Normally, standing in the middle of the street in your pajamas while pointing at the sky would be grounds for a psychological evaluation, but, in our neighborhood, on the weekend of the Quick Check New Jersey Festival of Ballooning, it is considered standard attire for the post dawn ascension. During this yearly event it is best to go to bed in respectable sleepwear because the unmistakable whoosh of the flame that heats the air in the balloon causes children and adults to run into the street in the early hours of the morning. Over 100 hot air balloons ascend twice a day and very often fly over our homes and even occasionally, land on our street. The thrill of seeing a big, colorful balloon hovering overhead is always exciting. I don’t normally quote fictional bears, but Winnie the Pooh said it best, “Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon.”
Hot air balloons are the Goldilocks of aviation; everything needs to be just right for a successful launch. Air temperatures must be favorable for ascension and those temperatures occur early in the morning or at dusk. If surface winds are above eight miles per hour the balloons won’t launch and if it is too humid, the balloons won’t be able to rise very high. Seeing a balloon float over your home is a confluence of meteorological conditions.
The potential of seeing so many hot air balloons at once seemed like a great excuse to host a party. We jokingly added the following disclaimer to our invitations, “The management is not responsible for weather conditions and can not guarantee balloon sightings.” Some years we were lucky and the balloons flew over our house. Some years we walked a bit to see them and other years we didn’t see them at all.
After a particularly hot, muggy evening lacking balloon sightings, one disgruntled guest complained, “I don’t know why you bother with this party every year. It’s always so hot and sometimes we don’t even see balloons.” Apparently, our invitation disclaimer was ineffective.
Surely, this guest couldn’t be blaming me for the lack of balloons or the heat, it is July afterall. I was cheerful and polite when I said, “It was a disappointing year for balloons, but sometimes you win some and sometimes you lose some. At least we had good food and laughs.”
This answer did not appease the guest who couldn’t let this go, “But, why call it a balloon party if there aren’t going to be any balloons?”
All sorts of smart-ass replies raced through my head. I really tried to control my natural sarcasm reflex, but the urge was unstoppable and I responded to the guest’s rude comment, “We didn’t charge admission and therefore won’t be offering any refunds.” The guest walked away feeling duped and sweaty.
The following year, my husband and I considered asking invitees to sign a waiver acknowledging they understood the risks of attending the party, but that seemed to lack hospitality. Our solution was to invite only a few friends who would come for the food, the complimentary bug repellent and the opportunity for some balloon action. These intrepid souls have withstood triple digit temperatures, stifling humidity, swarms of insects and the occasional balloonless evening, but they keep coming back. What could be more fun than straining your neck looking upward while sweating and being eaten alive by mosquitoes so large they have landing gear? These gluttons for punishment have nicknamed our annual party “Sweat-fest” because of the perspiration that engulfs all of us by the end of the evening. Every picture we have shows us with damp hair, glistening foreheads and soggy shirts.
Aside from incessant sweating, another balloon party tradition is the discussion of where to go for prime balloon viewing. This is a complete crap shoot and not one of us wants to take responsibility for choosing a location. If the balloons travel in the opposite direction we will lovingly torment the person who chose that ill-fated location for years to come. Since we can’t come to a consensus, we fall back on our personalities and professional training to guide us in our suggestions. The analyst in our group uses past balloon performance as his indicator for future balloon direction by telling us which way the balloons traveled in the morning. He insists that there is a high probability that they will travel in the same direction in the evening. Wind couldn’t possibly shift in 12 hours, right? The scientist among us has his own two-step method for determining wind direction. First, he gazes at the sky and carefully observes the direction the clouds are moving. This is not always a reliable method especially if it is hazy or overcast. For the second part of his experiment, he rips a fistful of grass from the ground and tosses it overhead watching the direction the blades of grass blow. This only definitively proves that the laws of gravity are still in effect. The realists in our group ascribe to a more practical philosophy. We prefer to walk to the corner and see what happens. The chance of heat stroke, likelihood we’ll see balloons and laziness are factors we consider when determining the distance and direction we are willing to walk.
While we stand there scanning the horizon to see if a balloon emerges, we inevitably begin sharing balloon related trivia or telling tales of past balloon sightings. As time passes and the sky remains empty, we check our watches and begin to question the wisdom of our location. We have the wind direction discussion all over again and more grass is sacrificed. There have been a few years when we have contemplated paying a teen on a bike to ride the mile to the airport to scout out the balloon launch situation. No one has actually done this, but we’ve had some very serious conversations about how much to offer a scout and whether or not he would actually return with information or just ride off with the damp cash we had handed him from our sweaty hands.
Most years balloons rise from behind the trees and our patience, persistence and perspiration are rewarded with a great show. Balloons of all shapes, sizes and colors fill the sky. Even though we have seen this before, we stand there mesmerized, snapping photos and pointing out the oddly shaped balloons: the clown head, the Pepsi can, the barn and the moving van. Each of us has a favorite we hope to see.
When the last balloon has drifted off into the sunset and the mosquitoes rule the night, our bedraggled group walks back to our house. We clamber over each other for cold drinks, the bathroom or a seat near the air-conditioning vent. This may sound like a miserable way to spend a summer evening, but laughing with great friends while hoping to catch a glimpse of a few hot air balloons floating in the sky is worth every bead of sweat.
** Thanks to John, Linda and Terri for taking and sharing their photos.