Friday, October 07, 2005


A Pirate Tale 108: The Cannons Of Journalism

“Oscar, a word with you?”

Ol’ Chumbucket had waited until evening, when The Festering Boil was under way again, its hold now crammed with the gold intended for Spanish garrisons up and down the Caribbean. Quite a few soldiers were going to be extra grumpy in the coming months. Weighted down with all the gold aboard her, the Boil would have a very bad time of it if she were to try running over the shoals now.

With that in mind, Slappy had Dogwatch Watts lay in the safest course he could find for Port Royal, the only place in the Caribbean he could hope to offload that much gold without arousing the attention of the local authorities. Nominally a British outpost, the colony was literally run by pirates. There were few ports safer for the Boil right now than Port Royal.

So the ship was headed westerly, a strong breeze blowing off the port quarter, and the crew was guardedly relaxed (it being impossible to be completely relaxed with all that gold aboard.) And Ol’ Chumbucket had bided his time until late in the evening, when the shanty singing had died down and most of the pirates had drifted off to sleep, visions of bar wenches dancing in their heads. He had seen to it that Oscar had drawn the middle watch, and waited patiently. Finally, at four bells (2 a.m. for you lubbers out there) he approached the novice seaman/magazine reporter.

“Yessir?” Oscar said, hastily shoving his notebook into an inner pocket of his Gore-Tex rain slicker. (Oscar was nothing if not well accessorized. It had been paid for by his Pirattitude Monthly expense account.)

“Just wanted to chat, Gets kinda lonely in the late watches, don’t you find?”

Oscar looked at him warily, but just nodded assent.

“What did you think of today’s action?”

Oscar shifted his feet momentarily, then answered, “Quite interesting. Not to say it didn’t have it’s more – what’s the word I want?”

“Scary?” Chumbucket supplied.

“Yes, scary moments. When we went over that rock I thought we were goners”

“Oh, it wasn’t as close as it seemed,” Chumbucket said expansively, leaning back against the rail. “I know Slappy can act the fool from time to time, it’s part of his persona. But he knows this ship, knows what she can do, can feel her in the water. I was never too concerned that we’d bottom out. You have to understand that about Slappy if you’re going to write about him. For all his talk about his many ex-wives and all, it’s this ship that’s part of him. Well, this ship and that monkey, but I think that’s just a flirtation. You may quote me.”

Oscar’s hand darted towards the pocket where he kept his notebook, then held back, uncertain if the pirate was joking or not and decided he probably was.

“Still,” Oscar said, “It had its moments, didn’t it?”

“Oh yes. You know, you’re luckier than most reporters.”

“How so?” Oscar asked.

“Well, most reporters don’t actually DO anything, do they? They just watch other people do things, and then write about it. That’s got to be very frustrating after a while, I would imagine.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“But it’s true, isn’t it?” Ol’ Chumbucket continued. “But you got the chance to take part in a real pirate raid. That should make good copy for a story. Of course, if you were an actual member of the crew instead of a reporter, it would have been quite rewarding. We haven’t counted out the gold yet, but your share, if you were a pirate, would be a fairly tidy sum, enough anyway to allow you to retire from pirating, or reporting, or whatever it is you do.”

Oscar hadn’t considered that. It was a new angle.

“Of course,” Chumbucket continued, “your principles couldn’t let you do that, I’m sure. And if you were to write up the story for the magazine and it became common knowledge that you had taken part in a pirate raid that had so much success against the Spanish government, some court somewhere might consider it necessary to order you to pay that money to the crown. Or Pirattitude Monthly might expect you to take that in lieu of your usual payment.”

Oscar’s eyes grew round. He hadn’t thought of that either. Even worse, the magazine might expect him to pay back some of the advance and expense money he’d already spent. That would put a crimp in his retirement plans. Chumbucket continued casually.

“Still, it must be worth it. It’ll be a hell of a story and maybe even win you that prize you were on about.”

“The Putzler?” Oscar spat. “It’s purely honorary. The money that comes with the Putzler wouldn’t buy a round of drinks for the magazine’s advertising department. Of course, people who work in advertising tend to drink an awful lot, and they’re nothing compared to the production department, but the point still holds. It’s not much money.”

“Well, there are advantages to being a member of the Fourth Estate, I’m sure,” Chumbucket said, “Off the top of my head I can’t imagine what they might be but I’m sure there are some. Still and all, I think you’d probably be better served by living up to your signature on the crew manifest and forget your name on the magazine asthead.”

“You may have a point,” Oscar agreed slowly.

“So you consider yourself one of us, so to speak,” Chumbucket asked casually.

“As you say. It might be to my advantage,” said the reporter turned pirate, and Chumbucket judged it wasn’t so much a turn as a slight veer.

“You know, as one crewman to another, there’s something I’ve been wondering about.”

“What’s that,” Oscar asked.

“That hat, the one from the Tigershark. Where did you say you got it?”

Oscar tensed slightly, but answered, “From a sailor on the Bloody Scuppers.”

“But which sailor? I only ask because I know several of the fellows under O’Toole’s command and was just curious. And how did you say he came by it?”

“I didn’t. The story came to me in confidence. As a journalist, I never betray a source.”

“Oh, but this wouldn’t be betraying anyone. Nobody here but us pirates, you know? I just love a good sea yarn.”

“The sea yarns I’ve collected were supposed to be for the magazine, I couldn’t just blurt them out to anyone.”

“But you aren’t considering yourself a reporter, or only a reporter, any more are you?”

“Well, that’s hard to say. But either way, I was definitely a reporter when I received that information in confidence and I can’t betray a source.”

“You don’t have to say a thing,” Chumbucket soothed. “Just let me have a look in your notebook.”

That was obviously the wrong thing to say, because Oscar’s eyes grew round and his look of offended dignity was complete.

“I never!” he declared. “In all my days, I have never heard of such a heinous thing. A reporter turning over his notes? The idea is unthinkable. I would go to jail first! There’s such a thing as professional honor.”

There’s also such a thing as a cat o’nine tails, Chumbucket thought, but he didn’t say it. Instead he put on his most contrite look.

“I’m sorry. Forgive me. I didn’t understand how deeply you might hold that trust. If it’s that important to you, I would never dream of putting you in a position where you had to choose between a life of luxury earned as a member of the ship’s crew and your professional honor. It was wrong of me to put you in the position, and your editors at the magazine will certainly hear from me about what a fine set of journalistic ethics” – Chumbucket almost choked on the phrase – “you posses. Here, let us say no more about it.”

“Wait,” Oscar said nervously. “A life of luxury? Just for the sake of discussion, exactly how much money are we talking about?”

Ol’ Chumbucket named a figure that made Oscar’s eyes pop. “And that’s per crew member, and it’s the lowest reasonable estimate I can give without actually counting it up. We’ll have a better idea in a few days. It might be twice that. Not that it really matters, your ethics being so strong and all. I understand. It could be a pound or a million pounds. The amount matters not. Good morning to you.”

“Wait!” Oscar said. “You know, there’s a lot of talk these days about the ‘New Journalism,’ where reporters become personally involved to get a better understanding of their subject. And there’s also the whole “gonzo” journalism thing, where the rules don’t apply at all.”

“But you, sir,” Chumbucket said, “have nothing of the “gonzo” about you, and you’ve convinced me of your journalistic bona fides. So for now, a bien tot!”

“No, now, hold on,” Oscar said to Chumbucket’s departing back. Chumbucket stopped, counted to five, then turned. “Now, you don’t’ want to USE the notes for anything do you?”

“Oh, you have my word as a pirate on that.”

“And I’d get the notebook back,” Oscar said.

“Of course. What in the world would I want with reporter’s notebook?”

“And it would help me understand the world of pirates if I shared in EVERY aspect of your lives. I mean, it would make me a better reporter, wouldn’t it?”

Chumbucket took a step closer. “That seems reasonable to me.”

Oscar hesitated a moment, then reached into his pocket.

“And I’d be a full member of the crew, with rights to a full share, even though I didn’t actually keelhaul anyone or anything like that?”


He handed over the notebook.

“I’ll get this back to you just as soon as I can.”

“No hurry,” Oscar said. “I have to find a new story angle first.”

Chumbucket took the notebook and retired to his small space below deck. Oscar’s handwriting was eccentric and his spelling even worse, but the pirate was able to make out the gist of it. Very interesting, he thought, making his own notes. I’ll have to figure out what to do with this. But it can wait a bit. For now, we’ve got to get to Port Royal.

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