SI Vault
Mark Kram
August 27, 1973
'Yankee Zephyr' left at sunup and Bob Sparks was finally free of his critics who forgot that, win or lose, he was another last American hero
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August 27, 1973

The Flight That Failed

'Yankee Zephyr' left at sunup and Bob Sparks was finally free of his critics who forgot that, win or lose, he was another last American hero

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He is a curious man, somehow not quite right for what has to be done. He looks too frail, he is too glib and his obsession seems too studied, too laced with patter. His name does not help, either. It lacks the timbre and strength, the great promise that resonates from the sound of Thor Heyerdahl or Sir Francis Chichester. His name is Bob Sparks, and it is hard to look at him through the damp, melancholy mist of this Maine dawn two weeks ago and relate him as the central figure to one of the last exquisitely human adventures left to drip-dried man: to become the first man in history to cross the Atlantic in a balloon.

The attempt—the fourth in the last 15 years—is of no national interest, it seems. Here and there a few paragraphs have moved over the wire services but mainly the country is blind to this very human act, if not downright contemptuous. Has the nation become immune to adventure, one wonders, to the single act of grandness that separates us from the walking dead? Have our spirits become so numbed that we no longer even want to consider anything beyond the commonplace or believe anything beyond the corrupt? Sparks has listened: fool, charlatan, exhibitionist; he has been called all the names that have been used for centuries by the smug.

The inflation process has begun on an airstrip in Bar Harbor, and it will be finished soon, just as the first light of day comes. But for now the area is lit by great floodlights that struggle against a heavy mist. It is an odd sight, this balloon being given life. It is as if one has come upon a mastodon slowly regaining its senses after a long sleep, becoming terrifying and beautiful with each rush of helium. "The proportion of the size of the balloon and the pilot is just about right," says Sparks. "Nobody can ever be big enough for a balloon."

He considers the Yankee Zephyr, being prepared now. "There's never been a balloon like it," says Sparks. In a couple of hours, after it has been glutted with 73,000 cubic feet of helium, Yankee Zephyr will be nine stories high and 52 feet in diameter. Its colors are red, white and blue and they express Sparks' patriotic bent. The balloon itself has cost roughly $18,000. Most of the vast amount of sophisticated equipment in its $20,000 gondola, which is 14 by 7 by 3 feet, has been donated by firms speculating on publicity. Nothing has been left to chance, and never has a more professional attack been mounted on the Atlantic.

Sparks has come early to the staging area, this last step in a long, hellish pursuit, unencumbered by the slightest doubt. He is supremely confident that a balloon can be taken across the Atlantic. He hopes to land in northern France, but will consider any spot in Europe to be a pinpoint landing and he feels certain the U.S. will respond to the achievement, even though he knows many people are mocking him now. This country, he says, needs a release from the nerve storms that blow across its daily life, a distraction from its broken illusions.

It is hard to bring definition to Sparks, yet the impulse to catalog him is difficult to resist. It is a common and alarming failing among people to put others where they are easy to reach. Nobody wants to know anyone or feel anything except what shimmers on the surface. Maybe that is the only way it can be in our society, and if Bob Sparks is not an authority on the subject, he is conscious of being slotted more than most. "Let people think what they want," he says, wrestling with the difficult equation of who he is. "I know who I am."

The first thing about him, the combination of what his way of life is and what he is preparing to do, defies the credulity of most people, and the reaction is immediate. A stand-up comic in the Poconos? You mean he's going to take a balloon across the Atlantic? The distrust cannot be extinguished. The whole thing reeks of commercialism, the sly angle. He is simply not a serious man; whatever happened to all those lone wolves like Lindbergh? The problem does not envelop Sparks; he knows the only solution to it is to make it across the Atlantic.

At first, one can understand the skepticism that follows Sparks. There is a plastic quality to his responses, a rehearsed staccato of carny dazzle with bits of calculated substance thrown in. Always he is out in front with his finely honed facade grown sturdy from years of banging away at tough crowds, from the degradation of some of those years as a tummler on the circuit when he had to have the right smile, the right word and had to listen to calls come to his room at five o'clock in the morning like this: "It's raining outside. What are we going to do today?"

Even below the facade, though, there are parts in him that belong to the Southern evangelist or the flimflam man careening through life on his pluck and spiel. "That is sort of right," he says, "but I'd never rob from the poor. I never grew up rich. I grew up swinging high and wide." The swing began in Virginia, and it has taken him into many corners. He started to be a jockey and then became too big. He has sold books from door to door, sold eggbeaters in a dime store and sold himself to anyone who would listen. He has looked for gold in New Mexico and found some, lived in the woods by himself for weeks, worked on a dude ranch and ended up as a bank teller before going into show business. "I know how to take care of me," he says.

Slowly, as the days pass, as the caprice of the weather becomes almost unbearable, another side of Sparks takes shape, the side that is one with the adventure just hours off. Every day for three weeks he waits by the phone for a weather report. It is the right time of the year for a balloon crossing, but the weather will not line up properly. He seems to draw into himself with each bad prognosis; with each report an edginess seems to surround the project. One newspaper, prickly from the delays, refers to him as a replica of Clifford Irving.

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