"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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.