We were sitting outside on Sunday, Nov. 7, soaking up unseasonable warmth and autumn colors, when a friend mentioned a hot-air balloon that had graced the horizon earlier in the day.
"Yeah, I know that balloon, I said. I helped launch it a few times back in
the spring, just on a lark. I wanted to learn more about ballooning," I
explained. "It was fun."
"Why did you stop?" someone asked.
"Oh, I don't know. I got too busy with my work, and couldn't make every
flight. Someone else came along who could." I didn't mention the sense of relief I
The next morning my wife phoned and said, "Well, now I know why you weren't
crewing that balloon. Somebody was watching out for you. Propane tanks
exploded last night. Two men are in the hospital...."
I'm open to the possibility of divine intervention--some things are hard to
explain any other way. On the other hand, theres a skeptical side that figures God
has more important things to do than watch out for my hide. Still, I got a funny
feeling as I read the details in the morning papers.
You might have read about the blast. It lit up the night near the junction of
I-40 and Hwy. 66, the main artery to Sevier County's tourism industries and the Smoky
Mountains. Police cordoned off a road and evacuated the motel where the
balloon had been stored, along with the propane tanks and a trailer. The
hospitalized men, whom I knew, were
burned by the explosion as they refilled the balloons fuel tanks.
That old saw came to mind: There but for the grace of God....
I'd always been drawn to balloons. The way they waft across the sky like
inverted teardrops, rainbow-hued. My interest had been stoked more than a dozen years
before, when I covered a balloon rally in West Knoxville for this paper.
Those balloons flying below us looked like two-dimensional disks--slices of
kaleidoscopes gliding across the terrain. The balloons floating alongside or
slightly above were giant candle-lit bulbs rising or settling as they passed--with
passengers waving to one another, taking photographs and laughing.
I loved riding in a craft that drifted like a cloud, buoyed by occassional
blasts from a propane burner--like a dragon, in harness, roaring at the sky.
I liked the magic of it. The way children below, dogs at their heels, would
run into yards and look up, waving, smiling, followed by parents who themselves would
become kids again as we passed. I enjoyed the perspective on houses and picnic
tables and treetops slowly slipping past, revealing one side, then leaning away to
After that assignment, I started a file on ballooning--brochures, news items,
pictures--with an eye to someday owning one. Like most files, this one became
tattered, faded and forgotten.
Then, this past spring, during a lull in my work, I saw a want ad for
occassional help crewing a balloon. I signed on as ground crew for a few
flights, which meant helping to inflate the balloon, seeing it off, then giving chase in a
van that towed a trailer. Balloon flights are, by necessity, one-way trips.
During flights, I kept in touch by two-way radio, and ran a maze of highways
and backroads, arriving before landfall in time to gain permission from property
owners and to make certain of access to a road. Then I would help deflate the balloon and
pack it out.
Most flights occurred during the still hours after daybreak or at dusk.
Against sunsets or sunrises, I observed the beautiful balloon from every sort of
distance and against every kind of backdrop. I met artists, diplomats,
business-people--adventurous souls who had shelled out money to fly.
The first time I met the balloon coming down, a plump, white-haired lady ran
outside her house and began clapping and turning round and round in circles,
in an impromptu dance as it landed.
"Oh, I always wanted a balloon to land in my yard!" she declared. Isn't this
wonderful? You would have thought the Wizard of Oz was paying her a visit.
At times, however, I glimpsed more sobering aspects to the business of
ballooning. Reminders that things can go wrong. And it was with both a sense of relief
and of regret that I gave up crewing.
These feelings returned as I read of the blast that injured two, and I knew
that, despite their serious burns, things could have gone much worse for them, and
that I was more fortunate yet.