May 19, 2009

Devil's Darning Needles

"They used to have four-foot wingspans? Why don't they anymore? Why wasn't I around back then? How do we get those back again?"

That was my reaction back in grade school, when I found out that prehistoric dragonflies were a few steps bigger back then. I guess it's true, tho--size really did matter back then, too.

Me, I grew up with dragonflies. Not in the "I was raised by bugs" sort of way, but somewhat like that. I can easily recall many summers spent chasing dragonflies. If there was utterly nothing I could think of to do (and that took some doing) I could always fall back on Plan B: Chase Dragonflies. It was easy, once you got the hang of it--those marvelous compound eyes gave them practically an entire hemisphere of vision up front, so there was no way you were going to walk up on one if you were anywhere near facing it, but they're effectively blind from behind, so all you had to do was sneak up quietly behind one, reach your fingers out and gently clamp one set of wings in your fingers. After that you could look at them, set them on your fingertip, and then let them go so you could go catch another.

It's what I did today. Chased dragonflies. Oh trust me, I had plenty to do, still do; my vacation has been one long work-fest, and I actually never physically caught one in my fingers, but I took time during the warmth of the afternoon to stop flinging huge bits of pecan tree onto the burn pile to sling my camera around my neck and go bug hunting.

Back when I was a kid my brother and I measured dragonflies by two variables: size and colour. Yeah, more and more this is sounding like it's about to turn pornographic but trust me, for once it's not. You see, around here there is a bewildering variety of dragonflies, in different sizes and colours. The most common are the two smallest, each perhaps the length of my thumb. They all came in brown (a sort of golden bronze colour, really, with black patterning,) and blue. Vis:

Blue Boy

Depth of Field

Those you could find anywhere. They'd perch with that weird tail-in-the-air manner on the rosebushes, the clothes line, fences, plants, anywhere really and all you had to do was have sharp eyes and the ability to move quietly. I probably caught and released more of those kinds than I've had hot meals.

Then there was the step up. The golden ones, with their heavy bodies and solid colours. I was frankly astounded to find this one stationary.

Golden Dragonfly

Those were the ones that never landed, that forever stayed circling and whirling overhead in clouds of hundreds. I remember the first year my brother and I finally got smart and started using a net. No mere butterfly net was good enough for us, though, and we couldn't have afforded one if we wanted to. No, a deep-sea fishing net that my father had in his shop was the answer--a ten foot long aluminum pole with an opening a full yard across and a net almost four feet deep. Even then it was a tough call--those jokers were quick, but still we managed at times to catch one or two, gentle it out of the tangles of the net, examine it in wide-eyed wonder and then let it free to rejoin the swarm.

You see, even then we knew that they were eating mosquitoes at an astonishing rate, and if there was one thing we all hated more than school it was mosquitoes, so the dragonflies were safe to fly, and their only expense was to occasionally be caught, held for a moment, admired and then released.

Then there was the rare bird--the medium-sized green and black ones. Those were the very devil hisself to catch. They'd alight all right, but only for mere moments before flickering back into flight, and even then, if you were lucky enough to be right by one when it landed you had to be FAST to get up in its blind spot and get your fingers close. They simply never stayed put long enough.

Green And Black

(You can see that even this one was about to fly again--her wings are held low and forward, about to flicker eye-blink fast and launch her back into the air.)

There were others, no question. There were the truly huge ones, the ones that came closest to my prehistoric ideal. They were a beautiful mix of greens and blues, and their square, armoured abdomens wore plates of pale green and blue so large you could spot them easily even if you didn't hear the rough flutter of their huge wings. They seemed to only come out at dusk, and there was never a chance of you putting fingers on one of those, because they simply moved too quickly and erratically.

As the years went on and we were exposed to more and more of the world we discovered other colours and sizes, too. The ice-blue ones with the black-patterned wings that lived in the forests, which you'd only see around the house a few times a season. Then there are the gorgeous deep ruby red ones that seem to only live in the woods near creeks and still lakes and pools, with their thick bodies and glistening wings. I always dreamed of putting my fingers around one of those, but it was never to be. They still flit through my summer memories, though, larger than life, gleaming like precious stones, wings afire with the summer light. They're not the prehistoric giants that I thought for certain could carry you off if you'd skipped a meal, but they and their kin certainly fit my summer bill.

But then again, what if they WERE four feet long again? Can you imagine the size of the mosquitoes they'd eat? They'd be even bigger than the foot-across ones that are already down here in the swamp...

* The complete Dragonflies set on Flickr

May 11, 2009


Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
(from The Rime of The Ancient Mariner by S. T. Coleridge.

It's a nice word, becalmed. It adequately describes the state of my blog, too! The long delay has many reasons, none of which we'll delve into here, but since we're on the subject of being becalmed:

One of the great joys of hot air ballooning is that each flight is different from every other flight in the same way that each day is unlike every other that has gone before. Oh, they all follow the same pattern in a general way but each is different. This past weekend we had a flight planned for the Saturday afternoon before Mother's Day. A young couple, parents and grandparents were in attendance as onlookers. Sadly for me, Jim, our incredibly competent Crewchief is halfway through Arkansas on his Harley and headed north on an extended bike tour, which left responsibility squarely on Cookie and I.

Well, we bucked up. Found our launch site, sent up another PI ball, reviewed the map, figured out which roads we'd be chasing on, and set up High Hope. The inflation went well, the passengers boarded and the launch went off without a hitch. That's about the last quiet minute I had.

You see, to begin with there simply weren't any roads near the intended flight path. Cookie and I ended up having to veer northwest of HH, then back northeast to the general landing area. The main sections of road we'd be getting into are heavily forested, too, so we lost line of sight very quickly, then radio contact shortly thereafter.

Now, I worry. It's what I'm good at, so I started. I know David is wildly competent, but being out of visual AND radio contact? Scary. So, after failing miserably to spot HH I finally called David on his cellular and got his whereabouts. Come to find out he was ahead of us a bit, but roughly where we thought he'd be.

As the hour wrapped up we began to worry. Not many inroads toward him, and still no sign of a huge yellow balloon. We kept driving in and out of roads, driveways and turnrows hoping for a sight, but nothing ever presented itself, and dusk was drawing close, as was the fuel limit onboard--I knew he'd be setting down soon, but I couldn't FIND him! Pretty sad stuff for the guy driving the chase truck.

Word soon came--High Hope was down safe. I'd stopped near where I thought the landing spot was, but several honks on the horn went unheard by David, and I couldn't hear the burner. He was further away than we thought. (I found out later that David wasn't just being mean, he had in fact been becalmed--the wind simply stopped, and instead of making it to the highway like he'd planned he had to put down at the only safe spot he had.)

I was about to venture a little gentle trespass into a huge field full of massive Texas Longhorn steers when a Yamaha Rhino ATV truck pulled up, filled with landowners. Seems they'd seen the flight land on their property (I was close, by several miles they told me, if he'd landed where they thought he had) and that it'd be tricky to get to them. Seems these nice folks own eight THOUSAND acres, and we'd landed in the midst of them. No roads, no easy access.

So, just to be sure they took Cookie away in one of the ATVs into the very pasture I was about to break-and-enter, and I sat and waited with two generations of the family, phoning back and forth to David. He'd had to walk the still-inflated balloon quite a ways across ankle-deep water mixed with knee-high briars but had the gondola and passengers safely on high ground and was headed for what he thought was a road.

Long story short (I know, too late!) I spent an hour, perhaps more trying to reassure the parents and grandparents that we'd not lost their kids. This in the midst of a night of that quality of dark that only the deep country can manage. We kept seeing headlights flicker in and out of the treeline, but never a sound. Come to find out the balloon wasn't but a few miles from where we'd finally stopped, but the route getting TO them was so torturous and twisted (following fencelines and paralleling natural barricades like deep creeks and a huge lake) that it took twenty minutes at a good safe (fast) speed on the ATV just to get to them. Cookie and company met David, then got to the balloon and rescued the passengers who were hunkered down in the basket swatting mosquitoe swarms with the flight manual. After an hour and a half I saw headlights and heard the burring of the ATV returning. The passengers (in good spirits) reunited with loved ones and went back homewards.

Not so us. We still had a recovery to attend to, and it was already 9 pm.

We followed the ATV and landowner back into the forest preserve that was their property. Twenty five careful minutes following in the truck, wending our way down dirt tracks, embankments and around massive creeks and sinkholes brought us to a retired rice paddy thick with mosquitoes and, we were told, over two hundred head of wild boar. We packed balloon and envelope up after a sweaty struggle through thick grass and biting bugs and locked up the trailer. After a brief confab with the landowner, David, against his better judgement turned the truck around off the embankment and through the standing water, as the landowner was certain our four-wheel drive truck could make it, instead of having David suffer backing truck and trailer up some fifty or sixty feet.

Naturally we got stuck. The heavy truck and equally heavy trailer managed to sink us up to the axles, and sadly the little ATV couldn't pull us free, so...another twenty minute ride back to civilization for the landowner, who drove back (another half hour) with a truly massive, two-story tall John Deere. Without headlights. How he managed to drive that monstrous thing through that winding pair of dirt ruts and barely visible trails back to us sans headlights is beyond me and a testiment to his night vision, but that's what it took.

The tractor made short work of getting the truck out (that's David there, directing the tractor back onto high land,) but during the daring Rhino rescue we'd unhooked the trailer, thinking the little ATV might be able to pull just the truck out. What it DID manage was to pull it just far enough forward that we couldn't get the trailer hooked up again. The tractor had to creep back into the water and, using a nylon tow strap David had in the truck the two of them tied the trailer's tongue to the forklift bars mounted to the front of the tractor and the most ginger excavation began. It would have been comical, were it not so late, were we not so exhausted and were the mosquitoes not so starving for our blood.

My writing this tells you we did finally escape, hale and hearty, but from the landing to the moment we closed the last gate behind us and touched solid asphalt took just over four hours. In eighteen years of flying, David related to us, THIS was the longest recovery in his almost seven hundred flights, including, he pointed out, the recovery wherein the local rescue services had to bring out a helicopter to help the chase crew locate the balloon.

Talk about a feather in my cap.

But, lesson learned. As Tolkien once said, not all who wander are lost, and best you learn to keep your feet when you walk out your front door to go hot-air ballooning--you never know where you're going to end up.

May 1, 2009


I don't discuss politics. You guys know that. It doesn't get anyone anywhere, and it is tantamount to teaching pigs to fly. It just don't work.*

I think from here forward anytime I hear anyone bitching about the current administration, the previous administration, the federal government, the state government, the city government, their police force, someone else's police force, or anyone in charge of anything more important than cleaning the pay toilets at the bus station I'm going to ask them one simple thing:

"What have YOU done to make it better?"

If the answer isn't a damned good one I'm going to tell them to have a nice cup of coffee and STFU.**

Then I'm going to get back to work designing a more aerodynamic, lightweight, non-polluting porcine quadruped.

* Unless you duct tape one to a Boeing 747, but that's not really flying, that's just transcontinental bacon.

** And no, Joan m'dear, I'm not aiming this one at you. I think you're one of the few who really ARE doing something other than making loud noises in an empty room, and sweet gold-plated Jeebux's bottom help you if I'm wrong! ;)