In the morning by the moonlight, they began to play. Over the rich green fields of Princeton, where the sky was a deep purple haze, the splashes of orange that stained the horizon told them that time was running out. If they wanted to get it up by sunrise, while the winds were still and the deer were asleep in the forest next door, they’d have to turn the fan on high.
Her friends, the friends of the pilot, the ones who had driven down from New York to New Jersey in a procession of silver Mercedes with diplomatic license plates, helped spread the big nylon bag on the ground. As the fan kept blowing, the flattened bag became slowly pregnant, the right side laying flat on its back on the grass as the left side puffed and swelled and grew.
The sun, which had been fighting inevitability for almost an hour, was up now to a huge horizontal half-moon of golden rays that streaked Pamela Henry’s waist-brown hair to an ashy chrome. She pulled up the zipper in her shiny red jump suit and laced up her high black boots and walked into the hole of the still-growing, starred and striped balloon like a cherry bomb that had been swallowed by a whale.
Because she was so small and so light, she could do this well, walking inside the big bag that still lay on the ground, smoothing out all the wrinkles, lining up all the creases. It was a new balloon, never flown before, just unpacked from Texas, and the fresh new folds made crinkling noises as the rushing air pulled them apart.
It took shape slowly. It was like blowing up a plastic swimming pool with your mouth, only a lot bigger and longer and a lot more dangerous.
As the people from the silver cars pulled very hard on the cables, the big, stubborn bag finally became erect and firm over the steel and wicker gondola. It was full now, and it stood there in the still grass tall and proud and incongruous, like an eight-story building from another century, another world.
The long red and white stripes reached up to a strip of stars on a bright blue field. Pam Henry climbed into the little cage at the bottom and looked straight up into the hole. The sun was now a back light to the east. In the light, you could see the endless crisscross of reinforced nylon cord, the stuff that was carefully woven in to keep the big bag from breaking.
She pulled hard and fast on the ripcord that opened the propane jets just over her head. Small flames shot out each time she tugged. One of her gauges showed the quick temperature change. Within minutes, the balloon was full of hot air and ready to go. Read the rest of this entry »