Saturday, February 9, 2013

Up, Up, and Away

When I was growing up, every kid was obsessed with the space program, and every kid (every boy, anyway) wanted to get his hands on a model rocket. The trouble was, model rockets were expensive. No one I knew could afford to buy one, or had parents who would buy such an expensive—not to mention dangerous—toy for their child. (Except for one lucky kid in my sixth grade class, whose parents were rich and didn't mind if their son lost a finger or two.)

Even when my friend Bill and I put our savings together, we didn't have enough money to buy a model rocket.

We did, however, have enough to buy a hot air balloon.

We should have been skeptical when we saw the ad: "10 FT. HOT AIR BALLOON—Rises to amazing heights on just hot air." After all, this was the same company that sold those famous "X-Ray Specs" and a "Polaris Nuclear Submarine" made of cardboard. But we were kids, and we believed any nonsense we read—especially if it was in the back of a comic book.

When the package arrived, we thought there must have been a mistake. How could a 10-foot hot air balloon fit in such a small envelope? Inside, we found several large pieces of red and white tissue paper, a wire ring, and a cryptic instruction sheet. Undaunted, we spread the contents out on the ping-pong table in Bill's basement and began to piece the tissue paper panels together with Elmer's Glue-All. After hours of painstaking work (the tissue paper was incredibly fragile; we were constantly having to repair tears), we had something that vaguely resembled the picture in the ad and might even be taken—by someone who had never actually seen one—for a hot air balloon.

To us, it was a thing of indescribable beauty.

We carefully carried it to the empty field across from Bill's house. The instructions suggested building a small stove to supply the hot air. We didn't have the patience or parts to build a stove, so we simply built a small fire and held the balloon over it. (And our parents thought model rockets were dangerous!)

Miraculously, we did not start a brush fire.

Miraculously, the balloon filled with hot air. We released it, and...

Miraculously (and majestically), it rose into the sky.

High above the earth it soared (maybe not as high as a model rocket, but pretty darned high), before drifting gently back to earth.

It was the coolest thing we had ever seen.

We made the fire bigger, hoping that more heat would make the second flight even more spectacular. Unfortunately, we made the fire a little too big. When we held it over the fire the second time, our tissue paper balloon burst into flames, like—well, like a balloon made of tissue paper.

It was the second coolest thing we had ever seen.

All of that excitement for just three dollars.

Yeah, I think we got our money's worth.

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