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Early that afternoon the people began to gather on the dusty baseball diamond by the Susquehanna River. Farm families, boisterous groups of teen-age boys, older men with leathery hands and sunburned foreheads, carloads of young children. The adults sat in the shade of riverbank trees and talked about the weather, the price of groceries and the harvest. The boys tore endlessly around the diamond on their bicycles, raising clouds of dust. Everyone was waiting for the moment when Tracy Barnes would again soar aloft in his wonderful hot-air balloon.
The big balloon was spread out across center field, sad and lumpy like a stricken circus tent. It was attached to a three-by-four-foot wicker basket that looked far too rickety for its mission. Strapped around the outside of the basket were eight tanks of propane fuel for the blowtorch that would heat the air in the balloon, causing it to expand and thus lift the balloon off the ground.
At last the balloonist emerged from his camper truck in a brown flight suit. He was lean and intense, and had about him an air of competence.
He got to work promptly. He put two large fans near the opening of the collapsed balloon. Two men held up the fabric as the fans began to blow air into the balloon, making it wriggle as it stretched, slowly, to its full 60-foot length. With the basket still lying on its side, Barnes climbed in and turned a valve. There was a sudden whoosh, and a huge burst of flame shot inside the undulating balloon. Dogs barked, bike riders dismounted and little children reached for their mothers' hands.
As the balloon, now shaped like a light bulb, quivered and strained, three men put their shoulders to the wicker basket and turned it upright. The balloonist fired another bolt of flame to warm the air still more. The crowd began to buzz then was suddenly silent. The balloon, bouncing softly on the turf, seemed to want to be off. Three pairs of hands held the basket down, while Barnes's quick eyes darted around and glanced upward, making a last-minute inspection. No one spoke. In the distance, somewhere off in another century, a motorboat churned on the Susquehanna. But, wait! Something was wrong. Barnes was getting out of the basket again. Would the balloon take off without him? No. He was back in the basket in seconds, a spool of nylon thread in his hand. The crowd, reassured, began to hum again. Children strained at their mothers' arms, wanting to get closer but afraid to let go. A middle-aged man, his eyes glowing, turned to his wife and said, "Damn, he's really gonna do it."
"Hey, mister, goodby," shouted a small boy. "Have a pleasant trip."
"It's just a lot of hot air," yelled someone else, looking around coyly to see if his friends got the joke.
At last, Barnes turned to the men holding the basket and nodded. They let go and stepped back. For an instant the balloon sat uncertainly on the ground, then gently, easily, it floated upward, joined the breeze and lifted into the southeast sky. The balloonist peered over his wicker perch, gave an abrupt wave and shouted goodby. The little town of Wrightsville, Pa., smiling below, broke into applause.
In minutes Tracy Barnes was once again floating free—a speck in the sky; a gentle intrusion; a grand, bubbly vision; an object of wonder and awe—off on another leg of his strange, sad and uproarious adventure; coast to coast by hot-air balloon.
At one time or another during the airborne odyssey Tracy had crashed into a California mountain, been forced to bail out, caught fire on power lines, splashed awkwardly down in the Allegheny River, been lost for three days in the Rocky Mountains, spent weeks waiting for wrong-way winds to right themselves, interfered with the natural growth patterns of trees from the Grand Canyon to Nebraska and had irritated a phalanx of startled lawmen. Even the legendary Phileas Fogg might have quit under such setbacks, but Barnes had made up his mind that he was going to do it, and he did. Some 22 weeks after he first took off from Coronado, Calif., Tracy reported to the nation—whose indifference had been broken only by a swath of gaping mouths along his route—that he had finally gained the East Coast.