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A T W IN 80 MINUTES
9/24/2011 5:53:51 AM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

Author’s Note: Due to website issues, some recipients report they have not been receiving these column each Saturday. If you have been missed, please access all columns by date and title at the bottom of this page. And let me know which titles you missed. RAM
* * *
Youngest grandson, Hutson Mills Faucette, had his first aeroplane experience (on Southwest Airlines) at less than six months when his mom and dad (Dr. Phillip Faucette, DDS) attended an Endodontist conference in Charleston, SC. Hutson’s mother, as I recall, was about three when I took to Mexico on American Airlines, and his grandfather (me) was just seven when he got his first ride in the clouds.

The year was 1938, and we were living in Watertown, NY. That summer there was an air show at a field north of Watertown, and my father (Big Art) insisted we attend, as he was a diehard fan of the late Wiley Post’s. It so happened, there was a “barnstormer” there with a Piper J-3 Cub who hustled 15-minute flights over the city to anyone who had $5 and nerves of steel (kids under ten were free.)

Big Art had a fin burning a hole in his jeans — squirreled away, I’m sure, for two pints of Calvert’s Blended American Whisky he’d find other ways of acquiring — so off we went: my very first flight in a small aircraft, sitting in the front with the pilot while Big Art breathed heavily behind me. Aside from pushing hard against the floorboards with my Keds to keep the shuddering machine from leaving terra firma, I remember being mesmerized by the experience — so much so, that I couldn’t wait to grow up, get my pilot’s license and own my own airplane.

By the time I achieved that particular dream, I was married and had kids of my own. I will, of course, never know what angel of mercy kept me from killing myself in the Air Coupe I habitually flew over Niagara Falls at night and landed on the beach at Charlotte, NY by day. My wife at the time may have deprived herself of my premature demise (and millions in insurance) by threatening either the airplane go or I say ‘adios’ to my kids. Over time, as the arguments became bitter, the license lapsed, along with the macho bravado of my misspent youth.

For my 60th birthday my eldest daughter, Barb, and her husband, Donny, gave me a certificate for a hot air balloon ride from Conesus, NY to the Bristol Hills and back, along with five or six other ‘civilians.’

At the appointed time I drove with my new wife and youngest daughter to the campus of the local college from which my ride departed. We said our bon voyages, and I boarded the gondola with the other excited passengers — little Alex and her mom joined the “chase team,” and we kept in touch with walkie-talkies I had brought along.

What a grand and glorious experience! The balloon took off and floated in absolute mystic silence over the lush farmlands and rolling hills of the Finger Lakes. Once, over Honeoye Lake, the pilot, a local newspaperman whose hobby was hot air ballooning, lowered the huge craft amidst dozens of horn-blowing pleasure boats to a point where our wicker basket actually touched the water. Then, just as the cool lake began to cover our toes, he laughingly fired the propane burner, and we lifted off, heading east for the Bristol Hills.

It was there that we ran into trouble. As we skirted the crest of the highest hill, the gondola apparently scraped a treetop; we rotated out of control about thirty feet up and spun slowly to the ground; we spilled out of the basket on our hands and knees. No one was hurt, of course, or even shaken up; the balloon, no longer warm and full, was unable to remain upright. It flopped harmlessly to the ground, away from its passengers and propane furnace, a limp shroud cast unceremoniously to the cellar of sad experience. The pilot immediately shut everything down, and we all shrugged and giggled self-consciously. Even those not experienced pilots, such as I, knew the ride was over.

Unfortunately, though, someone on the ground saw the balloon disappear beyond the summit of the hill, and with the setting sun suddenly exposed where the colorful shell had briefly obliterated it, assumed the craft had crashed in a ball of flame.

“I seen it with my own eyes!” the witnessed screamed into the phone. “It exploded and they’re all dead!”

“How many were onboard?” the state trooper asked.

“How’m I s’posed to know?” responded the witness. “Probably hundreds! They was all killed!”

Back on the hillside, I asked our pilot what we should do. He said we should just wait there in the woods until the “chase team” came for us. The sun was now set, and being the hero I was, I tried to make contact on my walkie-talkie. No good. I was out of range.

Without fanfare and while dusk was becoming more prevalent, I made my way down the hillside. I came to a farmhouse and asked some kid where the road was. “Right there, over there,” he said, pointing to a gloomy area beyond the adjacent tree line. ‘Where’s Canandaigua?” I asked. “Couple miles north,” he said.

I sat on the roadside and played with the buttons on my walkie-talkie. Finally, someone answered. “Who’s this?” the unit crackled. “Name’s Mills.” “You okay?” “Yeah. So’s everyone else. Who’m I talking to?” “This is Trooper Johansson.” “Oh, where are you right now?” “On Route 222 — hey, is that you sittin’ on the side of the road?” “Yeah, guess so.”

A couple of minutes later I was in Trooper Johansson’s squad car, heading north to Canandaigua. He radioed ahead the location of the disabled balloon and the other passengers. I used my walkie-talkie to reach my wife. I told her I was okay and heading toward Canandaigua.

“There’s a hamburger joint,” I told her, “corner of Route 222 and 5, just outside Canandaigua. Meet us there.”

Trooper Johansson dropped me off, and my daughter ran into my arms, crying, ‘Daddy! Daddy! We thought you were dead! But you’re not! . . . Your hair’s messed up, though!”

I offered to buy Trooper Johansson dinner, but he begged off and drove away. We all had extra onion rings that night.


Copyright©2011 by Robert A. Mills, all rights reserved


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Jenny's Way by Diana Perkins

Historical novel set in Eastern Connecticut...  
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