Mom Would Never Guess!
The outrageous offer triggered the replay button on a childhood scene:
I was eight at the time. My sisters’ laughter swirled around me as I clung to the pine tree, bug-eyed, crying and screaming for Mom. “Hang on, El,” she called, hurrying from the farmhouse, ladder in hand. I couldn’t have climbed more than six feet off the ground, but it seemed like 600!
That was more than 60 years ago, and now I was faced with an offer I could not handle.
Lloyd and I spent the first quarter of 2010 helping our son, John, ready his Cambridge condo for sale, and then renovate and paint his new condo in downtown Kitchener.
As a thank you gift for our hard work, he offered us a hot air balloon ride!!
“Are you crazy?” I blurted. “You know I’m afraid of heights!”
“Mom, Ive been wanting to go on a balloon ride for ten years! I want to take you and Dad with me. You’ll be fine, Mom. I really want you to come.”
“You can take Dad, but I’m not going. No way.”
And that was that.
As often happens after a night’s sleep, I saw things more clearly the next morning. The bald truth was . . . I was letting fear deprive me of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
A further realization dawned. A balloon ride would provide an incredible opportunity to click some unusual photos-—maybe a scene I could paint! Trust in our Heavenly Father would have to displace fear. It would have to.
John could scarcely believe his ears when I phoned to say we would take him up on his offer after all. His daughter, Rebekah, eighteen, and as frightened of heights as her Grandma, didn’t want to miss out on the family adventure. John made arrangements for the tickets before anyone changed their minds.
However, my legal background almost upset the apple cart. Sundance Balloons wanted us to sign a Waiver to the effect that they would not be held responsible for injury or death while ballooning, even if it was caused by negligence on the part of their staff. Neither we nor our heirs could sue the company.
“Why on earth would negligence be excused??” I queried.
“You either sign or you don’t go,” said my husband. “It’s as simple as that.”
Admittedly there were inherent dangers in ballooning, but didn’t daily newscasts confirm that getting into a car and driving down the road was downright dangerous?
The flight was scheduled for the last Monday evening in July, the beginning of John’s vacation, but might be postponed if the weather wasn’t suitable.
When the date finally arrived, one couldn’t have asked for more perfect weather, or a more convenient departure point: Victoria Park, Kitchener, one block from John’s condo!
Entering the park after supper, we strolled over to where the rectangular wicker basket lay on its side. Sprawled on the grass in front of it was a gigantic, rumpled mass of white and purple fabric. It was our first chance to have a close-up look at the pilot’s middle compartment with its propane burners and tanks, and the two cubicles on either side.
Nearby, three other balloons were being prepared for flight. Several onlookers were gathered around.
Someone spotted a small, black balloon ascending above the tall apartment buildings on the far edge of the park. I assumed it was a party balloon that had escaped, but was told that the pilot was checking out the direction of the air currents.
Finally, the pilot confirmed that everything was GO. The flight was on!
Duly signed Waivers were collected, and a roll call taken.
Two gasoline-powered fans whirred into action, gradually giving shape to the limp mass of fabric. Without warning, a long blast of orange flames shot into the centre of the partially inflated balloon, alarming us! From where we stood, it looked like the whole thing would catch fire!
More fiery blasts. When completely inflated, the humongous CHYM FM balloon held ten tons of air!
There was some urgency about getting into the basket that we had not anticipated. It was now about 7:30, and the balloon was tugging on its tether, eager to be up and away.
Two toe holes in the wicker sides of the compartment I was assigned to seemed too far apart, and the top edge seemed a mile away!
“How on earth am I going to make it?” I sputtered, sticking my left toe into the bottom hole. John, Lloyd, and the pilot pushed my 70-year old leg up . . . up some more . . . tugged, shoved, encouraged . . . until I was perched on the padded rim of the basket. The next feat was to get turned around. As I carefully lowered myself into the basket, Rebekah nimbly jumped in beside me. Nothing to it! John and Lloyd were right in front of us. Three younger people were in each of the other two compartments, making a total of ten passengers, all of us first-timers. There were sturdy rope loops inside the basket’s top edge to hold onto.
In a twinkling, we found ourselves high above the city, with friends who came to watch the launch waving far below!
One of the first pictures I clicked was of the deep excavation and construction site of the all-in-one court house being built a few blocks from Victoria Park. It will replace the three separate court houses (which I had worked in before retiring).
Identifying buildings, agreeing on names of roads and malls, absorbed our total attention, or almost. There were pictures to be taken; lots of them! I was also trying to shush Rebekah, who was chattering like a magpie about how nervous she was!
Unbelievably, neither my husband nor I experienced any fear. There were so many wonderful things to see that I honestly didn’t remember that I was afraid of heights!
The balloon floated along in a south-easterly direction. Mark, our genial pilot, opened some flaps from time to time when he wanted to lower the balloon.
Cameras clicked and jaws dropped as we glimpsed the mammoth homes in Hidden Valley nestled above a curve in the Grand River. We peered into attractively landscaped yards in Deer Ridge, some with bean-shaped pools.
Sculpted golf courses bordered the Grand. Some areas of their manicured turf looked like checkerboards. The lawn had been cut in one direction, and then cut again at right angles.
Drifting low over one of the golf courses, a golfer responded to a passenger’s playful request for a golf ball, and hurled one skyward! No one was able to catch it, but someone saw it touch our balloon!
The pilot, whose Irish accent pleased everyone, announced: “Now for some souvenirs,” pointing toward a group of trees, and heading straight for them!!
Squeals of childlike glee pealed out as our basket literally swished through the treetops! Hands reached out in all directions, yanking, grabbing, ripping off leaves.
No one dawned their jackets during the flight as heat from the frequent bursts of flame kept us warm.
I believe it was to thrill John, who was enjoying every single moment to the max, that our pilot playfully announced that he would try to skim the surface of the Grand River! Oh my. The front edge of the basket dipped lower than the back, and my husband’s feet got soaked!
A palpable sense of privilege prevailed. We felt we were having a ride like no other!! The pilot was pulling out all the stops!The tall, white pillars of the exclusive Langdon Hall Inn came closer. The chef’s classically designed herb and vegetable gardens were laid out like sections of the British flag. Neatly mowed grass pathways separated them. We were surprised to see the shell of a large building taking shape behind the main manor house. It had bowed and winged lines, and would soon be open to welcome more well-heeled guests.
As we sailed along, John pointed out the bald eagles’ scraggly nest atop a platform on two hydro poles. My husband whipped out his binoculars. John captured a few shots before one of the eagles soared off.
Onward over woodlands, over breathtaking views of the Grand River as it wound through pastures, thick forests, and huge fields of corn. Whoever planted the corn would take first prize at any ploughing match! Not a wiggle or woggle anywhere!
“Look! Deer!” shouted one of the ballooners. Two or three white-tails bobbed near the edge of the woods but quickly fled back into its sanctuary. In a few moments, I was clicking repeatedly, and managed to get a good shot of a lone deer bouncing rythmically through the corn!
Several vast gravel pits became visible, mute scars attesting to Waterloo Region’s enviable building boom in spite of the economic downturn experienced in other parts of Canada.
Stately stone buildings of Galt Collegiate, which Rebekah attended, loomed ahead. Rebekah, who until now declared she was too frightened to take pictures, began clicking in earnest. Her fears, it seemed, had seeped through the wicker!
At last, the pilot began searching for a favourable landing spot.
My husband and I previously thought that he would simply let the balloon settle gently onto the ground. Not so! A hot air balloon keeps on moving!!! Oh dear.
Landing was the part of the trip that Rebekah had definitely dreaded.
“Stand in a crouched position, face towards the back, and hang onto the rope grips. Remove any straps from around your neck.” The last instruction sounded ominous.
My eyes met Rebekah’s and held.
“I hope we don’t tip over,” she moaned.
“BAM!!” Bump number one. We were still moving.
“Hang on, Grandma,” encouraged Rebekah with a brave grimace.
“SCRUB-B-B!!” Bump number two. The basket began to tip! We gasped! The basket was still moving.
“DRAG-G-G-G!” The basket tipped further . . . but stopped. We were down, down safe and sound in a hay field, and standing upright in the basket!
Loud cheers went up!
“Stay in the basket until I tell you to exit,” instructed the pilot. (He needed our weight to hold the balloon down.)
Mark phoned the chaser: “We’re in a field behind new construction on Kent Street near Salisbury.”
Meanwhile, he continued to shoot fire into the balloon, keeping it inflated so the chase vehicle could spot us.
Children from nearby houses ran out, enchanted by the fairytale balloon that had landed in their very backyard! Won’t they have something for show and tell this September!
Dusk was beginning to settle around us. The chase vehicle arrived in ten minutes, and almost got stuck in fresh dirt at the edge of the field. The driver reversed a bit, gunned the motor, and bounced toward us over the rough terrain.
The balloon was slowly deflating, while staff tugged it away from us with ropes.
Ballooners began to scramble up and out of the basket. Rebekah made sure she had her souvenir branch.
“Let me help you,” said the pilot, who entered my compartment. He squatted down, and instructed me to stand on his knees. John and Lloyd tried to help. With a push from here and a shove from there, a grunt from yours truly, I managed to exit the basket!
The pilot inquired if some were celebrating a birthday or anniversary, and offered a choice of champagne or soft drinks to everyone.
Meanwhile, his crew was busy rolling the crumpled mass of fabric into a long sausage. One of the little neighbourhood girls asked if she could help! Soon it was stuffed into a large canvas bucket, and heaved into the trailer.
Seated at last in the large chase van, glad to be off our feet, Mark drove us through Cambridge, and soon deposited us back in Victoria Park, Kitchener.
Several hand shakes with the Sundance pilot contained appreciative tips for a TREMENDOUS experience in the skies over Waterloo Region!
Although she is gone now, my mother would never guess that the little girl she rescued from the pine tree would one day ride in a hot air balloon – far above the tree tops – without one iota of fear!
Thank you, Heavenly Father! Thank you, Sundance! Thank you, John!