By WILLIAM SHANNON
The following is a transcribed interview with Vince Wallace, a decades-long National Guardsman, maintainer of the Civil War soldiers’ section of Hudson’s Cedar Park Cemetery, a survivor both of the Great Depression and at least two brushes with death, and a former hot air balloonist who, nearing his eighty-fifth year, continues to embrace chances to get into the clouds.
WS: Can you describe your childhood?
VW: I had a standard childhood for people of my age. I was born October 26, 1931. And I’m what’s left right now. I was born in Hudson, New York, in the Hudson City Hospital, which is now Columbia Memorial. There was four of us in the family. Dad, Mom, my brother—all gone. I’m the only surviving male of my generation. There’s only one other survivor of the entire generation and that’s my older cousin.
The things that affected me most—two things. World War II and the Great Depression. I lived through both of ’em.
I remember the Great Depression as being a time of big trouble in our house. Mostly all negative. My dad was out of work. There was little to no food. The only help we got was from a program called the Relief Program, which was a state, local-funded resource that provided some material goods and some money.
I remember my mother sitting at the dining room table, one evening, crying because there was no food in the house. And my dad had to go out, and fortunately, we lived near relatives, and got food for us.
And that situation happened a couple times.
No one had any money. And no food. The Depression years were not really a very happy thing for any of us.
World War II. I remember, specifically for us, the effects of the war happened actually before December Seventh—for us. We had friends who were in the local National Guard company that got called into duty in late 1939. And when the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred, they were already on their way overseas to the Philippines to protect the islands there.
We were in school at that time. And I remember, as a student, we had to practice fire drills and what to do in school and at home if there was going to be a bombing. The homes had to be protected from firebombing. And everyone was encouraged to have several pails of dry sand available to dump onto the firebombs that, if you put water on just increased the intensity of the fire—whereas the sand would smother it out.
We were encouraged to purchase war bonds. A war bond had a value of eighteen dollars and seventy-five cents and when it matured in twenty years it was worth twenty-five dollars.
But, if you couldn’t afford to buy a whole bond, then they would, at school, the kids could purchase stamps, to paste in a little book. Which was done once every week, you came with the money for the stamp and the teacher would put the stamp in the book. And, when you filled the book up, you could convert it into a war bond.
And that was the way that we participated—one of the ways. Another way that we helped the war effort was to collect milkweed pods. The milkweed pods, the material inside, was used to put in life preservers, for the war effort. So, if you saw a sailor wearing a big, bulky life jacket in some of the pictures, you thought you might’ve contributed to the jacket.
Our class in the school, the Greenport elementary school, took on an obligation to raise enough money to purchase an Army vehicle—in our case it was an ambulance. And we did little special jobs, all around, for contributions. And we were able to purchase a brand new Army ambulance in ten months. And we certainly hoped that helped.
All of our relatives of war age were, of course, in the service. Either volunteered or drafted. My dad was of draft age, at that time, being in his middle-thirties. But, he had a deferment because of two children. And his occupation at the Lone Star Cement Company was considered vital to the war effort. So, he did not have to go in. He was the only male in the family who didn’t go into service, for those reasons.
I remember post-war activity, when the men came home—Hudson area, by the way, provided almost fifteen hundred people to the armed services, of all branches. Twenty of them never came home. They were killed in action or died in service for any reason. But, we remember all of the veterans coming home and there was a lot of activity in that regard.
At the end of the war, it was about 1945 and I had just graduated from grammar school and was in high school. And one of the first things I saw when I came into high school was a brand new Navy hellcat fighter that wasn’t needed for the war and, somehow, the school district acquired it.
And it sat there in the back of the school. And that was great to see the airplane. A great motivation to join the school’s aero club, which led me into my lifelong love of flying. Ever since that time.
Another aspect not remembered or mentioned often is, when the veterans left service, the government would provide them with money to renew their education. And a lot of ’em came back to high school to get the education they needed to get into college. And here were all these young men, only a few years older than us, who sort of took over all of the sports activities—and the girls. ’Cause the young ladies would see a young man with a brand new car, a world of experience—been away to Europe or the Philippines and back—and they had a lot of money.
So, there went all of the girlfriends from my generation at that time.
WS: What towns did you grow up in?
VW: Lived here in Columbia County all my life. As I mentioned before, born in Hudson. We moved several times while we lived in Hudson, mostly what you could’ve called at that time a cold-water flat. Certainly none of the utilities that are available today. But, then we moved to Greenport, where most of my family resided. And then, later on, after marriage, we moved to Valatie and then back to Claverack, Maple Avenue, and I’m happily back in Greenport, living one block from where I grew up back in the 1940s.
WS: You mentioned a love of flying. How has that manifested itself over the decades?
VW: Well, as soon as I was able, when I got my first job and a car and sort of had freedom, I went over to the Great Barrington airport and started to take flying lessons there in the late 1940s. In a Piper J-3 Cub. A classic Cub. And, at that time, the entire lesson, all of the lessons to become a pilot cost six hundred dollars. So, I got a loan for that. And, after about eight or ten hours, I could solo the Cub. I could fly that airplane all by myself.
But, I still had a considerable number of hours in order to be licensed. You had to prove yourself on cross-country flights and all this other stuff. But, what happened is, I would get up and you’d have to fly from Great Barrington up to Rutland. But, on the way to Rutland, I’d see something of interest off in one direction or another and go over and take a look and come back. So, I used up a whole lot of my six hundred dollars going to look at things that were nice to look at.
WS: Did you fly over the monument at the top of Mount Greylock?
VW: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Yup.
WS: That seems like it could be one of those distractions to check out.
VW: That’s one of ’em. Yup. And, well, whatever you saw—I love flying low to the ground. Less than a thousand feet if you could. But, usually, there’s minimum altitudes for aircraft and you had to be careful not to violate that, especially when you’re a student. Or you’re never going to get your ticket.
But, we loved to fly the J-3 Cub.
But, June 26, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. And I was in the National Guard at that time. And our unit got called up and put on alert. So, I had to set aside my flying activities. The Guard and the war and everything else kept me so busy that I never got back to get my license.
But, in 1976, a fellow came to town who flew and sold hot air balloons. So, I went right up and was one of his first clients. And, he took me up in a really old balloon. Made by Piccard Company. Piccard championed ballooning. And, he took me for a ride and I said, Geeze, how much is a new balloon? And, he sold me a balloon that was a prototype. It hadn’t been proof-tested yet. And, it cost four thousand dollars. So I bought it and, fortunately, while they were making my balloon, it got type-certified. So, man, now I had a certified balloon for the price of a prototype. So, we had that for seven years. And we would fly it with several other balloonists out of Balloon Meadows in Valatie. And we would just fly wherever the wind particularly blew that day. And, I got about two hundred hours in the balloon. And, after seven years—after ten years, you have to replace the entire top. And that repair at that time was going to cost five thousand dollars. More than I paid for the balloon. So, due to economics, I had to sell it.
I tried sailplaning for a while, out of Freehold, over there. But it’s too limiting. You almost cannot fly out of sight of the airport. And, it’s a major thing to have to land somewhere, disassemble the thing, bring it back. So, I gave that up.
Parachute jumping. I tried that. And, it was okay, but you’re only in the air a short time. And it wasn’t a very safe thing, from my standpoint. Because we took lessons at the FulCo Airport up in Montgomery County. And, I made five jumps. And, when I landed on the last jump, the guy who owns the school came running over and says, quick, quick, we need you to come into the shop and help pack parachutes, ’cause I have a group of people coming by bus to jump this afternoon. And I said, Jesus, I can’t pack a parachute. I never packed a parachute. I just watched someone pack it. And I said, God, who’s been packing my parachute? And, I said I better not do this anymore.
So, that took care of flying. Except whenever I can get aloft today, I do it. There’s George Fox over here. He invites me up once in a while and we go on his little Ultra-Lite. It’s just nice when you can fly, like with the Piper Cub, with the doors off, or in the hot air balloon, you’re seeing everything right out there in the basket. Or, in George Fox’s little thing, you’re sittin’ right up in the chair with a big engine behind you.
I love that.
I’d be up there today if I had means. Today’d be a great day to fly.
WS: Was the National Guard based at the Hudson Armory?
VW: Yes. When we were kids, and we’d go to the Memorial Day parades, the local National Guard unit was always a major part of the parade. And, this was a company of upwards of a hundred men. All in uniform and armed. That always got my attention.
So, on my eighteenth birthday in October 1948, I went down and enlisted in the Guard unit. And, loved the Guard so much that I just stayed in for forty-three consecutive years.
VW: Yup. And it was great for me. I never got a chance to go to college, because the family at that time never had the money or the ability to take out a loan for it and be able to pay it back with all the other expenses.
But our National Guard company at that time was a combat engineer unit. And, during the Korean War, the opportunity to go to the Army engineer school at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, came up. And I grabbed the opportunity and, for the next three years, took courses at Fort Belvoir that prepared me not only for military engineering, but things that were directly applicable to engineering in civilian life.
So, that helped me get a job with the Columbia County Highway Department, working with the engineering section there.
And, I was part of a three-man survey crew. And the other two were old-timers they taught me all of the fundamentals of land surveying, including the mathematics associated with it. Which, at that time, was all hand-done. No computers or anything to do the math for that. So, you had to know your trigonometry and algebra and all that.
They showed me all the shortcuts to that. So, I stayed with surveying. And the National Guard helped me get a job in Albany with the state agency, the military and naval affairs, and they’re responsible for operating and maintaining all of the state’s armories. So, I got in there as an engineering technician and stayed there for thirty-four years. Till I could retire in 1994.
But the Guard was great. It was a very strong company, composed of eighty percent World War II vets. And you learned the fundamentals of military training pretty quick from them. From the no-nonsense guys. Your personality got straightened out pretty quick.
Yeah, the Guard was very good. And today is, definitely, something that a young man should look into getting into.
WS: Wasn’t the Guard used pretty effectively as leverage during the Korean War?
VW: Yeah we were, let me tell you that story. We were put on alert, along with four other National Guard divisions, nationwide. One of the divisions went directly to Korea.
But, the Russians, in order to help the North Koreans, they wanted the U.S. to have to divide its military strength. So, they started raising hell in Hungary. Over there. And, to counter that threat, our division, which was an infantry division, twenty-seventh infantry, got converted to an armored division.
And, we spent the next year or so converting into an armored division. And, we didn’t go to Korea. Our task was going to be to fly from the U.S. directly to Belgium, where all of our armor was stockpiled. We were going to pick up our armor and go directly east to confront anything the Russians were doing.
And, our sister division at that time was the fiftieth armored from New Jersey. And, we were going to form a spearhead to go into eastern Europe to buy time for the larger buildup, which would have to take place if we were successful.
So, we did have a purpose. We like to say we helped hold off the Cold War a lot, because we held the Russians from invading any farther west.
I’d like to add, even though I was retired in the nineties, the order that put me into retirement also put me in the retired reserve, from which I have not yet received a discharge. So, technically, I’m still in. But, I think I would have one more duty day—it would be the day they order me to go get a physical, which I would flunk. So, I wouldn’t be going anywhere.
Of the forty-three years I was in the Guard, I did twenty-seven as a commissioned officer. Retired with the grade of Major. And sixteen great years as an enlisted man. Officer was a tough, tough job. Enlisted man was lots of fun.
WS: As an officer, what did you learn about human nature?
VW: You learned to be wary of a lot of things. Trust people until they prove they can’t be trusted. Treat everyone equal, as you would want to be treated. Give credit to people that have proven to you to warrant merit. Shun those who will get you into trouble or who are trouble. Just treat everyone as you would like to be treated yourself. Yup. Treat everyone with respect. All the things you learn in church in regard to being a good person. And a good citizen.
WS: What’ve been some of your other jobs?
VW: Oh, man. Newspaper carrier. Right off when I was thirteen years old, I carried papers for the Hudson Evening Register at that time. And I still remember my route, believe it or not. It started right at the Seventh Street Park. My papers were always in a great big bundle outside a store there. I’d pick ’em up there, put them in my carrier bag and just started up upper Warren Street to Prospect out Prospect to Gohl’s store on Green Street and then all around what is called the Frist track, around the Greenport Number One Firehouse, all of the little streets there and all the way out to the Lone Star Cement Company and back.
We did that five days a week—every day they published. And, every Friday night, we’d have to collect—we’d collect money from the people.
I forget how much it was. But, on four days a week, people would be at the front door to take the paper from me by hand. Payday, they were noticeably absent. You had to leave it in the mailbox, behind the door or somewhere else. So, that’s where you get your first example of dealing with people.
And, I also delivered for the Hudson Daily Star. For them, I had to get up about four-thirty each morning. They were the paper that people wanted to read at breakfast-time. So, my whole route was pretty simple at that time. I just did the entire Warren Street, from Promenade Hill all the way up to the hospital—both sides.
I did my newspaper routes until I was old enough to get a work permit and then I worked for the city of Hudson, mowing grass in the cemeteries. And, right now, I still take care of the Civil War soldiers’ plot, which I took care of back in the 1940s when I was mowing. So, I take care of that yet. And, also, I worked part-time in Gohl’s Grocery Store, which was one of the—well, it was bigger than a mom and pop, but not as big as a supermarket. Stocking shelves.
And, I learned how to drive there, in one of their delivery trucks. Standard shift, with the clutch and everything. When I didn’t have anything to do inside, I’d go out and just sit in one of the trucks and sort of do it while no one was looking. Yup.
WS: And, now you drive trucks for Taconic Farms?
VW: Yes. I’ve been there almost ten years now. It’s hard to imagine. My retirement from the state was great. But, after a while, it’s a pointless existence. There’s no goals. There’s no one to give you guidance. Just nothing. And, I found myself over at the Catskill boat club every day, talking with other people at the bar. And you’d have a beer. Then, of course you’d buy everybody one. And then everyone’d have to buy. And, pretty soon, you knew you weren’t going to pass the DWI test coming home. And, I had three very close calls with the police agencies in relation to that. And, the consequences of a DWI are pretty severe. Initial fine. Mark on your license. Your insurance doubles. So I said, oh the hell with this.
So, I shopped around, wanted a part-time job, found that Taconic needed delivery drivers, so I went down and looked and I liked that. And I thought they weren’t going to hire me because of my age. I was seventy-four then. But they did. They have a no age discrimination policy. So, they’ve treated me exactly like all the young guys. But, I don’t get any breaks either.
So, it’s been a great existence. It allowed me to save enough money—. What I did, every time I got a paycheck, I’d cash it and put the money into a shoebox, believe it or not. After seven years, I got enough money, I was able to buy the house I live in with cash. Cash. That worked good, because we had to leave the house in Claverack, which was so big. You know, we had four kids. But we didn’t need the big house. Nor all the maintenance to go with it. The wife is physically incapacitated to the point where she couldn’t take care of it. So, moving into the smaller house was a hell of a good thing. So, I’m lucky Taconic let me buy my house outright with no mortgage. Which is a happy thing. Yup.
So, I’m still there. My physical is up in December. Which I’m going to take. And I hope to stay, but I’m not sure. I’ll be eighty-five years old then. I don’t know if they’re going to let me stay behind the wheel.
WS: Have they sent you down to New Jersey lately?
VW: Well, all too often. I’d be happy not to go to New Jersey, but, if they send me, I’ll go, because I don’t believe that a driver should be selecting their trips. You gotta take what comes up.
WS: What’s your joke about New Jersey?
VW: If God was going to give the world an enema, that’s where he’d stick the tube.
WS: What’ve been your greatest struggles?
VW: In my youth, I was very sickly. And I spent a lot of care under the medicine as it developed at that time. At five years old I needed, believe it or not, a hernia repair. And Doctor Edwards, who was the chief surgeon at the hospital at that time, performed the surgery. But, it was quite crude ’cause the antiseptic at that time was ether. There was none of the pain blockers they give you today. After post-surgery, I had to wear a plaster cast for a month. So that, as a child, I wouldn’t be trying to undo the stitches or get at the wound-site.
Then in the 1940s, while sleigh riding in the cemetery, I ran into a gravestone and broke my jaw and knocked out all of my lower front teeth.
And in the process of that healing, I developed a severe infection. My head swelled right up. And, at that time, sulfur drugs was the only thing they could use to cure infection. And, they weren’t workin’ on me and it got progressively worse. And, the thing that saved my life at that time was that Doctor Ralph Spencer had just left the Navy at that time. And penicillin had just been introduced. And he was able, through his associates at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to come up with enough penicillin for me to try. And, after a week on penicillin introduced by the IV, it finally killed the infection.
So, penicillin and Doctor Spencer’s Navy career saved my life.
And, I was severely asthmatic. The only drug available to relieve asthmatic symptoms was a powder that you would burn in a little dish and inhale the fumes. And that would alleviate the symptoms for part of the day. Just age, time, cured the asthma.
Those were the major struggles.
Of course, we struggled during the Depression. But, I had no control over any part of that.
But, my marriage and my adult life has been great, compared to others. I don’t have any complaints with any of it. Except that I wish I could’ve spent more time with my children growing up. Because the state job didn’t pay a hell of a lot. That supplemented with part-time work with land surveyors. And picking up part-time jobs wherever I could. And the National Guard took up a considerable amount of time. So, the wife, God bless her, enforced all of the discipline that a home should have. And, if her efforts failed, the kids knew what was going to happen when daddy found out.
But, great kids. They’re all doing well. They’re all in their fifties, by the way. Never gave me one day of trouble. Happy with my life. Could it have been better? I’m satisfied, so that’s that.
WS: What’s your best advice on how to lead a good life?
VW: Well, I’ll go right back to the standards that we grew up under back in the 1940s. Boy, show respect, all respect to your parents. Their guidance is what’s going to keep you out of trouble. Go to church. Get taken up in your religion. And go through whatever the religious denomination requires, ’cause it all means being a good citizen and being a good person on earth.
Treat others as they should treat you. Don’t be afraid to get into the military. At least for a short time. For at least one enlistment. And you’ll learn some great, great values there on how to develop yourself fully as a person. Yup. How to deal with others, of all kinds of backgrounds from different parts of the country and the world. And get to see a little bit of the world. And it’ll help you burn off a lot of the energy that would otherwise, as a teenager and early-twenties, would only get you in trouble back home.
Be very careful in selecting the woman that you want to spend your life with. Make absolutely certain that you’re both fully compatible in every part of life. We used to go through three or four years of engagement. Which is not done anymore. All to the detriment of married life. That’s why we have fifty percent divorces now, leaving children without a man in the house. That’s probably a major part of a lot of the troubles we have, with drugs and poor attendance in school.
Oh, school. Behave yourself in school. Learn everything you can learn. Sign up for some of the extracurricular activities for the diversity that they offer. Treat your teacher with all of the respect that they deserve. And for God’s sake, don’t become a problem in the classroom.
WS: That’s all I have, is there anything else you’d like to add?
VW: Going back to the Depression years. Initially, I gave you a whole lot of negatives about it, but there were some positive things. Even though the families didn’t have a lot of money, we did do things. We would go to one of the four motion picture theaters on Sunday afternoons, after church, for the matinee.
Once a year we would take the Hudson Dayline excursion from Hudson to Kingston Point on one of the four beautiful, great steamers they had there. Very big, majestic, steam-driven steamers. And we would leave Hudson about ten-thirty, quarter-to-eleven; stop in Catskill about half an hour later; then down to Kingston Point, arriving there about Noon-time, twelve-thirty; stay in the big picnic area about two hours and then catch another steamer—we’d call it the upboat—coming up the river and land back in Hudson about four, four thirty.
That was always a trip that we looked forward to.
The Lone Star Cement Company every summer had a huge picnic for all its employees on the grounds out near the plant. We looked forward to that.
Visits with family members were definitely a big part of every week’s activities. They were good because they helped families stay together and stay strong to get through the Depression.
And, just the things kids normally did during the summer. Going swimming in the swimming holes. Keeler’s Creek, going there. Oakdale Lake was not developed at that time. There was no government-sponsored things to do, so you’d just go swimming in Keeler’s Creek. Families sometimes would go to Tipple’s Grove, which was part of a farmer’s orchard that bordered on the creek. And, we’d have our outdoor picnics.
Oh, and listen to the radio. There was to TV at that time. Every family would have either access to a radio or had one of their own. And it was just everybody in a room, sitting quietly and listening to the popular programs that were on at that time. Kids liked the Lone Ranger. If you ever see the movie that’s on at Christmas-time called the Christmas Story—that was 1940s. And, what those kids went through in the movie was essentially what we went through back in Hudson.
Oh, the homes we lived in were what we call cold-water flats. They were standard houses like you see in Hudson now. I’ll go through our cold-water flat at 963 Columbia Street. Living room, dining room, two bedrooms, my brother and I slept together in the same bed, and kitchen. The bathroom had a toilet, no sink. And there was no bathtub.
So, we would wash up every Friday in a galvanized washtub on the kitchen floor. And everyone would take a turn in that. Hot water was heated either on the coal stove in the winter time or on a kerosene stove in the summer. The house was heated by a single space heater, which in our case was a coal-fired stove in the dining room.
And, my dad would get up every morning—he’d have to go to work at seven. So, the kids would be awakened every day by my father up at about four-thirty, shaking down the stove and getting it ready to warm up the house for us, who had to be up and dressed and out of the house for school at eight o’clock. Which we got to by walking. There was no school buses. No crossing guards. If you lived too far away, you just were on your own, that’s all. You’d tag along with the other kids of the block who were doing the same thing, going to the same place. So, it was not really unsupervised.
But the house, very Spartan. Kitchen with shelves that were covered with a curtain in the front. No one could afford kitchen cabinets at that time.
By the back door, I distinctly remember the razor strap, which was my father’s implement of child discipline. If he came home and Mom told him you did something wrong, you would look up to see if the strap was gone. If it wasn’t hanging there, you knew Dad was in the living room, waiting to talk to you.
WS: What is a razor strap?
VW: In the barbershops at that time, all of the shaving was done with an open razor, you’ve seen them, and to sharpen it, they’d sharpen it on a leather strap. Just to take the burs off. And that was what they used. In fact, the razor straps were common in every house ’cause they’d all shave with a straight razor too. At the kitchen sink. ’Cause there was no mirror in the bathroom.
No carpeted floors. Everything was either hardwood covered with linoleum or any other throw rug.
No refrigerators. We had an icebox for a long, long time, into the 1940s. And the ice man would come, periodically and put a new cake in. Every day you had to remember to empty the water tray. The melted ice would drip and fill up the tray. And if you didn’t it would run out all over the floor. But, it wasn’t wastewater. Every home had a garden. And, they’d just go out and water the garden.
During World War II, one of the other things we did, was the Lone Star provided a plot of land for a garden and everyone had victory gardens. And you would plant whatever vegetable your family wanted, because food was really short.
In fact, food was rationed. We had stamps. Red stamps would be for meat. That would limit the number of pounds of meat you could get. Blue stamps were for canned goods. You were limited on that. Green stamps was—what the hell were they for. I don’t know, but there were three different colored ration stamps.
Plus stamps for gasoline. Gasoline was rationed. My dad was only eligible for five gallons a month for his car. Which doesn’t—and with the mileage the old cars got, you weren’t going to go very far.
One of the other things we did for entertainment, we would go down and just park by the river. And watch the boats go by. And, often times, we would see the military boats, the liberty ships that would carry cargo over to Europe. Coming either up, unloaded, going to get a load, or come down fully-loaded with whatever cargo they were carrying.
And you knew they were liberty ships by their color. All dark color. And, in the placement, the tug, the bow, and one on the stern with a three or five-inch gun on it. And, of course, it had a Navy crew on there to man the guns.
And, we’d see a lot of ’em and I often wondered how many of them never reached Europe.
I don’t know.
I could talk four or five hours, as thoughts come in.
WS: What appeals to you about being in the air, flying?
VW: Just the freedom. To be free from the earth. By your own hand. You flew the airplane up there and, now that you’re there, let’s look at the earth from a different perspective.
And why I never got my Piper Cub’s license—because that was the perfect vehicle for freedom.
One of my most memorable balloon flights was taking a skydiver two miles up. We went up to almost twelve thousand feet. That’s the legal limit for flight without oxygen. And I watched, and he just crouched on the edge of the basket, hung on, and then let go and just flopped over backwards. And I watched him fall, fall, fall. Until he got almost to where you couldn’t see him and then I saw his ’chute pop open.
That was a thrilling thing. I remember that flight more than any other.
Except one flight, a stupid thing I did, I had just got soloed. And there was a big balloon festival over in Farmington, Connecticut. And the guys who taught me how to fly invited me over there to fly with ’em. So, I went over.
But, the morning we laid the balloons out, just as we were getting them prepared to fly, a very heavy fog set in. ’Cause we were very close to a big water source over that way. And, it got so thick that it was hard to see more than fifty feet away from you.
And, here, our balloons were already standing up and we had to keep them hot. So, the fellow who taught me how to fly was next to me, and I saw him lift off and I said, Geeze if Dave’s going up, I’ll just follow him up. Just like I had done all the time before.
But, I didn’t realize that he had gone up on a tether, and that’s a five-hundred foot-long rope, essentially. He was going up to see how high up the fog went. But, by the time I realized it, I’d already lifted off. And now I couldn’t land, because I didn’t know where the other balloons were on the field. So, I had to keep going up. Dave got up towards five hundred feet and didn’t go through the fog yet. So, he didn’t even know I’d lifted off.
So, I had no other alternative than to keep climbing up, out of the fog. So, at about twelve hundred feet, I got out of the fog. It was beautiful, ’cause the sun was up and shining on just miles of beautiful clouds—’cause the fog is a cloud—for as far as you could see.
But, the downside was, I couldn’t see where to land.
So, right away, I tried to remember from our briefing the night before, where they tell you a lot of things about the terrain, about what the altitude was at the highest obstruction. I couldn’t remember what it was. So, I couldn’t come down into the fog, ’cause I just couldn’t see where to land.
I had three tanks of fuel in there. Fifteen-gallon LP tanks. I burned through the first tank.
No sign of any fog breaking up.
And then, I got through the second tank and I’m still up there. And, of course, you’ve got no idea where you are or which way you’re going. Because there’s no reference that you can identify as north—just, generally, the sun. But, that travels so slowly, you say, that’s generally east—I think.
Anyway, I’m into the third tank, now, and now I’m gettin’ goddamn nervous boy and I started letting down—I kept the balloon right on the top edge. And I was just looking.
And, when I was halfway through the third tank, a miracle happened.
The clouds opened up. And I could see that I was over farmland. And it was rural.
So, I just went right down, right through the hole. And the wind blew me along. But, now I’m getting pretty close to empty and you got to be aware now of power lines and all the other stuff.
So, when I’m down to about four hundred feet, I could see a big barn sitting there, and I said there’s got to be open space around the barn. So, I got down, lower, lower, lower. I was just going to skim over the barn roof. And plunk down into the first opening that was there. Because I wasn’t really sure that the gauge was reading right—there might be less than what the gauge said.
So, as I came over, what I saw, there was a parking lot, full of cars.
And, there’s bleachers, full of people.
It was a private school. And it was a Sunday and it was their graduation day for the school. And here’s all these kids, all boys, private boys’ school, and all the parents were there.
So, I did what I had to do, I just got over them and over the outbuilding and plunked right down in the horse corral.
So, as I’m hauling in the balloon, all the kids came running. Right in the middle of the ceremony. They all just left and came all around the balloon.