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By Kelly Matthews
 
 
Spring 1958. I had been aboard the Collett nearly two years. I had learned a few things, like never volunteer and all that. A more subtle lesson to learn was to avoid being noticed if you had some special ability, or money, or whatever.  But near the end, I finally let my guard down and began doing little arty sketches just to pass the time during those long, boring lulls
between bouts of furious activity. I shouldn't have done that!
 

See? All of a sudden we heard "ADMIRAL'S INSPECTION coming!". Oh, oh, another round of furious labor, scrubbing, polishing, painting etc. Then, somebody from the deck apes made a deal with my bosses in the radar shack.  "We will chip, red lead, and paint your bulkheads if Matthews (who is an artist) will repaint the insignia on the stack." Of course they agreed!
Shee-yut! (that's a military technical term). That insignia was way up there at the top of the smokestack, a checkered shield with a golden sword crossing it, hardly an artistic challenge but certainly a mountain climber would find it interesting.


How could I get up there? The deck apes said no problem, I should attach a pulley at the very top and then use a rope to pull myself up, tying off the rope at the required height so that I could be suspended in front of my work.  Well, how could I get up there with the pulley? Deck ape said no problem, just climb the ladder that goes up the mast. When high enough, I should make that itty-bitty hop from the mast over to the stack.  I needed to make a seat at one end of the rope. They said to make a seat I should tie a loop in the rope and then put in this little board, like the swing in the old apple tree.


Well, how can I get a bucket of paint up there and have a hand free for painting? "Old Navy trick" he says "just take some twine and make a little net around the can and then tie it to the rope above you, so that it dangles just above your lap. This way, the paint will stay level while the ship rolls."  Man, those guys really knew all the tricks!
 

So I began the fearsome task. My "little net" was a clumsy affair but I thought it might be OK. Next I needed to place the pulley at the top of the stack. Crouching halfway up the mast, I contemplated the "little hop". It was only three or four feet, no problemo if you are navigating at ground level, but it is unnerving to be airborne when there is only air beneath you! There was a skinny wire going by that I could hold on to but it didn't look strong enough to hold my weight if I tripped. I held on to it anyway, and made the jump. After calming myself, I attached the pulley and made the return hop. Somebody, being funny, operated the ships foghorn just at the scariest time. Only a small "poot" from the thing, which was close to my ear, otherwise the wise guy could get in big trouble if the captain heard it. That foghorn was really powerful, being designed to be heard fifteen miles at sea. I didn't think it was funny,
my nerves were already shot and I could have been killed by a startle reflex.  Down the mast I go, get one end of the rope and haul it up the mast in order to put it through the pulley. Made the hop. POOT! Damn! I resolved to catch the danged comedian on my return trip. Attached rope. Hop. POOT! I saw nothing. Nobody was on the bridge where the foghorn control was. He must have been using mirrors or something.

Down below, I discovered that the rope was too short, leaving my board seat suspended about 5 feet above the deck. I was able to reach up and attach my paint can, in its little net contraption. I had a can of bright yellow paint to paint the "golden" sword. By grabbing hold of one object on the stack here and placing a foot on a handrail there, I was able to crab-walk myself up to the required height. It was a good trick to carefully insert one leg over the board
and under the paint, then the next leg, but I succeeded. Up we go! It was surprisingly easy but also worrisome because if I lost my hold on the rope it would be a fast trip down.

At the top I began painting. It required some concentration to apply paint within the boundaries because I seemed to sway in one direction while the ship went the other way, but I was doing fine until...

The paint can discovered a weakness in the little net and turned itself upside down into my lap! A half gallon of yellow! The paint then followed gravity in various ways, one major path was down the side of the stack. Other globs naturally made a direct descent and then splattered against everything below.

"Dang" I said (I had survived many SNAFUs by this time and could stay calm). You will recognize my reaction as a survival technique handed down from our ancestral encounters with saber toothed tigers and such. One shuts off emotions because feelings of panic and anger are useless. You have to quickly think of the best thing to do.

So I thought "You know, if I get a bunch of rags I can wipe up a lot of this before it dries." Next I thought "Better hurry, don't let that stuff dry!"

Having untied the rope, I let it slip rapidly through my hands in order to speed my descent. I hadn't noticed that a lot of the paint had fallen on the rope which had coiled up on the deck beneath me. Before long I discovered a spray effect where the paint on the up-going rope was being skimmed off by my down-going hands. This alarming effect made me forget that the rope was some five feet too short!

Picture this: On the deck was a considerable puddle of yellow paint. Five feet above this was my butt on a flat board.....

Splat! Everything in sight was now speckled yellow. But wait! There is more! The paint-soaked free end of the rope had traveled up as I traveled down, going splat, splat, splat as it painted the stack right up to the pulley.. The rope then went entirely through the pulley and fell, coiling on top of me. I resembled a pile of yellow spaghetti.

Now, I was in full bore, flat-out panic! I leaped free of entanglements like Superman, faster than the speed of light. Well, more like Barney Miller, smarter than a speeding bullet. I ran to get rags. Maybe ten feet south, then down the ladder to the main deck, maybe fifty north to the bosun's locker at the bow, down the ladder. Grabbed a pile of rags. Easy to find my way
back....yellow footprints! Nevermind! First I gotta wipe down the stack because it would be the most difficult to clean when the paint dried. Gotta get that rope reattached to the pulley. Up the mast I climb! I jump across the scary part. Ack! I slipped and then pulled hard on the little wire.  BLAAAAAAAAAAT!! That damned wire was the foghorn control!

Picture this: A smoggy afternoon in Long Beach. No wind. Sea gulls flapping around. Ships all huddled together, rocking a little bit, not much happening.  One strange looking destroyer lets loose a roar that would have frightened dinosaurs, audible from here to El Segundo!

Whoa! Time to slow down, get my wits about me. Stop, rest, think. There was no dignified way to perch on the stack. I rested in a ridiculous sort of Asian Squat, knees high, butt low (yellow). The Captain rushed into view, looking like a man with a stick, who was looking for a snake. He was trying to determine who torched off the foghorn in port. I saw his eyes encounter the mess on the deck. I saw his eyes follow the yellow river up the stack. I saw his eyes lock on me.

"Did You do this, son?"
"Yes Captain."
"Humph! You're doing more harm than good!"

Away he went, looking for the foghorn culprit. I was left there alone, still alive.

I spent the rest of my Navy career (two weeks) cleaning it all up and laughing.  It was only two weeks because the Navy was letting me out early.

I wonder why?

During my last trip ashore, I memorized everything, the liberty boat going chug, chug, bloop, bloop, the USS Collett DD730 getting smaller and more distant. The garbage stacked on the fantail. Red lead on the stern. The ship insignia had a bright yellow spot on the sword but the rest of it was faded. I wonder if the Admiral noticed.

Matthews RD3, USS Collett