Richard Hyatt: Where nothing feels like home

February 13, 2014 

When a reporter at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics was warned about letting the toxic water in her hotel room touch her face, the world reacted. But no one responded when the Hardaway High School Band tried to find out the Russian word for constipation.

That was 1986. By now those young musicians must have recovered from a diet of Tom's peanut butter crackers and withdrawals from Big Macs and Coca-Colas that put their systems in distress.

I tagged along when the late Bill Pharris was the leader of the band and for two weeks in Russia was in charge of a symphony orchestra and their parents who did not speak the language. Pharris had to be a travel agent, nursemaid and foreign diplomat, not to mention a dining director who every day had to remind his horn section there was not a McDonald's around the corner.

Mikhail Gorbachev unlocked the borders of the Soviet Union and paved the way for the Hardaway band to schedule performances in Moscow and Leningrad. Twenty-eight years later, they tell stories about a country where they couldn't drink the water, couldn't sell their blue jeans and where the sun beamed at bedtime.

Adventures began in the Moscow airport when a student mentioned he had left his gun at home. Pharris spent hours talking the trumpet player out of trouble.

Nothing felt like home. They saw locals stand in line for vegetables and toilet paper and used cheap band medals to bribe their instruments out of the country. At Lenin's Tomb red guards scolded some young Americans who hadn't buttoned their jackets.

Charlotte Conner's children played in the band and she remembers feeling safe.

"I remember beggars or gypsies coming to the bus nursing their babies and asking for money," she said. "We were inside a church that was no longer used for worship and I saw an old lady hiding behind a column with rosary beads saying her prayers. I remember Vicky Corradino being detained in Leningrad because she was wearing a cross on her necklace."

Food was a struggle. Some people lived off snacks brought from home. Others depended on soup and bread.

"I will never forget looking down at my plate and seeing the end of a cow's tongue with the taste buds still on it," says Geralyn Haralson Roller.

Her 14-year-old son assisted a Channel 9 reporter who accompanied the group. Jon Haralson now owns Banner Buildings and holding a camera he saw things his classmates didn't see.

"The KGB was following us and we were told not to accept anything unusual from a Russian citizen. This man came up to my mother on a subway and wanted to give her a reel-to-reel movie. She refused and later on at a bank he asked others to take his tape. All of a sudden an unmarked car pulled up, doors flew open and that man was shoved into the car. I bet he's in Siberia now."

Alcoholism was rampant so Russians couldn't buy booze after 7 p.m. That

was why a waiter offered me American dollars to buy him beer.

"You can buy beer," he said. "I can't."

We left him thirsty.

A visit to the Summer Palace near Leningrad was unforgettable. We posed for a group photo in front of a Venetian style structure built in 1744. No one planned it and few people could hear us, but in a magical moment we sang the Star-Spangled Banner.

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at

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