notes from the field

No. 11 - Russian Character

There is sometimes a glimpse of the Russian character in unexpected places. Communications between people on deck, in the labs and on the bridge is accomplished with a series of loud speakers and microphones. The chatter is sporadic, except during a tricky deployment, and conducted in a mix of Russian and English.

We talk among ourselves, passing measurements and positions over hand-held radios, but communication over the loud speaker is more rudimentary: stop, up, down, thank you, don't mention it -- which have obvious Russian equivalents: stop, vera, minor ... The oceanographer uses the system more than anyone else as he collects a series of water samples at precise depths, but it is used briefly at each station by the biologists in order to turn the net around after reaching the desired depth.

One talks through a microphone, which is a work of art, at the end of a long wire. There is one in the main computer room strung from who knows where along with the zillion other wires we've tie-wrapped to anything standing still, there's one on deck that's has a heavy coiled wire that retracts out of the way, there's one next to the big windows on the bridge that look down over the after deck.

The Russians like the speakers turned up loud, to the point where they hum in the background. Whatever is said into the microphone is directed to strategically located speakers, amplified, and in your face. The microphone is a slender triangle, about seven inches long and a couple inches wide, brown marbled in color, and molded in very hard, thick plastic. At the short flat end of the triangle is a small grate that you speak to and along the side is a long lever set into the plastic; squeeze the lever and the microphone is activated. It's made in a sort of heavy art deco style and its appearance resembles something from an early set of plastic dishes. When you talk into it your words have an immediate presence in several places simultaneously. The oceanographer has christened it the Bakalite Talking Tube and we pass it back and forth with some ceremony.


next episode: Superbowl!