While I don’t like to think about it, I’m having another birthday today. Neither Katja nor I brought it up till yesterday. She said we’re not going to do anything as big as last year, and I said I certainly knew that. We talked a bit about going out to dinner tonight. I don’t know where yet. But I thought I would tell you about my past birthday anyway because it was so extraordinary. When I came home that Monday afternoon, Katja invited me to get into the car. She said we were going to a surprise and that it wouldn’t involve dinner. She drove. We traveled west on Ludlow Ave., and I guessed that we were headed for a friends’ house on Hamilton Ave. Katja, though, got took the northbound entrance to I-75. Were we going to Wanda’s house, to the mall, to Half-Price Books, the thrift store? We passed by all of these possibilities, and ten miles later we passed I-275, the beltway surrounding the city and the outer limit of all the places I would normally go to. Perhaps we were driving to Dayton, where we had had our wedding reception dinner at the King Cole many year ago. Or Yellow Springs? Katja stayed mum and drove and drove. Finally, she got off at the Lebanon-Monroe exit, 25 miles north of the city. She turned west toward Monroe, a town I’d never been to before. We went past Larry Flynt’s Hollywood Hustler Store, and Katja said we could stop there on our way back. We drove past cornfields and subdivisions and gas stations and finally turned onto Yankee Road. Where were we? What was going on? Suddenly Katja got a cell phone call. The caller gave her some instructions, and she turned around and went back to a side road that we’d just passed.
We drove into the Monroe High School parking lot, an odd place to be. I looked around, and there were four or five people standing next to a van, holding a bouquet of helium-filled balloons and waving at us. From a distance, I thought they might be some of my Sociology colleagues, but, as we got closer, I realized they were complete strangers. We got out of the car, and they all yelled Happy Birthday! I looked at the van, and it said something about balloons. What could it be? It was a hot air balloon company!
Everybody laughed at my bewilderment, and it soon was clear that we were setting out on a great expedition. The balloon pilot and company owner, Mike, explained that the winds were a bit too high on our present site for a safe balloon launch and that we needed to go to a lower terrain. We got back in our cars and followed the van for a mile to a Monroe elementary school. I just didn’t know what to think. The whole thing was unbelievable and sort of scary. There were two balloon trucks and two couples, including us, scheduled to take trips. Once the staff unpacked our balloon, we were appointed as members of the crew and participated in the launch preparations. Our large striped balloon, stretched out on the ground, was probably thirty yards long and was attached to a very solid, 450-lb. wicker basket that was designed to hold up to four passengers and a pilot. Mike set up a powerful wind fan, and Katja and I held the aperture of the balloon open while he pumped cold air into it. The balloon could hold 60,000 cubic feet of air (the equivalent of 60,000 basketballs), and, as it filled, it began rolling about and became increasingly difficult for us to hang onto. Once it was fully inflated, Mike turned on the propane burner attached to the basket and began pumping hot air into the balloon. As it filled, the balloon slowly began to rise vertically in the air. Once perpendicular, our task was to leap into the balloon and prepare for takeoff. We did so with a little trepidation, and the balloon slowly began to ascend toward the sky.
Hot air balloons are astonishing. Once airborne, they don’t rock or waver at all. They just move along steadily with the wind, and, with no guidance system, they pretty much go where the wind takes them. We were headed east, and we quickly rose to a height of 200 to 300 yards. Like an airplane, everything below looks like a miniature toy village, but, unlike an airplane, we were low enough to see the details of things and feel like a part of the immediate surroundings, just high up. It was a fairly windy day, and our balloon moved along at a clip of 10-15 miles an hour. I get nervous about heights and held on tightly with both hands to the upright struts, though Katja was much more relaxed, taking photos with her disposable camera and not holding on at all. Warren County, where we were, is a formerly rural area that has undergone massive development and population growth. At times we were floating over corn or soybean fields, with bunches of cows, horses, pigs, goats, ducks, and geese. We rode over beautiful forests and manicured lawns. We saw two or three herds of deer in the fields below. Other times we passed over subdivisions or fancy homes with swimming pools. People called up to us from their yards, and we waved back. Dogs barked and ran about in circles. Kids got excited and pointed up to us.
Mike stayed in contact by radio with crew member Dave in the chase car below and kept him informed of our probable course. Mike also was in touch with the Lebanon airport, letting them know that we were entering the air space of their runways. The airport radio transmission revealed that a small experimental plane piloted by a woman had lost its rudder and was making an emergency landing to the north of us. We were not in her path, and we saw her come down at a distance on the airfield, making a successful though unexpected landing.
Mike brought the hot air balloon up and down by releasing hot air through a vent or turning on the propane burner (which was hot for us riders and made a loud noise). Sometimes we went way up in the air, sometimes we approached the ground. At one point we passed right between the tall lampposts of a commercial parking lot. Another time we skimmed close to the treetops. Part of our task as passengers was to watch out for electrical power wires and warn the pilot of potential danger.
After an hour, which went by very quickly, it was time to descend. We had crossed the town of Lebanon, and Mike began scouting about for an appropriate landing spot. Hot air balloons land wherever they wind up, whether it’s somebody’s lawn or a farm field. In our case, we approached the large lawn of an elementary school. Mike descended and instructed us to flex our knees and hold on tightly to the ropes that circled the top of the basket. “Whatever you do, “ he said, “don’t fall out of the basket.” (I concluded, quite correctly I think, that this would mean death.) While I had been imagining that hot air balloons simply descend straight down and come to a gentle stop, our balloon came in at a 45 degree angle and a speed of 15 miles an hour. We hit the ground with a huge bang, which tossed us back and forth, and we struggled to hang on. The balloon then hit the ground again, this time on a hilly uprise. Our wicker basket tipped over and we all fell on top of one another. The basket then smacked into the ground two or three more times, until the balloon itself was perpendicular on the ground and we finally ground to a halt.
Mike was on the bottom, Katja was on the middle, and I was on the top. I told Katja to wait a second while I climbed out on my hands and knees, and then I pulled her up and helped her out. We seemed to be intact, though I had banged my knee pretty sharply against the wall of the basket. Katja lay down on the ground next to the balloon, overcome by with dizziness and needing a few minutes to recuperate. Mike asked with concern if she were o.k., and she said she was.
The crew squashed the air out of the balloon, rolled it up, and stored it and the wicker basket back in the van. We all then got in and drove back to the high school parking lot. Along the way, Mike explained that he had been the Vice-President of Finance for a Fortune 500 company, but he hated his job and loved hot air ballooning. His wife had urged him to quit his corporate job four years ago, and they formed Bella Balloons. He seemed happy as a kid at Disneyland. Once back at our launch site, we shared a bottle of champagne and received certificates that credentialed us as experienced aeronauts. Even a year later, I still think nostalgically about the most amazing birthday of my life. That Katja is really something.