Golden Ticket

My sister gave me a balloon ride when I turned 40. Here’s the story.

My head spun. “Hello?” I croaked. Why had I told this guy to call in the middle of the night? “You still want to go up?” Fred asked. “It’s beautiful right now, clear and still.” I felt like a drunk roused from the gutter. It was 5:15 Saturday morning and not too late to back out. “Yeah, sure,” I rasped.

“Life begins at 40,” my 94-year old grandmother reminded me in her birthday message. My girlfriends helped me celebrate with steak dinner, German chocolate cake, and the gift of my first ever Barbie doll. I opened an array of dimly humorous birthday cards: “Most people your age are dead;” “Over the hill;” “Once upon a time in a place far, far away, a long, long time ago…you were born;” “Nyah-nyah-nyah! You’re older than I am;” and, from an unknown address, “You are hereby presented with a hot air balloon flight for two. Happy 40th Birthday from Sis.”

A fantastic gift, to be sure, but I was uneasy about going 10,000 feet up suspended under a bag of hot air. And if I did go, who would be crazy enough to go with me? From a list of unsuspecting friends and loved ones, the only promising prospect was my son, who was away at college. He liked adventure and appreciated the grand gesture. Life threatening risks were nothing to him.

I wrote him e-mail at college and received an immediate reply:

Subject: Yes! Yes! A thousand times, yes!
Dear Mom,
Would I?????!!!!! Oh, that’s a fantastic present!! I do want to take the ride with you! That’s so great!! Thanks for asking ME!!!! I’ve got a Golden Ticket!! I’ve got a golden twinkle in my eye.
Jaimy Wonka

I hummed the song from Willie Wonka all that day and for several days after. It’s neat when your kid makes you feel good. But I didn’t feel so good early that morning several weeks later. And I didn’t wake up with a golden twinkle in my eye. “Today is a good day to die,” I murmured, fighting to consciousness.

We showed up at the Civic Center minutes before the 6:15 appointed time. Just ahead a Bronco pulled its trailer onto the grass. We climbed out to meet our pilot, Fred, and his helper, a pretty, capable woman wearing a tee-shirt that said, “We’re Fired Up!” Together they dragged a heavy wicker basket from the trailer. It didn’t look big enough for three people, but Fred said we wouldn’t be particularly crowded.

We watched as the two fit fiberglass poles into the corners of the basket and lifted on a metal frame of tubes and flame throwers. Then they fastened the frame in place with steel hooks and plastic covered cables and wrapped velcroed strips of padding around.

Fred filled a toy balloon from a helium tank and let it go, watching its path into the sky. “The FAA can’t tell us what the surface winds are like.” The pirep would give us a good idea of how our own balloon would ascend. I was half listening, half watching, but my attention fell to Fred’s assistant as she surreptitiously dropped three crash helmets into the gondola. “It’s required,” she apologized in response to my horrified look.

When the rest of the “chase crew” arrived, a runner in mirror sunglasses and his 11-year old son, the team, with practiced precision, unfurled the balloon, called an “envelope,” from its ordinary-sized duffel bag, and clamped its lines onto the frame. My son, more like a 10-year old than an engineering student, bounded hither and yon with the camera, one minute close to the group, the next out for a long shot.

Fred yank-started a gas-powered fan to blow cold air into the envelope now stretched several stories longwise across the field. In seconds the bag filled and, looking through the huge blue and red tunnel, we could see Fred as he snapped a fabric crown over the top opening. When initiating the descent, the crown is vented by pulling on a line suspended down the inside of the balloon.

After cautioning the crew to hold open the throat of the envelope, Fred fired the burner. A loud crackling noise filled the air as blue flame leapt into the balloon. He cut it off. Opened it up again. Off and on, off and on, burping hot air into the envelope as it rose to vertical. Fred beckoned to us. We stepped in the foothold woven into the side of the basket and climbed aboard. We were not tethered, so the crew held the basket down with brute strength. “We’ve gotta lose some weight,” my son cried in jest as the envelope sagged. With another rush from the blast valve, the crew released us, and we began our ascent.

One hundred feet, two hundred. There was no sense of movement. It was as if we were standing on the back porch just enjoying the view. We floated close to the ground at several hundred feet, the houses, yards, fields, and stock tanks visible in every detail. Fred cut off the blaster so as not to frighten a herd of cows. Our entire trip was punctuated by pauses in the conversation while the flame thrower noisily warmed the air above at a rate of 12 million BTU’s per hour. For our flight we would use over two-thirds of the fuel––two 15-gallon tanks of propane, strapped upright in the corners of the basket.

We drifted up to 1,000 feet on the same southwesterly wind that the little red pirep had taken earlier. The sun rose in its splendor and the early morning haze struggled to clear. The gauges to Fred’s right showed the envelope temperature at 205 degrees and the ambient temperature at 69. “You could almost boil water at the top,” my son said in delight. “Makes you appreciate the quality of today’s fabrics,” Fred nodded. At 2,000 feet Jaimy gleefully called out, “There’s Chuck’s house. I see it!” He snapped a couple of shots, later proof for a doubting Chuck.

At 3,000 feet Fred flamed the burner again. Forever a lover of miniatures, from doll houses to trains, the ground below held an equal fascination for me. We could see the mall beneath us and the tiny specks of our chase vehicles. To the west there was a cloud formation on the surface of Canyon Lake. I saw the university track and lookout tower and could just make out our launch site. My son pointed out where our house should be under a cluster of trees, “See, there’s Boo Radley’s house and the big house across the street.” We stayed suspended in that tranquil spot for a full quarter hour.

“Let’s see about catching the air stream the FAA told me about.” Fred fired the burner and we climbed to nearly 6,000 feet. The current indeed caught us and carried us back across the sky in the direction of our launch site.

Fred pointed out an interesting phenomenon; a yellow glow around the outer edge of the balloon’s shadow. “At about 3,000 feet, if it’s hot enough, refraction causes the shadow to completely disappear,” Fred said. “Like focusing light through a magnifying glass!” Jamie interrupted excitedly.

Fred eyed the terrain and suggested a landing near the launch site. Because balloons are at the mercy of the prevailing air streams deaf to the commands of pilots, round trips are uncommon in ballooning. By radio, Fred instructed the ground crew to head over to the far side of the Civic Center and we began our descent.

Our unusual round trip had virtually eliminated any sort of chase for our eager crew. After we’d been airborne for about twenty minutes they cruised over to the mall where they waited for an hour. Then Fred called them back to the original site. “The far side. I don’t know what you mean,” a voice complained. “Not there,” Fred called. “The field on the other side of the Civic Center.” Easy enough for us to see what he meant.

Having parked at the near field instead of the far one, the crew began a sprint on foot across the two pastures to catch us. We laughed at the sight of them wallowing through mud and tall grass. “Let’s not go over that fence,” said Fred and immediately let a mass of air out the top vent. With hardly a bounce, we hit the ground. He lit the burner again to keep the envelope up and the first crewman reached us and grabbed the rear of the basket. We dragged him along and almost under us. Then the others were there to add their weight and halt the drag. Jaimy climbed out and together they pulled us along skimming inches off the ground. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to call out, “Auntie Em, Auntie Em,” which brought a chuckle from the group. They carried us back to a road that separated the two fields and set us down. Fred turned off the blaster and directed the envelope to fall away from us. As I climbed awkwardly out he said, “Are you glad to be alive?” “Always,” I agreed, quite exhilarated by the landing. As the crown was loosened, the team grabbed around with their arms and walked up the envelope, quickly deflating it.

With the envelope back in it’s duffel, the rigging disassembled, and the gondola loaded onto the trailer, Fred popped open a bottle of champagne which he served into dixie cups. He spoke briefly of the history of ballooning; of the Montgolfiers, de Rozier, and the Marquis d’Arlandes, the early aeronauts who created the fad in 1783. Our precursors thought that balloons rose because they were filled with smoke, so the smokier their fires, the better. In order to extend flights they took to carrying wet straw and burning it as needed, thus causing flaming, smoky sights for the stunned peasants and landowners when the balloons touched down. In order to neutralize as much upset as possible, the balloonists also carried champagne aboard to offer their irritated hosts, unsuspectingly inaugurating a tradition well-loved among balloonists.

We knelt for the balloonists’ prayer:

May the wind welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with his warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well
God joins you in laughter.
And may he set you gently back again
Into the loving arms of mother earth.

and were initiated into the ranks of the aeronauts. Fred re-filled our cups quipping, “Champagne and propane, breakfast of balloonists.”

We toasted to soft landings and congratulated each other on a perfect flight, and the rest of the day, and for some time after, I had a golden twinkle in my eye. Jaimy Wonka had been right. And my sister. A fantastic present for someone over the hill. A perilous thrill, a look at our beautiful home from 6,000 feet up, a prayer, a celebration with friends. Glad to be alive? Yes! Yes! A thousand times, yes!

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