After three decades of being married to the same woman, you would think a guy would have a pretty solid knowledge of that woman’s likes and dislikes. But on Mothers Day, five years ago, I had an apparent brain cramp.
That was when I thought surprising my wife with a sunset balloon flight would be the perfect Mothers Day gift. It turned out to be about as perfect as buying a rack of beef for a vegan.
Ever since I saw the climax of the “Wizard of Oz” – as the Wizard lifts off in a big hot-air balloon – I wanted to try it, too. However, the movie didn’t explain whatever became of the Wizard after he drifted away. Some believe that when he landed, he changed his name to Dick Cheney and moved to Washington, D.C., the nation’s largest repository of hot air. Once there, he simply went back to being that man behind the curtain.
If the Wright brothers hadn’t invented the airplane, we might have the Montgolier brothers to thank for our everyday air transportation. They’re the guys who, around 1783 or so, invented the hot-air balloon.
Of course, things would be a lot different if today’s airports featured balloon travel instead of jets planes. A flight from Seattle to Chicago might take several weeks, so at least a couple changes of underwear would be a must. Safety regulations on a balloon would prohibit carrying aboard pet porcupines, hedgehogs or horned toads.
Texas Longhorn cattle wouldn’t be welcome, either, and neither would folks with spiked hair, beard stubble or pointy noses. The goal would be to try and get as near to Chicago as possible, because hot air balloons are not easy to steer. You might wind up in a cornfield in Peoria. Then you’d have to take a commuter balloon the rest of the way to Chicago. Walking to Chicago might be a quicker alternative.
No doubt about it, balloon travel wouldn’t be practical for long-distance travel – and watching the same in-flight movie over and over would get real boring. But there is a charming, even mystical, quality to drifting aloft in a big balloon. And I felt certain that my wife would think so, too.
The kids and I spent that Mother’s Day making her guess what the surprise would be.
“A concert?” Nix.
“Bowling?” No, but what an excellent idea for next year.
The year before, for my wife’s birthday, I’d given her a “Day of Beauty” at a local spa. “A Day of Beauty” for a woman is like a “Day of Football” for a guy – and sure enough, the spa visit was a big hit with my wife.
When we were first married, with little income, I had given her only “Half-A-Day of Beauty.” She received half a facial (she chose the left side, I believe) and a pedicure for the five toes of her choosing.
So that’s why I thought a hot-air balloon ride would smash all records for Mother’s Day gift giving. It was thoughtful, spendy and unexpected. And so, when we hopped in the car that day heading for our surprise destination, I was startled when she suddenly said, “By the way, you do remember that I’m mortally afraid of heights?”
Somehow, after all our years of marriage, I had forgotten that – and when we pulled into the parking lot of the balloon-ride place, my wife’s face took on the hue of Casper the Ghost.
Yet, amazingly, she went along with it. I think she didn’t want to disappoint the family. I watched her face as we all climbed into the big wicker basket that the balloon was attached to. They say that when some prisoners are being led off to the gas chamber, they either start yelling and screaming or get real quiet. My wife got real quiet.
As we began to ascend, the wicker basket we were in began to look about the size of an ashtray. My wife’s hands clutched the railing with a grip that could have cut wire. That’s when the pilot said those reassuring words: “Our goal is to wind up as near to were we started as possible. But then again, we never know for sure.” Even the kids looked stricken.
We floated up a mile high. That was approximately 5,279 feet higher than my wife was hoping for. Not that she noticed, with her eyes closed tight. She also didn’t notice that my knees were shaking like a pair of castanets.
Whisked northwardly by capricious winds, we soared above it all: Lakes, trees, mountains, junkyards, gravel pits, adult bookstores. A couple of birds floated far below us. Even they were afraid to go so high.
Finally, we started down. We missed our planned landing spot by no more than three miles – pretty much a bulls-eye in the ballooning business. For several minutes, it looked like we’d be touching down into the bubbling, malodorous waters of a sewage treatment plant. I wished I’d remembered to bring swimsuits for everybody.
But as it turned out, we landed harmlessly on the grounds of a cemetery. My wife said, “I knew we were going to wind up here one way or the other.”
During our drive home, she was deep in whispered conversation with our kids. I finally asked her, “Are you all thinking about the balloon ride?”
“No,” she replied with a cold look in her eye. “We were just planning your Father’s Day surprise.”
Pat Cashman is a writer, actor and public speaker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org