By John Coutts
Shetland Isles, Scotland
I grew up in the 1950s, a time when most of the western world was obsessed with the threat of communism. The McCarthy era in the USA had made everyone twitchy. Even on the tiny remote island where I lived, in the far north of Scotland, we knew all about the possibility of “Reds under the beds.”
No doubt it served to confirm the perceived communist conspiracy when fishing boats from the Soviet Union started to arrive in Scottish waters in ever-increasing numbers. By the late 1950s there were always hundreds of Soviet trawlers lying anchored close inshore around most of the inhabited islands.
For a young boy it was fun. The long dark winter nights were lit by dozens of flashing searchlights that raked the shoreline all night long. The summer days were a constant blast of pop music played on every deck loudspeaker of every ship within miles. It must have been intimidating for older people, but I was oblivious to all that.
Then one January night in 1962, when islanders were just sitting down to their early evening meal, the sharp explosion of marine distress rockets was heard above the rising howl of the force-10 gale outside.
The local volunteer coast guard hurriedly mobilized themselves and prepared for the first real sea rescue they had ever faced. A Soviet trawler had dragged her anchor and struck the cliffs close to where I lived. They rescued 12 men, including the captain, by breeches buoy before the ship sank. The other 12 were rescued by a lifeboat from another Soviet trawler.
The men were dispersed in two’s and three’s throughout the houses on our island. All of them were soaking wet and cold. They had lost everything they had except their lives.
That night they listened to Radio Moscow on our old valve radio. They joked and laughed and shook our hands often. They showed us damp photographs of wives and children, and they dried out packs of cigarettes which they insisted on sharing with everyone. Some of them could speak some English. Even when they had nothing left to give, gesture or say — they still smiled.
All I could think was: “Here were the communists and they were warm and friendly, joking and generous — not dark, evil and menacing,” as I had been told they would be.
The following morning a small Soviet lifeboat docked at our little jetty to take the men away. Before leaving, the captain turned to us children and handed us each a small coin from his pocket saying, “Keep this coin and remember the night the ship was wrecked on your island.” I still have that coin, a simple 15 Kopek piece.
I don’t know what happened to him or the other men, but I sincerely hope they were not punished for losing their ship. The lessons they taught an 11-year-old boy that night about kindness, warmth and friendliness have never been forgotten.