Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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Those beautiful balloons gracing the sky hide certain dangers
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   11/19/1999)

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 had felt.

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 reveal another.

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.