Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

The Big Balloon

by Norris Chambers

   There was a time when a person, especially a person living outside of a city, could do just about anything that he wanted to. A driver's license was not required to drive a car, and a young person started driving as soon as the parents agreed it was time. For most kids, this age was about ten, or when the feet could reach the pedals. Where I lived, the training ground was a smooth grain field. An adult took the student to the field and placed him (or her) under the wheel, proceeded to instruct in the method of starting and taking off. You drove around and around, across and over and about, starting and stopping many times. Then you tried backing and changing gears, etc. When you had mastered the controls, you went out of the field and down the lane that lead to the main road. This could be as far as five or six miles, and many times the lane changed to a winding two-track trail through the trees and between the hills. By the time you arrived at the main road, which was nothing more than a four-track trail that was a little straighter than your previous trail, you were ready to tackle it. You had received enough practice in starting and stopping as you honked cows out of the way, and stopped for hogs and turkeys to clear the right of way.

  Eventually you got to town, which was one main street with a few little side streets that you never traveled. After a few trips up and down Main and a stop at the general store on the way home, you had become a driver. If you wanted to build a barn, dig a tank, burn your trash, kill wild game (wild game got pretty scarce during the big depression. Even Hoover Hogs, the common name for rabbits, got hard to find}, All you had to do was do it. No permits, no inspectors - no complaints. Of course the complaint bit was handled by your neighbors if you infringed on their rights. I knew a man who put a dirt dam alongside his field to keep water from washing away his crops. This backed water up on the neighbor and killed his crops. The complaint from the neighbor assumed the form of a shovel, which he was using to cut a hole in the dam. The first neighbor didn't want this to happen, so an argument ensued. The man with the shovel threatened the other, and he pulled out a 45 pistol and shot him. This was not the approved method even then, but it ended the dispute. One was buried and the other went to the penitentiary.

  What I am leading up to is the fact that one Christmas, Clifton and I did something that would surely be frowned on today. We had a blacksmith shop where we could build or repair almost anything. This project didn't require the use of the shop - just a lot of thought and work.

  First, we procured a few feet of old 12 gauge telephone wire - it was plentiful on the fence posts and old phone lines that were no longer in use. Miles of the big steel wire had been strung through the pastures and along the fences during the early 1900's when your closest neighbor might be five miles away, but wanted to communicate by means of the new-fangled telephones. Wire was cheap, and labor was cheaper. So most of the country was linked by phone wire. But during the big depression, there wasn't money to buy batteries, so the communication networks disappeared, leaving their wire strung all over the country.

  We took the wire and formed a pear shaped framework about ten or twelve feet high and eight feet in diameter. Then we started hunting newspapers. Eventually we found enough to cover our frame with the generous use of flour glue, which we could make in sufficient quantities. It worked well to hold the papers together. We now had a hot air balloon, although we didn't know about such things then, except in a general way from reading of the old French experiments with that type of sky travel.

  A wooden base held the unit erect, and we designed a power source by taking a few old rags and tying them in place near the bottom opening of the balloon. We expected to saturate these with gasoline, and that the hot air thus generated would take the balloon into the air. We hoped that a syrup bucket, filled with gasoline, dripping through a nail hole in the bottom would keep the fire going. We also expected the can to explode high in the air and produce a spectacular fireworks display.

  Christmas Eve, well after dark, was selected as the launch date. We would set up in a field about a half mile from the house, the field chosen to depend on the direction of the wind at the time. We wanted it to drift away from the house and barns.

  Christmas Eve finally came, as it always has, and the two of us journeyed to the oat field, carrying our balloon carefully, along with the required fuel. There was a slight breeze from the northwest, and the temperature was in the low thirties. We knew enough about balloon theory to believe that the colder air temperature would assist our efforts.

  I wish you could have seen it. Everything went according to plans. After a few seconds, the fuel saturated rags began to burn vigorously. The inside of the paper balloon was filled with fire, and it appeared for a little while that the papers would catch fire and that would be the end of the display. But it began to rise slowly and drift to the southeast. It was a beautiful sight as it gained altitude, burning higher and higher. It must have been two or three hundred feet high when the papers caught fire near the bottom. This only made it climb faster. Now the whole balloon was a giant fireball, hundreds of feet in the air. Just as if the timing had been planned, the gallon of gasoline burst and exploded. There was a slight sense of concussion and a low boom as the flame spread in all directions. The whole area was as bright as day. All of our projects did not end as successfully.

  We had not confided in anyone, not knowing how the outcome might be, and not being prepared to be blamed for a haystack fire, or something worse. There was a lot of speculation as to what caused the display. The newspaper in the county seat had a front page story about it, and quoted many eye witness accounts. It was speculated that it was anything from a meteor to an exploding oil well. If flying saucers had been know then, most likely it would have been a flying saucer in trouble. One religious zealot said that it was a token sent to warn people that the end was near, and that everyone should prepare for that day that was certain to come soon.

  We just thought that it was a lot of FUN. Don't dare try it today. It is too dangerous. Too many things could go wrong. Because we were successful this once does not mean that the experiment could be duplicated. Did it make us any money? No, but it didn't cost us any either. We used "drip" gas for fuel, and that was free for the taking in a dozen different places nearby.

  Was it fun? We thought it was - but then, sometimes we had a peculiar perception of what was fun and what was not.


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