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"Al luna? Al luna!" A gabble of voices would repeat and savor the idea as it rippled to the outer edge of the crowd. Once the implausible reality of the balloon and its presence in Livigno had been absorbed, it took no extra imagination to believe that the mad American was going to the moon.
The police, who could have caused trouble, were equally enchanted with the balloon, particularly since Baum gave them recognition by periodically stopping by to have a cup of cappuccino. "I think it allowed them to think of themselves as the Space Police," Baum says.
Eventually, Livigno became almost blasé about the balloon. The towns-people decided that Baum had appeared providentially and expressly for their entertainment, not to mention the greater glory of Livigno. Where else would one go to fly a balloon? Sometime later Aristotle Onassis landed his helicopter in Livigno. Rumor has it that Onassis was disappointed by the villagers' unawed reaction. Livigno had already seen it all: "Yes, the helicopter is nice, but we had a balloon this winter." When Baum packed up his balloon and took it off to Mirandola to have a new gondola made, the villagers were tacitly reproachful. Their toy was being taken away. Their unique civic attraction was being relocated.
But Baum had a good reason. He had found an Italian ski-gondola manufacturer willing to build a prototype of an enclosed, floatable aluminum gondola. Baum's design protects the balloonist from freezing, drowning (a very real hazard which has taken lives when balloons fell into water) and surface impact, and he believes it will prove a major boon to ballooning.
Baum's worst scrape came when he stopped to fly in Switzerland on his way back to England. Capricious winds forced him to land high in the Alps, far above the timberline. The temperature was 35° below zero. No road ran anywhere near. But, fortunately, Baum came down not too far from a small hut. The hut owner arrived at Baum's chosen snowdrift almost before the balloon did.
"That's the nice thing about ballooning," Baum says. "No matter where you come down, someone follows you. It's like picking out an empty spot at the beach. Before you know it someone shows up. But that family couldn't believe me. Everyone sat at the table and just gleamed. They could hardly talk. Maybe they were trying too hard to imagine what kind of idiot I was."
Baum continued north, and now he had a new goal, to fly his balloon over the English Channel. There is something about the Channel. If a man crossed it in a squirrel-powered Eric Canal boat, people would perceive lasting significance in it. Why did Baum balloon across the Channel? To show he wasn't chicken? No. Because it wasn't as greasy as swimming.
Actually, Baum probably was attracted to the Channel crossing by its lyric possibilities. One of the people he told about his trip beforehand was a British balloonist, Malcolm Brighton, who lived near Blackbushe Airfield in Hampshire.
"I went around his office," Baum recalls. "The walls were covered with balloon pictures. When he introduced himself I was really surprised. He looked like a college Joe. He was supposed to be one of the world's best balloonists. Wow!