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Night Crawler 

Current Events

Wednesday, Jul 12 2000
Current Events
There was an era through which 4 o'clock in the morning seemed a perfectly reasonable time to leave the house: Certain parties were ending, others were only just approaching their crest. It was considered good sense to pop home for a power nap and a touch-up before tumbling back into the night with a momentum that would carry you through the next three days. But those are faintly glimmering days. Today, a 4 o'clock launch is a significant, well-planned occurrence, smacking of the rarity of adventure. Especially hurling down a deserted freeway at 75 miles an hour on a collision course with Professor Muldoon.

Muldoon is a former newspaper ad man, a sizable gent with a gruff laugh and a prodding wit who generally wears a top hat, and who pilots hot air balloons for a living. He's purely cinematic in notion. Thoughts of Jules Verne's tight-laced, double-wristwatch-wearing Phileas Fogg going Around the World in 80 Days come to mind, as does P.T. Barnum's "Solid Muldoon," a masterfully chiseled follow-up to the "Cardiff Giant" hoax. Both Fogg and the Solid Muldoon were brought into the world just before the turn of the century, when technology was still happily wed to wonder, and magical things, both sinister and benevolent, seemed entirely possible. So I am not startled by the stark, dreamlike grandeur of a legion of windmills rising out of the hills as we approach Tracy -- there, bent like alien tuning forks, silently spinning in unfelt wind with pre-dawn mist coiling through their arms and flocks of inky night birds erasing their pale sections. Nor am I surprised by the abrupt way dawn rolls over us exactly as we emerge from the hills, turning the sky plum and dipping the gray valley in salmon and coral hues. It is cinematically appropriate. This is the crack of Homer's "rosy-finger'd morn," Hollywood's beloved "magic hour," and the most certain way to appreciate any stretch of the American landscape, be it trailer parks and power plants or rolling farmland and redwoods.

Even the Tracy Municipal Airport seems somewhat palatable at this hour, hedged by the shells of rusting Chevy trucks and mountains of freshly excavated rock. The keypad code given by Muldoon triggers the chain-link fence to roll back and we park near a van hitched to an oddly shaped load on a flatbed trailer. The driver hops out and greets us congenially.

"Must be waiting for Muldoon," says David Robinson, who, initially at least, I believe is the man of whom he speaks. After all, how many vans pulling huge basketlike bundles could be arriving at the Tracy Municipal Airport on a random Sunday at dawn?

"Oh, there's bound to be a few," says Robinson, a mathematics and meteorology teacher with a kind smile.

And he is right. Other vans pulling strange, cumbersome bundles arrive every 20 minutes or so over the next hour. The drivers wave to Robinson or stop to shoot the breeze before positioning themselves along the tarmac.

"This is the time of day," explains Robinson, "when the winds are at their calmest."

The sun rises over the horizon, dripping and wavering like a swollen persimmon, but more orange still. It's peculiar to imagine the most lovely sunrise I'll see this year might be over the Tracy Airport, but there it is, so commanding of attention that I very nearly miss the strange flying machine that wheels past: It has a single open seat with a small engine and propeller attached to the back, and a couple of levers for control. It is utterly Verneian and certainly only meant to be aloft in movies and fanciful literature, I think. I'm clearly not up to date on my lightweight aircraft technology; this is, I am told, a power parachute.

Robinson, who has been flying for over 30 years, prefers balloons. As a child he intended to pilot planes but, inspired by a newspaper article, he built a small hot air balloon out of a vacuum cleaner bag and several candles. Some time later he got on the ground crew of a real balloon and in 1972, for $1,000 down and 36 easy monthly payments, he bought his first. Over the years he's given rides and instruction, but now flying is a hobby.

"There is a real danger here that you might get hooked," the Half Moon Bay resident warns.

Gary Michalak, a lean, swaggering equipment finance banker from Lafayette, arrives with his balloon in tow.

"I'm an aberration in the ballooning world," says Michalak with a riverboat grin. "I bought my balloon on a bet, from a repossessed car auction. I had no idea it was considered an aircraft, that I needed flying lessons and a pilot's license. I thought I could just tie it to a tree in the back yard." But Michalak caught the bug as well, and he unfurls tales of ballooning over Lake Tahoe and Nevada, of night flights during full moons, of reaching 12,000 feet where canned oxygen is recommended, and of huge rallies where the sky is teeming with bobbing, floating kaleidoscopes of color.

"Good luck with Muldoon," chortles Michalak as he drives out onto the runway.

Professor Muldoon, also known as the "fictional character" Robert C. Schaible, arrives pulling a large silver trailer accented by small fluttering flags. Hopping out of the truck with an agility that defies his linebacker build, he addresses the small clutch of passengers who have been awaiting his arrival.

"Still waiting on the crew," he says with a robust laugh. "Must've had too much Saturday night. Please feel free to use the little blue room. It's nice and clean in there." He indicates a nearby portable toilet.

"I'm gonna send up some pie-balls to see where we're going today." Muldoon disappears behind the trailer to blow up the pie-balls, shiny black balloons used to indicate wind currents. The hiss of helium can be heard, then a sharp pop. The crowd titters nervously.

"Just a practice, folks. Just a practice. I'm better with the big one." Two pie-balls float into the sky, rapidly disappearing into shimmering blue. Muldoon studies the specks, checking for wind sheer (then, they will suddenly diverge). On the runway, giant balloons begin to grow from the ground like supernatural fruit blotting out the horizon: Robinson's ominous-looking olive green and black striped envelope, Michalak's blue, red, and yellow checkered affair, a gorgeous violet-colored balloon accented by multicolored quadrangles, and a black balloon with vibrant petals. Two of Muldoon's ground crew arrive, Kenny Thomas Sr. and his son, 17-year-old Kenny "Jumpman" Thomas; the other two are still absent. Soliciting a little help from the passengers, Muldoon and his crew pull out a tremendous bundle from the trailer and unfurl a wrinkled rainbow -- a 420-pound, 180,000-cubic-foot hot air balloon envelope. A tremendous Victorian-style wicker basket, rimmed in soft black leather and outfitted with six canisters of propane, is hauled out of the trailer and rigged to the balloon, and with the aid of two industrial-sized fans inflation begins. This alone is almost worth the price of admission, the shimmering fabric rising out of the thistles, the deafening roar of the flame as it shoots through the billowing mouth of the balloon. And we are invited aboard The Remedy.

There are eight of us and, even inside this balloon, the largest in the sky today, we are crowded. I barely have my bearings, pressed against the low wicker wall under the control levers, which direct only elevation (by virtue of heat) and not direction, when Muldoon announces we are at 650 feet. Now, 650 feet is a funny height: It is not high enough to offer a complete loss of perspective (the strangely comforting aspect of sky diving) but it is high enough to be completely incomprehensible to the rational human organism. The key is not to look straight down, but to fix your eyes on a distant point that is somewhat more level with your field of vision, at least until you've acclimated. This poses a problem when your photographer, so overcome by the bulbous shadows rippling across the verdant quagmire below, is jostling you throughout his search for the correct camera lens. The height, combined with the jostling and the sporadic roar of a 20-foot flame over your head, is certainly enough to cause a slight adrenalin rush and a fine layer of sweat to appear on your lip, even though Professor Muldoon is comfortably balancing his butt on the very edge of the basket and all of his white-haired sightseers are happily cooing over the landscape below.

Then, at 1,200 feet, the internal mechanism clicks over, and I am suddenly aware of how utterly still everything seems. But for the murmuring of my companions, it is completely silent and warm; we are in the wind, moving with it, offering no resistance, seeing the world at an airstream's pace. The canal unfolds below like silvery bunting running along a patchwork quilt of emerald and chartreuse farmland. Skeletal steel structures rise out of the rough-hewn quarry dotted with tight rows of tiny red and yellow cement trucks. Rolling blond hills frame it all. As far as landscapes go, Tracy is not exactly tourist-charming, but from here it looks refined. Other hot air balloons catching different air currents at different altitudes move around us like opulent fishing lures. Two balloons kiss. I watch Robinson land in a field -- he carries a small fold-up bicycle in his balloon so he can go anywhere, pack up, and pedal back to home base -- and leisurely rise again. The roar of a motor announces the approach of a power parachute, then it suddenly cuts out and the flyer passes by, moving his contraption opposite of our direction less than 15 feet away from our faces. He waves, and I am reminded of the Wicked Witch of the West pedaling her bike through the eye of a tornado in The Wizard of Oz. Muldoon smiles and talks about taking jumpers to sky-diving heights. At 10,000 feet you can see the curvature of the Earth. At 28,000 feet you need full oxygen, and it gets just the slightest bit nippy. We only rise to 3,200, and by the time we make our landing in a mostly open field -- a bumpy, funny drag and slide due to nearby phone wires -- I'm just getting real air-legs. Our ground crew arrives, and the arduous task of packing and hauling the balloon commences on ground too spongy to support the weight of the van. Everyone is titters and smiles driving back to the airport.

During the closing ceremony, which involves a freehand pour from a bottle of Professor Muldoon-label champagne into each passenger's open mouth, Gary Michalak elegantly lands his balloon in nearly exactly the spot he left.

"I've never seen a balloon come back here," says "Jumpman" in marvel.

"It's pretty unusual," agrees Professor Muldoon, "to be up in the air that long and catch exactly the right current back in again. Yep, pretty unusual."

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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