- Historic Sites
The Day The Balloon Came To Town
For three enthralled little boys in Oxford, Mississippi, the Space Age began one hot afternoon at the dawn of this century, when a balloon drifted aloft from the town square amid billows of smoke and whiskey fumes. One of the boys grew up to be Oxford’s most distinguished citizen, the famous novelist William Faulkner, who died in 1962. Another was his younger brother Murry, who writes this reminiscence of
December 1965 | Volume 17, Issue 1
We squirmed through the crowd and scurried down the wooden steps and into the lot below Brown’s Store. Now we were on our own—alone and streaking across the lots and gullies between the square and our back lot. We realized quickly that it was tough to run headlong over the rough countryside and to look up in the sky at the same time. It took us weeks to get over our collective skinned knees, hands, and faces, hut we had to follow the (light of the wonderful balloon, not having any idea as to its cruising range, altitude, or speed. One astounding thing we learned pretty quickly was that the thing had very little forward speed. Indeed, we were outrunning it. And, more than that, it was already beginning to lose altitude. In fact it was moving so slowly and so low that we were suddenly shocked to realize that the pilot, still stretched out full length on the low-hanging side of the basket, was talking right at us between swigs at the crock. We could not make out what he was saying, but he was certainly addressing us, since we were the only ones in sight. Now we had arrived at Mrs. Powell’s fenced-in backyard, where that good lady had chased us out of her apple trees often enough. This time she was waiting for us on her back steps, but she hadn’t yet seen the balloon, and we didn’t propose to lose it, fence or no fence. Dill never hesitated, knowing that where he went we would follow. We shinnied over the fence and pulled John along with us, then charged across the yard to the fence on the other side. The lady must have seen us a split second before the balloon came into view. She gathered her apron about her, waved her duster at us, and called out, “William Falkner—you boys stop right—” then, “Oh My Lord!” as she suddenly noticed the low-flying, slow-drifting balloon with the cursing pilot on his back in the canted basket drifting silently across her yard. It was truly fantastic. As we scrambled over the fence on the far side of her yard, Bill said that if we could have had a balloon overhead every time we had been in Mrs. Powell’s orchard, she would never have caught us taking green apples.
By this time the marvelous craft was barely floating over the treetops, and our back lot was just beyond. As we climbed up and out of the last gully we saw that there were two people near our barn, Mother and Mammy Gallie. The latter, not having to contend with the balloon every step of the way, had beat us home and was doubtless explaining to Mother that she couldn’t find “dem boys” on the town square. Mother was not often in the back lot, but was there this time seeing about some flower stands that one of the handymen had built for her and left near the barn for the paint to dry. Our three ponies were standing happily in a row behind Mother and Mammy, being the most docile of beasts and given to following any member of the family.
Now we had climbed over the last fence and were in our own back lot, and we could sec that the balloon was certainly going to land there. We hesitated but a second in reflecting that if we continued on we would find ourselves fate to face with Mother and Mammy, covered as we were with soot, with clothes ripped and torn, and with gashes all over us. Rut it couldn’t be helped: we had lived with this splendid aircraft too long to give it up before the end—which was fast approaching. There was a quick and heavy swish just above the chicken house, and the ponies instantly looked skyward. Surely these were the first horses in the whole South to see a machine coming down from above. They backed oil, stamped the!: feet, and shook their heads in disbelief. Mother followed their gaze and saw it too, just as the collapsed bag enveloped the barn and the basket plunked down on the roof of the chicken house. It dumped the pilot out onto the roof on the back of his neck; his hand holding the crock made a big arc, smashing into the shingles and breaking the crock, from which whiskey poured down on the unsuspecting chickens calmly at roost below, instantly they set up a cackling that could be heard a mile away. The pilot slid gently oil the roof and onto a pile of hay beside the chicken house. Mother and Mammy were transfixed, but not for long. Both were small in stature, but ten feet tall in determination and will power. Mother said, “This man may be hurt.’ But Mammy was all action in a very respectable endeavor; she was setting out to protect her folks. She grabbed a scantling [a piece of lumber], longer than she was tall, and muttered, “Effn he ain’t hurt, Ah garntee he gwine ter be.” She charged toward the pilot stretched out on the hay and drew back the scantling. As she did so she saw Bill and John and me standing beside the chicken house, clothes torn, faces blacked, knees and elbows bleeding from our cross-lots chase.