To start at the wrong end, to begin at the tail and work to the mouth--this morning, after we had flown our last flight, refueled for the last time at the fueling station and had gone back to the hotel to partake of one last complimentary breakfast, David, sitting at the head of the table, our father and mentor and friend performed a simple ceremony that he does at the end of every big festival or competition: he asked each of us around the table to relate our favourite moments from the days-long event.
Just like any event of this scale there are certain moments that stand out in my mind with if not crystal clarity then with a sharpness that will certainly last me for decades to come. Realising Saturday afternoon that the weather was going to prevent us from flying. Eating beignets in a little coffee shop off one of the main drags at 11 at night, our skin smelling of propane, the little cafe nearly packed with people. Watching the looks of utter wonder and astonishment on the faces and in the eyes of so many little children, looks mirrored in their parent's faces.
Each of us at the table had something different, some little moment or larger feeling that they related. Me, I wanted to tip my mind over and let the whole flood out, drown my friends and family in a cascade of images and words and inarticulate feelings.
I wanted to talk about how it looked to me and how I felt sitting in the chase truck watching the larger Skybird nudge and bump against a smaller, rounder balloon flown by a competitor as they both angled for the perfect approach to the target on Pennington Field, and the cheer that I couldn't help but release when I saw the bright pink beanbag leave Skybird's basket, spun and hurled by David toward the yellow "X" on the ground below.
I wanted to talk about what it felt like to look up in the sky as we held Skybird in place as her envelope filled, looking up and seeing dozens of giants gliding by overhead in near-silent splendor. Hugely round jellyfish drifting in currents of air, with tiny wicker baskets instead of stinging tentacles descending from their bellies. How I wanted to call to those passing, extolling them to "Wait! I want to join you!" And then how I could not help but whoop and cheer when I looked up and Skybird's blue and orange globe had joined that strange sea, fitting herself into the mass of bodies as naturally as a seal dives into the sea.
I wanted to tell about the sinking feeling I had when I saw a gaping tear in one panel of a complete stranger's balloon, and how I looked and looked as we passed to make certain that it could be repaired, that it might fly again, my heart torn between that stranger's need and our own balloon's need, approaching the ground.
A part of me was desperate to tell them how good I felt, learning how to refuel the tanks in Skybird's basket. Knowing full well it was a terribly dangerous thing (the attendants only allowed two persons from each balloon crew to enter the grounds, to minimize the risk of life should the store of propane ignite.) Learning the job, learning the dangers of handling a fluid that escapes into the air as a vapor so cold you cannot touch it with bare hands lest you be burned. Taking the responsibility for doing it right, and safely, having that responsibility placed in your hands by a teacher who knows better than you, who knows that to learn you have to do, and you have to make mistakes as you learn.
And then the child in me wanted to tell them that the jet of white propane vapor vented out of the tall thin exhaust pipes as we completed the refueling process made me think of whales breaching, blasting out air in a white plume.
A part of me too could have talked about my own role as teacher--squatting in the grass while swarms of little children with curiosity in their hearts and fire in their eyes pointed and asked and probed, desperate for knowledge. Talking to one stranger after another, answering questions about lift and size and wicker and when we'd be inflating and when we'd be racing and when would we be back? I wanted to talk about the Mexican gentleman who asked a constant stream of questions in rapid, heavily accented English who then, upon devouring my words poured them back out of his mouth in a liquid stream of Spanish for his wife, while his three sons climbed around and in and out of the basket asking their own questions. How good it felt to enlighten people about what we do, how fulfilling it was to know the answers to the questions they asked.
Of course a part of me wanted to talk about the competition, the sense of pride I felt every time I saw Skybird moving into position to toss a ring or scale a beanbag with it's trailing plastic tail at the target. I wanted to crow jubilant laughter, retelling this morning's misplaced toss: finding a competitor directly below us, between us and the target David decided to toss the balloon ONTO the other balloon, trying to make it slide down the slick nylon sides and perhaps land where it needed to be. How chagrined David looked when the yellow beanbag plopped dead center onto their top and stayed, and the childlike glee that appeared moments later, a little boy who has done something not terribly wrong but frightfully funny and has gotten away with it.
Naturally I wanted to tell them how proud I was to sit with the pilots during briefing. How at Natchez last year I stared into the open-sided tent at all those people listening to the briefing, feeling like an outsider, a 'less than.' Wondering what the presenter was saying, how I longed to be sitting there with them. How proud I was to sit there Saturday and Sunday morning beside my teacher, behind the paper "24" that was our assigned number for the festival. How it felt to know that I was the 'new guy,' the student pilot, wondering how many people would later find David in a quiet moment, pull him aside and ask who the guy with the moustache and the dorky grin was. And of course how it felt to walk back to the truck after the briefing, numbers and wind velocities and targets bouncing around my head as my feet longed to break into a run, eager to find our spot and launch.
And then there was the part of me that wanted to go on and on about how incredible it was to see the balloons flying out over the mirror of a still lake. How I'd heard it described a dozen times or more, how I'd seen the photos but never imagined how incredible it would look in person, from the vantage point of the waterfowl whose day we disturbed.
To slip the surly bounds of Earth indeed.
The complete set of Pennington 2009 photos can be seen here.