Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Hot Air

               A couple of weeks ago Ripon hosted the annual Color the Skies event hosted by the Chamber of Commerce. The local sports complex (Mistlin Park) is used for this happening since it boasts the largest open grassy area required for so large an event. Think of a carnival atmosphere with all the rides, clowns, games, and booths providing a sinfully delicious offering of foods, none of which show up on health food charts.

The big draw for the Color the Skies event is the beautiful array of hot air balloons. These aerial behemoths are splendid in their silent beauty floating with seemingly effortless ease above the earth which we mere mortals trod day in and day out oblivious to the beauty of our surroundings. But on this weekend, if only for a brief time, you can be lifted up above the mundane and take in a view you have likely not experienced before.

So, on Friday morning I arose from my slumber to be down at the launch area while it was still dark. My daughter, Laura, as an employee of the Chamber, told me they needed some folks to be willing to go on a ride that morning. Well, let me tell you, she didn’t need to ask me twice! I wore jeans and my “hoodie” so that I was prepared for possible cooler air once we were soaring above the fruited fields. It was indeed a cool morning, but I needn’t have worried about being cool myself with a king-sized flame thrower a few feet above my head which provided all the hot air needed to sail away.

Hot air balloons always intrigued me. Probably my first exposure to these aircraft was when the movie, “Around the World in 80 Days” came out in 1956, starring David Niven (as Phileas Fogg), Cantinflas (as Jean Passepartout), and Shirley MacLaine (as Aouda). A wonderful scene I remember was when Passepartout grabbed the ice bucket and snagged a bunch of snow off the top of a mountain peak as they sailed too close for comfort to the craggy tops. But the very British Phileas Fogg must have his champagne chilled, don’t you know. What a great story! There was even a damsel in distress (MacLaine, I believe). And all centered on traveling in a hot air balloon. To my young, impressionable mind it all looked like oodles of fun!

Then when my folks and I migrated to Los Angeles, California from Wellesley, Massachusetts in 1965 we made the obligatory pilgrimage to Disneyland soon after arriving in the Golden State. The amusement park was celebrating its 10th anniversary that year. One of the venues I enjoyed the most, along with the ride on the Matterhorn, was the film, “To Fly.” It was a depiction of man’s coming of age in “slipping the surly bonds of earth,” defying the law of gravity. The part of the film I particularly enjoyed was a reenactment by a fellow in a hot air balloon set back in the late 1800s, sailing above the countryside, startling people along the way as they saw this big balloon sailing over their heads. One poor fellow was high on a ladder painting the church steeple (probably the pastor). The hot air balloon passed just over him, startling him so that he spilled his white wash, and nearly tumbled to the ground, while the pilot of the balloon was apologizing profusely all the while sailing off into the distance.

Well, none of those things happened on this Friday morning in Ripon. It was “media day” where various members of the local news agencies were invited to go for a ride. I was assigned as a crew member on one of these balloons along with local CPA, Tom Vermuellen. Laura was assigned to another balloon so we waved to each other and took pictures of the others balloon in flight. It was all a blast! One of my responsibilities was to hold the tether line attached at the top of the balloon as it was being inflated by the flame. As the balloon filled with the hot air it was my job to hold it as steady as possible while the balloon portion filled and rose above the basket. While I was so engaged, I heard voices behind me. I took a quick glance over my shoulder to see who it was. A young lady, identifying herself as a reporter from the Modesto Bee, asked me for my name. I told her but couldn’t take the time to chat as the balloon was filling rapidly and I found myself wrestling with a temperamental gas bag that could hold upwards of 77,000 basketballs (according to our pilot).

Tom and I carefully slid into the basket along with the pilot for our morning’s journey. Three men and several bottles of propane filled all the available space on this craft. Lifting off is the best part. You just silently rise into the air. During the ride, besides conversation, the only noise is the firing of the propane flame to elevate the balloon to your desired height.  

We sailed out over the rich farmland around Ripon. The numerous orchards of walnuts and almonds, plus identifying local structures, such as Colony Oak, my granddaughter’s elementary school, was all part of the adventure. We also floated over a part of the Spring Creek Golf Course where I play several times a week. What really puzzled me was my inability to recognize the different holes. They look so different from this lofty position!

Our chase vehicle followed us to our landing in a farmer’s fallowed field. About six of the balloons landed in this field. It was there that we went to work packing the balloon and stowing it in the chase vehicle for the ride back to the park. We were probably in the air just under an hour altogether. Because the winds pick up about 8:30ish in the morning, the balloons have to set back down so as not to wind up a tangled mess somewhere.

I haven’t seen it, but I’m told my picture was in the Modesto Bee. The reporterette apparently took my picture from behind me with a view looking on as the balloon gradually filled with hot air. Attempting to put a good face on this, I’ve told folks that my backside is on the front side of the newspaper!

It was all great fun, and I look forward to doing it again someday.

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