November 19, 2003
Reading this post stirred some old memories about the time I took a tour of a Russian Oceanographic Research ship that was docked down on River Street for about a week. I was friends with several people who worked at the Skidaway Island Institute at the time and they got me the tour.
We were supposed to stay together and be guided through the ship by some kind of Soviet Political Officer, but I deliberately dropped behind to explore on my own. I figured that the worst thing they could do to me if I were caught was to toss me into the Savannah River and I am a good swimmer.
I had traveled to Key West on the "Blue Fin," the Skidaway Institute's research boat. The Russian ship was nothing like the Blue Fin. All sorts of "Workers Unite!" and "Bless the Motherland" propaganda posters adorned the walls everywhere I looked. (The Blue Fin had Rigid Tool calenders for decoration.) The crew on board had been in Savannah for almost a week and had never set foot off the boat.
I was walking down a passageway when a Russian sailor stepped out of a small room and grabbed my arm. He didn't speak English, but he began gesticlating frantically in sign language. At first, I thought that he wanted to have sex with me. Then, I realized that he was trying to buy the Levi blue jeans I was wearing at the time. He offered me a really ugly pair of pants and a handful of Russian monopoly money for the swap.
I refused that deal, so he pointed at my shirt pocket. I had a pack of cigarettes there, so I offered him one. He took it and stuck it behind his ear. He then whipped out a pack of Russian cigarettes and made a very easily understood "I'll give you THIS for THAT" sign. I made that trade. I gave him a nearly-full pack of Marlboros for a pack of Russian cigarettes.
I got skunked on that deal. A Russian cigarette tastes like shit, as I discovered later. There's only about half a cigarette in one to begin with, and the rest is a cardboard filter/mouthpeice. The tobacco reminded me of an open pack of American smokes left on the dashboard of a pickup truck for three months of Southern summertime. It was ghastly.
I was retrieved shortly thereafter by someone who noticed me missing from the group. I was led to the bridge, where we drank vodka with the captain of the ship. Russians pour their vodka into something that resembles the small water glasses they serve you at a Waffle House and they damn near fill that thing to the top with straight, chilled vodka. You're supposed to make a toast and drink the whole glass down at once.
I did that twice and almost didn't make it off the boat. Got-Damn! Two of those will knock your dick in the dirt.
I'll drink vodka. But I'm not getting into a quaffing-contest with a Russian when I do.
Those people WILL drink themselves to death.
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