I Burned Down the Subdivision?

Rated G

As an introvert with low self esteem, I get a real charge anytime someone tells me about something that I did that was memorable. Let me rephrase that – when they tell me about something good I did that is remembered. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

A few years ago after a class had finished, a relatively new student came up to me. He asked, “You use to live in Woodland Hills, right?” I replied, “Oh yeah. That was decades ago, when I was a kid.” The student then asked, “You do know you are legend there?” I looked a bit shocked. He said, “Well, everyone still talks about when you burned half the subdivision down.”

“I did what?!” The poor student looked a bit puzzled, feeling that his story was completely in error. “Well, I live there, and some neighbors told me about this time that you set the place on fire. Something about some science experiment or something.”

I asked, “The hot-air balloon?” He said that was it. After laughing my ass off I had to set him straight. I mean, if I am going to be legendary, cosmos knows I want to be remembered well. Not for something like burning down a subdivision. My already poor self esteem couldn’t handle that.

Any reader of my blog knows I’m a geek. Nerd with a capital N. My Dad – stepfather – is one of the kindest, smartest, most supportive guys on the planet. He would regularly get me neat little science things from a cool placed called Edmund Scientific. They are still in business and have some great stuff.

One day when I was around twelve he came home with a little gift. It was a kit to build my own hot-air balloon. It was about twelve sheets of tissue paper. Each was around ten feet long and a foot wide at the middle tapering to a point at each end. Half the sheets were white. The other half were red. It also had a small metal hoop a foot or so in diameter, a spool of string, and a small sheet of instructions.

It took me several days to carefully glue these sheets of tissue paper together in an accordion fashion, working with the paper as it wanted to twist and fold as I glued around the curves. But I persevered, glued the metal hoop into the bottom and attached the string at three points on the hoop as the instructions indicated, and finally it was lift off day.

I carefully drag this light, easily torn tissue snake out onto the driveway. I get mom’s vacuum cleaner and a long extension cord, and haul them out to the drive way as well. Then I get our portable grill and some wood and start up a fire. I hooked the vacuum cleaner’s hose up to the exhaust connection (most modern vacuum cleaners don’t have one of those). That created a nice blower. Placing the other end of the hose inside the metal ring, the balloon quickly began to inflate. The air from the vacuum cleaner was warm enough to give it a little buoyancy, which allowed my Dad and me to raise it over the grill, holding the open end with the metal hoop about two feet over the fire.

The balloon inflated to about five feet in diameter, and was about seven feet tall. It did not take too long for the air inside to get warm enough that it really wanted to rise, so we let it float, and up it went. Probably 150 maybe 200 feet in the air, tethered by its little string.

Needless to say that got the attention of a lot of kids in the neighborhood. We lived at the top of a small hill, so that thing was probably visible for a mile or more. It wasn’t long before kids, and some adults, were running up our street from all directions.

The air in the balloon began to cool, and it slowly drifted back down. With a little guidance on the string we were able to bring it right to us, right over the grill for another blast of hot air and up she went again. After about three such flights it started to get harder to get that really high altitude. First, the wind had started to pick up and that was blowing the air from the grill away before it could get into the balloon. Also, the tissue had begun to warm up, so the differential wasn’t as great.

At this point we had quite a crowd out in front of the house. Both Dad and I were getting into it. Everyone was chanting, “Higher! Higher!” Dad and I realized we needed to get more heat into the balloon. But with the wind we couldn’t figure out how. We didn’t want to bring the balloon too close to the grill for fear of setting it on fire. Dad got an idea. If we couldn’t get the balloon closer to the big flame, what if we got a flame inside the balloon. He went to the garage and got one of his propane torches.

He lit it up and then raised it through the metal hoop, holding the torch inside the balloon. It was glorious. I could feel the balloon tugging on the string. We let her go, and up she went. Boy, did she go up. We topped out the 300-foot string. That big, alternating red and white balloon hovered over our house for three minutes or so, and then started her slow descent.

There was the crowd, bigger now. “Higher! Again! Higher!” The balloon drifted down. Dad raised his arm, the torch going, getting ready to carefully get the flame inside her as she lowered down to us. There was a sudden gust of wind. The balloon blew right over the torch and HISS! She was on fire! It started at the base, right around the metal hoop which promptly fell off. The hoop held the string, so the balloon was now free and on fire!

As the base was burning, it was feeding hot air into the balloon, making it rise. Burning and rising. Up and up. It rose 50 or 60 feet, over the tallest trees. The overhead winds pushed her. Dad and I and the entire crowd ran after her, all our heads turned to the sky. The flames burned evenly for a short while, keeping the balloon in balance while giving it lift.

But then the flames shot up one side. It rolled, like a tormented beast trying to snuff out the flames. The opening in the side allowed some of the inner hot air to spill out and it tumbled, spilling more of its life-giving warmth. The intact side collapsed inward and almost instantly it became nothing more than a crumpled mass of old Christmas wrapping, and WHOOSH! Up in flames it all went. The burning mass tumbled Earthward, the flames consuming all but about two square feet before it reached the ground in a front yard several houses down from mine.

No houses burned. No trees were set ablaze. We quickly stomped out the tiny bit of burning wreckage. I don’t even recall a burn mark on the yard.

So please remember it the way it was. My low self esteem can’t take really hard knocks. Honestly, I did not burn down the subdivision.

After writing this, I searched Edmund Scientific. They no longer sell the hot-air balloon kit. Could it be they heard stories of people burning down subdivisions? Oh, my id. My poor, poor id. :(

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