By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Newspaper work is humbling on many levels and the humility part of the work only increases with time. I recently spoke with a friend whose daughter landed a job with the Daily Planet of West Virginia newspapers, and my friend said she had no idea as to how much of a sacrifice it is to work at a newspaper.
After learning about some of those sacrifices firsthand, she told me that it gave her a new appreciation for the people who surrender the good things in life to provide the baseline minimum of information to a communications thirsty world — reporters. She said she wished that she didn’t have to supplement her daughter’s livelihood, but it made her feel like she was doing her part for the greater good.
During the winter months, the late Tom Colley would often call me into his office, tell me that there was snow in the forecast and ask me to write something special for Sunday’s newspaper because people would be stuck in their homes and they would need something good to read. He was the boss, so I always responded, “Yes sir,” but as I walked out of his office, I would roll my eyes and openly wonder: “Why didn’t he just ask me to bring him a pizza?” Reporters can’t just invent good stories at the drop of a hat, no matter how seasoned they might be.
The good humbling part of newspaper work is when a friend hears about a good story and shares it with me. Jack Caffrey did just that last week when he heard the story of how Eleanor Beckner of the Welch Branch, McDowell County Library, had helped Russell Broxterman, a metal detector enthusiast from Kansas, track down the family of an Army Air Corps sergeant whose military dog tag he had found.
Within an instant, I went from having no solid stories lined up to having a very good story that fell together through the course of the day on Friday and seemed to write itself on Saturday morning. After speaking with several people, I worried that it would be too complex for me to make understandable, but fortunately, it worked out like it was meant to be.
Every time something works, I always recall the words of one of my Navy buddies from back in the time when I worked with Halifax Engineering at the Morgantown Energy Technology Center. He often told me about the training for nuclear submariners. He said that all of the submariners that he trained with had to go into a room filled with pipes. He said that training officers would initiate leaks in various pipes to simulate situations for the trainees to repair. My friend said it was a difficult exercise — full of surprises.
I worked with several former Navy submarine guys at METC. Most of them worked around nuclear energy, so the coal and gas we were working with in Morgantown didn’t seem to bother them. Several of them had nuclear cards that reflected their level of exposure to radiation. When their cards became too full, they had to leave those jobs and transfer to other sites where the government contractors had available jobs. If their cards weren’t too full, they might just be away from working with nuclear energy for a few months, but some had to sit out for years.
The job I had with Halifax and later EG&G were the best paycheck jobs I ever had. I was making $9.97 per hour back in 1979, and that was like a million dollars to me. The submarine guys said they could barely make it on that kind of money, which puzzled me. I made more when I had my own tractor-trailer, but my expenses could be out of this world if something broke down. The nuke guys wanted to get back to those contractor jobs because the money was so much better.
It troubled me to think that the guys I knew who were doing that had to wear badges all the time. I was bothered because even though they had to take breaks from working at those jobs, they were still being exposed to radiation, and I always wondered about the long-term affects of exposure on those guys.
My buddy’s favorite Navy saying was: “It takes five ‘At-a-boys’ to make up for one ‘Ah shucks.’ ” Maybe “shucks” wasn’t the exact word, but for this writing, it’s close enough. Working in the tight quarters of a nuclear submarine, hundreds of feet beneath the ocean surface could be kind of challenging under any circumstances, but when one of the guys messed up, the impact could be far reaching for everyone, he explained.
So, next time you get a pat on the back for any job well done, remember the submariner’s code that it takes five of those commendations to make up for one mistake. I try to remember that lesson when I hear the words: “Ah shucks!”
Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.