The Day The Balloon Came To Town

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In one of the early years of this century the great day had finally come, the one on which a man was going aloft in a real balloon. Oxford had been on edge with this exciting news for weeks, and surely nobody was more keyed up with anticipation and wonder than Bill and John and myself. We were determined not to miss this momentous event. We knew that our father would be either at work or watching the balloon himself, that Mammy Gallic would be helping Mother about the house, and that Mother had paid no more attention to stories about a balloon than she would have to rumors about a visitor from Mars; so all we had to do was to ease out the back door and hurry up South Street the short distance to the town square.

On reaching the square we beheld a sight never to be forgotten: an enormous grayish-black bag was attached by ropes to stakes set in a circle on the ground, in the center of which a hole had been dug for the me that was to produce the smoke to inflate the balloon. The fire was already burning briskly, and though an almost overwhelming amount of smoke was blowing into the eyes of the onlookers, it seemed that at least some of it must be causing the gentle billows within the bag itself. All of this was being administered by the crew—an incredibly dirty and surly white man and a very tall, gangling Negro, whose job, so far as we could see, was to furnish fuel for the fire and drinking whiskey for the white man.

By noon all the horses and mules had been removed from the square, partially to save them from blindness and partially to provide more room for the ever-increasing number of townspeople who were happy to risk it in order to see what was going on. By this time the fire was a roaring one, but still the balloon was not more than half inflated. The spectators were covered with soot, and John, happy though he was, had some misgivings: “Just wait till Mother sees us.” Now the greasy smoke was pouring out from under the bag and we could barely make out the white man sitting on a keg beside the raging fire. When the wind blew the smoke away for a moment we could see him take another swig from the dock and dash another bucket of coal oil on the crackling flames. We wondered how he could live in such a place. Bill said that the man had probably spent so much time enveloped in smoke that good fresh air would likely kill him.

Although a tremendous amount of heavy smoke was swirling about the square, some of it was manifestly rising within the balloon, which had begun to sway back and forth and tug at the restraining ropes. We could see some smoke spewing out of several breaks in the fabric and, because the Negro was so tall, we could sec him towering above the smoke clouds as he went languidly about closing the ruptures with clothespins. By this time Bill and John and 1 were sooty like everyone else, and tears were streaming down our faces; we had never been so excited and happy. We had to be careful, though, for Mother had sent Mammy Callie to get us. We could easily hear her as she pushed through the crowd calling out, “Where at dem Falkner boys?” Then louder, using her name for Bill, “Memmie-Memmie. Yo’ Mammy says where at is us all and git home.” We stayed put and did not reply; nothing could have dragged us away.

By now the motley crew had attached four ropes to the basket which was to hang beneath the balloon and carry the pilot, or whatever that individual called himself. It took considerable thrashing about to get the white man and his crock aboard. During the process the basket was dragged too close to the flames and one rope was promptly burnt through, leaving the basket (anted over on one side with the pilot lying on his back and taking a good stiff swig from the crock the while. Thick smoke was rising from the fire, and the balloon was straining at the ropes. We were beside ourselves with excitement. The pilot took the crock away from his mouth long enough to yell at the Negro, “Cut, damn it, cut.” In a second the Negro became a flying dervish. With axe in hand he charged the restraining ropes one after the other—swish pam, swish pam, swish pain. His transformation was amazing. He slashed one rope, then darted to the next one, slashed it, and so on until the last one had been severed. Smoke seethed; we were rigid with attention and anticipation. The balloon slowly began to rise and we could easily hear the pilot cursing the canting basket, the smoke-spewing balloon, and, very likely, the general laws of physics as well. Anyway, he was airborne, and as soon as the craft rose above the buildings on the square, a gentle north breeze set its course a little east of due south, toward our home. Bill sensed this at once, caught John by the arm and called out, “It’s going directly over home—let’s go!” Lots of other folks had the same notion, but they rushed headlong down South Street. We took a short cut, every foot of which was known to us.