My Russian Diaries by Jim Cullum Jr — Part 5

The Ultimate Road Gig

What a life: criss-crossing Russia with swinging jazz concerts, one after another; at Philharmonic halls, pin-drop acoustics, cheering crowds, beautiful young Russian women closing in with bouquets of roses, formal backstage dinners, vodka toasts, smooth comfortable private compartments on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

It’s too good, isn’t it? You know that Murphy must eventually strike. This is the natural order of things—a part of the Theory of Probability.

Here’s the scoop: The Jim Cullum Jazz Band performs another smash at the city of Magnitogorsk and enjoys another after-the-concert feast. So far, so good.

But, the next evening’s concert is to be held at Kaliningrad, about 1,800 miles to the west, with difficult travel connections. The only way to make this work is to drive all night on a chartered bus back to the city of Ufa (we played there about a week ago, I think), where we will meet an 8:00 AM flight to Moscow including a number of painful hours of layover in the Moscow airport.

Eventually, however, we will wear this schedule down through sheer tenacity, and in the afternoon fly on from Moscow to Kaliningrad, where we will barely make it on time for the curtain and wow the natives over there, too.

Sounds pretty tough at the outset, wouldn’t you think?

We are ready to deal with the rigor, knowing from long years the certain correctness of Ray Charles’ pronouncement: “The music is free. It’s the traveling that you pay for!”

Expecting to begin this with a Greyhound-type charter, upon which we might sleep through some of the ordeal, we are met instead by a converted cargo van that has been fitted out with windows and six banks of very cramped seats.

The seven of us and our luggage—and the space required for the driver—very effectively utilize the cube on board the thing, and off we go—departure time 12:15 AM.

After two blocks, the full dynamic begins to sink in. The ride is very rough. Comments float up and back about losing the fillings in our teeth and maybe the teeth themselves, and so forth.

“Don’t worry, it will be better when we get out on the highway.” But it isn’t. It’s worse!

The road to Ufa is in terrible shape—full of an endless series of potholes; it has suffered through 50 hard, frozen-like-a-rock Russian winters, and I begin to think that roads like this helped turned back the Germans. It’s two-lane, of course, with no center stripe, no shoulders and no guard rails. A lot of it is built up high to be out of the thaw water which is running along each side. Once every 3 or 4 miles we pass a truck going the other way, and we must thread the needle between the truck on the left and the edge of the road on the right. If the bus, which is top-heavy, should slip over the right edge it would almost certainly turn over and fall the 10 feet down the embankment and into the thaw water.

And get this: pretty soon we seem to notice there is something wrong with the driver. He weaves back and forth—I think at first he is trying to avoid the potholes—but that’s not it. He wobbles for long stretches on the wrong side of the road, has trouble shifting gears, brakes erratically, and then he begins to crawl slowing down to about 15 miles per hour.

The rough ride makes me car-sick. By re-arranging luggage I move up front and watch. He tries to light a cigarette with a Zippo lighter. It sparks and sparks but won’t light. I lean over and touch his shoulder and indicate “No smoking.” I don’t want to deal with his smoke, and during his struggle with the lighter he almost runs off the road. He stops, gets out, smokes, pretends to be looking at a tire, gets back in and we lurch on.

Valeri is sleeping during all of this bouncing and swerving. We wake him up telling him something is terribly wrong with the driver.

“I can’t smell anything,” I say. “But this guy must be drunk.”

“It’s just a very bumpy road, and it’s difficult for him.”

“No, Valeri, there’s really something wrong with him.”

After another 15 minutes Valeri moves to my front seat and begins to talk to the driver in Russian. This helps a lot and we slowly realize that the driver is not drunk, he is just falling asleep over and over again!

In an attempt to stay awake, he has his window open, and it is a very cold night, and pretty soon it becomes very cold aboard that bus!

At one point, the guy almost hits one of the few guard rails—this on the left side of the road. Howard yells out first followed by a loud chorus from the rest of us: “Hey! Wake up, man!”

Somehow we make it to the airport at Ufa. It’s a distance of 160 miles—elapsed time is six hours. We walk away, exhausted but relieved to be off the thing.

One of the guys says, “It was impossible to get any sleep on that bus. The driver was the only one who got any sleep!” This brings on a laugh. Somehow we can still laugh.

Signed, Jim Cullum, Your Reporter