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What? That gig up there? That quiet fantasy drifting through those ice-cream clouds? Let me tell you a riff about it.
"It's a dream. My dream, but anybody else can have a piece. It's a giant, floating magic mushroom, an earthstar mushroom that grows on air and heat instead of cold and damp. When the sun has just gone down and the last light touches it, it's an enormous Japanese lantern suspended above the invisible land.
"It's a beautiful blue and yellow balloon, 50 feet high and 40 feet across. Every minute or so there's a jet-engine roar, and a five-foot-high blue flame illuminates the inside of the balloon, turning it translucent. Then it gets so silent you can hear the wind brush the balloon's skin. It sounds like wind against a sail.
"A helmeted man dangles from the balloon in a gondola. That's me: Link Baum.
"Link is my real name. Not Lincoln. Link. Maybe my parents knew that if they were inventive enough to name me that, I'd be imaginative enough to fly a balloon."
Link Baum's reality is the expensive suburban neighborhood of South Orange, N.J., where he grew up and where he stops off occasionally on his way to and from Colorado, Europe and points vertical. Link Baum, at age 22 the youngest man ever to cross the English Channel in a hot-air balloon. Link Baum, the first to convince the children of the Alpine village of Livigno that he was going to fly to the moon. Link Baum is his own reality.
Oh, granted, some feet-on-the-ground citizens might consider Baum a trifle unreal. Here's this kid with wiry, shiny copper hair grown long around a not unhandsome face. Long, low-set, meandering reddish eyebrows overhang long, narrow, rapidly moving eyes. Red sideburns curve close to the aquiline nose. The effect is distinctive, but he does not leave it at that. He comes on in sandals and white terry-cloth tunic aswarm with orange, blue and green junebugs, bees, birds and flowers. A generous swatch of chest hair shows between the face and the tunic.
Baum is not clean-cut. Like many of his contemporaries, he seems slightly-blurred around the border, soft-edged, undefined. A generation that has seen the old goals of progress and ambition come apart, dissolving in their own excesses, regards few things as clear-cut. Some might see Baum as tenuous, drifting, amorphous. Like a cloud. A cloud is all of those things, but it is also very real, very important, with a substance and purpose of its own.
"Ballooning is like being your own cloud," Baum says. "Being your own cloud anytime you want. You can chase clouds...and catch them. You can stick your hand inside one and swish it around, feel the moisture. It's a sensation you don't quite get in an airplane."
Baum is aware that not everyone understands his priorities. "People ask me, 'What are you doing these days?' I say, 'Flying a balloon.' You can feel some of them wondering where your head is at."