Hey! I’m finally doing a Chuck Wendig flash challenge! On time! While simultaneously completing a second installment of “Not my Autobiography.”
As with any NMA installment: all of the following is true. (Why me?)
I grew up on a defunct farm in rural PA. In my great grand parents time it was a real farm, complete with cows and corn. But all that went to seed as time went by.
In my time (age nine-ish for the purposes of this story), it was fucking wonderland. The skeletal remains of old, mysterious farm equipment jutted out of overgrown bushes like rusted dinosaur bones. Untamed blackberry patches sprawled throughout un-mowed fields, and wild strawberries scattered over “The Hill.” A hundred acres of woodland, haunted by the occasional black bear, surrounded the property, bordered on one edge by a little brook.
Some miles down the road from our lost-to-the-briars farm was a state park, (which prevented us from having many real neighbors), and the balloon launch field, where in the summer and early fall, hot hair (ahaha, hot air) balloon rides were given to insane people. Or, I guess more kindly, to regular people with specific, balloon-related death wishes. (Experience informs my bias.)
The wind usually took the balloons over our house.
We would hear the roaring bursts of fire as they approached, and amble outside (there’s never any need to run to catch sight of a hot air balloon, and no one in that part of the country hurries anywhere anyway) to look skyward until one drifted into view. Then we would watch as it traversed our private horizon and vanished over the top of The Hill.
Unfortunately, The Hill was treacherous territory for a balloon. The fields, curved and overgrown, bisected by trees, looked safe from above, but if the balloon drifted too low, there wasn’t the space for it to gain enough height to clear the next row of pine. So sometimes, after it left our sight, we would still hear the balloon fire blowing and blowing, but getting no farther into the distance.
“Uh oh,” my mom would say, “they’re stuck again. You’d better go with your brother and drag them out of the trees.”
And that’s how it was on this particular day, whatever day it was, in whatever summer month, when I didn’t exactly “almost die”, but at the very least, if you think about it, had ample opportunity to “nearly perish.”
My brother and I ran the half mile up The Hill, following the roaring bursts and sounds of half-panicked shouts, until we found the field where the balloon was trapped, branches wrapped around it like fingers.
Cell phone reception came late to our part of the world, and no two-way radio could cover that distance through the rock littered hills. I can’t say what other balloon nuts did when we weren’t home. Maybe their bones are still up there.
We charged out of the bushes, two weedy, briar-scratched children, and waved and shouted for the balloon man (balloon tech? balloon driver?) to throw down a rope. He complied. My brother and I grabbed it, and began to haul the balloon into the middle of the field (no small task for two 80 pound kids.) As we did, the balloon lost altitude, hovering closer and closer to the ground, brushing the tops of the bushes and hay. Balloon Man touched a dial and pulled a cord and a burp of flame rushed into the balloon. It began to rise.
My brother, two years the younger, but somehow in this instance much wiser, sensed the obvious danger and let go of the rope. I, meanwhile, must have been in the middle of one of those mini-strokes children sometimes seem to suffer. We’re still too close to the trees! I thought. They’ll get suck again!
So I kept my grip on the rope, and attempted to anchor the entire balloon down with the weight of my nine year old body.
Well, that didn’t work.
And the balloon went up.
I can already hear you asking “Holy shit, how high?” and the truth is, I have no good guess. At nine, I still had an abstract relationship with all systems of measurement, but I can tell you it was pretty damn high (higher than twenty feet) but we weren’t in the stratosphere or anything.
On the ground, my little brother, who had just seen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the first time, began to bawl. Above me, Balloon Man and his paying nuts were leaning out of the basket screaming.
“DON’T LET GO!”
Good advice. I didn’t.
The balloon finally reached a peak and stopped rising, then hung suspended for a few minutes. My hands burned. My arms ached. I wrapped my legs around the rope and tried to gain some purchase with my feet. Balloon man kept screaming. I fixed my eyes on the ground, prayed like no nine year old has prayed before, and waited.
Finally, the balloon began to sink again. At eight-ish feet, I decided to take my chances with a sprained ankle rather than risk floating away again, and dropped. I hit the ground rolling (over a thorn bush), and came up to my feet, teeth still humming from the impact.
“OH MY GOD,” Balloon Man was shouting. “OH. MY. GOD.”
My brother wiped his eyes. We dragged the balloon to the middle of the field.
Balloon Man thanked us as profusely as he could while simultaneously drifting into the sky. My brother and I brushed ourselves off and walked back down the hill.
“How did it go?” my mom asked when we got home.
“Fine,” we said.
Years later I told my mom the real story over thanksgiving dinner, thinking she might find it funny. She yelled at me like I was nine again, forgotten cranberry sauce dripping off her spoon into the mashed potatoes.