“Balloon Race” – Ted Streuli
“Hey, Streuli!” the city editor yelled from his office. It was not an uncommon occurrence; city editors everywhere are prone to yelling from their offices. “You want to go on an adventure?”
“Sure,” I yelled back. That’s always the right answer. Life is a buffet, but you only get to go through the line once. Sample as much as you can.
“Cool. You don’t have to be there until five.”
“It’s already 3:30. How far away is it?”
“No, you’re fine. It’s tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, OK – wait. Morning? As in 5 a.m.?”
Maybe “sure” isn’t always the right answer.
“Yeah, but it’s close to your house.”
“OK. What am I doing?”
“You’re not afraid of heights, are you?”
Crap. I hate heights the way Indiana Jones hates snakes. Acrophobia is definitely not a psychological disorder. It’s merely a healthy sense of self-preservation. I get vertigo when I’m watching TV and the camera peeks over the edge of the roof. This was sounding less great by the moment.
“What am I doing?”
“Hot air balloon race. Take a photographer. Put him in a different balloon.”
Hot air balloons hold a place in my heart second only to skydiving in their idiocy. Why would any sane person put himself in a wicker basket 1,000 feet above the ground with nothing for propulsion except whichever way the wind decides to blow? I know this much from childhood days at the zoo: When a balloon comes loose it goes up. Children cry at that moment because no one has ever seen one come back down. They just disappear. And the ones that don’t disappear pop. Suddenly and loudly. Also inducing tears.
Here’s the moral: Nothing involving a balloon ends well. Look around. Do you still have any balloon you have ever owned? No, you don’t. Either it floated away, never to be seen again, or it popped. And neither of those scenarios works out very well if you’re in a wicker basket under the balloon.
“Great,” I said. “Sounds like fun.”
At 5 a.m. on a Friday morning I met my pilot and his crew. Crew is a good job. You just drive the truck and pick up whatever’s left of the balloon when it comes back down. Not much risk in that.
We got our instructions. The thing with a balloon race is that no one knows where they’re racing to or from until they know how much wind there is and which way it’s blowing. We were going to drive south, launch, fly over the lake and land where we started.
Note: This is a poorly thought out mode of transportation. If you launch in Oklahoma City with a southerly wind it’s going to take you about three years to get to Norman.
Nonetheless we drove south, found a front yard and knocked to ask permission to use the lawn.
“Sure,” said the bleary-eyed father, answering for his wife and a pair of teenaged daughter. “That would be fun. We’ve never seen anyone blow up a balloon before.”
“Uh,” our pilot said with some trepidation, “when you have three tanks of propane and an open flame on board you never talk about blowing up the balloon. We inflate the balloon.”
Ha, ha, ha. Chuckles all around. None of them were planning to climb into that little basket.
The balloon filled with hot air and I climbed into the basket. We floated 900 feet up and floated silently toward the lake. The pilot took us down for a touch-and-go, the basket bottom skimming the glass water and rising again.
People ran out to their yards to watch us; the acoustics are strange; they can hear you without any yelling. There is much waving and a lot of smiles.
A giant bullseye on the high school football field was our target; pilots drop beanbags, accuracy earning extra points.
Note: If you ever see a giant red and white target on a football field very early in the morning, do NOT walk to the center to investigate.
We landed with the gentleness of a new mother’s touch and it occurred to me that I’m not really scared of heights at all. I’m just scared of falling.
And that’s a pretty useful metaphor to carry around.