The Owasco Chronicles........
By Dave Moyer
As any sailor will attest, there exists just one absolute aboard a United States Naval Vessel. If you are not fortunate enough to be an officer and a gentleman as proclaimed by act of Congress of the Country of your service you will at some time or other participate in ........... painting. I certainly did and I haven't met anyone in dungarees aboard a vessel who hasn't.
I've painted bulkheads, overheads, decks, rails and ladders. I've painted things white, gray, buff, red, and black. Along with all of that goes preparation. That's even better. I've chipped, scraped, sanded, and feathered. I've primed with red lead, zinc chromate and other chemicals with forgotten names but remembered fumes. When all your responsible spaces and bulkheads and decks are finally done you simply went back to where it all began and started chipping, preparing priming and painting all over again. Sort of like a hamster in a wheel. Perpetual motion with a chipping hammer, paint brush and roller.
This activity was not one of my favorite pastimes. I am quite sure I could have gotten the crew to agree with me on very short notice. Imagine our surprise and pleasure to learn about our R&R in Hong Kong and our forthcoming introduction to "Rat Mary."
"Rat Mary," I doubt if anybody knew her real name, was a rather enterprising woman. She only stood about five foot and weighed a rather hefty estimated 160 to 180 pounds. She was somewhere between 45 and 70 years old. Looking good was not one of Mary's strong points. She was a painting contractor, garbage collector, scrap recycler, retail manager, orphanage supervisor, and one shrewd old lady when it came to negotiations. She offered her services to U.S. Naval and Coast Guard Vessels of destroyer size and smaller with, I might add, the blessing of the United States Government. How she ever managed to obtain that is well beyond the realm of my mind.
Here was Mary's deal. You the crew prepare your ship for painting, i.e., chip, feather, and prime the hull and superstructure. Then for a price and some special privileges, Mary's girls would do the finish coat. That's where the orphanage part came in.
According to a conversation I had with one of Mary's "girls," They were just that. Owned by Mary. She bought the in infancy from their parents who simply couldn't afford a female child. Now before you pull your noses out of joint you may want to acquaint yourselves with the Chinese way of life. Her purchase of these girls probably saved their lives. For that privilege, Mary put them to work. Oh, she paid them. She fed, housed, and clothed them as well as gave them a small, very small, wage which she kept in a special account or so I heard. When they reached 21 they "bought their freedom" and were sent on their way, somewhat educated, somewhat job trained and very much alive.
We were positively amazed and dumbfounded when we found out that this hated chore was going to be done by someone else for a price. This price was:
The Captain struck the deal and "Rat Mary's" girls went to work.
These gals painted the hull from small rafts tied around the ship and the superstructure from small ladders brought aboard. The interesting part was they used no brushes or rollers. They used white rags which were simply dipped into the paint containers and wiped over the area to be painted. Believe it or not, all with very little waste and with an end result that was superior to any job we ever did. There was also some detail work to be completed. The hull stripe was indicative of all Coast Guard vessels had to be cut in. Stenciling of all water mains on the main deck and the trim work around ladders had to be done. No problem for Mary. Her girls couldn't do that kind of work so Mary sub-contracted it out to a group of men painters from the city. That was, of course, at no extra charge. The price included the detail work.
Each morning a small, motorized barge would pull up to the fantail and Mary's girls would dump the previous day's garbage. They were given permission to go inside the ship to empty the cans and pails set around the berthing area and mess decks. They were not allowed topside to the bridge area including radio central and the combat information compartment. These were secure areas but the areas they were permitted to go took some getting used to for the crew. You could be in the berthing area changing into some dress whites and there'd be one of Mary's girls rummaging through the garbage can. It sure didn't bother us either. Believe it or not, nothing strange happened all the time we were there and we did have a few strange crew members.
The concession stand came with a bit of a problem. The Captain wasn't to keen on the idea, or so I heard, but he finally relented. We also had to empty our soda machine. Mary was no fool. Competition wasn't tolerated. She simply brought some wash tubs with ice and soda on board in the morning and rigged a small canopy to give her soda girl some shade. The girl chosen by Mary was the youngest of the "working" girls, about 12 or 13. This was Mary's way of easing her into the working fold. The group would arrive around 8 a.m. and depart around 5.
The Owasco looked great, so great in fact that the official WESTPAC picture to be given to the entire crew was taken in Hong Kong after Mary was done. This did create a small problem. To make the picture look official the soda franchise had to be removed for as short period of time during the day. "Rat Mary" didn't like the idea. She considered it a breach of contract of sorts, however she was finally convinced and relented. I never did hear who arranged for the photographer.
We were sort of shoved out of Hong Kong by a runaway Pacific Typhoon headed for the city. As we sailed out of the harbor we looked good, damned good. It didn't take long for the weather and the salt to undo all of "Rat Mary's" work but we did appreciate her services.
For a brief period of time our "hamster wheel" had come to a full stop and allowed us to get off. We were thankful for that.
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