When I was little, my sister and I spent a week or more with our grandparents in Ohio every summer. I always looked forward to the trip, though often nothing terribly exciting happened while we were there – at least it was something different in the three months (summer vacations really were that long back then) that seemed to drag on and on before school started.
One thing my grandfather (who we inexplicably always called by his first name, “Paul” – I honestly thought for many years that this was another name for “Grandpa”) did to liven up hot, steamy summer nights along the Ohio River was to take us out to the back yard after dark to make and fly what he called “fire balloons.”
As I recall, the construction consisted of a double-width sheet of newspaper, carefully rounded to form a pillow-shape, with all four corners drawn up and pinned with one straight pin. Paul was a smoker at the time, so he’d pull his Zippo out of his pocket and light one edge of the “balloon.” Slowly the flame would spread, and within seconds the entire thing would lift off the ground and fly far above our heads, floating along as the paper burned up…until there was nothing left but a bit of ash.
Kids, don’t try this at home.
Even then I was aware that, though great fun, fire balloons had to be distinctly hazardous. I don’t know, maybe my grandfather carefully researched the wind speed and direction before fire balloon nights (right, with no internet?) or maybe we only did it on particularly damp evenings – I do seem to remember that their area was as humid as a rain forest every summer. But then, this was the same guy who explained to me a game he played as a boy, called “mumbledey-peg,” which consisted of throwing a large knife up into the air and trying to get it to land, point down, standing up in the dirt. And the same guy who taught me at age seven to play poker, helping me memorize the hierarchy of which hand beat which. Oh, and the same guy who made my little sister cry buckets when he threatened to shoot the Easter Bunny if he found it hopping around in his flower bed. Good judgment apparently wasn’t his strong point.
But he sure was good at fire balloons.