the winds have welcomed you with softness
the sun has blessed you with its warm hands
you have flown so high and so well
that god joined you in your laughter and set you
gently and safely back into the arms of mother earth.
said at the end of each flight, usually toasted with champagne
occasionally, we'd happen upon a hot air balloon in flight and spend an hour or so following it, anticipating where it might land. when it did, we'd sit in the car and watch from the open windows the basket touch the ground, the pilot deflate the giant balloon overhead and then a scrappy crew of helpers pack the whole thing up into a large canvas bag, toss it in the back of a pickup truck, toast some champagne in plastic cups and drive away. i don't remember the first time my parents had a conversation with the pilot, but it wasn't too long before they joined that crew and spent evenings in the passenger seat of a chase vehicle, eyes on the sky while communicating flight information into a squawking cb radio. i don't remember much about my own first trip as balloon chase crew as i think i was about 7 years old, but i do remember a phone conversation with our pilot friends one evening when my parents were unavailable for the third or fourth flight in a row. they asked if my younger brother and i were free to help if someone could come pick us up, as at the time we were both too young to drive. we both went that night, and every night we possibly could after that, quickly becoming in the words of our pilot, "far more experienced than most of the crew- before even owning drivers licenses!"
my childhood summers smelled of propane and cut hay fields, tasted of champagne toasts and post-flight pizza dinners. my mornings started several hours before sunrise, ended several hours after sunset. i ran after landing balloons through farmer's fields and along country roads, learned how to read an altimeter, to 'milk' a 12-story balloon of hot air after landing and, with lots of practice, built up enough muscle to make it all the way from one end to the other. i learned about weather patterns and wind direction and to this day still fear strong, gusty winds. i flew more times than i can count, learned to recognize a herd of deer running through the woods from above and how to pinpoint where a conversation was coming from below my feet. i made friends for life in these other crazy souls willing to chase an aircraft that literally is at the whims of the winds.
the chill in the air and the shorter days this time of year mean the end of the summer to most, and to my friends and family, also the slowing of ballooning season. nostalgia finds me sometimes fighting the urge to buy notebooks, pens and art supplies or to pack up my things in anticipation of another school-year move across half the country. it also leaves me longing to see the earth from the basket of a hot air balloon one last time.