on an emotional level, it didn’t work. There are some things I miss about working at the paper — while I used to HATE the daily, repetitive tyranny of having to get the pages out (just as I would get interested in something new and exciting to work on, the blasted proofs would land on my desk, and there went the rest of the day), once I didn’t have that I missed it: How on Earth do you know you’ve done your job that day if you haven’t published another newspaper? It’s weird for me to work on things that aren’t due for days, weeks, even months…

But other than that, this is nothing like what Jack experienced when he was cashiered. He was crushed; his reason for living had gone away. For me, though, I still had a blog — and for the last few years at the paper, doing a blog was the most fun part of the job. In a way, I guess that’s sort of like privateering, too. You’re still at sea doing what you love, but not in the service of a large institution. There’s greater freedom in it, as Jack discovers when he gets his heart’s desire and is reinstated (in The Thirteen-Gun Salute) to the far more rigid Navy.

No, I haven’t mourned. I’ve worried about money; I’ve felt ill-at-ease at times. But I don’t have that terrible sense of loss that I’ve seen in some friends. The last few months have felt more like an interlude before another adventure, so being on the shore on half-pay (which is pretty much what my severance check amounted to, stretched over the time since I left) between ships seems to match it better. Only with a twist: Working at the paper was like being in the modern Navy. All I could get was my salary. Whereas being free to freelance feels more like the Navy of Jack’s day, with injections of prize money here and there, depending upon my enterprise and skill. No salary, but prize money. It’s interesting.

8 thoughts on “Thrown upon the shore, on half pay

  1. Hunter Brumfield

    I was an Army brat myself.

    I think newspaper makes you too self-absorbed. The only j teacher I ever had would say “don’t take thyself too damn seriously” and he was right.

    So take some time to reflect and enjoy. I sure agree with your deadlines loathing. Was always like you had a book report due. What sort of life is that for an adult!? Jeez.

    I too love the seafaring stories. Have the whole Hornblower series on cd. Google “Minoru Saito” and see my blog on him. In the latest entry he nearly cut his arm off. Age 76 and 8 tImes around the world single-handed. No joke… In 1995 he finished one circumnavigation race with a badly fractured hand.

  2. Walter

    Lawyers and journalists are “over-achievers??? Might want to pull in the reins on the egos there Kate… the only people who’ll believe that are, well, journalists and lawyers.


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