Beware of Russian Wardrooms
The Captain and I left his cabin and proceeded to the wardroom. My boarding party was there along with Russian officers including two I had not met before. All were standing behind their chairs. The Captain took his place at the head of the table and indicated the chair at his left for me.
I turned to face the shoulder of the giant officer next to me. I tipped my head back, took in his scraggly face, large nose, and unkempt black hair that hung a little over his ear, and smiled hello.
“Gentlemen,” the Captain spoke the single word of greeting as he took his seat followed by all others. At each place was a dessert-sized plate with cut fruit and a small stack of neatly quartered cold-cut sandwiches. There was a large filled water glass to the right of the plate, and next to it an empty one about the size of an I-Hop juice glass. A single line of Pepsi-Cola sized bottles extended the length of the table. They were clear glass, clear liquid, tops off, standing shoulder to shoulder, like a centerpiece of crystal towers. I couldn’t read the label, but, I figured that the bottles didn’t contain water.
For a few moments we engaged in a babble of awkward introductions, struggling with unpronounceable names. But, congenial sign language set the atmosphere for a friendly meeting.
Before long, the Captain stood in place, everyone pushed their chairs back in unison and stood at attention. He reached for his juice glass and the closest bottle of vodka. He filled his glass, a good four plus ounces, set the bottle back on the table. Extending his arm in front of him, elbow straight, he said, “Gentlemen!” Everyone followed his lead. Lifting his glass as if it were an Olympic torch, he intoned in a solemn bass voice, “A Toast. To all the men who go down to the sea in ships.”
“To all the men who go down to the sea in ships,” we echoed like a practiced chorus, we all raised our glass high. Then with a single bend of the elbow, heads tossed back, the Russians drained their glass to the bottom in nearly one gulp.
Pre cold war briefing notes warned that the Russians might try to get you drunk. So, in a perfectly polite gesture, I took a small sip from my glass, smiled, and returned it to the table to await the inevitable next toast. The boarding party followed. Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw the bear paw of the giant officer next to me, long hair on the back of his hand, a finger twice as big as my thumb, pointed at my glass.
“Vat is dat?” A heavy accent, but I understood.
I turned, faced his blue shoulder, glanced at his unsmiling face, and continued with my prepared speech. “Sir, in my country, when we are honored to share such fine whisky, out of respect for its quality, we sip it to insure its endurance.”
The bear was roaring now! “In my country we drink like this!” Refilling his glass and inhaling it in one tipping, he then ceremoniously slammed it upside down on the table, rattling the centerpiece, bottles clinking in tones like wind chimes. “That’s the way we drink to honor a country! You drink like the stuffy British!”
“What do I do now,” I thought, “Dètente—first American boarding— what could happen? International incident?” So I raised my glass with equal flourish and drained it to the bottom, then slammed it upside down on the table to great cheers, applause, and laughter of the Russians as I choked back an embarrassing cough, my throat burning. My team gave me a questioning glance, then dutifully followed my lead.
It became obvious that protocol dictated, unlike at casual dinner parties at home, no drinking during the conversation. I began to fear interspersed bottoms-up chug-a-lug moments.
I was right. A little business…a little toast.
At one lull in the proceedings, the Captain turned to me, placed his elbow on the table, open hand pointing straight up, pushed his coat sleeve back and poked repeatedly at his wristwatch. He said, “Do you know Ratti? Coast Guard Ratti?”
“Yes,sir. I do know Admiral Ratti. Not well, but I know of him.”
Now a Rear Admiral, stationed in Washington, I knew he had once been the CO of the Storis, out of Kodiak, and he was surely a veteran of fisheries patrols.
“This Ratti’s watch! I beat him.” He chuckled, slamming his closed fist to the table. So, they had been in an arm wrestling contest and the Russian captain now wore the prize. I could not get into this. I turned to Fin and Feathers, “Sid, are you comfortable with what you have?” When he nodded, I rose and charged my glass. Everyone followed.
When all glasses were filled, arm extended, I said, “Gentlemen, we thank you for your hospitality. Our business is done. We appreciate your cooperation. We must return to our ship. But first, a toast.” With all arms raised to the overhead, I continued, “Gentlemen! A toast. To all the mariners at sea working hard to bring food to their countrymen.” God! That really sounded stupid! But the vodka went down the same. This time, however, it only warmed my throat. No burn.
As we emerged onto the bright open deck which had been cleared of the small mountain of crabs, I began thinking that the climb back down the pilot ladder was going to be more dangerous than the climb up. The Captain must have had the same thoughts as he motioned with his arms and yelled something in Russian.
The cargo crane whirred and swung toward us, expertly placing a large wicker fish basket on the deck in front of us. “This will be easier,” the Captain said as he shook all our hands and assisted everyone into the clean basket.
We shot straight up, a rocket-like takeoff, then swung quickly across the deck like a giant pendulum. A crowd of factory women, gathered for a last glimpse of the Americans, laughed and waved to us as we flew over them. Then, a Coney Island parachute drop to an abrupt hover, and we were over our small boat which had been standing by.
The boat crew, grabbed the tether which dangled beneath our gondola and guided us to an easy landing. The carnival ride over, we all got out of the basket, without incident, and returned to the Resolute.
I made my way to the bridge and reported to the Captain. “Sir, the boarding went well; Sid has all the information. I’ll get together with him and prepare a report.”
He leaned close to me, smiled, and quietly asked, “And how are you doing?”
“Actually, Jack, I’m good right now, but I could use a little cabin time. The full force of that vodka hasn’t hit me yet.”
“Yeah, I agree. You better get some sack time, because we’ve got another boarding about five hours over the horizon.”