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"The French family kept laughing nervously as we filled the balloon with cold air, using a portable ground inflator," Baum recalls. "As the balloon tugged upward, they got more and more excited. They talked faster and faster. I turned on the burners. Puff! Hiss. Roar! They jumped straight up in the air, and then just let go and ran. The balloon nearly flew away. I was hanging onto the gondola and the Tunisian was pulling my pants down trying to keep me from taking off.
"We found the family all huddled together in the farmhouse. The Tunisian tried to convince them it was all right. They didn't believe him. We had to fold up the balloon and leave." The Tunisian cursed his luck in fluent, nonrepetitive French all the way to Paris.
The Swiss, on the other hand, were not about to let any American kid punch holes in their reputation for stolidity and efficiency. Baum was deluged with questions from ordinary Swiss, most of whom wanted to know precisely how the balloon worked. The sole reaction of local magistrates was to inquire, laconically, whether Baum had insurance to fly the device. Insurance had never occurred to Baum. "I mean, if you're coming down and someone's underneath, you can just yell, 'Look out!' " Baum says. "He'll have about five minutes to get out of the way." But he marched to the nearest insurance office, expecting to throw the proprietors into consternation. He was disappointed.
"The agent just pulled out a little book," Baum recalls. "He ran his finger down a page and said, 'Ah, yes. Luftballon. 25 francs.' Amazing."
Flying in Switzerland proved to be like hovering over a magnificently animated miniature scene. "I flew over one small village in a valley," Baum says, "that was just the size of an HO train set. There was a tower with a clock that chimed the hour. I listened to the tiny, windblown sound of the chimes from a thousand feet above. It gave a whole new dimension to the senses."
Italians went straight bananas over the balloon. Cars following Baum's strangely loaded Land-Rover on the autostrada would drive nearly into his rear bumper trying to figure out his bizarre cargo. They would pull alongside for a moment so that all the grandmothers, aunts, uncles and children could study him. Finally the driver would move ahead, imperiously wave Baum to the side of the road, and the interrogation would begin. Sportscars would blast past at 100 mph going in the opposite direction. Suddenly: screeeeech (grind, shift, shift), vroooom, and Baum had another spectator.
"You have to realize that the balloon looked exactly like a rocket," Baum says. "The envelope was rolled into a blue-and-yellow-striped cylinder, and the burners stuck out behind. I'd come out of restaurants and find a crowd rubbing dust off the windows to look in the Rover. They could never believe it belonged to me. They were expecting somebody with a crew cut in a space helmet."
And then there was Livigno. Livigno, Italy is a remote village high in the Alps, a row of primitive wooden cabins lining one muddy street. "Piccolo Tibet, they call it," says Baum. "Little Tibet. A road was built to Livigno only eight years ago. Before that, everyone came by packhorse. I drove in with my balloon on top of my Rover. All the shutters opened. Women washing clothes stopped and stared. Kids on bicycles nearly fell off trying to turn around fast. I got out and went into bar after bar—that's what they have in small Italian towns, bars. 'Parla Inglese?' No one spoke English. Except, finally, Massimo, a teacher at the school. When I told Massimo—who was from Rome and could appreciate the irony—that I wanted to live in Livigno and fly my balloon there he just started laughing. We both sat down on the school steps and laughed and laughed."
The first thing this crazy red-haired foreigner did in Livigno was let loose a flock of small balloons that circled around the valley for hours. Then, on Sunday, just as everyone was coming out of church, Baum made his first ascent, helped by villagers still dressed in their stiff black Sunday best. By the time he had finished three circuits of the valley in Livigno's conical wind—ideal for ballooning—he was the district's alltime celebrity and hero. Forever after, he would be simply Signor Pallone, or the Balloon Man. Occasionally, he admits, he was also il Pazzo Montgolfiero, the Mad Balloonist.
The children of Livigno were particularly mesmerized. Whenever Baum prepared to fly his balloon, coveys of moppets would materialize. "Where are you going, Signor Pallone?"