My buddy Pedro winked in my direction, smirked a mierda-eating grin and nodded his noggin Bobblehead-on-speed-style when I en- tered the Burro Borracho Cantina and Lucha Libre Emporium. “Well, I did it,” he said almost smugly as I approached. Despite every pre-purchase protestation I could muster, Pedro had just spent 242 hard-earned dollars for what he considered the ultimate Christmas present for his latest l’amour: a romantic two-person, early-morning champagne hot-air balloon ride outside Albuquerque. I shook my head so vigorously, I lost several gold crowns.
I had forewarned Pedro about the psychic, to say nothing of physical, perils of ballooning. It mattered not one whit to him that I spoke from intense personal ex- perience on this subject. Pedro’s mind was made up. His current lady-friend, Darlene, had commented almost abstractly (and certainly drunkenly) the week before about how it would be nice for once to do something that did not involve sitting hour after hour on the exact same barstools they always sat on in the Burro Borracho. Not one to miss something as obvious as an impending case of significant-other-based boredom, Pedro immediately suggested that they embark then and there upon what must have seemed to him at that Happy Hour juncture like a National-Geographic-documentary-level journey to the unexplored hinterlands: “We could go sit over in the booth,” he said, expectantly. I’m not sure whether his sweetie’s exasperated groan was based more upon the fact that the Burro’s lone booth — upholstered in the finest of beer-stained, sticky (don’t ask, don’t tell), tattered naugahyde, was located next to the doorless entrance to the single most unsavory men’s room in the entire history of skanky watering holes, or whether it was more general in nature. I suspect the latter. Either way, at the exact moment the final air molecules of a theatrical sigh that lasted well over 15 minutes passed the final molecules of Darlene’s globbed-on bright- red lipstick, the local news came on the Burro’s 1957 scratchy black-and-white, aluminum-foil-antennaed, yard-sale-procured TV that sometimes gets one channel and sometimes gets no channels. And that one channel was running a happy-go-lucky feature segment on the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which is so famous in New Mexico that many of the state’s license plates boast an image that looks like a flimsy air-filled cloth sack falling like a rock out of the sky. “Look,” Darlene said, pointing toward the flickering screen. “Maybe we could do something like that!” At first, Pedro thought Darlene was pointing toward the famous old Corona beer poster with the three provoca- tive, bathing-suit-attired nubile young ladies. “Sure,” he said, “but where are we gonna get two other women?” he asked. “Maybe your nieces!” “No, asshole,” Darlene snarled. “On the TV.” By the time Pedro managed to focus his one good eye on the TV, the local news had cut away to coverage of a high-speed chase in Tucson involving about 40 cop cars, three helicopters, a SWAT team and, eventually, a pair of mean-looking homies being handcuffed and hauled away. This really confused the livin’ shit out of Pedro. “You want to engage in a high-speed chase with police and get arrested in front of a TV camera crew?” he slurred toward Darlene. “Cool.” At that point, Darlene egressed the premises in a snit. “What just happened?” Pedro asked. “She wants you to take her ballooning,” I yelled over the din. I have lived more than half a century, and never once I have seen a visage so befuddled. It took me almost two hours to de-intertwine the Corona-poster/police-chase/bal- loon fiesta cognitive dissonance transpiring between Pedro’s pointy ears. I finally, exasperatedly, made him understand that Darlene had casually mentioned some- thing about wanting to go floating up into the sky like the Wizard leaving Oz.
“Damn! I’ve been wondering what to get her for Christmas!” Pedro said, his face brightening in the dingy light of the Burro Borracho.
This is what I then laid on Pedro vis-à-vis my color- ful, though modest ballooning resume: I have been up in a hot-air balloon twice, which is exactly two times too many, as far as I am concerned. Both times, I stressed to Pedro, took place shortly before Christmas, a cosmic coincidence worth his studied consideration. The first time, I was on assignment for a justifiably long-defunct alternative alternative weekly in Denver. The publisher, a drunken reprobate of monstrous proportions, had found himself (not exactly for the first or last time) downtown at Soapy Smith’s, trolling for some hapless soul to buy him a beverage. His victim that night ended up being, of all the people on the planet, the owner of a local commercial hot-air ballooning outfit, and the publisher said he knew just the person to go up with him into what ended up being the stratosphere, the idea be- ing 1) that we would run a lengthy blowjob story about the his operation in our paper (which, truth be told (something we rarely did) was read by all of about two people) and 2) that in and of itself was reason enough to expect the balloon guy to buy the publisher a slew of drinks that night at Soapy Smith’s.
“Good news,” the bleary-eyed publisher told me the next morning. “I signed you up for a balloon trip,” which, at the time, I hoped against hope didn’t mean what I though it meant, that, rather, it might have something to do with dropping acid and being the live entertain- ment at a children’s birthday soirée. No such luck. I do not exactly suffer from aviophobia, the same way I do not exactly suffer from claustrophobia. Still, the same way I have always been mighty, mighty happy when I emerge from a small, windowless jail cell, I have always been mighty, mighty happy when the plane safe- ly touches down. Never once in my life have I gone up into any sort of aircraft unless there was palpable good reason — usually getting to a place otherwise not easily accessible via non-aerial modes of transport. The notion of voluntarily going up in a hot-air balloon for no other purpose save going up in a hot-air balloon flat-out did not, and still does not, compute.
But, being a professional and all, I showed up at the appointed time, which was literally just as a stunningly beauteous dawn broke upon the Great Plains southeast of Denver. Since it was mid-December, it was a bit on the nippy side, which apparently is optimum for ascension, as cold air is more dense than hot air, and, for reasons that escape me, that physical reality helps the balloon get off the ground and make its way heavenward, until it’s just this little dot that lucky people sitting in their living rooms, sipping hot coffee, can barely see. I would be joining a young (paying) couple that had just tied the knot and were looking upon this journey into the here- after, er, sky, as some sort of marital consummation. The ballooning outfitter my publisher had met at Soapy Smith’s was also the pilot. He was affable enough and evoked a sense of confidence, and, truth be told, once we passed the moon and started making our way toward the outer Solar System, I calmed down a bit and started enjoying the expansive, albeit frigid, view of the Front Range. “Where we headed?” I, being on the journalistic clock and all, queried. “Don’t know,” the pilot responded. “What do you mean?” I squeaked. “I can use the burners to make us go up and down,” he said, “and I have a pretty good eye for where the wind is, but, for the most part, I have absolutely no control over the balloon. We go where Mother Nature takes us.” Ain’t that interesting?
After seeming decades aloft, it was finally and thank-godfully time to descend. The just-married couple was cuddling and cooing, the pilot was pointing out various mountains and I was sur- prisingly casually leaning against one of the basket up- rights. Suddenly, the pilot went frantic. He yelled at the top of his lungs for all hands to hold on tight. We were apparently going through some sort of high-speed me- teorological anomaly taking place like 50 feet above the very ground I oh-so-much wanted to be standing safely upon. “I’M NOT KIDDING!!!! HOLD ON TIGHT!!!! AAAAHHHH!!!!” the now-frenzied pilot screamed. I wrapped both arms around the support, very much like Tom Hanks did in ”Cast Away” when his plane was going down (I don’t know about you, but I started paying a lot more attention to those pre-flight safety briefings after watching that movie), and I instantly became a convert to at least seven religions. Seconds later, we crashed into Planet Earth at both a 45-degree angle and at a very uncomfortable rate of speed, and we spent the next almost 400 feet (I paced it off later) getting dragged by the still-partially-inflated balloon, which was now acting like a fully unfurled spinnaker, the muddy turf zooming by just below my contorted face (yes, of course, it was my side of the basket that was closest to the ground). A couple times, just for grins, the balloon pulled the basket back up into the air, just so we could smack down hard and get dragged toward Castle Rock yet again. By the time we finally stopped, the new wife was crying, and the new husband, whose visions of a nookie-laden night were dissipating before his very eyes, was trying mightily, but unsuccessfully, to console her. That marriage was destined for doom.
After I wrote the blowjob story for the justifiably long-defunct Denver alternative alternative weekly, I vowed to never ever even ponder the notion of setting foot in a hot-air balloon, which, you would think, would be a fairly easy oath to uphold. Well …
The very next year, the editor of a big, glossy outdoor magazine calls me up and asks if I would like to go to the southernmost Appalachians to pen a piece about this outfitter who offers what he advertises as “Adventure Orgies,” wherein clients are taken on a different type of NON-AERIAL recreational pursuit every day for a week (whitewater rafting, climbing, horseback-riding, hiking and, I shit you not, wild-boar hunting and mako-shark fishing). Being the starving writer I was, I said sure. It was once again the very week before Christmas when I landed at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The plan was for the outfitter, a splendid hom- bre I’ll call Bill Smith, to pick me up, take me to the closest bar, where I would conduct a formal interview over many pitchers of suds, and then drive me to his mountain cabin for the night. The next morning, we were set to go rafting on the famed Chattooga, the very river where some of the whitewater scenes from “Deliverance” were filmed. Verily, one of my raft mates ended up being none other than Billy Redden, who por- trayed the banjo-picking boy in “Deliverance,” though, I learned later, he had not really played the banjo in that region/culture-defining movie; rather, the national eight-year-old banjo champion had slipped his hands through Billy Redden’s coat sleeves and picked the notes that film made famous while Billy Redden stood there with his arms tied to his sides.)
“I’ve got great news,” Bill Smith told me as we were driving out of the airport. “I’ve managed to squeeze in one more adventure for you! A buddy of mine has a hot-air balloon, and he’s free this afternoon!” Yey!
The first thing I noticed about the man who was go- ing to take me up into the muggy Georgia air was that he seemed crazy as batshit from the get- go. Something about the way he cackled like a crow at his own bad jokes and the way he kept furtively rubbing his hands together, like he was trying to get some- thing nasty off. Because Georgia was ex- periencing an unseasonably warm late fall, there was not enough in the way of vertical-lift-inducing death molecules in the air for Bill Smith, the crazy-as-batshit pilot and yours truly to all go up together. Just as I was about to volunteer to drive the chase car, Bill Smith patted me on the back and, with a bemused gleam in his eye, wished me not bon voyage, but, rather good luck. So, it was just me and the crazy-as-batshit pilot, and, before I could calculate a plan for changing professions, I was airborne, with noth- ing between me and the ground save a wicker basket, some thin balloon mate- rial and one crazy-as-batshit pilot, who, it turned out, thought the best way to amuse his guest was to buzz as many gi- ant Southern hardwood trees as possible while saying things like, “Bet we can take some branches off the next one.” And here I am, holding on for dear life, feeling like Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens,” like, all I had to do was stay back on Earth, and I wouldn’t be here getting chased by deadly, drooling carnivorous creatures yet again. And, of course, just like my fi rst time up in a hot-air balloon, we came down hard — hard enough that I bit my tongue almost clean in two. Then we tipped over so violently that my nose literally hit the dirt. Then, the wind caught the balloon and we got dragged through a field for a couple hundred feet. And that was the best part. Matter of fact, some hours later, just after we were released by several local Southern redneck police offi cers straight out of bubba central casting, I looked back with fondness upon the those relatively pleas- ant moments when we hit the ground with a back-breaking thud and my nose was smacked into the dirt so hard, I had to breathe through my mouth, which was fi lled-to-brimming with spit-laced tongue-wound blood.
What happened was this: The fi eld that we thudded down in was home to endless vistas of waist-high dry grass. When we tipped over, the fl amethrow- ers that are part and parcel of every hot- air balloon caught the grass on fi re and that fi re spread fast, far and wide, right before my very eyes. The crazy-as-batshit pilot started freaking and yelling for me to exit the basket and stomp the fi re out. I tried mightily to do just that, but the only thing I managed to do was gouge a seven-inch-long wound into my shin, which dragged on one of the wing nuts holding the basket to the balloon frame. Finally, through no fault of my own, I found myself ejected and lying dazed on my back in a north Georgia fi eld that was pretty much by this point totally ablaze. There would be no stomping this fi re out. The only option was to get up and run, except for the fact that we had a big balloon to deal with. Thing is, it damned sure wasn’t my balloon. Screw the bal- loon, and defi nitely screw the crazy-as- batshit balloon pilot. Just as I was get- ting ready to high-tail it into the woods, a pick-up truck came careening toward us, and, before it came to a complete stop, two very agitated, overall-wearing, large African-American men jumped out and pointed, yes, their double-barrel shot- guns directly at the crazy-as-batshit bal- loon pilot and, more importantly, poor, innocent me.
“Y’all ain’t goin’ nowhere,” I was told in no uncertain terms by my per- sonal grammar-challenged gun-bearer as I started eyeballing a potential escape route toward the closest clump of trees, and as those famous banjo notes from “Deliverance” started playing in my head. “We done already called the poe-leece.” I began mentally rehearsing squealing like a pig.
So, we stood there, hands up, like we were bring robbed by banditos in an old Western movie, until the poe-leece and the fi re dee-partment arrived about 20 minutes later, sirens blaring. It took more than an hour to douse the fl ames, during which time the two shotgun- bearing African-American men, the poe-leece, several fi refi ghters and the crazy-as-batshit balloon pilot realized that they all knew someone who knew someone else somewhere sometime. If memory serves, there were several more “y’alls,” a few “all y’alls” and maybe even a reference to hominy grits with red-eye gravy. Basically, a meandering, drawl- laden verbal journey through Southern social inbreeding that resulted in the crazy-as-batshit balloon pilot eating a modest-sized bucket of shit and prom- ising to make a sizeable donation to the local poe-leece retirement/drinking fund. We were let go and I, bloody bit tongue, gashed shin and smelling like smoke clear down to my skivvies, was left with Bill Smith to continue upon my adven- ture orgy.
Despite the fact that I had related all this to Pedro, he felt more compelled than ever to go forth and procure that $242 romantic two-person, early-morn- ing champagne hot-air balloon ride out- side Albuquerque. It dawned on me later that all of the mishaps I had described, Pedro considered to be plusses. I real- ized that, once he fi nally took Darlene up into the stratosphere, he would be dis- appointed if he did not get to experience a crash landing, setting a fi eld on fi re and having shotguns leveled at him. I wished him all the best.
A few days later, Pedro called. Darlene had left him, and he asked, “You want to go ballooning with me, bro? I already got the tickets. After all, this was your idea. Merry Christmas, amigo!”
To read the entire unabridged versions of various “Smoke Signals,” as well as a whole lot of other inane bullshit, go to mjohnfayhee.com.