“I’m thinking of doing it,” I say to my husband.
“Doing what?” he asks, mindlessly pouring that amaretto cream into his coffee.
“The hot-air balloon,” I answer. “I’m thinking of just doing it.”
“You’re going to go up in a hot air balloon? Aren’t you the one who just had the panic attack driving to Blue Ridge?”
Big trucks. There were big trucks on that highway. And then those winding mountain roads.
“Well, yes, but . . .”
“And who is flying this thing? How can you trust this person?”
“Like you sit down and have coffee with the pilot every time you fly on a plane?” I ask.
“No! And that’s why I hate flying!” he says.
“Listen, I want you to be comfortable about it,” I say. No sense putting myself in an “I told you so” situation if he has to come fish me out of the trees.
“Let me sleep on it,” he asks.
I immediately contact the hot air balloon pilot, Howie., whom I had located through an online search of “hot air ballooning“ and checked that he was currently licensed by the FAA to operate the “aircraft.” Might as well gather the info.
“Any chance I can go up at sunrise Saturday?”
“You’re in luck!” he writes back.
“Yeah, you’re lucky, all right,” my husband says. “I’m sure they’re banging down the doors to go up in his balloon this Saturday.”
“$350 bucks,” Howie, the pilot, says “But it’s just $250 if two people go.”
Two people. Hmmm. Not my husband. We would never do that. Two parents in one balloon. No. We would never go together in that balloon.
Yes, my mother. Of course. She’ll do it.
“Wanna’ come hot air ballooning with me on Saturday?”
“Over my dead body,” she says immediately.
“But we get to save $100 dollars each if we go together!”
“No,” she says.
“Why not?” I plead.
“I’m petrified,” she replies.
This is probably a losing battle if I’m starting to sound like the brave one.
“C’mon, it’ll be a once in a lifetime adventure,” I try, desperately.
“You can take my ashes up when I’m gone,” my mother says snidely. But then she remembers something.
“It’s been twenty years since we said we’d go.”
I had forgotten. We were going to go up together when my mother turned 50. But then she got breast cancer, and then there was the surgery and the chemo and the whole piecing back together of a life that from that day forward broke down to “before” and “after.” How could I have forgotten?
“So what are you waiting for?” I ask. “You got twenty bonus years!”
And we both laugh, as I knew we would. As we hadn’t
in a long, long time. Kids and homes and husbands and jobs and everything else came between us even as we struggled to stay close through the years.
“I’ll sleep on it,” she says, finally. And the next morning, I wake up to a simple email.
“Okay,” it says. “I’ll go.”
“My mother will go,” I tell my husband at the coffee spot.
“You’re kidding.” Pour cream. Put mug in microwave. Hit start.
He shakes his head in disbelief.
“Then go for it.”
There is a full moon and a million stars and my mother and I are driving through my dark neighborhood, on our way to the Snellville, Georgia Target shopping center where we will meet Howie the Pilot and his crew, and the other passenger, a woman celebrating her birthday.
“If there was ever a time for you to be 100 percent truthful about your weight, it’s now,” I tell my mother a few days earlier when we have to email our weights to Howie the Pilot.
“In clothes?” my mother asks.
“Yes, the jeans and sneakers.”
We have to wear long pants and closed-toe shoes, for the who-knows-where landings.
“That’s the adventure part!” Howie the Pilot wrote enthusiastically.
The crash landings or the landings in a field of snakes, I had made the mistake of commenting to my mother.
“That’s it,” she says. “I’m not going.”
“Oh, come on,” I goad. “It’ll be fun. And don’t
forget to sign the release. Make sure you initial the clause about the crouch-and-hold-on requirement during landing.”
“I brought another passenger!” the cheery Birthday Girl announces as she hops out of her SUV. “Is there room for him?”
Room for him? My mother and were cutting our fingernails to shave off a few ounces, and now Passenger #3 wants to add a completely unexpected person to this ride?
Howie the Pilot hesitates at exactly the moment I notice the basket, hitched on a trailer to the back of Howie’s van. It is tiny.
“Um, well, that depends on his size and weight,” he answers, diplomatically. “Especially on hot days like today. The balloon can’t carry as much weight.”
Out comes Birthday Girl’s husband. Now, I’m not the type to mention someone’s weight but at this particular moment, you have to agree that weight could potentially add up to a life and death situation.
Big. The man is big. Big wide. Big tall. Big. Surely Howie will say no. Surely Howie will pull out the calculator and tap in our collective weights and then sigh and say, “Wow, I wish we could, but maybe next time, okay?” or “How ‘bout you join the chase crew today?”
But no. Howie says nothing. An extra $250 profit. Is that what he’s thinking? Who is this man? I’m going to trust him with my life?
“Who wants to hold the skirt?” Howie asks.
“I’m always up for holding skirts,” Birthday Girl’s husband says, yuk, yuk. I have started calling him Straw Man in my head, as in the straw that breaks the camel’s back, or makes the balloon plummet, as current circumstances might warrant.
Howie gives Straw Man heat-resistant gloves, and I step forward to help as well.
The skirt is the bottom part of the envelope, which is the colorful parachute part of the balloon. It basically keeps the balloon from going on fire when it gets blown up.
“Inflate,” Howie’s wife, one of the two chase crew members, says to me. “We prefer to say ‘inflate’ when referring to the balloon.”
Straw Man and I grip our gloved hands on the skirt and hold tight while Howie directs a high-powered fan into the inside of the envelope. Straw Man chats and jokes and is basically as pleasant as can be, as well as his wife, yet I can’t stop thinking about his weight. I keep waiting for Howie to say something, to gently let him down that he’s not going up with us. But no. Not yet.
Howie blasts the propane gas that heats up the air inside the envelope and, in a matter of minutes, causes the balloon to stand upright.
Now. Now, Howie will direct Straw Man to the chase vehicle. Straw Man will man the cell phone. He’ll track us through the sky and meet us where we land to help deflate the balloon and pack it up for the next group of passengers.
“Okay, everybody in!” Howie yells.
Birthday Girl hoists herself up and over the velvet rope. Straw Man follows. My mother grabs my hand for assistance and, stiff-lipped, joins the jam-packed wicker basket like the last clown in the Volkswagon at the circus. But no. I’m the last clown. I’m the last voice of reason here. I’m the one who has to say something, or forever be damned for silence. I’m the one who has to shout that the emperor has no clothes. Or, at least, our weight would be a few pounds less if we had no clothes.
“Pattie, come on,” Howie says.
And, against my better judgment, I get in.
“We’re untethered,” Straw Man says, and just like that, we’re off. Drifting up, over the elementary school, the strip malls, the subdivisions, the woods, like Willy Wonka and Charlie Bucket. We are smushed together, all facing out, as Howie powers up the propane every minute or two, forcing us to talk in sound bites.
“Wow, if we keep going in this . . .”
“Direction, we’ll pass directly over our son’s . . .”
“House. He lives right over there. And our other ...”
“Son lives . . .”
This goes on. The highlight of this trip, now that we seem to be surviving, is turning out to be the proximity to which we will pass Birthday Girl and Straw Man’s sons’ subdivisions. Thank God for the dogs.
Woof, woof, woof, woof.
Dogs are going wild all over Snellville, and then Loganville as we drift miles away. We can see them clearly, circling madly in their fenced yards, barking frenetically at the strange monster hovering over them. Half-dressed homeowners with their first cup of coffee emerge in random driveways to see what the ruckus is and wave happily at the sight of us. I wave back. I love the waving. If I yell hello, they are surprised how well they can hear us and yell back.
The dog symphony quiets only when we leave suburbia to float over the last remaining patches of forest and then we are engulfed in peace. Pure peace. At least for a minute, before the inevitable whooooosh of the propane. And then, after an hour that passes quickly, without a moment of fear, we get what I think is going to be the grand finale. We actually pass over a kennel. The dogs go wild, racing up and down their runs, barking ferociously, jumping on the fences, pacing, howling. It is a completely unexpected spectacle and we are collectively glued to the scene. But the real excitement is yet to come. The landing.
“Okay, we’re about to land.”
“Not in a field with a crazed dog, right?” I ask, half-kidding.
“No,” Howie replies, matter-of-fact. “There. In that backyard.”
A backyard! We are heading straight for a subdivision, the medium-sized stucco houses sleepy with Saturday morning, the manicured yards dewy and quiet. Not even a dog.
“Get ready,” Howie says, tension and purpose in his voice.
“Crouch and hold, crouch and hold,” I whisper to my mother.”
Booooooom. Owwwww. Ooooohh. Thud, thud, thud. Birthday Girl is in my lap. My mother bangs her head.
Straw Man asks if we can jump out, and Howie says, “No! No! Nobody go anywhere! Stay in the basket.”
The basket steadies itself, there, on the side lawn of someone’s home, in the silence of the morning. We can see the overwhelmingly large shadow of the balloon’s envelope looming on the trees behind us.
Finally, the door opens, and out comes a man in an undershirt.
“Did you order a balloon?” Howie jests, and the guy throws out his arms and says (and I can’t make this stuff up) “It is my first day in America!”
Patience. We must wait for the chase crew, and they apparently have lost us. We all stand there in the basket, like zoo animals, while the neighbors gather, word spreading of the aliens landing in their neighbor’s yard. Howie keeps blasting that propane to keep the temperature inside the envelope just right so that the balloon stays put and doesn’t drift off like it did for the Great Oz at the end of The Wizard of Oz.
We are hot standing there, the sun now high in the sky, the propane heating our necks and heads as if we are marshmallows, when suddenly Robert, the immigrant, emerges from his kitchen door with a tray holding five tall, frosty glasses of something. As he makes his way across the grass, I think that I have never seen a more welcoming sight, that if we were dogs, we’d all be wagging our tails.
“Hawaiian Punch,” he says, and let me tell you, it is the most delicious glass of Hawaiian Punch I have ever had in my life.
As more neighbors gather, our new friend puts his hand on the side of the basket and says to them, “You like my new balloon? I got it on ebay! Only in America!”