Failure to launch

I went to the 2009 Walla Walla Balloon Stampede, having never made first contact with the hot air behemoths, and I wasn’t disappointed. The evolved quickly, from reams of lifeless fabric spread on the ground to fat and bright living beings, puffing with hot air and then quietly lifting off into the air. One by one they drifted up, their engines roaring in short bursts until the humans with two feet on the ground can barely discern what color they are. And everyone watching seemed a little in awe of the balloon beings, but perhaps we were just still fuzzy from getting up so early.

This year I woke up pre-dawn to get ready for more balloon stampede viewingship, but was disheartened when my fellow watcher texted me to say it was sprinkling outside. Sprinking, I thought, so what? I pulled up the Web site for the event and saw that indeed, the launch would occur “weather permitting.”

What does weather permitting mean, I asked my friend. Baseball weather or football weather? As a sports enthusiast who has dabbled in both, I know that there is a big difference. Only Charlie Brown plays in a downpour, but I can recall football games in Alexandria in which we had to crunch through a crusted-over ice field in January, with the coach bellowing at us, “We came to play!” I’ll just note here that this coach had been a linebacker for the Detroit Lions in the mid-80s, so clearly, he knew all about hard work and winning.

We decided to forge ahead, crossing our fingers that some random precipitation wouldn’t mean disaster for our less dense friends of the parachute-fiber variety. At 6AM sharp, we drove to the fairgrounds.

Parking was too easy. If the launch were set for 6:30, more people should be here by now, I figured. We came across one older couple walking toward us, back to their car. They looked deflated [sic].

“They canceled because of the rain,” she told us, looking fairly dry. Perhaps she’d dodged every drizzle drop on her way across the field.

We turned around and saw four more senior citizens, who informed me that they’d followed us here, figuring we would lead them to the balloons. This is funny ha ha and funny strange for a few reasons, including:

  1. There’s nothing about us to signal to other drivers that we’re interested in this event, like a neon sign over the car reading “Balloon Freaks,” a bumper sticker saying, “I brake for balloons,” or a personalized license plate.
  2. The balloon launch was at the Walla Walla Fairgrounds, which are pretty large in a town that’s pretty small. There’s really no need to tail another car on the off chance that they’ll lead you to a very well marked place in the city.
  3. Someone was more clueless than we were.

Faced with having woken up especially early and wanting to make the best out of the morning, we headed over to the Elk’s Lodge. While this may at first seem completely arbitrary, let me just note that hey, I’ve mentioned it before in this blog, and I have a curiosity about it, but more importantly, the Elk’s Lodge has been hosting Ed’s Diner since Ed’s had a fire last winter. It’s nice of the Elks to give the staff the capacity to stay employed while the structure is being renovated, and Ed’s makes a helluva good greasy spoon breakfast. It’s just a shame that the life-size statue of Elvis didn’t survive the fire, because I’m sure the Elks wouldn’t mind having his presence in the middle of their ballroom.

And what a ballroom it was. We walked in needing a second wind and hoping to find it on the other side of made-to-order eggs. I looked around and wondered to myself just how many people had had their wedding receptions here. All of the tables were empty save one in the far corner that had something like a dozen older men I presumed were Lodge members. I have to imagine that all of these groups—the Elks, the Masons, the Rotaryians, or whatever they’re called—are having trouble finding new members because all of these people were eligible for AARP.

We may have been the second table of the morning, but apparently I underestimated how many other disgruntled balloon watchers were following us, because within five minutes, 50 other people arrived at the makeshift diner-in-an-old-man-lodge. Seriously, there was one waiter and 18 tables with hungry patrons. Some people looked like they were considering bum rushing the fake elk next to the front door, hoping to find French toast inside like one stores candy in a pinata. Fortuitous for us, we’d already placed our order with the cook in the back before the mob took over the space. I enjoyed my mushroom omelet but my friend walked across the room to get some ketchup, and I waved down a fellow customer who was helping himself to the fresh pot of coffee at the waiter’s station. Hey, we Walla Wallans have some initiative, especially when it comes to our caffeine consumption.

All in all, it was an adventure. We took turns with our individual elk photo ops, and I went back to bed. Maybe next year.

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