The runaway balloon was one of the highlights of the summer of '38 (or it may have been 1939 - memory is getting foggy on that).
It was one of those rare occasions
when a person can, quite unexpectedly, rise from the status of just common ordinary
folk to superhero in just a matter of minutes. It was a case of being in the
right place, at the right time, and seeing what needed to be done, and then
taking the right measures to get it done.
That is the way it was for Smitty, the Borough of Pine Hill cop, on that summer day long ago.
It was the practice in the nineteen thirties for the Gibbs family, of Clementon, New Jersey, who owned Clementon Park at the time, to provide some kind of entertainment to the park goers each afternoon through the summer. There was swimming in the lake then, and several minutes before the entertainment was to take place, the bugle would sound over the PA system and it could be heard from far and wide. So, everyone would scramble out of the water and gather where the event was to take place.
The event might be anything from a high wire act to a sharpshooting demonstration. I recall one performance by a man who said that he had traveled with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He put on a really great rope and shooting performance. Another week it was a high diver whose grand finale was to dive from the top of a very high tower into what seemed to us to be a too shallow tub of water. Each act was scheduled for about one week. So that if you missed it on one day you could catch it on another. And, if it was something you especially enjoyed, you could see it everyday for a week. It was really nice of the Gibbs to provide the entertainment for us, as there was no TV, no money, and the theater (also owned by the Gibbs family) did not operate in the daytime through the week.
Getting back to the runaway balloon: One of the attractions at the park that summer was a fellow with a hot air balloon. Now launching a balloon is something that requires quite a long preparation. The balloon crew began early in the afternoon each day by stretching the un-inflated balloon out onto the beach. They would then built a fire on the beach and with the aid of a large bellows and some tubing (an arrangement which was a complete mystery to us) they began to fill the balloon. On the first day of course we had no idea of what was going on, but we watched with great interest - knowing that whatever it was we were about to find out and that we would be happy about it.<br>
The time is summertime, the late nineteen thirties
The place is southern New Jersey - Clementon - Pine Hill
The crowd becomes more and more excited as the balloon grows larger and larger and eventually we are able to see that it is a very large, black balloon. Eventually, a man wearing a brown aviator suit and an aviator hat with goggles appears and attaches a trapeze to the bottom of the balloon. By this time the balloon is being moored to the ground by several proud looking volunteer park attendants who are steadying the balloon and preventing its rising by means of ropes which are attached to the side of the balloon. Now the aviator dons a parachute and climbs onto the trapeze. There is a muffled gasp from the crowd and then absolute silence. The aviator is holding in his hand a sash weight which is attached by means of a rope (a sash cord) to the top of the balloon. We notice the sash weight, but like everything else that is happening, we do not understand its purpose.
Eventually, all of the preparations are complete - the wind direction and velocity are apparently approved and the big moment is at hand. On signal, the attendants release the moorings and the balloon carries the aviator skyward. At first the balloon seems to shoot straight upward - higher and higher. The crowd now is quite excited and is oohing and aahing and speculating on what will happen next. If anyone in the audience has ever seen anything like this before, she is keeping quiet about it. Once the balloon has achieved a certain altitude, it seems to cease its rising and begins to drift laterally. It carries its passenger out over Clementon lake. All of a sudden and to everyone's amazement the aviator is falling free of the balloon and toward the ground at a terrifying rate. As the crowd gasps and screams we watch as the parachute deploys and the aviator slowly descends toward the middle of the lake. By the time he hits the water, the park's speed boat is on the scene and the aviator and parachute are gathered up and piled into the boat to return to shore to the happy welcome and applause of the crowd.
In the meantime we learn the purpose of the sash weight. After the aviator leaves the balloon and the balloon is deprived of its stabilizing ballast, the pull of the sash weight on the cord attached to the top of the balloon is enough to slowly rotate the balloon to an upside down position thereby allowing the hot air and smoke to pour from the opening at the bottom of the balloon (which is now on the top). The balloon now having lost its lifting medium plunges swiftly to earth where it also is rescued from the lake and piled into an awaiting boat. It is really a fascinating show.
Since this is a daily event for
about a week, everyone in the neighboring Borough of Pine Hill, where we live,
is aware of it, and we know about what time of day the balloon will rise, and
if the wind is right, we will be alerted by the bugle. So, living on Tenth Avenue
at the time, our family gathers in front of the house each afternoon in time
to see the balloon rise over the northern horizon.
On schedule, we see the balloon rise and continue to ascend until the necessary altitude is attained, and then we see the sky diver (a term which does not develop into common usage until much later) slide from his perch and make his descent. Before he disappears below the trees on our horizon, we see his chute open, and we know that he is okay. That is always a relief to us, since our confidence in parachutes is not all that great. And then for the spectacular finale, we watch while the balloon gradually rolls bottom side up and, trailing dark smoke all of the way, plummets to earth.
Getting back to Smitty
Anyway on this one occasion, I believe it was the last scheduled day of this particular event, at least I do not recall having witnessed it afterward, we are gathered as usual out on Tenth Avenue. In due course we see the man in the balloon rise above the tree tops and as usual we witness his leap and the opening of his chute. No one gasps as we are all accustomed, by now, to everything going smoothly. Now we just watch for the expected turning over of the balloon and its plunge to earth. We watch ... "Wait a minute. Something is wrong. Why doesn't it turn over?"
Different folks have different theories on it, but the fact is the balloon does not roll over. Instead it drifts on the north breeze that is prevailing on this fateful day and the balloon drifts, as it happens, directly over Pine Hill. From our vantage point, it appears to cross Tenth Avenue to our east, just about over Diamonds' Turkey Farm. It continues on its course southward and upward, we expect it to eventually leave our sight.
In the meantime we can hear the
unmistakable grinding of automobile starters and the accompanying roar of auto
engines as cars are started up all over Pine Hill, and we become aware that
we are not the sole witnesses to this impending tragedy. The next thing we know
there is the roar of engines, the honking of horns and the longest parade of
black automobiles that we have ever seen heading out Branch Avenue. The running
boards of most of the cars are loaded with passengers clinging to whatever there
is to hang onto with one hand and pointing skyward with the other. Everyone
is shouting "There it is!" and "Don't lose it." I believe
that they are all psychologically and emotionally prepared to follow it all
the way to the Gulf of Mexico if needs be.
But as it happens, as we watch, we see that after the balloon is out there just about where we calculate is the middle of the swamp, it miraculously begins its slow, by now familiar, roll and we realize that it is about to plunge into the swamp, and as far as we know, be lost forever. But we are not allowing for the bravado of Smitty and his posse.
To make a long story short. After about an hour of what seems endless anxiety we can hear, off in a distance, the sounds of automobile horns and jubilant shouting, and as the sounds grow louder we witness the triumphant return to Pine Hill of Smitty and his troop. The procession of black cars now heading inward reach the Five Points as we receive the news that Smitty has the balloon. He has retrieved it from a tree out in the swamp (never even got his feet wet).
The sounds of gaiety emanating from the Five Points Saloon seem exceptionally audible tonight as we roll over and contentedly drift off to sleep.
We know that Smitty is our hero
and that he will go down in the annals of Pine Hill and will always be remembered
as the one who saved the day - The Day of the Runaway Balloon.
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