I have never before saved a hot air balloon in distress. But now, I feel, is my time to shine.
A tree branch ten feet long had ripped a hole straight through the ReMax logo, and a basket of wide-eyed tourists now barrels down towards the shore in an almost graceful panic. It is graceful, because that’s how hot air balloons roll. It is panicked, because the shore is actually a sidewalk overlooking a river in Stockholm, and coming up short is not an option.
I do not know why or how this is happening. All I know is that it feels larger than life, like an adventure that is literally falling from the sky like manna from heaven. A gentle breeze guides this oversized picnic basket to a gentle thunk on the pavement, with two feet to spare.
Swedes have converged from all sides. They pour from every lutfisk shop, every bicycle seat, I dare say from the inside of scattered fir trees. The tourists have escaped, but the balloon is rocking to and fro, threatening to take the entire craft into the drink at the next strong breeze.
We must tame the beast.
Ropes dangle down from the crown, and whole families gather around them like the greatest tug-of-war ever attempted. This is not just a battle of men. This is a battle against the elements, against the embodiment of air itself. We are an army of holiday-goers, united. We yank, we tug, we corral this wayward, alien creature like Lilliputians capturing Gulliver.
I watch a blond-haired behemoth scale a lamppost like a lumberjack, chucking his denim jacket over its pointy spire for when the curtain finally falls. Spontaneous generals scream out powerful commands in an alien language. Surreal congo lines stretch out in every direction, fighting for control as we tow a thousand cubic feet of hot air to the ground.
It is within striking distance.
The giants among us grab handfuls of slick, space-age fabric and anchor their feet to the cobblestones. Our efforts have brought it parallel to the ground, and I’m reminded of the lost age of dirigibles, filled with black-and-white dreams of airships dotting the skies and gliding in-between newborn skyscrapers, sandwich-eating construction workers waving from atop fresh rivets. The whole structure seems to melt into the ground in slow motion, as a riot of helpful hands attacks the creature from all sides.
This is our white whale.
And it is a free-for-all. The collective weight of an entire city hauls into our quarry, pinning its labyrinthian folds under our knees, kneading its guts onward and out. I look up to find svelte Scandinavians galore dogpile a shrinking mountain, a roiling sea filled with bobbing blondes. The military maneuvers of recent minutes dissolve into a torrent of giggles and gentle guffaws.
The absurdity of the situation dawns. This is childhood restored, we are do-gooding misfits unleashed. The inevitable trips and spills send strangers into strangers, with every attempt at apology bleeding into hysterics. Social convention cannot stop us, this is an event outside the ordinary, removed from everyday life. This is a story – a fairy tale.
The summit of the mountain descends, and we see ever-increasing glimpses of our cohorts on the opposite bank. Crawling along on all fours, on hands and knees, we coalesce in the center. A wave of satisfaction washes over the crowd, as we peer at each other through gleaming and smiling eyes.
Slowly, the masses shuffle off the slick and suddenly two-dimensional landscape. The imbroglios of serious business sneak in from outside the frame, the owner and tour operator scurrying under his property, scouting for damage and calculating the cost. A rational mien sets in, and the winded participants of an unexpected frolic stand, dusting themselves off and looking about, wondering and half-waiting for some sort of encore, a next episode.
Street life returns. Cameras are shuttered, and gazes are diverted. Individual spectators start to spin off in scattered directions, their back to the site of the former action and laughing amongst themselves. The boardwalk thins out, drifting into surrounding side streets and corner shops. Soon enough it is just a smattering of waylaid observers, taking in the scene.
Baby carriages roll by, late-comers to the show. Lovebirds walk by and cast wayward glances at something they must have missed, what exactly they don’t know. Vendors hawk their wares. And the city reverts, slowly, to its former self, a steady rhythm of footsteps.
I take a step back. I cast a glance to either side, turn, and walk away.