April 16, 2024

What Goes Up . . .


Clarence Johanson didn’t mean to start a fire in Doodlebug Island’s back country, and he certainly didn’t plan on a $28,000 bill from the Forest Service for suppressing that fire; and most of all, he didn’t mean to upset and alienate his wife, Sally. But he did all three things through the simple means of acquiring the hot air balloon he’d coveted.

Sally had insisted that Doodlebug Island was a poor place from which to launch or land a balloon, but Clarence was listening to the siren voice that spoke of limitless views and of wind-borne pleasure. He fancied himself drifting through clouds and soaring with  birds, swooping through canyons, and rising with desert thermals.

So, when he saw a rig advertised in the Soaring magazine to which he subscribed, temptation knew only the constraints of available cash, and that happened to coincide with a timely tax rebate. Sally learned of the latter when it showed up in her driveway in the form of a nicely folded balloon nestled inside a reed basket—gas  burners, canisters, and metal supports included.

Her immediate response was one of resentment, and it burst full force upon Clarence. She questioned his sanity, his commitment to their relationship, and his judgment; this at the top of her lungs emphatically reinforced with four-letter words Clarence hadn’t known she knew.

Stubbornly, Clarence unpacked the balloon, flew it, and began advertising for customers willing to pay to be whisked aloft for a time before being dumped, often unceremoniously, on some boulder-strewn landscape that passed for a landing site. Those landings paled, however, in relation to his final one.

The day started out promisingly. A brilliant sun dissipated an early-morning fog, and only the briefest whisper of wind rustled through the branches of the sycamores growing along the banks of Oak Creek, giving way, as they did, to live oak, juniper, and pine trees as the land climbed away.

Rising early, Clarence fixed his breakfast in a kitchen left darkened in the aftermath of the aforementioned rift, and set out to meet clients trusting of his abilities and the kindliness of fate. That they would shortly rue both didn’t occur to them, or, at least, didn’t keep them from climbing into the reed basket where they waited patiently for the envelope to inflate.

Once aloft, Clarence and his four passengers were treated to a vibrantly green panorama that seemed both to enfold and crown the red cliffs and extravagant formations that make the area famous. It was pure joy to float effortlessly over an undulating landscape in which toy-sized houses seemed stitched together by ribbons of asphalt or red clay, or tucked away amidst rocky crags hovering over or embracing them.

It was the landing and resulting forest fire that brought the ride and all Clarence’s plans to an abrupt end! For, in attempting to put down in a small clearing bordering a service road, he miscalculated the lift required to clear a very tall pine. The basket dragged through tree branches which nearly spilled passengers and caused the balloon to tip dangerously sideways allowing the escape of enough hot air to end the flight, retaining only enough to prevent total disaster.

The basket slammed into the ground, strewing Clarence and his passengers like chaff from a harvester, and driving  the still-blazing burners into duff at the foot of the tree.

A fire sprang up immediately. Spreading flames consumed the balloon and began licking at the wicker basket, sparing burners but exploding canisters. Clarence and passengers clawed their way to safety but could only watch helplessly.

If there was an upside to their predicament, it was that Forest Service personnel called to the fire rescued them. Passengers were bruised and sore but thankfully alive, and as for Clarence, he now had the older problem involving an angry wife made angrier still, plus two new problems: The first was to decide what to do with those few unburned parts of his balloon, and second, how to satisfy the Forest Service bill.

Weeks later, seeing how miserable Clarence was, Sally relented. “Hey, Sky King,” she teased, “word is that the Forest Service has decided to call your little mishap a training exercise and are voiding the charges. I’m thinking you should blow the ten bucks you got for surplus balloon parts by taking me out for dinner!”

Relieved by this redemptive turn of events, Clarence sighed gratefully and, for once, did exactly as he was told.

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