Friday, October 23, 2009
A Tale of Two Balloons
I’m going to tell you two different balloon stories. One tale will be a large balloon traveling a short distance. The other will talk about a small balloon that traveled a long distance.
It was not an everyday occurrence when you are sitting on your porch stoop playing with your twenty cats who chased after a springy weed pulled from the overgrown hedgerow. Yet it was one for me during my childhood. I had fun watching the cats tumble over each other, claws ripping apart the leaves along the stem, their mouths shaking the bits of captured plant making sure what they gnawed on was dead before going back for more. This was my play time. Meanwhile, this was the cats’ practice session for the field mice and rabbits they would stalk down to create a balanced diet to go along with the cheap dry cat food we fed them.
Having twenty cats surrounding me wasn’t a strange sight. The strange sight came from beyond the hill.
A bright orange and yellow, upside down, raindrop floated in the air. At the bottom of this raindrop stretched ropes connected to a large wicker basket. Inside this basket sat a man tugging on a chain as flames shot upward from a metal box trying to keep the canvas bag inflated.
A hot-air balloon.
Delight and wonder filled me. I had an idea where it came from: Hannastown Fort. About fifteen miles from the valley sat an old colonial fort. The fort itself was on the small side, more of an outpost, having its huge barricade fence and a small building no bigger than a one-room schoolhouse. I remember taking an elementary school trip there to see the colonial actors make corncob dolls and horseshoes in the convention center across the road. Many different types of festivals rented space in the field beyond the fort: Swap meets, gun-trade shows, fireworks displays.
Every year, the fort also was a host to a hot-air balloon competition.
While driving past headed toward the mall, I stared out the passenger side window watching the workers unfurl the balloons and fill the fabric bags with the gas that would take them off the ground.
I knew where the hot-air balloon had come from, yet something looked wrong. No matter how much he tugged on the chain, the balloon sank. It wasn’t dropping out of the sky like a stone. Featherlike, it drifted down with the pilot (I guess this would be a correct term for him) in complete control. He obviously wanted to make an emergency landing. He decided it would be in our fields.
But there were several problems. We had three fields. Two of them were the cow pastures separated by a barbed wire fence. The third field we used to plant crops in was separated from the others with a row of pine trees.
The first field sloped too much to make a good landing. The third one, although not sowed with plants yet, was near the roadway and there was the possibility the fabric balloon could collapse there on a moving vehicle. Th second field in the middle had a telephone pole with high-voltage wires stretching back into part of the third field toward the neighbor’s property to provide electricity to them.
The pilot picked the second field.
He navigated it down, the basket skimming over the barbed wire and settled right there while he kept an eye on the direction of the wind to see where the deflating balloon would settle. It came down, missing the wires and pole, short of hitting the pine trees.
The man was a master of his craft.
By this time my parents had seen something weird coming from the sky. The pilot asked to use our phone, he called some people he knew, and they came by in their large vans to roll up the deflated balloon. They stowed everything inside and drove away.
What an incredible thing to have seen!
Unfortunately, the wondrous sight did not impress the twenty cats. They went back to snacking on their caught weed.
On a windy March day in 1990, I found a regular balloon on the ground.
Either purple or red (I can’t remember which), the balloon had lost enough helium where it could no longer sail majestically through the air. The string lay on the ground, and the card attached at the end was heavy enough to keep the balloon there.
I picked up the card and read it.
I wish I could remember the name of the elementary school. As a classroom project, they had released the balloon. They wanted to see how far it would travel. I’m sure many students had wanted the balloon to go across the ocean to different countries. A few might have even had dreams of people rushing from their grass huts to point at it, jabbering in their foreign tongue about the strange floating object.
Although the balloon never left the United States, a trip from the state of Wisconsin to Pennsylvania was still an impressive feat for a regular plastic balloon. The card asked the founder of the classroom project to mail it back to the provided address with any pictures and information on where the balloon landed.
I’m not sure I sent any photos. I want to saw yes, but this was also the time when I didn’t own a camera. I could have sent old photos though. I wrote about whom I was and where the balloon had landed. Then I mailed everything back.
About two weeks later, I received a mailed reply. They thanked me for finding their balloon and telling them about myself. On a piece of drawing paper, the students had written their names.
I am forever grateful to have been the person to find this balloon. The possibilities of it wrapping around a telephone line or landing in the creek and swept underwater could have happened. Or someone could have just shrugged their shoulders and thrown the card away. I’m also happy the students enjoyed the photos and letter.
Even Pennsylvania can be considered a foreign place in the mind of a child from another state.
I hope many schools still do this today.
So ends my tale of two balloons . . .