Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Flashback to 1981 - The Battle Creek International Balloon Festival

For the first few days of the international ballooning festival, I played keeper to one Stan Donovan, an acquaintance from my college days who went on to become an itinerant events reporter for such pillars of literature as High Times, the Cosmic Experience, and, in his more lucid moments, the Rolling Stone. When he left, I found some of his notes stuffed into a half-empty case of Rebel Yell. I have pieced them together for what follows, with his approval, of course.

June 20, '81 OPENING DAY
Battle Creek. The Best to You Each Morning. The place reeks of cereal. I wake this afternoon to the smell of burning Froot Loops and have to scrape the sugar coating off my windshield before I can leave for the airport, praying to the goddess of gasoline that I have nothing besides a tiger in my tank. The car, a rusted black market rental I got in a trade for three hot Visa cards, dies anyway, lunging one final yard before spilling its transmission onto Territorial Road, just blocks from the launch site. It's just as well. Two hundred thousand beings are there already, pressed against snow fences, huddled in overheating cars, piled on mopeds, falling off bicycles, most of them stoned on hot dogs, crusty mustard, and Sno cones...
I spend a good thirty minutes studying the traffic patterns around the airport. A uniformed Cambodian refugee is conducting those same overheated cars and mopeds into bloated parking areas with the grace of a fine chef brandishing his Ginsu. Six jets roar overhead, dive bombing the city's north side. They are the Thunderbirds—six red, white, and blue T-38 Talon jets, flying billboards for the Air Force. They can singe the hair on the back of your neck and be over the horizon before the smell hits you. They pass by once more, trying to scare the lookout tower. Two fellow reporters, one from the Spokane Post-Examiner, the other retired from the Blue Network, get whiplash on the spot. They are ushered into the nearby aid station, a self-proclaimed M*A*S*H* unit equipped for handling hangnails to Caesarian deliveries, but rendered impotent against an epidemic of Elephant Ear Enteritis. This locally-coined medical term requires some explanation.  It seems, with the appearance of the balloons, came the arrival of a grease-stained delicacy called Elephant Ears, a tidbit resembling a pita bread dusted with a coat of cinnamon. They act on the body much like a Roto Rooter. I can see them being created, pioneer-style, in the back of the Official Elephant Ear Wagon. No flapless Dumbos there--just a combination of flour, lard of indeterminant age or origin, and occasional hair. The hair seems to be the active ingredient.
I drops fifty milligrams of Dramamine and head to the field.
While the guard at the press gate is telling me that Reagan has sent his wishes for fair winds, a hot mist comes up from the southwest, turning the airstrip into fifteen acres of hazy meadow. Politicians should stick to politics. someone mentions canceling the evening's mass ascension. He is lynched quickly, quietly. This crowd means business.
The pilots appear now, marching in file, freshly briefed on the weather, and appraised of new red zones, chunks of Calhoun county where farmers will meet them with open pitchforks if they land. The masses divide for them, applauding. Once again, Man Will Conquer The Skies. Kitty Hawk, Cape Canaveral, and now, Battle Creek. Do I detect the National Anthem.
I am jolted from my reverie by a telephoto lens to the left kidney. The Japanese film crew has arrived...
I count about seventy-five ballons getting into position now, the silken enveloped pulled into place, the crews making them quiver and pulsate with jets of cold air. Then the propane is fired, and the American Dream is airborne with vivid colors extolling me to drink Smirnoff, eat at McDonald's, and read Playboy. I ache to comply.
A press balloon springs a leak, deflating in a heap nearly on top of me, so I stay behind, watching these ethereal teardrops defy gravity. They head to the northeast, their ground crews hastening to keep pace.
I dissolve into the crowd when my car is announced as a traffic hazard over the P.A.
A recorder picks up the following conversation between two ladies wearing "Bomb California" buttons:
"I don't see how Kellogg's could let that Playboy balloon in on this," says one.
"I think I'll write a letter," says the other.
"And did you see that girl they had here? Practically falling out of that little outfit."
"Just indecent."
I am about to say something, but notice they are standing in line for Elephant Ears, so I just smile and walk on.
The Exodus pushes me on in time for me to watch as my rental is towed away. Requiescat in pace.. I still have a dozen Visa cards....

I come upon one of the chase crews held up in traffic, and, seeing a chance for escape, hitch a ride. Ground control is giving chase vehicles     priority on the roads, but this driver hops the curb and heads cross-country anyway. I scrutinize my travel companions. The pilot of the van calls herself Bubbles and is navigating with a revoked license. Her nine-year-old daughter is passing around a diminishing six pack of generic beer. The third crew member turns out to be a stringer for ESPN who needs a landing shot to complete his report and who, like me, saw the chase van as the only way of escaping the crowds before midnight. The last inhabitant, buried beneath the portable videotape equipment, happens by some coincidence to be my Battle Creek host, a disgruntled pharmacist who thinks that some questionable ability will get him into films. The stringer and nine-year-old are seeing who can get him drunk first.
Bubbles then announces that she has lost our balloon and stops the van.
Her daughter quickly produces a map of Calhoun county, complete with Red Zones, add the stringer points out routes guaranteed to have us lost within minutes. The pharmacist struggles from beneath the videotape equipment and tells us that we've just parked in someone's front lawn. The daughter pats him on the head and gives him another beer. I suggest we continue northeast, the general direction the balloons seemed heading. The vote is three for, and one against, with the one abstaining member quickly becoming comatose.
By now, the police scanner is posting updated ABPs on a renegade chase van, so we return to the charted roadways. The Norwegian and Danish balloons gently collide above us. The mist is getting thicker. Also sweeter. Kellogg's is near.

Bubbles stops at the factory to get our bearings. her daughter again produces her maps and my Battle Creek host wanders over to the main entrance to begin an animated repartee with the ceramic Tony the Tiger standing sentry.
Abruptly, the Hong Hong entry, guided by an Austrailian, lands in the parking lot not fifteen feet away. Its chase crew springs from a nearby billabong and has the balloon wrapped, packed, and shunted away before we can even get in a good chorus of "Waltzing Matilda." Bubbles stands in awe, the nine year old says"Whoa, Man," and the pharmacist doesn't notice, his conversation with Tony having degenerated into a corruption of Canadian French and Pig Latin. ESPN loses its exclusive report when the stringer can't dislodge a beer tab jamming his controls on fast forward.
The haze becomes a fog and we answer the call of the open road.  When an hour passes and we haven't heard an update on our position over the scanner, we realize we are lost. Our road has gone from gravel to a two-track to a field where a pony cantered through perhaps a week before. Bubbles stops the van. As near as we can estimate, we are in a Red Zone. "I am not enjoying this," she says.
She slams the gears into reverse, and we retreat about five yards when there is a metallic Ching and the front of the van sinks. A tire is dead, victim of a bear trap.
Now, it has always been my conviction that the presence of a bear trap in a Michigan field is not a good amen. For one, I don't like traps. For another, I don't like bears. I don't like to watch them wrestle Dan'l Boone, I don't like to lie on their rugs. I'm sorry. I'm just that way.
The pharmacist grunts a chorus to "La Boheme" and enters REM.
Dusk is setting in, and we can barely see the last of the entries drift over the trees to the northeast. Nor are we alone. The mosquitoes have discovered their free lunch. Between slaps, the stringer tells me how he was trapped in a blizzard and proceeded to videotape his last will and testament. Bubble's daughter is sitting on a rock, chanting, “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my." Her mother is wishing that her flashlight worked.
I begin to go quietly out of my mind.
An owl and two bats lend themselves to the scenario as my body temperature drops eight degrees.
Lions and tigers and bears oh my.
We pry off the flattened tire and the stringer takes it to the back of the van. I hear a thud.
Then silence.
Lions and tigers and...
The grass crackles.
...bears oh my...
Bubbles and I run to the back but see nothing. No stringer with a flat tire. No pharmacist behind the rear wheels. She calls out for her daughter.
I run to the cab and find the faulty flashlight. It flickers when I give it a good whack against the van. Come on, light up. The bulb dies again.
I run back where I left Bubbles. No more Bubbles.
...and tigers.
I hear something walking around me, stalking me.
...and bears.
The grass crackles again.
...oh my.
Madness helps at times like this. I yell like a stung hyena and run for the cab. For a moment, it works. I think I can make it.
Then it is on me. I'm knocked into the grass and it has me by the legs, pulling itself over me. I can feel it drooling, panting, its dank breath taking mine...
The flashlight.
I swing at it with the flashlight, making contact with a dull crack. The light comes on and I can see it now, arching back slightly from the blow. It starts to laugh at me, a low rumbling laugh
that grows and pushes me back. It looks like it's wearing a mask...
An elephant mask.
It lunges at me, and just before everything goes out, I wonder where its ears are...
I wake up on my back, staring into a bright light, smelling of Witch Hazel and iodine. A  Mephistophelean character peers at me, says something to a girl near him, and she leaves. My host, the comatose pharmacist, appears with my camera and recorder. I grab his shirt.
"You sure he just hit his head?" says the doctor.
My host says I'm always like this. I'll get him later.
"Get me out of here," I say. "That guy looks ready to do some quick surgery."
Outside, I am told that when the press balloon collapsed on me, I wandered away and became entangled in one of the ascending balloons' ground ropes and was dropped on my head from ten feet. Another plot, I'm sure. I check my arms for needle marks, some sign of drug entry, then I remember...
The elephant ears.
I run into the crowd as my car is announced as a traffic hazard over the P.A. I cannot maintain....

No comments: