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O #17: Faribault, Minnesota
O September 18, 2005


The following is a dramatization of actual events, including some fictional elements -- just like stuff your friends or kids tell you.


It's been another quiet week in Faribault, Minnesota.


This past weekend the hot-air balloon rally took place out at the Municipal Airport. People in Faribault enjoy the balloon rally, or have grown used to it over the years, which for many of them amounts to about the same thing. The huge, brightly colored balloons floating off on the breeze are an amazing spectacle, but for many people around here a spectacle is a morally dubious proposition, a small step down the slippery slope towards Las Vegas style revues or gladiatorial death-matches. Nevertheless, a fair-sized crowd usually comes out to see the hot-air balloons fly, assuming it's not raining, which it usually does on Saturday or Sunday, or some years both days.


This was the twenty-first year of the balloon rally, and most of the balloon rally committee had decided that twenty years was plenty and taken a well-deserved retirement. This left responsibility for the event to a group of relative newcomers led by Eric Wegner. Eric is an insurance man turned financial planner. He has a big office up in the Cities and drives a Jaguar, which coming from neither Bliss Ford nor Harry Brown's Chevrolet-Buick-Olds-Pontiac-GMC-Cadillac, is the object of some suspicion around town.

As event chairman, Eric was set on doing something new and innovative with the balloon rally, or "Airfest" as it has been renamed. Initially, it was rumored that a monster truck would be featured at the event -- proof that the new leadership was thinking outside the box, or perhaps had misplaced the box altogether. Unfortunately that fell through, which is how the helium balloon man came to fly in Faribult.


Balloonists are an eccentric lot, but John the helium balloon man was a standout even within that select group. His unique calling was to fill a bunch of large, colorful rubber balloons with helium, and by attaching these all to a harness that he wore, to go floating off into the sky. Eric presented the idea of inviting the balloon man to the Airfest committee, and was met with some initial skepticism. It seemed like a lot of work blowing up all those balloons. And what if he ended up hitting someone's barn or something? Eric called on their civic pride. This would show that Faribault, the place where the Tilt-a-Whirl was invented, was still at the forefront of entertaining and educational attractions. This was met with an extended silence. "Better than Owatonna?" one of the committee members asked. "Absolutely," Eric affirmed. "As good as the monster truck?" another asked. "Well," Eric said uneasily, "the monster truck would have been pretty good...." -- at which several people frowned-- "but yes, absolutely, better than the monster truck." So, amid some grumbling, the helium balloon man was invited.
Tilt-a-Whirl: Sellner Manufacturing Company, Faribault, MN

The weather forecast for the weekend of the balloon rally called for a chance of wind and rain. Friday evening turned out to be too windy for the balloons. Saturday morning was forecast to be better, but turned out to be worse. Saturday afternoon was forecast to be worse, but at the last minute turned out to be better -- calming just enough right at sundown for some of the balloons to take short flights under murky skies. Unfortunately, the helium balloon man requires several hours to inflate all of his balloons, and didn't have time to get inflated. John took these setbacks calmly, enjoying the festival's kettle corn and mini-doughnut concessions, and the hospitality of the Faribault Super 8 Motel. He watched the Weather Channel and read a Minnesota tourist brochure inviting him to enjoy "Minnesota's medley of ever-changing weather, and her bright cavalcade of seasons"-- which he threw across the room. To calm himself, he wrote the following haiku:

The locusts will come,
Or the locusts will not come
It is all trouble

which is not all that different from what many people from Faribault might say, although probably not in haiku form.

Luckily, the wind and rain moved through on Saturday night, and Sunday morning promised to be clear. At 5 AM Sunday, members of the Airfest committee and a number of the hot-air balloonists met in one of the airport hangars to inflate the balloons for the helium balloon man's flight.



All of the hot-air balloons went off-field to launch, to try to fly in to the airport and win a prize for getting to a target. Only Ivan Idso, one of the pilots who had helped to inflate the balloons, had opted to stay on the field and launch with the helium balloon man. As the sun came up, the hot-air balloon and the helium balloon man got ready to launch.