katzpawz - 3/17/2007 4:53 PM ET
Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful memory with us. You are a natural storyteller. Please keep writing!
Jean had once again come to my rescue.
Lately I had been feeling terribly run down and begged off when Zach and Hannah tried to propel me out the door -- their eyes shining and their small bodies charged with the reckless energy of the very young.
God, how many thousands of years ago was it like that for me?
Zachary had tugged on one of my trouser legs. "Come with us to the park, Grandpa. Push us on the swings!"
Little Hannah, forever following the lead of her older brother, chimed in. "Swings! Swings!" Her pudgy fingers, still sticky from lunch, plucking at my forearm as I sat in the recliner.
Jean intervened. "Sweethearts, Grandpa needs his rest today."
Her first attempt at diplomacy fell flat as both of the children starting jumping up and down chanting "Swings. Swings."
We smiled for a moment, Jean and I, then, kneeling down, she tried another tack. "Kids...kids...settle down. Listen, older folks like us need a nap from time to time just like you."
The implied threat of naps all around quickly quieted the two children. "Grandpa needs a little rest right now, but when we get back from the park I'll bet we can get him to take us out for a little ice cream. How does that sound?"
The kids shrieked with delight as Jean shooed them out the door and told them to wait on the steps. Watching the noisy exodus for a moment, she turned back to look at me. It was quiet now. The small insistent hands were gone. I felt like an ancient jungle tree from which monkeys had abruptly fled.
Jean's came back to my chair. "Are you okay, honey?" she said, her gentle smile belying the concern I saw in her eyes.
"Just a little tired, that's all," I said, hoping she wouldn't see through the lie.
It worked. Patting me gently on the shoulder -- the gesture ending in a squeeze as it always had for the past fifty-three years -- she simply smiled, and I felt my love for her wash over me like a fresh breeze. The years had been kind to her. Her eyes seemed as bright as ever and her hair -- the soft auburn which had so captivated me a thousand years earlier at last in a rout by the advancing columns of gray -- framed the slender face of the woman I'd grown to love more than I could express.
"Will you be okay while we're gone?" she asked.
"Jean, stop being a mother hen," I said, not unkindly, reaching up to place my hand on hers. "It's just a little fatigue, that's all, and it'll be gone by the time you and the kids get back. Then it's down to "A Cone of Your Own" for Rocky Road...promise.
"Double dips. Now, scoot."
Jean opened her mouth as if to say something more but was cut off by shouts from the outside. The kids were getting impatient. Jean turned for a moment to wave to them from the living room window.
"Alright, honey. We'll be back in about an hour, okay?"
"Fine, fine. Enjoy yourselves." I waved and smiled.
The door closed and the excited shouts receded down the street. I waited a moment more. Quiet. Getting up slowly -- wincing at the pain from my back which had been aching more and more lately -- I walked down the hall to the door leading to the garage, my slippers making soft shuffling sounds against the hardwood floor. I chided myself. Pick up your feet, buster, you're not that old. Switching on the garage light, I walked over to my workbench. It was a massive thing I had made myself many years earlier from some of the scrap lumber left behind when our house had been built. I remember the sweet smell it bore as the framing began. So long ago...
Turning on the small work light above the bench, I picked up a wrench I had left out sometime earlier. I placed it back on its proper hook noticing the dust it had accumulated as I did so.
Getting down on one knee I reached under the bench and, grunting a little at the rope handles, dragged out the dull green Army footlocker, which rested there. Leaning to one side, I retrieved the small key hanging on a finishing nail and snapped open the old padlock that secured the chest. Putting lock and key aside, I lifted the lid, smiling as it groaned on it hinges. I wasn't the only relic showing its age.
Reaching in, I removed the old cigar box nestled between the silk of my old parachute and the tissue-wrapped uniforms. A brief metallic flash caught my attention. It was my 101st Airborne jumpers pin, which I had affixed to the top-most uniform. It shone dully through the layers of tissue – like memories and mementos dimmed by time's own veil.
Leaving the footlocker open, I carried the small cigar box back in the house and settled myself in the den with a glass of tea. For a moment I regarded the box with something akin to veneration. It was very old. My Uncle Leonard -- a large, kind man who knew the value of a good smoke and of a cigar box to a young boy -- had given it to me when I was six. The artwork on the lid, which had been bright with color and edged in gold leaf, depicted a beautiful Cuban woman in a red dress, match in hand, leaning over a cantina table to light a gentlemen's cigar. The woman was smiling and the man held her outstretched hand in one of his own as he bent towards the match. In the other hand, he held a glass with some amber-color liquid in it. (I had known it was not Coca-Cola and guessed it wasn't beer.) Above the illustration, in flowing, raised script, the word "Magnificoes." Now, years later, the colors had faded and the gentleman's cigar had still not caught from the woman's match, yet she remained gracefully poised before him. Patient. Gracious. Running my hands (which now looked a little like wrinkled tobacco leaves) over the lid, I could still feel the upraised letters. So many memories here.
For a time, this was the repository for my best marbles. I still had a few and could hear the steelies and glassies rolling around inside making a satisfying clacking sound. Later, it held my hoard of wheat pennies, buffalo nickels, and mercury head dimes. A small fortune, or so it seemed at the time. A few tin toys, a pearl handled knife, and my father's old pocket watch found their way into this cardboard time capsule as well. Later still, I added the object that I had retrieved the box to see.
I took a deep breath and, raising the lid, thought back to a certain summer.
* * * * *
I grew up in Twelve Pines, Iowa.
My family and I lived and thrived amid the five churches, three gas stations, a movie theater, and countless small store fronts which bore names like Lindgren's Second-Hand Furniture, Van Meer's Hardware, Stakowski Meats & Produce, and Hoeffner & Sons -- Fine Clothiers. The streets were flanked with oaks, elms, and the occasional weeping willow. There were pines as well, and everyone had his own theory -- which they were only too happy to share if asked-- as to which twelve served as inspiration for the town's name. Adding to the beauty of the city was the south fork of the Cedar River which snaked its way through town. At it's heyday, the Twelve Pines boasted almost five thousands souls. It was a good town with good people who drank phosphates at Wasserman's drug store, danced and sweated to polka music at the Fireman's Hall, cheered on the high school football team (win or lose), kept the local jail reasonably empty, eyed new farm implements covetously, rocked on their porches, took pride in their bake sales, and buried their dead with solemn dignity.
Each season in our town spun on wheels of ritual, holiday, days of hard work, and weekends of leisure. Planting and harvesting, school years and summer vacations, parades, births... All duly noted and set in type by Jacob McNealy, the editor and sole writer for the town's paper, the weekly Farmer's Chronicle. Jacob McNealy's paper commanded a dedicated readership in Twelve Pines -- though this was not so much a tribute to his editorial skills, as it was his habit for inserting unintended and unpredictable grammatical errors. (On reporting a fireworks display in Hascomb Park: "The many roman candles eliminated the city with their fiery light." On reporting the expansive planting effort of a local farmer: "Ben Frye Sows His Oats In Three Counties.")
Beyond the outskirts of town, fields of corn, soybeans, and alfalfa were laid out like squares in a gigantic quilt, serving as natural fences between us and the rest of the world.
The people of Twelve Pines took pride in their city and, though generally not boasters by nature, were quick to point out its many fine attractions to visitors. My father, always a pragmatic man, once said that God did not necessarily smile on our town -- I remember the fire of '47 and the influenza epidemic two years later which left the town smaller by 103 when it left -- but one got the impression He saved his frowns for less deserving communities.
Summers in Twelve Pines posed a greater challenge for young boys than any school year test could. By mid-June, every trail had been tread by countless sneakers, every creek bottom scrutinized for gold (or whatever might lie there), every vacant farmstead explored, every suitable tree climbed, and every can kicked. By July, even baseball, the jukebox in Wassermans, or the rope swing which dangled like a brown snake over Swenson's creek had lost their novelty.
It was a race for us -- nip and tuck -- between finding new expressions for feeding the summer fires which burned in us, or giving in like dogs on a porch to boredom. Discovery was the sole salvation for our young spirits. Frankie Scudder found it renovating his tree house -- building a new "room" which sat precariously over a trembling limb. Carl Ludtke found it in the BB gun he'd gotten for his birthday and carried everywhere. (Carl was not particular in his targets, shooting at birds and tin cans alike, though we all agreed he was a far greater threat to the latter.) Whitey Hustad found it in catching butterflies for his collection -- which seemed to consist solely of monarchs and zebra tails. Lonnie Riggs, the oldest of us, at fourteen, found it in the person of Debbie Warren. This baffled the rest of us, not so much because we didn't know what the two of them were doing when they occasionally snuck off down to the river, but because it made so little sense.
I was ten years old that year. My salvation was less earthy, and was born of a growing need to escape the confines of the town and see a little more of the world.
That summer, three sets of brothers would help me bring a wild plan to life -- a project against which butterfly wings, BB guns, and even Debby Warren's blonde hair would pale by comparison. Three sets of brothers, two of whom I knew only by reputation, and a third I was instructed by my parents to avoid because of it.
First, there was the Stomboli Brothers, P.O. Box 319, of Palisades, New York.
I had known about their marvelous gadgets, gizmos, and oddities since I was seven -- and what kid didn't? In the kingdom of the comic book -- the literature in which their advertisements appeared -- the Stomboli Brothers wrote the closing chapter...literally. When, with ink-smudged fingers, I (and a million kids like me) turned to the last page to find Captain Marvel triumphant, or The Shadow vanquishing a mortal enemy, there they were on the back flap...waiting, beckoning with stuff you couldn't find at Woolworths. Stuff your Mom wouldn't buy even if you could find it there.
The Stombolis provided for a generation of boys what the lamp promised to Aladdin and the pirate's chest had delivered up to young Squire Hawkins. You name it, there it was for the ordering, laid out in small black and white illustrations: x-ray glasses, sling shots, telescopes, shark's teeth, trick soap ("Surprise your friends as their skin turns black!"), spud shooters, magic rings, throwing knives, sea monkeys, joy buzzers, trick fingers, jumping beans, secret agent cameras (plus film), skate keys, sour gum, fake blood, petrified wood, gyroscopes, whoopee cushions, smoke bombs, hand cuffs, wind-up penny banks, balsa gliders, ant farms, squirting flowers, and...
Giant Inflatable Balloons, 16 for $2.50 (plus fifty cents for shipping and handling).
The illustration showed a smiling boy standing next to a swollen white balloon half again his size. (Even to my young eyes and small frame, both accustomed to a different physical perspective than those of adults, these were clearly not "giant" balloons, but they were big, and I saw their potential immediately.) The balloons captivated me, and it was the desire to possess them which propelled me, that spring and early summer, across dozens of lawns with my father's hand mower that spring and early summer. The long hours brought honest sweat as sweet shards of grass flew beneath the blades. The nickels and pennies I earned made their way into a mason jar my mother once used for putting up pickles, and bore the faint smell of brine. At the end of each week, I'd count and recount my growing wealth -- the balloons looming closer and closer. My parents, tolerant of my spending so long as it was my own money, encouraged me in all manner of activities for which there was minimal chance of damage to property or growing bones. And so they smiled when I told them about the balloons and indulged me in my whimsy, picturing, as they must have, noisy boys batting giant balloons harmlessly across the neighborhood.
I smiled back. I had other ideas.
If the Stomboli Brothers were the catalyst for my scheme that summer, surely it was the Montgolfiers who where responsible for setting my machinations in motion. Neither Joseph nor Jacques Montgolfier lived in Twelve Pines -- indeed, they no longer lived at all -- and would have stuck out badly if they had. But they reached out to me through a crude picture in a library book and left my mind fevered with a vision I was convinced no other boy in Twelve Pines had before.
The Montgolfier Brothers left a legacy of vision and daring experimentation in the balloons they fashioned. Supported by a bloated huge shroud of linen and a wicker basket, they floated above the French vineyards a century and a half before I was born. I looked at the book's woodcut print and was instantly captivated at the thought of what this might mean for a boy wanting nothing more than to explore the town and surrounding country side in a novel way. The illustration was rough so the expression on the brothers' faces as they ascended was indistinct, yet surely, I thought, it must be one of encouragement to those who would dare follow.
The Stombolis brought Christmas year round to countless boys looking for diversion. While the Brothers Montgolfier lit the way with flame and fabric to adventure of a higher order. These were men of vision and magic and bright promises, delivered and kept.
The third set of brothers, Butch and Eugene Sissel, had none of these qualities. The Sissels operated a junkyard on the east side of town. It was an expansive jungle of old cars, broken down tractors, and countless other pieces of scrap metal, piles of ore, and miscellaneous wreckage. They had inherited the junkyard from their father, Curtis, a coarse man who had been fond of his sons but had, over the years, grown much closer to his liquor. Curtis had died late one evening after apparently misjudging the distance from a section of railroad track he was staggering across to the inbound 5:17 from Sioux City. Among his remains found several miles down the track was an arm still clutching a half-empty bottle of Wild Turkey. (Little was known about Mrs. Sissel. She was a quiet, tolerant woman, but had had her heart broken too many times from Curtis's wild ways, and likely feared the same fate for her sanity. She left Twelve Pines early in her marriage, leaving a note saying she preferred a life which did not include her husband and the two whelps she had borne.) What little discipline Curtis had been able to bring to the lives of young Butch and Eugene didn't take, there being so little of it in his own. When he died, the two sons buried their father out beyond a pile of taconite tailings and continued their father's legacy of hard drinking -- though more out of boredom than grief.
The Sissel brothers grew into foul, unneighborly, ignorant, slovenly, and mean men. They were also given to fighting, though mostly between each other. Many of the town's folk believed the municipal jail, a late addition to our town's City Hall, had been built with the Sissels in mind, and the ongoing joke was that the jail's two cells had monogrammed towels with their initials. Most decent folks shunned the Sissels which suited the brothers fine, reasoning, as they did, that the town folk would be as out of their element in the scrap yard as they would be at a Sunday social. So they kept largely to themselves -- drinking, fighting, and (between times) wielding acetylene torches with such finesse in the breaking down of scrape metal that they did a good business in the three-county area. Good enough to keep them well-stocked in liquid refreshment and in the frequent company of a certain pair of young "ladies" from a bar down in Wyattsville -- the presence of whom kept neighbors clucking over their fences at noon. They also tolerated we kids who loved to visit and explore the expansive metal jungle in which they lived in magnificent squalor. Naturally, parents forbade these visits. And, naturally, we occasionally forgot this injunction.
It was the Sissels who held the key to my success in the tall, green canisters they used to sustain their cutting torches, and for whom I curried favor by running countless (and secretive) errands from the town's bar up the hill to the scrap yard carrying paper sacks heavy with sloshing bottles. The deed done, I would tip my cap and hand back the change I'd been given from their greasy bills. From this came, if not mutual respect, a solid working relationship wherein I helped satisfy their liquid needs and they promised to satisfy my gaseous one when the time came.
At the end of July the mason jar was nearly full and I was ready to send away for the balloons. I carefully placed into an envelope the $2.50 (plus fifty cents for shipping and handling) and the order blank, then sealed the flap -- screwing up my face at the sour taste of the adhesive. I centered with a draftsman's precision the three-cent stamp in the corner. Postal requirements satisfied, I bolted out the screen door into the summer heat and ran like a cheetah down to the post office, breaking neatly out in front in a shower of gravel. I held the envelope up against the sun and checked one last time to be sure the small fortune I'd enclosed was safely inside -- as if such mischievous spirit might find a way to liberate the money from the envelope in the course of my run. Satisfied that this had not occurred, I handed my letter to the clerk, catching one last glimpse of it as was added to a stack of outgoing mail.
And then I waited, hoping the two weeks promised for delivery would pass quickly. This was the worst part of it, so while Whitey crisscrossed the fields of goldenrod with net in hand, and Carl clicked off shots at cans, I wandered aimlessly around town -- biding my time as best I could until the package arrived counting out the days which passed in the rocks I skipped across old Bill Raney's pond, in the cigarettes I watched Frankie Scudder furtively smoke (sometimes with my help) in his tree house "smoking room", in the late night forays to catch fireflies, and in the countless marbles I flicked across the dusty ground with my friends.
I wasn't completely idle. I still mowed lawns, though not with the same fervor as before. And there were still materials to be gathered..
Boys, who are nature's greatest scavengers, keep a watchful eye on their surroundings for even the smallest opportunities, and these come not so much from what is offered but what is left behind. It was in this spirit of profiting from the leavings of others that I found what I was looking for in no time at all. The discarded burlap bags by Mr. Monetti's vegetable stand found their way into my possession. I would later fill these with sand left behind from the renovation work on the town hall. The bailing twine I needed came from the discarded boxes and cartons behind Wilkenson's hard goods store, and the stakes were easily enough fashioned from the scrap board behind the lumberyard. It was the largest piece of the project which was the most difficult to acquire, but even this was eventually provided for me in the wooden case in which Miss Olive's new riding saddle arrived (all the way from Amarillo). I'd seen the crate delivered to her house, recognized it for the value it possessed and, with all the ten-year old manners I could muster, graciously offered to unpack it for her and discard of the container in which it arrived.
Time moves differently for the young. At the height of the summer it can be sluggish like a muddy stream, and is made all the more so when it means two weeks of waiting, but finally my package arrived. I was dismayed to see it was a small package wrapped in brown paper. (I had not expected anything bigger, but somehow the anticipation had tickled my imagination which, in turn, had told my eyes to prepare for a marvel in the mail.) Racing home from the post office, I slammed my bedroom door and threw myself on the bed. In an instant my eager fingers had shredded the brown paper, scattering the pieces across the blankets like withered leaves. I poured the balloons out before me. They were chalky white, wrinkled, and smelling of rubber. Each, though flattened, was as big around as an inner tube. I was ecstatic as I laid them across the bed, counting each one. Fifteen balloons. Fifteen balloons? The packing slip had said sixteen. I counted again. Fifteen. Would this make a difference? I hoped not. I was ten and ignorant of weight-to-lift ratios; fifteen balloons would have to be enough...would surely be enough.
In every great undertaking or adventure, there is a confidant. Or at least a sidekick. I learned this from reading Captain Marvel and assumed it had a wider application to the real world.
Carl Ludtke was my best friend and was the only one who knew what I was up to. A hundred times over I had wanted to share my bold plan with the rest of my friends. But I could no more trust them to keep the secret from open ears than I would have in their place.
So it was just Carl and me. To be honest, the addition of a new BB gun had complicated our friendship that summer (Carl now being more interested in finding something at which to shoot than in keeping my company), but he was nevertheless captivated by my plan and agreed to help me set up my materials out on Cooper's Grove -- an open meadow up on a hill outside town. Cooper's Grove was flanked on two sides by a deep thicket of mulberry bushes and old cottonwoods, and on another by the Sissel's junkyard. Both were seldom visited. It was here, on a sunny August Saturday, that we strung long lengths of twine from the four corners of Miss Olive's crate -- four lines at three corners, three lines at the remaining corner -- and staked down the box with additional twine and wood slats. Six small burlap bags filled with sand went inside the crate, along with a sack containing some apples, two sandwiches, and an ancient spyglass Carl had "borrowed" from his father. Now all that remained was the cooperation of the Sissels.
It was a short walk through the meadow grass and over a tumbled down fence line to the Sissel place -- a ramshackle farm house which remained standing as much out of stubbornness as
framing. There was no question we'd find Eugene and Butch at home, as we walked into their yard, balloons in hand. They seldom left their property...a kindness for which most townsfolk were grateful.
We found the brothers out by their porch, a sagging collection of planks which threatened to fall through at any moment. Butch, the older of the two (and considered by some to be marginally more intelligent), was slouched in a wood chair swatting half-heartedly at flies with an old newspaper. He wore a faded work shirt, a filthy pair of dungarees, and had the look of a man at profound ease. An open bottle stood next to his chair. Eugene, out in the yard, wore a torn pair of overalls with no shirt beneath. A greasy pair of welder’s goggles was perched on his head (though he was not welding at the time), and he muttered to himself as he fiddled with an engine block set on a stump. It was more likely he had dropped something in it and was trying to fish it out, as pondering the miracle of the internal combustion engine, though I hesitated to say this.
Butch saw us first and greeted us with a wave of his paper.
"Howdy yourself, Mister Butch." I said. Carl just nodded. The Sissels made him nervous, and when he got nervous he tended to stammer.
Eugene looked up briefly, saw we weren't the Wyattsville girls or a delivery of bottles and, hence, were not important, and then turned back to his engine block.
"I suppose you're here for the gas," Butch said gesturing to the balloons we held in our hands like wilted flowers. "Well, damn if you ain't gonna do it. You're either crazy or stupid, but you got salt, I'll say that for ya!" Butch called out to his brother. "Hey Eugene, he's gonna do it. He's gonna be Twelve Pine's own junior flyboy. Now what'dya think about that?"
Eugene glanced up from the engine block, looked at the balloons Carl and I held and then at each of us. He scowled, showing a mouth full of crooked, yellowing teeth. "Y'all send us card from China, now." That said, he when back to his engine.
"Don't mind Eugene," Butch said, getting up from his chair and walking across the creaking porch toward the welding shed. "He's just peeved because you ain't inviting him to come along! Isn't that right, brother?"
Eugene just mumbled something obscene and proceeded to hit the engine block with a mallet.
Butch grabbed a large green tank out of the shed and rolled it on its end into the yard past us. The smell of old beer was heavy on him, but if he was drunk, it didn't show in his movements.
"Well a deal's a deal" he said, making sure the large green cylinder was steady on the ground. "Now...you boys want Ethel or Premium?" With this he laughed out loud and then spit generously in the direction of his brother.
"Just the hydrogen will be fine, Mister Butch," I said, offering him the first balloon.
"Com'in right up," he said fitting the first balloon onto the spigot and turning a small valve. There was a sharp hisss and the balloon rapidly filled, expanding out into a swollen white ball several feet in diameter.
"Well I'll be damned," Butch said pulling the balloon off the spigot and handing it to me to be tied off. "That one alone oughta get you as far as Willow Creek! Gimme another..."
The process of filling the balloons and transporting them a few at a time out to the Grove -- where each was tied to one of the lines -- took about an hour. During the whole time, Carl said nothing until Butch had filled the last balloon and handed it to me. I guess curiosity got the best of him then.
"My f-f-father said you buried y-your Daddy out here. Is that t-t-true?"
Butch, who had started rolling the tank back to the shed, stopped and walked over to Carl, leaning in close. "Hell no. We didn't have a spade handy so we just propped him up in the smoke house. He's keeping just fine. Wanna see him?"
Carl turned pale, as Butch and Eugene started laughing.
"Come on Carl," I said, gently. "Mr. Butch is just funning you. Let's go. Thanks again Mr. Butch."
"You're welcome, fly boy," he called back, ignoring the tank he had left in the yard, and heading back to the bottle on the porch. "Send me a card from China, too."
Carl and I walked back to the Groove with the last of the balloons. We tied these on and stepped back to admire our handiwork. Fifteen huge balloons swayed gently in the breeze and the crate could be heard straining against the stakes which held it to earth. This was going to work. All that remained was to step in, cut the ropes, and off I'd go. I turned to my friend.
"Thanks for your help, Carl. And for keeping my secret."
Carl looked down at the ground and started kicking at a weed. "Well, I wanted to talk to you about that. Um...Len Hustad kind of found out." Len, Whitey Hustad's little brother, was the perennial neighbor tag-along and tattle tail. If he knew...
"What do you mean he kind of found out, Carl? Does he know or doesn't he?"
"He sort of overheard me telling Whitey about it."
"You told Whitey! Carl, this was supposed to be a secret. Is there anyone you didn't tell?"
"I had to tell s-s-ome one. I c-c-ouldn't k-keep it in."
"Well fine, Carl. Thanks for keeping your mouth shut so well. I guess I'd best be going before the whole town comes up for a peek, don't you think?"
Without waiting for an answer, I climbed into my balloon and settled myself in amid the food and the ballast.
"You cut the ropes on the left side of the basket, I'll do the ones on the right," I told Carl, realizing with an odd sense of surprise that once I had stepped in, Miss Olive's packing crate had become a basket to me. Carl, silent again, knelt to cut his lines as I did the same. With a snap, the ropes parted and...
Nothing. The basket remained rock steady and earth-bound.
It had to be the ballast.
"Stand back, Carl," I said, hefting one of the sand-filled burlap bags and throwing it overboard. The basket creaked, but remained where it was. Cursing, I threw another over the side and this time the basket shifted slightly, lifted a few inches, and then settled back to the ground. Progress! With the third bag over the side, the basket hovered briefly and then rose. Slowly. Almost reluctantly at first. The ground was falling away. Letting out an ecstatic yell, I threw the fourth of my six bags out and was rewarded with a faster ascent. I was now several feet above the ground and definitely climbing.
I was beside myself with joy, waving to Carl below me and already thinking about the remarkable story I'd have for the Farmer's Chronicle.
I was flying. Leaving, if just briefly, the world behind -- leaving Twelve Pine's behind.
In a few seconds, I was more then thirty feet off the ground, and my balloon turned gently as it continued to climb. I was facing the junkyard and looked for some sign of the Sissel brothers, but could not spot them. Surely with a little more height, they'd spot me. I'd like to see Eugene's face when that happened.
I leaned back against one side of the basket, smiling, and looked up and the balloons, white against a cloudless blue sky. If only the Montgolfiers could see me now...
My revelry was short lived. Cooper's Grove was the highest point in town and I hadn't made provision for the strong winds which frequently gusted out of nowhere across the ridge. In my excited planning, I'd been so intent on the "up" that I'd forgotten to consider the issue of "across." And, as if to punish any boy impudent enough to callously test the bonds which held the rest of his companions to earth, a brisk wind did indeed come rushing in from the west as I ascended slowly above the field. A shower of leaves and a moving current of meadow grass marked its advance as I sat in my slowly rising balloon. I saw it coming and quickly threw one of the remaining bags of ballast over board, hoping to gain a little altitude. Too little, too late. The wind caught the balloon, pushing it sideways towards the line of ancient cottonwoods which bordered the field. Below, Carl was shouting out a warning. He didn't have to: My limited experience at ballooning told me that what I was gaining in vertical feet I was losing in lateral yards. I hurriedly dumped the last of my ballast hoping to clear the branches and float free over the woods. I no longer heard the cries of my friend below, or even considered the ground on which he stood, my attention was riveted on one particular tree...one particularly tall tree.
* * * * *
Often, in the years to come, I would wonder back to the time when, either by natural design or human intervention, the seed of that particular tree was planted in that particular spot of rich Iowa soil. Had Nature considered the needs of a young boy many years down the line when it nourished the sapling which grew there? Had the farmer planting that seed stopped to think of the chain of events his act was forging? That cottonwood could have flourished in a thousand and one other places.
Carl would tell me later (and often, as we reviewed the events of that day) that there was no crash and certainly no danger -- only a gentle bump. But being slightly closer to the scene, I remember the impact as jarring and terrifying as the balloon crashed into the tree seventy-five feet above grass. At the last moment I closed my eyes, imagining the front page in the Farmer's Chronicle recounting the extraordinary event which had culminated with my tragic death. The picture would capture the moment when my friends and father held my broken body and cradled it before the camera. Mr. McNealy's headline would read: "Gas Bags Kill Local Boy."
* * * * *
Of course I did not die (and the headline the next day concerned record milk production in the county), so when I opened my eyes I didn't see St. Peter, only a predicament. The wind, having done its job, quickly subsided, leaving the balloons trapped against the canopy of the highest branches which arched over them, clutching like gnarled fingers.
There was a moment of silence broken only by the creaking of the basket and my rapid breathing. Then I heard voices I recognized immediately: those of my father and my friends. I cursed to myself and then Len Hustad who, true to his reputation, had immediately blabbed my secret to everyone. No wonder they'd gotten here so soon. Perhaps they would go away, I thought hopefully, viewing this as only a minor setback for the great aviator, who would be up and away in a minute or two. Even birds learn to fly.
But no. My fathers voice...soft but commanding rose up from the field.
"You alright, boy?"
I shifted -- very carefully -- and looked over the lip of the basket. My father stared up at me with a strange look on his face. One that silently expressed curiosity, concern, anger, and just a touch of...what...amused disbelief?
"Yes, sir." I said.
"You've got yourself in a bit of a fix now, haven't you?"
Hearing these words from anybody else would have earned a sharp response from me, but the seventy-five feet which separated my father and me seemed too close to risk it.
"Yes sir, it's a fix alright."
Satisfied that I was in no immediate danger, my father chuckled lightly and turned to my friends. "Pretty odd looking bird up in that tree, isn't it boys? What on earth do you suppose it eats?"
Len Hustad took this is an open invitation to giggle out loud setting off a chain reaction of snickers and laughs from my friends. I settled back into the basket, feeling the heat come to my face and half wishing I had kept one bag of ballast on-board to chuck in Len's direction.
Eventually the laughter died away and there was another moment of uneasy silence.
"Any thoughts to how you're going to get down?" The ornithologist in my father had left and the pragmatist had returned.
I peeked over the basket's edge again to respond and was horrified to see a handful of folks from town starting the long trek up to the grove, pointing and gesturing in my direction. I had a vision of becoming some kind of strange local attraction -- like those carved totem poles over in Morristown -- and imagined people flocking in from miles to see the "balloon boy." Taking my picture, throwing me food. My parents fencing off the tree and charging two bits for visitors to share a few words with me. This was a miserable situation and getting worse by the minute.
"You hear me, boy?" my father said.
"Uh...yes sir, I mean, no sir. I haven't thought too much on how to get down." And, in truth, I hadn't. Not now, and not had the flight been successful. All my energies had been bent to the task of getting up in the air. All thought of coming down again I'd left to the providence of gravity. Since all things came back to earth eventually, I had assumed I would too.
My father rubbed at the stubble on his chin and thought for a moment. "Well, seeming as you haven't got a plan for coming down and joining your mother and me for dinner -- we're having roast beef tonight and that fine cobbler of hers, you know -- do you mind if I try something? Uh, that is, if you don't mind..."
My face grew red again. "No, no. I don't mind."
"Fine and dandy," my father said, turning to look at Carl Ludtke who was craning his neck up at me like some fool chicken in the rain. "Say Carl, that's a fine looking BB gun you've got there. Mind if I squeeze off a few shots with it?"
Carl, never that sharp to begin with, looked dully at my father, as if he had just asked him to dance a jig.
"M-m-my gun?" I heard him stammer.
"Sure, just for a minute," my father said, reaching out to take it. Don't worry, I'm not going to shoot the boy! Well...maybe not too often." He smiled broadly as a look of terror crossed Carl's face. Seeing my father with the gun caused some of the boys to begin stepping back nervously. I could see Debbie Warren clutching on to Lonnie's arm and biting her lip.
My father brought the gun -- which, under different circumstances would have looked comically small in his great hands -- up to his shoulder. The late afternoon sun glinted briefly of its metal barrel as I stared, stunned, at the sight of my father taking aim at his only son.
"Dad!" I screamed, "what are you doing?"
"Best drop your head a bit," he said pulling the trigger. The gun discharged a pellet with a sharp crack.
Looking back, I'd like to think I knew what he was doing -- though I recognize this as my need to paint some courage and reason into a past moment when both were lacking. In reality, the wave of terror which flooded over me as he raised that rifle somehow crowded out any reason my head could have entertained. I laughed at the thought...now. I screamed, then, honestly thinking my father was trying to kill me with my best friend's BB gun.
One by one my father shot at the balloons until the weight of me and the basket overcame them, and I gently settled back to earth.
I felt sheepish as I climbed out of the basket and walked over to where my father stood alone (my friends having decided to quickly distance themselves from any confrontation). I knew how imposing my father could be when his temper flared, and dreaded the punishment he meted out from time to time (although I frequently deserved it.) This time, however, he placed his hand lightly on my shoulder. I saw love and concern in his eyes, and was suddenly ashamed that I had been so ready to leave it behind, even if for only a day.
"Dad...I..." My voice faltered.
My father smiled, his face looking ancient and wise. "Let's go home, son," he said.
* * * * *
I drew the last balloon from the cigar box. The sixteenth. The one I thought had been missing from the package so many years before. I had found it several days after my aborted trans-neighborhood flight behind my bed where it had fallen during those first giddy moments of unwrapping the package from the Stomboli Brothers. I'm not sure why I kept it. Perhaps I thought at the time this would be the start of a bigger (and faster lifting) flying machine. If so, the flight never came. Over the next few summers the interest I had once felt for the Stomboli's wares cooled considerably. My spirits still rose and fell with those of Captain Marvel, but now there were new discoveries and diversions. Among them, Lisa Holmquist, who showed me one summer evening that perhaps Lonnie and Debby had had the right idea after all.
As I said, I never flew again. I suppose I grew up and away from the notion. But I never forgot...never...that for one summer, fixed forever in the sticky amber of my memory, was a moment in time when the world and all the hands which sought to guide me fell away and I drifted up to some greater adventure.
I gingerly lifted the faded white balloon to my nose -- the years having brought small cracks and tears to the rubber -- and inhaled. My nose caught the scent of...what? The smell of pine trees and bubblegum and canvas sneakers? Perhaps hot tar on a summer's day, or newly mown grass? I sniffed again, but the scent much fainter this time -- now barely a wisp of the long past and the nearly forgotten.
I placed the balloon carefully back in the cigar box and closed the lid wondering, a little sadly, at what manner of scrapbook could hold these kinds of memories. How do you document the passing of such a moment -- so brief in its span that, on the surface, it's merely an eddy in a broader, swifter current? I held the box for a moment more, my thoughts shifting to my grandchildren playing in the park.
How do we live beyond the moment, when the moment itself is receding like long shadows from a setting sun?
I sat back sipping the last of my tea, then smiled.
I think I know.
One day Zachary will be ten -- the best of all ages for a boy, balanced as it is between the years of first discoveries and a future full of possibilities. He will be visiting on a perfect summer evening, full of heat and magic and the whine of cicadas. I will hobble out to the garage, retrieve the cigar box, and give it to him.
When he asks why, I will tell him a story.
Author's Note: Joseph and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier never left the earth in the balloons they constructed. That singular honor fell to Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes who made the first manned flight on November 21, 1793...in a Montgolfier-built balloon.
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