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#21: Palestine, Texas
June 3, 2006


Palestine, Texas is located in the eastern part of the state, in green wooded country that is more reminiscent of the South than the desert West. The town's name is pronounced "Pal-uh-steen", which probably seemed like a peaceful Biblical name when the city was founded in the 1840s.



Although founded within a few years of Houston and Dallas, Palestine never grew into a large city. Her most famous son was John H. Reagan, a U.S. Congressman and later first Postmaster General of the Confederate States of America.

Today, Palestine is a city of about 18,000. The WalMart distribution center is a major employer, as is the large state prison farm to the west. The old downtown area is undergoing a fitful redevelopment, while the usual chains and franchises sprout along the loop road circling town. "The Gateway to Yesteryear", one Chamber of Commerce publication calls the city.

In 2000, Palestine received some national attention when Robbie Knievel (son of the more famous Evel) jumped his motorcycle over a moving locomotive at Palestine's historic railway attraction, the Texas State Railroad. This was televised as "Robbie Knievel's Head-on Train Jump Live" on FOX.

Palestine was also in the news in 2003 as more or less the place where the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, dropping debris over the Texas countryside. Pieces of the spacecraft were collected at the NASA Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine. There is a monument to the deceased astronauts in the garden outside the Palestine Police Station, right next to Rik and Little John, late of the K-9 unit.


Palestine has its own history museum, the Museum for East Texas Culture. Housed in a former high school building, the museum has a good assortment of John H. Reagan memorabilia, as well as newspaper clippings from the Robbie Knievel motorcycle jump.

However, most of the museum's collection is devoted to photos and artifacts documenting the history of everyday life. A modest pioneer cabin has been reconstructed in the museum's basement. Another room contains a collection of mechanical adding machines and cash registers used by past generations of Palestine merchants.

The overall effect is somewhere between museum and garage sale, but in today's world, it is impressive to see people committing the time to preserve the past. In Palestine's case, it is a past that is mostly lacking in historical figures and momentous events, but filled with ordinary people and their persistence in this place.

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I don't usually discuss the times that I don't get to fly on this website, on the theory that people read these pages to be amused rather than depressed. However, ballooning is a highly weather-dependent sport, and about 20 - 30% of the time I go to balloon festivals, I end up being unable to fly, usually due to rain or too much wind. It's extremely disappointing when this happens -- for the festival organizers, for the other balloonists (who generally can't fly either) and for me.


In 2004, the Museum for East Texas Culture sponsored the first Heritage Balloon Festival in Palestine, and invited me to do a helium cluster balloon flight there. The intent was for this flight to be my sixth state in the States of Enlightenment project.

I'd heard that Texas weather was a bit windy and hard to predict. Luckily, the balloonmeister for the event was Bob Redinger, long-time balloonist and official meteorologist for the nearby NASA scientific balloon base.


Conditions were overcast and a bit breezy that morning, but instead of getting clearer and calmer as predicted, conditions got cloudier and windier, and I was forced to abandon the flight. It was the first and only time I've ever done a complete inflation and been unable to fly due to weather. That's one of the worst thing that can happen to you in cluster ballooning, since the helium gas can't be returned to the cylinders, and the balloons are only good for one or two uses.


Somewhat to my surprise, the festival invited me back to try again in 2005, when Texas would have been my fourteenth state. That year, the weather was obviously bad for the entire weekend, so at least we avoided wasting the helium.


In 2006, the festival invited me back for an unprecedented third try. This time, I was hoping for Texas to be state number twenty-one....