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"No," I told him. "Never."
"We don't have to fly them," he pointed out. He was right. We would meet our pilots next morning.
Actually, I was quite looking forward to my first flight. Victorian comfort and an Aquarian calm were what I anticipated: traveling in a basket richly furnished like an old Pullman car, perhaps, or a Soviet airliner, as the panorama of mountains passed peacefully, silently below. The thought of what would happen after disembarking gave me my only uneasiness. But I wasn't too wary, seeing as our pilots were professionals.
But did pros bring girl friends called Amanda and Eve with them? More pertinent, having brought them, should they be romping and frolicking together in the grassy meadow where the balloon gear was laid out and where, presumably, anemometers and similar devices should even now have been analyzing the weather for our race? "Amanda!" one of the pilots called shrilly, "watch out, you are standing on a valve!" And so she was. Air or something was hissing out of a piece of equipment I couldn't identify, into which she had dug a heel. "I reckon that's your pilot," I said to Hamish.
All that took place on the morning following our shopping expedition in Fort William. The blue-and-gold weather was still idyllic down in Glen Nevis—a glen being what the Scots call the narrow, often lushly green valleys between the mountains. The River Nevis burbled and glittered in the sun, and to the north lay the Ben itself, its peak still streaked with snow in midsummer.
The mountain looked benign enough at the moment, though it occurred to both Hamish and me that the less delay in our flight the better, Highland weather being notoriously changeable. But it was clear that our companions were in no hurry. Amanda and Eve and our pilots, Ian and John, were obviously enjoying their summer break in Scotland, and there were lots of preparations to make, like getting a new tire for their Jeep: one had split when Ian had tried to back up over a boulder.
I was pleased to discover that Ian, the one who had spoken sharply to Amanda, was indeed Hamish's pilot. He was in his 20s, a newly qualified doctor, and he had grown a black mustache to add gravitas to his bedside manner. Ian very soon revealed himself to be one who slid effortlessly into the lecturing mode. Hamish and I quickly learned not to cue him into one of his 15-minute explanations of why hot air rises.
That morning, however, as the anemometer was rigged to judge wind speed and little helium balloons were released to tell us the wind direction, Hamish and I had yet to learn to avoid this pitfall, and it was not until lunchtime—or after a number of lectures—that we got a professional verdict on the weather. "Hmm, hmm, just flyable, I would say," Ian informed us in the manner of a wine connoisseur giving a bare passing grade to a burgundy. Hamish and I started to pick up our crash helmets and life jackets loaned by the RAF fighter station at Losiemouth, about 60 miles away. We were premature.
"That is not to say," Ian said, smiling at our foolish enthusiasm, "that the windspeed at the summit is acceptable." Then he asked, "How are the Mets coming along?"
"I haven't seen an American paper all week," I said.