Monday, July 20, 2009


Those of you ancient enough to remember the demise of Life Magazine in 1973 may also remember when it was resuscitated as a monthly. The October 1978 premiere issue hit the newsstands that September, which also happens to be the same month I moved to New York City to go to college (don’t ask.) The new Life featured an article about the soon-to-be-released movie version of “The Wiz” which was, at the time, the most expensive musical ever produced at a staggering… uh, thirty-five million dollars.

Why am I bringing this up? Because the cover of the magazine’s re-launch issue pictured hot air balloons and that is the very subject of the re-launch of

I was invited to go on a balloon flight yesterday evening by Michael, a Greene County neighbor who is also a balloon pilot. I had never been aloft by balloon before so I jumped at the chance. 36 hours after bidding adieu to the sparkling blue waters of the Caribbean I was viewing—from above—the lush green canopy of upstate New York. Which was more beautiful? Neither. They are both, in their own way, magnificent.

As I approached the meeting point I scanned the horizon for the balloon (or “envelope,” as I now know it’s called) and saw… nothing. I pulled into the parking lot and there was Michael and his trailer. Oh, I get it; this is going to be a real hands-on balloon experience. Yup, I assisted in unloading and setting up the balloon and basket before we took off.

The stored envelope is the size of an overstuffed club chair and is unrolled to its full length and laid on the ground. Then the supports are attached to the basket (which is real wicker, by the way. I was expecting some new-fangled fiberglass gondola, but Phineas Fogg himself would be comfortable in this rig) and the envelope cables are connected to the supports.

After that, it’s pretty much what you’d expect: a fan blows air into the envelope and the thing inflates. When the burners are fired, the interior of the balloon heats up and it slowly rises to the vertical. Michael climbed in first, then his friend Chris, and after she was secure, I fell over the side into the basket. Michael gave the burner a few more blasts and we rose into the sky like… well, like a balloon.

(The theory behind flying a balloon is remarkably similar to scuba diving. Buoyancy is dictated by the pressure/temperature inside the BCD (and lungs)/envelope in relation to the water/air outside. You increase the buoyancy of the BCD/envelope with short bursts of air/fire. To maneuver, one must anticipate these adjustments. Again and again Michael would explain what he was doing and it all made sense to me from my recent underwater education.)

The evening was crystal clear and we could see for miles. All the way north to Albany and all the way west to the The Berkshires. We were amazed how much unspoiled forest there is in our area. We floated gently and slowly east and gained altitude as we went. I took a turn at the burners and the next thing I knew we had ascended to almost 3,000 feet. It was magnificent. When the burners are not actually firing it’s completely silent; we could hear conversations in backyards as we passed overhead, our shadow leading the way.

I phoned my friends the Boulers to alert them we were heading straight for their house, but the wind changed direction just before we reached the reservoir and the balloon turned south. There’s a Buddhist monastery in Greene County and we flew directly over the pagoda at their forest retreat instead.

Since it was a quiet Sunday evening cars stopped right on the road to watch as we glided by. People would yell up to us and wave their arms. A private jet appeared to veer off course to get a slightly closer look at its aviational ancestor.

We saw no birds to speak of. Maybe we were too high?

When Michael decided we should start looking for a place to land (2 1/2 hours into the flight!) we happened to be just a few miles from my house. We came in lower and lower and found a hay field that looked good. Cars were lining the road as Michael navigated the air currents and headed for a clear spot so we would land just before sunset. When the balloon was mere yards from the ground two kids came running through the woods and into the open field, screaming gleefully at the beautiful rainbow balloon descending from the early-evening sky. Michael’s landing was flawless; if I had been holding a cocktail (and why wasn’t I holding a cocktail?) the ice would not have tinkled in the glass.

The folks came out of their farmhouse, the neighbors traipsed across the lawn and with their help we had the entire operation packed up in jig time. The evening was magical.

Now, can we please once and for all stop pitying “poor Tom” for returning from Saba sooner than expected? Tha-a-a-a-ank you!


  1. How cool! Thanks for the ride! Sunday was a beautiful day to venture out like this for sure.
    Yes I'm ancient enough to remember Life, Look and a whole host of other now defunct magazines. Yes children imagine no internet back then.
    You'll get no pity from me Tom, you've always got something up your sleeve!

  2. Take 2:

    Wow, my thoughts are going in all sorts of directions here. The wicked side of me immediately picked up on "the handling the basket" angle. But I dismissed this immediately as being too silly for such a work of art. The Life Magazine mention next came to mind. I still have my moon landing edition (40 years ago today no less-it also has a tribute to Frank Loesser who had recently passed on). But that too didn't really seem to address the shank of this posting. Then came your video with the Saints-Saens. You know, they use that same Aquarium piece at Epcot for their film presentation "Images of France"? What chokes me up is that you made our New York State seem every bit as beautiful as La Belle France. And the kids running at the end. It probably would have taken umpteen takes by a professional to capture that so beautifully (but this qualifies you as a professional n'est-ce pas?). So, no pity party here. Just a cry for more (I think I already did the Oliver Twist thing but what the hell). By the way, I think I peed a little when I read Nadine's blog about naming the toad Tom. But that's okay. I once had a Mastiff puppy named for me. It's a true sign of affection when someone names a pet for you. Remember Little Ricky's puppy Fred? And speaking of pets, how's Mickey? Are you 2 on meowing terms? This is really off-topic now. Keep dazzling us, my boy!!!

  3. An amazing sequence-- breathless! And the look on those kids' faces! Btw-- we set the toad free to roam to be true to his namesake.

  4. WOW, land as far as you can see! Try this one on Saba!:-)
    Glad to see your arrived safe back home.

  5. I like how you tied the ballooning and swimming together. I'm always telling people I can fly... because I swim. I just can't get out of the water to do it in the vapors... yet.

  6. I was really expecting you to revive the Great Leslie's act up there!

  7. We just reread and studied your pics, but it was the movie that stole our hearts! Another viewing is scheduled for the am-- wow.

  8. You continuously amaze me. Life is handing you adventure and inspiration. And I can't think of anyone who may deserve it more...

    Thanks for sharing.

  9. Really fantastic! The video was stunning. Thank you so much for sharing.

  10. Tom, Can I tag along? you have the best adventures.