A Waking Dream of Flight

We left the ground before we realized. The people below, waving, grew rapidly smaller, and in a few moments we could see the whole golf course like a contour map below. But there was no power-boost, no firing into space.

ALL me Montgolfier.... (I never liked "Ishmael," anyway.)

You know, it's odd: It had never entered my head that I might, one unexpected day, come upon a bunch of weird-looking aliens in the middle of a meadow, just disembarked from their UFO and looking around them somewhat dazed.

And I haven't. Yet.

Even less did I imagine that one day I might be a freshly landed alien in the middle of a meadow. But this I have now been.

I was not alone. We aliens were a motley crew of 12, all shapes and sizes. And there was our pilot-in-command, Graeme Houston, to round us up to 13. As soon as we came down to the softly turfed earth, bumping for a yard or two, clinging on for dear life yet falling haphazardly on top of one another all the same. Houston contacted Base on his mobile.

He didn't - though I really felt he might have - mutter something memorable about small steps and giant steps and mankind. Instead, he simply let his assistant know where we were, adding that some beings were coming across the grassland straight toward us. There were three of them, he reckoned. They didn't look unfriendly. But how did we look to them?

Two of them kept yelling something urgent. Sounded to me like "Besscummere! Besscummere! Cummere!" Clearly their language bore little relationship to ours.

As they drew closer, we faced them in a defensive huddle around our precious craft. At last we saw them more clearly. They were two Scottish farm children and a sheepdog. The sheepdog was called Bess. She was not in the least inclined to "cummere." Instead, she started rounding up both us and our by-now deflated balloon sprawled across the greensward, as if we were a rabble of recalcitrant sheep.

Then she came up and asked to be stroked.

* * * *

So, sometime after Easter, this balloon ride was my Christmas present. (Weather conditions had to be perfect.)

At Christmas, I had been completely baffled about the well-kept secret. My wife said I would never guess. All she would say was that she was "99 percent" sure I would like it. She had started out 100 percent sure. But a colleague at school had said that she herself "would hate a present like that," and this had sowed a tiny doubt.

Had I really said, years ago, that I would love to go up in a balloon some day?

Well, yes, I had indeed. It was a fantastic present. I loved every minute of it. We floated on high, like Pooh in search of honey, like Wordsworth imagining himself a cloud, like the Montgolfier brothers - or James Tytler, the less-heralded Scottish pioneer of hot-air ballooning. He made a successful ascent at Edinburgh a mere nine months after the first manned, untethered balloon flight in Paris on Nov. 21, 1783. We did not go very high, or stay up very long. But as one of the "crew" said, "time changed shape up there."

The pilot looked for a wind to take us farther over open countryside, but did not find one. So he had to bring us safely down in the meadow, or we would have floated over a reservoir, a forest, mine-workings, and finally urban sprawl, none of which make good landing sites. The 1783 flight lasted 25 minutes. Ours was about the same, or less. It didn't matter. The exhilaration was all the sweeter for its concentrated brevity.

* * * *

We helped pilot Houston roll up his multicolored balloon (90 feet tall when inflated) and bundle it into its remarkably small canvas bag, and then helped him heave the basket onto the trailer (which had, with the local farmer's permission, come rolling across the field on the back of the balloon company's Land Rover). We strode like conquering heroes across two fields to the road.

There stood the waiting convoy of cars that had followed on land our scud across the sky.

My own camp-follower had elected not to chase along, but had contentedly watched and photographed as I disappeared into a small dot. Then she'd waited at the golf-club parking lot, wishing she'd brought a book.

How can I put into words some hint of the experience of this balloon jaunt? It was dreamlike. Apart from the ferocious roar of the bursts of flame the pilot shot upward into the big-top above our (consequently rather hot) heads, forceful propulsion was no part of the proceedings. We left the ground before we realized it. The people below, waving appropriately, grew rapidly smaller, and in a few moments we could see the whole golf course like a contour map below. But there was no power-boost, no firing into space, no back-pushing propulsion.

We, said the company's flier, were "hitching a ride with the wind." I have been in a helicopter, and it has its special poise and flavor. But it is still held aloft, as if it were a coat on a hook, by defiant engineering and main force. In the balloon, one felt the fact that we were up there only because air had lifted us. Hot air. So insubstantial. So strong.

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