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Lift, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
Harold Peterson
October 19, 1970
Skimming over the gentle landscape in the gondola of a balloon, shedding earthbound troubles like so much ballast, a young man has some thoughts to offer to the grounded
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October 19, 1970

Lift, Liberty And The Pursuit Of Happiness

Skimming over the gentle landscape in the gondola of a balloon, shedding earthbound troubles like so much ballast, a young man has some thoughts to offer to the grounded

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One evening Baum decided to tether above a field atop Table Mountain mesa. Every car that came down the road stopped to look at this mammoth paper lantern in the sky. Pretty soon—wow-wow-wow-wow—police cars started converging, lights flashing and sirens going.

"It was beautiful," Baum says. "There was just a tint of both moonlight and sunlight. The moon was exactly as bright as the sun. I had no consciousness of the ground below at all. But there got to be so many lights and sirens that I had to come down." When he did, there was a real farmer with a real shotgun, demanding to know what Baum was doing on his land. By the time Baum finished explaining, the farmer had taken him into his house, introduced him to his wife and daughters and implored him to come back and fly any time he wanted.

The mass euphoria Baum seemed to cause every time he went up started him thinking. "I began to realize that the objective was not only to fulfill my own dream, but to show people they can fulfill their dreams, too," he says. "There are so many barriers and bureaucracies that nobody thinks a dream can become reality anymore. But it can. And it's not the sky-diving attitude: 'I'll do it now because I'll be older soon, and I'll want to have done it.' It's just pure, simple, uncomplicated joy. I'd like to see adults put aside their toys that never work. Simplicity is good. It extends the imagination. In ballooning, for instance, you are not wrestling a machine. There is nothing mechanical about it. Even applying the flame is inexact, individual, an art. Like splashing paint on a canvas.

"The joy of just looking out, watching, visualizing, is the purest and simplest of all. You see an order in the land, even without man's tunneling and funneling every square acre of the earth. You're looking at constant change, but constant order."

Perhaps it was inevitable, but as soon as Baum got his balloon he began wanting to go around the world. Three months and five days after buying his hot-air bag, he was on a plane to London.

The flying gear got lost en route and had not yet arrived at Southampton when Baum got down to dockside, but British Customs officials were very helpful. They would be glad to find his parcel, they said. What did it look like?

"I think you'd notice it if it were here," Baum told them. "It's about as big as a room." And what is in it? "Well, a balloon, and...."

Baum moved quickly on to the London Balloon Club, headquartered at an airfield at Dunstable Downs, Bedfordshire. From there a coterie of Phileas Fogg types reel around English country lanes in Morris Minors in pursuit of falling lighter-than-air men. After retrieval, everyone retires to the clubhouse bar to discuss the day's sticky thickets. "They have a very nice, very English deliberateness," Baum says. "You knock out your pipe against your shoe before doing anything. It rains, but you fly anyway. That's the weirdest sound: the pitter-patter-ping-ping of rain on a big hollow balloon. The rain runs down the balloon and sizzles when it hits the burner. Sometimes the burner goes out."

Baum moved on to France, where authorities at Calais regarded him and his balloon with unconcealed suspicion. Until a superior showed up next morning, Baum was quarantined. Baum got the idea he was considered armed and dangerous when he heard whisperings about atomic bombs.

Near a small town outside Paris, Baum met a Tunisian who became infected with a raging case of balloon fever. Nothing would do but that Baum—who was now moving his balloon around in a Land-Rover—and the Tunisian organize a launch. Picking up a bemused student hitchhiker and drafting a handy French farm family as crew, they set up operations leeward of the family apple orchard.

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