Wednesday, July 15, 2009
On a blistering July 2 evening, I strolled around the Fondren business district, searching for complementary beverages during "Fondren After 5," and attempted to look as if I were a patron of the arts. Perhaps it was my paranoia, but each time I stepped foot into an art gallery or a boutique, I felt as if a silent alarm sounded, notifying everyone in the room that I was merely there to stake out the free wine.
"Not true," I answered aloud to nobody in particular. The wine must have contained hallucinogenic properties.
While standing in a rather intimidating gallery, I confided in my companion that once I obtain my wealth, I will revisit these generous shops and buy art galore. I will hand the owners blank checks and give them the liberty to decide what I should buy. No price is too much, no piece too extravagant. I will be the cat's meow of the Jackson arts scene.
She nodded her head and kept a steady eye on my half-empty plastic cup.
Around 8 p.m., my companion suggested that I retire for the evening.
"Party foul!" I would have said if I were in high school. But I took her advice, and we bid adieu. Normally, I am not easily persuaded, especially not when the night is so young. However, Friday morning was going to be a big morning for me. I was going to ride in a hot-air balloon.
Canton, MS was hosting the 24th Annual Mississippi Championship Hot Air Balloon Race. Balloons of all shapes and sizes would be descending on and then ascending from the City of Lights. I jumped at the opportunity to join in on the fun. Here is a play-by-play of the excitement that ensued.
5:10 a.m. - I hear a game-show jingle playing in my one-room apartment and wonder why the neighbors insist on watching the Game Show Network at all hours of the day. I then realize it is my cell phone alarm.
Do you ever notice that when it is a typical workday, the clock alarm goes off and you barely have the strength to roll over, but when it's a special day, such as the day you wake up early and drive to the Van Halen reunion concert, adrenaline shoots through every muscle in your body, and within minutes you are singing "Hot for Teacher" in the shower? This was one of those days.
5:40 a.m. - I am zooming past the Nissan fortress on I-55 and staring into the powdery blue sky. It is clear and sunny with probably a 1% chance of rain. In the northwest, a patch of clouds sit in place, isolated like an island in a Far Side cartoon.
In college, I had a perpetually inebriated neighbor who had a "Clouds" poster in his dorm room. I always thought it was the corniest poster in the world. Other dorm rooms had Widespread Panic posters or portraits of Cosmo Kramer, and this guy had a poster listing the different types of cloud formations. Cool, man.
It wasn't until a couple of females visited his dorm room one February evening that I truly understood the poster's purpose.
"Wow, these clouds are amazingly beautiful," said one amazingly beautiful girl.
"Thanks. I think they are beautiful, too," he suavely responded. Never again did I question the power of clouds.
5:55 a.m. - I arrive at the Canton Multipurpose Complex and notice a small gathering in an open field. I'm still digging the "sleepy" out of my eyes as I approach the huddled group to ensure I'm in the right spot. Some of the men and women are clutching coffee mugs and commenting on the heat. Others are studying a makeshift map of Canton, drawn on a white sheet of paper, and also commenting on the heat. I assume these people are not from Mississippi. This must be the place.
6:00 a.m. - A lanky gentleman wearing Carhartt pants and a worn polo shirt looks at a clipboard and shouts "Let's go!" I then frantically search for a pilot. An event organizer walks me over to two gentlemen standing quietly next to each other and asks me to choose my pilot. The man on the left is tall and brazenly handsome with grayish hair spitting out from his sideburns. He is wearing a spotless white polo shirt with the RE/MAX logo embroidered over his left breastplate. His slacks are spotless and he scans the horizon like an ace fighter pilot preparing to defend the skies. The man on the right is the quintessential polar opposite of Mr. Real Estate. Wearing a brown sweat-stained balloon-themed shirt from 2002 and a ball cap continuing the same theme, is Jeff Haliczer. The Reno, NV native glares at me and before I have a chance to make my decision, he makes it for me.
"I'm in the white truck," he says hurriedly.
6:10 a.m. – I pile into a white 1986 GMC truck. Inside, balloon stickers are scattered across the dashboard and a mini-calendar provided by a small-town insurance agency is stuck to the part of the dash in front of the passenger's seat. Three others are already inside and appear to be droopy as the sun is still very young in the July sky. I am still jittery off of my Van Halen-esque adrenaline high. They are volunteers from the Good Samaritan Center. Proceeds from the weekend event will benefit the center.
Everyone is silenced as Jeff enters the truck and starts the engine. He tells us we are to drive to the launch site, which is located near Canton High School. Holding up a map of Canton, he asks if anyone knows the way around town. Nobody says a word.
6:20 a.m. – We are driving through downtown Canton and the map has been discarded. In fact, we discarded the map the moment the key was put into the ignition. We are instead following a caravan of large gas-guzzling trucks and trailers. More than once, Jeff reminds us that he is "doing his part to help with global warming." I heartily chuckle.
To pass the time, Jeff dives into his background. He grew up on the upper peninsula of Michigan. Yes, people actually live there. When he was a younger man, he would cross-country ski just to see one of his neighbors. He is a special education instructor at a high school in Reno. He talks passionately about his occupation and describes the nightmares of dealing with the bureaucracy of public education. He tells one upbeat story about a pupil that went on to graduate from college, something rare for students with learning disabilities.
We continue to trail the band of balloon enthusiasts until we arrive in an open field much like the one where we first met. We park close to two other crews who are already assembling their airships.
"Some people are touchy about parking close to one another," Jeff says. I completely understand, as the other crews begin inflating their balloons and encroaching on our space. Our crew, however, takes our time. Jeff unlocks his trailer and opens the trailer door to reveal a consortium of gadgets and gears, tools and tinkerings, all fixed or nailed against the sides of the walls. Jeff orders the volunteers to grab this and grab that, all while trying to out-yell the noisy blasts of propane bursting into the mouths of the other envelopes, or "balloons."
The crew pulls out the burner, the engine; the gondola, the basket where you stand; and a large, unattractive tarp that resembles a parachute you'd see dropping over the River Kwai. Tatters and rips plague the greenish-brown material and I fear my pilot might be "running on empty," if you know what I mean. I hope this isn't our balloon.
The otherwise peaceful morning is being interrupted by the burners and a small crowd has arrived to witness the excitement. Birds, however, are flying away from the scene.
6:40 a.m. - As we continue to trudge through the processes of getting this demon off the ground, most of the other balloons are already in the air and their pilots are waving at our sun-beaten faces. Jeff again remarks about the Mississippi heat.
"I have never flown in hotter weather," he says. I pray for Jeff, for it is not yet 7 a.m., and Noon is nowhere in sight.
Jeff then heaves a large wooden box onto the grass. The container is holding a multi-colored ball of material. I now realize I was a fool; this is the balloon. The army-issued tarp was just, well, a tarp, to protect the balloon from any sharp objects. Judging by the holes in the tarp, this was a wise purchase.
6:50 a.m. - The RE/MAX balloon is lifting off and looks brilliant in the shining sun. In comparison to the other balloons, it is a white knight, marching through the sky like a beacon of pride, an example for others to follow. I do notice their balloon is barely skimming the pine trees hundreds of yards south of our location. I immediately think, "My God, they will crash." Unbelievably, my prediction is wrong. They sail on triumphantly and soon become a white speck.
Perhaps the RE/MAX balloon wanted to touch the poor saps that will one day be used to build more houses. Smart thinking: get their hands on the product early. In fact, from the RE/MAX balloon crew's vantage point, they can scope out potential areas of expansion, all in the name of hot-air ballooning.
"Look at that wooded area, Nigel, the one next to the natural spring and the beautiful wildflowers, yes. Perfect spot for some cookie-cutters in say, the $140,000-$200,000 range, whaddya say?"
7:00 a.m. - We are now free to fly the friendly skies. I, along with a Good Samaritan volunteer, and of course Jeff, hop into the gondola, prepared for flight. Jeff begins firing us up, up, and away. As J. Spaceman once said, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space."
7:03 a.m. - I gaze down at the rural plains and notice all of the shades of green and yellow. We are rising to 100 feet and I can almost see I-55. It is almost as if I am in a dream land, a world where I can travel in any direction without the constraints of gravity. I am brought back to reality when a stirring recollection pops into my head. "You are afraid of heights."
This idea may sound contrived, but it is true. I forgot up until this point that I am ghastly afraid of heights. Without causing alarm, I outstretch my arms and take a firm grasp of the two nearest poles. My stomach weakens and I attempt to make small-talk with my fellow flyers. I say the first thing that comes to mind.
"You ever witnessed anything scary in a hot-air balloon, Jeff?" Fine choice of words, Jack. Fine choice. Jeff then proceeds to tell us horror stories. Ranging from getting caught-up in radio towers to 2nd amendment-advocates firing away at aerial targets. My knuckles whiten. All we need now is a campfire.
Fortunately for us, this gondola, according to Jeff and Spike TV's "Most Amazing Videos", can easily transform into one at any moment, barring Jeff routinely inspected checkpoints before launching into the air. My fingers cross.
7:10 a.m. - Fear subsides as we cruise over Canton, spotting postcard-esque abandoned barns and bales of hay. Cantonians yell at us from their backyards and dogs bark at our flying object. A breeze effortlessly pokes us along and most of the other balloons seem miles away. We are by ourselves- above the rooftops and the church steeples, above the clock radios and the early morning conversations. From this point-of-view, Earthlings and their day-to-day life seems so trivial.
By 8:30 a.m., we have landed on Earth again. Pinned by cornstalks and brush, we drag the gondola across clay and gravel and into a clearing, where we slowly deflate the balloon. We spend nearly an hour taking the balloon apart and placing it back into the trailer. The work is grueling. I am dying to reference my Scoliosis affliction, but don't want to seem like a pansy.
Afterwards, Jeff offers the crew beverages and we slurp down the icy liquids quickly.
"The heat has gotten worse," says Jeff. For me, this is my last flight of the weekend, but for Jeff, he is just getting started.
Props for the Spiritualized reference.