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Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2006 | Chuck Thomas is a land man. He’d much rather ride his motorcycle through desert back roads than spend an afternoon sailing on the bay.

“It’s pretty boring, just watching the water,” he says. “I’d rather watch paint dry.”

It turns out this land lubber ends up doing quite a bit of both. For 30 years, he’s worked as a painter on the Star of India and the San Diego Maritime Museum’s other ships on Harbor Drive. And despite his aversion to all-things-oceanic, Thomas has invested far more in the ships than the coats of paint he’s applied to them.

“You’ve got to do it for the passion,” he says. “They become a part of you — a lot of effort, blood, sweat and tears.”

Those ships he cares for include San Diego’s most iconic — the Star of India — claimed by the museum as the world’s oldest active ship. Also in the fleet are an 1898 steam ferry called the Berkeley, four other century-old ships — the Medea, the Pilot, the HMS Surprise and the Californian — and a B-39 submarine. Thomas and his two-person paint crew are responsible for the cosmetic appearance of all of the museum’s ships.

Over 30 years, Thomas has observed first-hand the wave of development rippling through the waterfront and downtown. The city’s changed a lot, he says, and so have its people. Thomas isn’t one for stereotypes, as a yoga-practicing, competitive-swimming biker who met his wife at a Tupperware party, so he hasn’t been rocked too hard by the changes. He just focuses his attention on his job and says the rest will take care of itself.

And while Thomas’s daily job description hasn’t changed much — he cycles through each ship, regularly touching up the paint and varnish inside and out — its surroundings have. His career has seen the waterfront workplace go from being the anchor of the maritime industry of San Diego’s roots to the present-day tourist magnet.

Indeed, Thomas’ first year at the museum coincided with former Mayor Pete Wilson’s plan for downtown redevelopment and the launch of the Centre City Development Corp. The trolley came a few years later in 1980. Horton Plaza opened in 1985 and the San Diego Convention Center in 1989.

Thomas remembers a time when the waterfront was peppered with tuna fishermen walking around “like John Travolta” with unbuttoned shirts and gold chain necklaces around their necks, before that industry dwindled away from the city. He recalls the time when city officials were trying to change the reputation of the Gaslamp Quarter from a sketchy area to an attractive place to live.

He remembers having to drive only 15 minutes on his motorcycle to get away from the city. Now, that trip could take an hour and a half. And even the speeds reached by drivers on the freeways — 85, 90 mph — are a symbol of the difference.

“It’s a race track,” he says.

But Thomas prefers a slower pace. Despite the dramatic changes to the waterfront around him, nothing’s changed about his commitment to doing his job well.

‘The Honeymoon’s Over’

At 6 a.m., in the dark mist of the morning marine layer, Thomas walks up the Berkeley’s ramp, illuminated by glowing streetlights to start the day. He dresses in painter’s whites — white Dickies overalls with several days’ worth of dusty gray handprints around the pockets, a white National Motorcycle Club of America t-shirt, a white Frazee Paint cap and white Converse hi-tops with black shoelaces. Under his cap, his head is bald. He sports a thick white mustache, wide white sideburns and a tuft of white hair under his bottom lip.

Thomas has been dressing in white ever since he started as a painter. “It’s my union upbringing,” he says. “I think if you work in a profession, you should look like you work in a profession.”

And Thomas’s professionalism doesn’t stop at his uniform. He walks around each ship in the morning, eyeballing any needed touch-ups or other cosmetic problems. He’s not even distracted by the waterfront views from the ships, he says.

“After 30 years, the honeymoon’s over,” he says. “After a while, it just becomes work, no matter how amazing the view is.”

When he was hired as a painter at the museum in 1975, the captain hiring him warned that if Thomas received gratification from seeing a job completed, this was the wrong line of work — there’s no end to the job.

“I told him, ‘I got a 30-year mortgage — keep it coming!’” Thomas says. “I could slow down and do the job right.”

Doing the job right, for Thomas, means applying the work ethic he learned from his Puritan grandparents to everything he does, no matter how menial the task seems. Where some painters might just slop another coat of paint over a problem area, Thomas strips as many layers off as necessary first to make sure the job will last.

‘That Old Pirate Thing’

When Thomas’s friend told him about the painting job at the museum in 1975, he didn’t even know what the Star of India was. He asked his friend if he meant “that old pirate thing down there.” He did.

Even now that he’s always spouting trivia about the ships, Thomas says a lot of people, especially his co-workers, are surprised at how little he likes them.

“My brother thinks there’s no life east of the sand,” Thomas says. “I think there’s no life west of the sand.”

“If it were up to me,” he continues, “we’d all still be in Europe, dying of the plague. There ain’t no way you’re getting me on a ship in the middle of the damn ocean.”

But no matter where he is, he’s a hard worker, he says.

“I believe in starting a job and finishing it, even if it can’t be finished,” he says. “And, selfishly, I knew that if I stayed in the painting field, there are worse places to be. I’d just have to spend a day in the shipyard to know that.”

Despite the fact that many ship painters elsewhere make more money than Thomas, he’s glad to work at the museum.

“You’re never going to have a house in La Jolla if you work for the Maritime Museum,” he says. “But it’s steady. They’re not going to say, ‘Well, Chuck, pack your brushes.’ At least, I don’t think so.”

Finding a Rhythm

Thomas has found that steadiness in his life away from the ships, as well. Born in Galesburg, Ill., Thomas graduated high school and went on to work in a cornfield and an assembly line before being drafted for military service.

“Just when I thought I had my groove on, Uncle Sam came and got me,” he says.

He served in Korea before the major conflict there, then returned to Illinois for a brief time. He saw his chance to “exit stage left,” he says, and rode his motorcycle out to San Diego in the mid-’60s, with not much more than his leather jacket on his back.

He met his wife at a Tupperware party that Thomas and some other biker guys attended as a gag. They’ve been married for 27 years and live in a paid-off house in City Heights. They have two daughters, aged 25 and 37.

Thomas has been riding motorcycles for four decades. In the last 10 years, he’s added competitive swimming and yoga to his schedule.

“You know where I do my best thinking? In the pool,” he says. “That water passing past you, it’s repetitive. It’s quiet, no music. Nothing but you and your mind. That black line at the bottom. You just do it and do it and do it and do it.”

Why the pool but not the ocean?

“I can see the bottom,” he says. “Chances are there’s not something that’s gonna come bite my leg off and make me an old sailor.”

“Swimming is all about time. You’re racing the clock,” he says. “It’s like the fountain of youth — you can either age gracefully or ungracefully. I prefer to do it gracefully.”

Sunlight: ‘My Biggest Nemesis’

Varnish is a particular point of pride for this painter. Because the ships are affected considerably by the elements — sun and salt primarily — the varnish wears away quite often.

“Varnish is like dishes — there’s always more to do,” he says. “It’s laborious, it’s tedious. But I’d rather be doing that than sitting in front of a computer all day.”

To wipe up the excess varnish, he uses a tatter of a red “SECURITY” t-shirt from his stint as a guard at the museum’s Festival of Sail a couple of years ago. “Red is not one of my colors,” he explains wryly.

The sunlight streaming through the ships’ windows necessitates frequent touchups.

“My biggest nemesis is sunlight,” Thomas says as he adds a coat of varnish to the window frames on the upper deck of the Berkeley. “It’s just like if you laid out at the beach all day — you’d burn up.”

“I try to keep it looking like nobody’s been there,” he says of the cosmetics of the ships. Thomas likens his job to the “stealthy” maintenance crews at Disneyland, who keep the park looking perfect without being seen by visitors.

He says he worries about the ships sometimes, about the effects of the weather and, to a lesser extent, about the potential for damage from the private parties that are often held on them.

“I think about it a lot, ’cause I’m the guy who has to fix it,” he says. “But whatever brings in revenue is a good thing.”

Not the First, Not the Last

Every once in a while, something has happened to interrupt Thomas’s rhythm. Times have changed over 30 years, and not just in the city. Thomas has had to adapt to environmental laws and new technologies. He even started using a computer six months ago to keep track of scheduled events on the ships — something he swore he’d never do.

“I used to say, ‘When you find a computer that knows how to scrape, sand and paint, then I’ll get one,’” he said. But the convenience of the machine convinced him in the end.

Next year, Thomas will hang up his paintbrush for good. His replacement, Sal, has been working at the Maritime Museum since 1994.

“He’s just as passionate as I am,” Thomas said. “He’s one of a kind. You don’t find people these days with his kind of work ethic. He’s old-school — eight hours’ pay for eight hours’ work.”

Sometimes people like Thomas retire reluctantly, fearful that their contributions will be forgotten, or worse, undone. But he’s become skilled at selecting his staff — Sal and another painter, Marge, make up Thomas’ paint crew — and says he knows they’ll do a good job.

“We’ve just got so many pots and pans in the fire. It’s nice to have people with gifts,” he says.

Retirement won’t mean boredom for Thomas. He’s already been asked to be a lifeguard and an “arthro-cize” instructor at the YMCA, two positions that promise to be stress-free.

“I won’t have to worry about weather, about parties,” he says. “I won’t have to worry about anything.”

And, Thomas says, the ships have absorbed the life’s work of many men and women before he was even born. He’s just been a piece of the picture.

“I’m not the first guy who ever painted on this ship,” he says, “and I’m sure I’m not going to be the last.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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