The Fascinating Story of My Semi-Visible Scar

It is but a flesh wound!

Sometimes I like to pretend like my life is full of exciting stories.

But in the world of bleep-bloop, the life of the eternally-wired, where colloquialisms are replaced with words like “module” that make me sound a lot smarter than I actually am, my stories mostly range from keystrokes to page refreshes.

Bleep.  Bloop.

In a previous incarnation, I was a balloon pilot.  You may already know this.  The picture above features the wimpiest scar anybody ever got from anything.  Which also makes it the most bad-ass scar anyone has ever got from ballooning.

TO THE EXTREME!

Let me explain.

(EXTREME EXPLAINING?)

No.

(Okay…)

On an ideal day, the breeze is light and the weather is fair.  The clouds are scattered amongst the great dance floor in the sky, afraid to approach each other in the event the gaseous puffs across the horizon have cloud cooties.  There is a soft scent of freshly-mowed grass hanging about, lingering with the discarded clippings.  Strangers pass through guffawing in merriment.

I SAID guffawing in merriment!

On a perfect day, the soundtrack is birdsong and the featured presentation is 20 miles of fogless visibility, unmarred by a summer haze yet to set upon a soon-to-be-scorched land.  The world around is more than a still life but less than caffeinated by a crosswind.  There’s thunder to the north and rain to the south, gusts to the east and an electric sky to the west, but nothing inclimate in the immediate area.

That is a perfect day.

And that happens maybe once or twice in Indiana.

Because in Indiana, when it’s not storming, it’s windy.  When it’s not windy on the ground, it’s windy aloft.  When it’s not windy aloft, it’s going to be windy on the ground eventually.  And all throughout, it’s unbearably humid.

This is a story about wind.  And blood.  And a scar that has yet to impress a single chick.

(Thankfully, there are no chicks on the internet.)

We’d been flying all day and into the afternoon when the winds, out of nowhere and not forecast, picked up.  A lot.  Enough to initiate (*pumps shotgun*) emergency mooring time.

Let me explain, briefly and ineffectively, how mooring a balloon works.

Mostly with a picture.  Because if fourth grade sex-ed taught me anything, it’s that everything can easily be explained in pictures, no questions asked ever in an informative car ride to soccer practice.

By day, a mooring table. By night, a defense turret.

Mooring a balloon is a lot by mooring a ship to a dock.

(Minus the water and boat and dock part.  And really everything except the sailor knots.)

You begin by neutralizing the sway of the balloon by tensioning the outer mooring lines perpendicular to the sway.  Once stabilized, you can tension all the outer mooring lines and begin turning your attention to the inner mooring winches.  Yes, there are two levels of mooring.  I N C E P T I O N.

A lot of boring but important things happen in this process, including spooling the inner mooring winches and preparing the inside of the gondola for the balloon’s descent by attaching cradle straps perpendicular to each other, inserting the load bar in the shackles of the tether’s terminal and practicing barbarian war cries.

Mostly the last part, to the fascination of the gathering crowd.

On a normal day, it’s a relatively complicated process that requires a lot of communication between the crew.  On an abnormally windy day when the balloon is in flying position, it requires four or five people screaming like mad and running around from one place to another with seemingly no regard for human or animal life around them.

RIP Mr. Earthworm =(

In this particular instance, I drew the esteemed position of gondola grunt.  That’s not a real term we use at all, but it sounds cool.

Here is a handy diagram, much like the one that taught me where babies came from:

Not pictured: burrito self-serve station

My job, in this case, was to guide the load ring onto the cradle straps as the balloon was lowered and ensure nothing became snagged on the wire ropes inside in the process, as it could weaken the ropes that…you know…are designed to hold the gondola to the load ring (which subsequently holds the gondola to the balloon itself.)

What did this entail?  Basically bench-pressing the load ring and fighting those wire ropes.  The load ring is made out of tubular (RADICAL!) aluminum and weighs probably more than YOUR FACE.  Which is to say that both your hideous nose and the load ring are heavy.

You know that football drill where guys punch at tackling sleds?  It was a lot like that, except punching with both arms, holding with one arm and using the free one to untangle wire ropes from cradle straps.

Basically, I felt like something I’d never felt like before: a man.

So, anyway, I wrestled with things for quite some time before my co-workers started yelling at me to come out and help stabilize the balloon on the winches.  As I was climbing out of cable cone interior of the gondola, which is accessible via an unnetted window my size 36 posterior can just oh so barely squeeze through, I saw something in front of me.  It looked like my arm.

IF A GREAT WHITE SHARK HAD BEEN SNACKING ON IT.

I was bleeding.  All over the place.  A quick glance over my shoulder allowed me a vision of blood specks on the wires and straps within.  I’d been bleeding for a while, completely oblivious.  It looked more like I was fingerpainting than wrasslin’ with a ring.

It looked bad.  But I had a choice: Bear Grylls or that wimpy soldier from that World War 2 movie…you know the one with Tom Hanks…oh what’s it called…it’s on the tip of my tongue…ah yes, The Da Vinci Code.

I went with Bear Grylls.

I sprang from the gondola like a wild cougar happening upon a town of antelopes where the mayor was inexplicably a walrus named Morris Bean.  Do cougars even eat antelope?  I mean, I’m sure they would.  But usually they just feast on trust fund kids.

ZING.

Mooring must be an awesome process to behold, because everyone gathers around to watch it.  I’d never before wondered what it would feel like to be an animal in a cage, a spectacle for fat kids to watch at the zoo in between consuming a melted ice cream cone and not being amused by anything except a monkey picking insects from its lifemate’s ass.  Now, thankfully, I will never have to wonder how that feels.

I was the ass-picking monkey!

Not only am I attempting to frantically pull in line, take tension, lock off rope and fasten sailor knots on the cleat (three coils, PULL, figure eight, PULL, inverted loops, PULL, two safety loops, LOCK, sir yes SIR!) but I am having every epiphany-raining spectator on the planet shout to me:

“YOU’RE BLEEDING!”

The blood must have just added to the dramatic spectacle.  But persist, I had to!  Blog like Yoda, I will!  I kept reeling and tying and locking and popping and dropping and eventually managed to assist in stabilizing the balloon.  From there, it was an easy process of bringing it all the way down via interior winches and re-tensioning outside lines.

Upon re-tensioning those lines, I realized that I had bled all over them.  Covered.  Coated.  Completely soaked and saturated.

I guess you could say I…

put my sweat and blood into that thing…

Afterward, an EMT was called.  Just for me!  I felt so special.  Like the time freshman year when I couldn’t find a ride to the hospital for a pinched nerve so I apologetically called an ambulance, was jettisoned to the emergency room, given an admixture of cocaine and unicorn blood and prescription for 20 pills of hydrocodone.  Because painkillers are like breath mints in college towns.

As my arm was bandaged, I’d like to say that a statue was erected in my honor, that I became the source of local legend.  Collin cut his arm off and still managed to save the world…singlehandedly.

I was told the wound was superficial and I would just have to wear a ridiculously large bandage and deal with it…GAWD!  So I picked the post ridiculously large Power Rangers bandage in stock and affixed it to my torn flesh, secretly hoping that I would vicariously gain the powers of the red Power Ranger.

(I didn’t, as an attempted roundhouse kick to a complete stranger later informed me.)

The crux of the story, though, is that something like six months later, I started to blog about this scar I had and remembered that the story behind it was completely uninteresting, so if I piled on as many pop culture references as possible, maybe, I thought, just maybe, it could be passable enough to justify an obnoxious run-on sentence in closing, like this once, for instance, but then I decided to close with something a little more appropriate.

But probably not.

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Uncoupling

Like most aspiring writers and recent Journalism grads in a struggling economy, I found a job as a balloon pilot out of college.

Why not, right?  AP Style and nut grafs basically translate to helium management and mooring techniques anyway.

So, like I said, I found a gig as an assistant pilot for a helium gas balloon at a certain historical museum which shall not be named but most likely sits on a large prairie.  Most likely.

Did I know much about balloons?  I did not know much about balloons.  Did I know much about climbing?  I climbed the wall at Flat Rock once.  Did I know much about complex mechanical systems?  I struggle to get the chains back on bike gears.

But, against all aeronautical odds, I was a balloon pilot.  I was basically the Antwone Fisher of the sky.  Still here.  Still standing.  Except I probably wouldn’t be portrayed by Derek Luke.  Taye Diggs, maybe.  But definitely not Derek Luke.

It was an interesting job, to say the least.  Every morning, the pilots got to work at 9 a.m., worked to unmoor the balloon from its captive position, began loading passengers an hour later and flew until 4:30 p.m or so — allowing for a half-hour lunch of course — when we moored the balloon and prepared it for the next day of flying.

The actual flying part was fairly routine…at least until it got windy, but that’s another story.  The job saw me do some fairly notable extracurriculars, including climbing in and outside of the balloon, sitting on the top aimlessly for an hour and using climbing gear to chop down trees down a ravine leading down to the White River until I threw up my breakfast and conceded the fact that I’ll never grow up to be the lumberjack my parents had always hoped I would.

Maybe the most significant thing I remember, though, was how the longer I worked there, the more I thought about the balloon.  And the more my nightmares suggested that things, potentially, could go very wrong if Jerry Bruckheimer were directing my life.  Given the lack of plot development so far, I’m not sure this isn’t the case.

Nightmares usually ranged from storms rolling into our site and spawning a series of tornadoes that destroyed everything to giant windstorms that blew down houses but didn’t deter my duty to get to the chopper balloon.  Seriously.  The basic mentality you take out of the first month is that, even if the world is coming to an end, even if the sky is ebbing an apocalyptic shade of red and the Lions are Super Bowl champions, you need to take care of the balloon first.

So you have a lot of nightmares about those things happening.  Drew Stanton throwing the game-winning touchdown.  Shudder.

You also, on the job, begin inventing things that could go wrong.  Because really, at the end of the day, it’s a machine.  An attraction.  A mechanical operation.  And while the manufacturer has a perfect safety record, I’m a creative kid.  My mind likes to craft what-ifs.

The biggest what-if I came up with was uncoupling.

Or as Jesse James calls it, Saturday.

BASICALLY, we have a TERMINAL in a CABLE CONE that CLIMBS UP IN YO BALLOON and KEEPS IT TETHERED to the GROUND.

My focus, though, was always on those four red rings you see in the picture above.  Those constitute the four steel rings or couplings that help attach the cable’s terminal to the wire ropes of the balloon’s load ring.  Put simply, they keep the balloon attached to the cable, along the terminal/swivel below them.

So you can imagine, if there is an area primarily concerned with keeping you, you know, attached to the ground, I would be keeping an eye on it.

Yeah, it can free fly, but I wouldn’t want it to.  I’m a big fan of the up-down on-off operation.  Anything remotely threatening that process was basically my worst nightmare.

Now, I never had a problem with these rings when I first started working there.  But like any semi-complex operation, the longer you work, the more margin for error you realize, however improbable it may be.  Also, to the credit of my burgeoning paranoia, I saw the freaking thing disassembled once during a maintenance inspection, so I knew — at the behest of tools at least — it was possible to disassemble.  Convincing my mind some freak, Final Destination-esque occurrence couldn’t do the same was futile.

So when the job got completely routine: get in, lock door, prep flight log, check instrument panel, give speech, get going, keep talking with passengers…when I had the routine down pat?  My eyes always drifted to those red rings.  I may have been saying something to passengers, pointing out landmarks, instructing them about the physics of the operation, but my mind was saying all the while it’s going to be this flight, it’s going to be this flight, it’s going to be this flight.

It never was, OBVIOUSLY (okay, am I Fisher or Dodson now?)  But I always thought about how I’d probably make national news if it happened, and either I’d be some huge hero like Captain Sully for landing a runaway balloon or the captain of the inflatable Titanic.

In summary, the thought of uncoupling made me want to curl up in a fetal position mid-flight, when I realized I was over 200 feet in the air and climbing.  Of course nothing shook me like catching a 30 mph wind gust at elevation, though.  Imagine that gondola violently shifting and threatening to make contact with the cable.  Yeah.  Scary stuff, to say the least.

But hey, I’m still here.  I’m still standing.