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Original Issue

Getting a high over St. Paul

Balloonists had a lark, soaring in their acid-laced candy drops

To most athletes the essence of sport is control—of oneself or of the ball, of a team, a horse, a sail, or perhaps of some motor vehicle bent on the destruction of its driver. Yet there is one sport in which the whole point is to drift, lonely as Wordsworth's cloud, gone with Cynarae's wind-flung roses, toward whatever alien goal line fate or nature might ordain. Last week in St. Paul 10 of America's top balloonists—not really that unimpressive a number since there are only about 150 of the breed in the entire land—drifted gracefully down a winter's morning in the wake of a big red bubble that bore the word Lark. By the time they landed in the snowdrifts of a cornfield after 40 minutes of seemingly aimless flight through sub-zero, sparkling air, they had covered a scant 11 miles, spooked all the horses, pigs and moo cows within sound of their burners and struck another high, unmighty blow for the forces of uncontrol.

The occasion was the 11th running of the "nation's oldest hot-air balloon race," which this year was subtitled the Lark Hare and Hound Championship. The upper Middle West is great ballooning country, particularly in midwinter when the air is cold and stable. Some of the spectators at the St. Paul Winter Carnival, of which the hot-air race was a part, insisted that Hubert Humphrey and Spiro Agnew would be on hand to fill the balloons. Not so. The cigarette company sponsoring the race is too clever to get caught up in partisan politics regardless of the verbal BTUs those candidates might generate.

Instead, St. Paul was infested during race week with hordes of snowmobile freaks (awaiting the outcome of the 500-mile snow Indy from Winnipeg to the Twin Cities), of ice-racing freaks (watching the 100-mile sports car event on the slick surface of Lake Phalen), along with bridge players, speed skaters, broomball enthusiasts, bonspielers, mushers with sled dogs, archers, slow-pitch softball experts, coin-tossers, tosspots, chess players and majorettes—every one of them seeking that last twist of control that results in "championship." The majorettes were the most visible of the lot—and in a way the most frightening. Not one of them wasn't cute, curvaceous and cunning; not one wasn't driven by a keen-eyed mother who had once been the same. "Why are they having that silly balloon race?" asked one of the lovely Lolitas, tugging at a hair curler. "You're right, Beautine," answered her mother. "No one can twirl a baton at 2,000 feet."

Through it all and well above the reach of mere batons, the balloonists floated with the elegant altitude of their kind, awaiting that splendid but silent moment when their tethers would be released. "This carnival bunk doesn't bother us," said Bob Waligunda the night before the race. "Balloonists often have egos as inflated as what they're flying." Waligunda ought to know: his very name sounds like a balloon expanding. The 26-year-old "playboy-adventurer" from Springfield, Mass. is the most renowned aerostatic aviator in America (he flew a balloon through the Grand Canyon as part of a television spectacular) and one of the most successful licensed commercial balloonists. A husky blond omni-athlete who wrestles and runs long distance in AAU events when he is not scuba diving, racing trail bikes or going up in one of his six balloons, Waligunda served as the hare in St. Paul. "I'll take off 10 minutes ahead of the others in the Lark balloon," he explained, "and drift with the winds, changing altitude from time to time. That'll put the hounds off the track. If they don't emulate my flight profile—my ups and downs—they can't hope to land very close to me. The hound that lands the closest is the winner. But everyone who flies a balloon is a winner just by flying one. I read a lot—Jules Verne and psychology, things like that—and I've always wanted to drift through the sky with the clouds. To me the balloon is the universal symbol of happiness and joy [he blushed a bit as he said that] because it gives you solitude and oneness. Like, mankind is on the moon, right? And here we are flying the original thing that was built in 1783."

Last year's St. Paul race had resulted in what one Balloon Federation of America official called "a fiasco." The hare balloon had been ripped asunder by a miscreant hound; cars had suffered broken windshields from the baskets of low-flying aeronauts; even the houses of the city proved unsafe from aerial assault. This year control seemed to be in control. The FAA was on the scene declaring that three of the balloons, still classed as experimental, could not fly over populated areas. The aeronauts seemed faced with choosing a new launch site in the cornfields out of town or scrubbing the three avant-gardists (an unacceptable solution among such free spirits). The weatherman settled the matter with a rare stroke of prescience.

When the balloonists gathered at Holman Field just as dawn was breaking, an insidious stink covered the city. "Inversion," sniffed Don Kersten, a craggy aeronaut from Fort Dodge, Iowa. "This city pumps more crud into its air than any town east of Los Angeles." But as Kersten pointed out, the inversion made for ideal launch conditions: still air, overridden by strong layers of wind blowing to the east and south. These were precisely the directions the balloonists had hoped for: no populated areas out there. "Let's launch and be done with it," said Waligunda. Kersten, judge of the race, agreed.

While half a dozen FAA agents circulated among the crowd, looking for more experiments to control, the balloonists got into their bags. Fans whirred, driving air into the 70-foot-tall nylon envelopes. Ice crackled as it split from the surfaces where it had formed in the 16° below temperature. Then the roar of the propane flamethrowers—giant double-barreled Bunsen burners—obliterated any concept of control. In the north the skyscrapers of the city loomed through a fine mauve mist compounded of snow and exhaust. Men raced around in long beards and Red Baron helmets. The balloons filled and groaned and stood upright. A girl photographer in a scarlet snowmobile suit went through go-go gyrations trying to get the proper angle. "There's nothing quite like ballooning," said Waligunda as he checked his ballast, one eye on the girl.

The launch went without fault, first the hare rising so easily into the heavy air that the earth seemed to drop away into CinemaScope, and the other balloons following like so many acid-laced candy drops. From below came the thin yelping of dogs, the whining of traffic, the growls of hungover fathers begging for coffee. "See what I mean about solitude," Waligunda said. "It's almost a Godlike condition. Being up above it all, you can see what it means. Nobody ever dropped a sneer from a balloon."

Despite the cold, it was Florida in a wicker basket. Balloons ride with the wind, hence encounter no drafts, and their passengers are as warm as they dress. The crisp yellow burst of the gas burner two or three times a minute also throws heat into the gondola. A big jet, a 747, swung out of the haze obscuring St. Paul and wheeled up alongside the hare. "Think of all those people in there watching us," exulted Waligunda. "They must think we're freezing, but they're probably more uncomfortable than we are." The other balloons were scattered behind, some taking a high route to benefit from the winds aloft, others carefully tracking Waligunda's sine curve of a course. "I could make it much more difficult for them," he said. "I could drop down into the north wind, then add heat to get into the west wind; I could cut my maneuvering vents now and then, and really turn them around. If there were clouds, we could use them for cover, hide behind them by dropping and using the lower air currents. You have to know the sky to fly a balloon, and you have to know what the ground is telling you. Flags mean something up here, so do fires." Instead of working tricks on his pursuers, Waligunda outfoxed some of the foxes by flying a short, straight course. The presupposition of his fellow balloonists, who know Waligunda for a wily guy, led them into courses too high or too fast to permit them landing near his balloon.

Descending over a hedge of power lines—"our worst enemy," Waligunda explained—he vented the balloon toward a cornfield just short of a ridge with another line of wires two miles ahead. As the balloon descended, a farm loomed up, its yellow house and stained red barn growing from toys to danger in a moment. The roar of Waligunda's burners sent shaggy, winter-coated horses pounding across a corral. A rooster crowed defiance, and a woman appeared in the kitchen doorway, wringing dough from her hands into her apron. "Look at the flour on her hands," said Waligunda's passenger as they cleared the farm. "Hold onto your hat," said Waligunda. His skid-out after touchdown measured a mere 20 yards.

The hounds quickly followed with a bellow of fire. Closest to Waligunda's mark was Dennis E. Floden of Flint, Mich., just 34 yards away from the hare. An All-America freestyle swimmer at the University of Michigan, Floden—Captain Phogg, he is called—is now 32 and a life-insurance salesman, as well as the current national champion hot-air balloonist (he won the title last summer at Indianola, Iowa). "I've always been a bit of a loner, just as all of us are," he said, cracking icicles off his mustache. "During the Labor Day weekend last year I raced in a balloon event at Columbus, Ohio. One of my passengers was Charles Dollfus, the eminent French aeronaut of antiquity. I mean, this guy had flown them all, up to and including the Graf Zeppelin. To me, he became the meaning of our sport. Here was this gentle, somewhat bent old man coming across a meadow with a walking stick in one hand and a little sack in the other. He looked up at me when he got to the balloon. 'I fly with you?' he said. 'I fly with you, Captain?' I told him yes, of course. Then he opened up the sack and took out his own altimeter. And after that he took out the French tricolor. And then he climbed into the basket, slow and kind of creaky but under his own control."

And out of control as well, as the best of balloonists always are.