It happened in the summer of 1971 or ’72 and readily I took part. I was eight or nine. Wandering about the Phoenix, Arizona neighborhood where I had grown up, looking for a cool place to play was preferable to sitting inside with my middle-aged parents watching television. Television didn’t yet come in a cable; Russians were still Soviets; Americans were still in South Vietnam; and plastic was still a relative novelty. Many years later I recognized with frightening clarity that that carefree summer evening was not so idyllic.
I must have been wearing a T-shirt and Toughskin jeans from Sears or J.C. Penny. That seemed to be all I wore, because they came with a guarantee that promised a new pair of jeans to any parent whose child wore out the knees. Stupid really. Millions of moms must have gotten new pairs of jeans because the offer was retracted shortly after it broke. Shorts meant a sunburn–I didn’t wear ’em much. T-shirt because if you wore much else you got sunstroke. Phoenix was and is a place with a “dry heat”, yeah and you’d die in it faster than in a “wet heat”.
125 Degrees Fahrenheit in the shade (Celsius was still Centigrade in the states, and nobody knew what it was anyway). It was said that you could put an ice-cube on the black top (tarmac) and the water would evaporate as fast as it melted, so no puddle. I never tried it, but I bet it’s true.
It was getting close to “night time” and I would have to go in when mom called. There was no wind whatsoever. It was dead calm.
I strayed across the street to where the “renters” lived in the house at the top of the cul-de-sac. I sauntered over because I saw two kids there, and that’s when it began. They had interesting stuff.
I can’t remember their names and wouldn’t give them up unless required to give them in a court of law, but I will call them Shawn and Kate. Shawn was about twelve. His sister, Kate (who always had a dirty smear around her mouth), was about my age. Shawn had a flimsy wad of plastic in his hands and Kate was searching for something in the boxes in their carport. I asked what they were doing and they said they were going to fly a balloon.
Since flying a balloon was something that I hadn’t done I asked if I could ride. They laughed.
Not that kind of balloon.
Could I help?
We commenced looking for plastic straws. Plastic because they were strong. There were still paper straws in use that didn’t kill sea creatures back in the day.
We found them (They were red and white) and then Kate went inside to find a bunch of pins.
She probably swiped them from her mother’s sewing stuff, because every mom had those back then.
We procured plastic tape (Scotch tape in was called), and then Shawn produced the secret: birthday candles and matches. Holy crap! I was really intrigued by that time.
I still am.
We crossed two plastic straws to make ” a ‘X’ ” and poked one pin up to hold the ‘X’. Along the legs are arms of the ‘X’ , equally spaced (sort of), we poked three more needles. A total of thirteen needles pointed up–that was “impornant”. We carefully pushed birthday candles onto each one, facing up.
I still didn’t know how it would fly, but right then I got to have an important part of building the balloon…I got to hold the bag. Yeah, the filmy plastic was a dry-clean bag. They didn’t print warnings on them then and there weren’t any holes to keep up from suffocating. It was so soft and thin–it was like air.
I stood up as tall I could on my tip-toes while Shawn and Kate opened the bag and taped the ends of the cross-piece onto the bottom of the bag. Once that was done Shawn took over the holding job (’cause he was tall) and Kate took the matches.
I backed off. This was gonna be “cool.”
Kate lit the little candles (I think they were multi-coloured) and Shawn held the bag up and out of the way of the flames. I just thought it would leap skyward–but it didn’t. Nope, it just sat there. And sat there. And sat there. I asked why.
‘Cause it hasta fill with hot air.
I waited and waited for the thing to “fill with hot air.” It was like watching rocks turn into sand. Real “Cool.”
It was now dark and my mother would be calling soon.
Then it happened. The bag slowly began to “look” like a balloon and pooch outwards. Ever so slowly, the cross-piece lifted off the black top and Shawn let it float there in front of us.
I probably screamed with glee but can’t remember.
The balloon seemed indecisive about its path. It seemed to shake in the air one yard (a metre was what the Gas Man looked at every month) off the ground.
I must have been breathing hard.
It was amazing and beautiful. In the darkness (the sun was gone) it glowed like a magic lantern. I don’t remember noticing that while waiting for it to “fill with hot air” but I did notice all at once.
It was like an airborne jellyfish.
Then it made up its mind. It climbed slowly higher and higher away from our hands. It was an angel…a star! Higher and higher still it rose glowing in the cloudless night until it was fifty to a hundred yards up. Over faraway streets it gracefully drifted. We watched our balloon soar on the turgid air and we were so proud of what we had made.
Wind. Slowly so slowly it ventured farther and farther away up in up. Then it really happened. A breeze caught it and our prize creation became a falling star. Plummeting down came our mass of fiery burning plastic brilliance. It fell far away, on another street much like ours. We were disappointed that it was gone and we faded off to our homes. We didn’t think much about the sirens that soon broke the darkness other than to wonder if they were police, fire or “amblance.”
Years later in an odd moment of clarity, I remembered my parents discussing the “mysterious fire” two streets over that had burned a family’s home to ashes. Nobody hurt because they hadn’t been sleeping–yet. Police were “baffled.” The house had one of those odd wood shaked roofs. Those roofs were notorious, in Phoenix, for catching fire. I think later they outlawed them, wrote them out of the building code. The climate was just too hot.
God favors drunks, fools and little children with matches–or at least He did that night.