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The Day The Balloon Came To Town

July 2024
7min read

For three enthralled little boys in Oxford, Mississippi, the Space Age began one hot afternoon at the dawn of this century, when a balloon drifted aloft from the town square amid billows of smoke and whiskey fumes. One of the boys grew up to be Oxford’s most distinguished citizen, the famous novelist William Faulkner, who died in 1962. Another was his younger brother Murry, who writes this reminiscence of

In one of the early years of this century the great day had finally come, the one on which a man was going aloft in a real balloon. Oxford had been on edge with this exciting news for weeks, and surely nobody was more keyed up with anticipation and wonder than Bill and John and myself. We were determined not to miss this momentous event. We knew that our father would be either at work or watching the balloon himself, that Mammy Gallic would be helping Mother about the house, and that Mother had paid no more attention to stories about a balloon than she would have to rumors about a visitor from Mars; so all we had to do was to ease out the back door and hurry up South Street the short distance to the town square.

On reaching the square we beheld a sight never to be forgotten: an enormous grayish-black bag was attached by ropes to stakes set in a circle on the ground, in the center of which a hole had been dug for the me that was to produce the smoke to inflate the balloon. The fire was already burning briskly, and though an almost overwhelming amount of smoke was blowing into the eyes of the onlookers, it seemed that at least some of it must be causing the gentle billows within the bag itself. All of this was being administered by the crew—an incredibly dirty and surly white man and a very tall, gangling Negro, whose job, so far as we could see, was to furnish fuel for the fire and drinking whiskey for the white man.

By noon all the horses and mules had been removed from the square, partially to save them from blindness and partially to provide more room for the ever-increasing number of townspeople who were happy to risk it in order to see what was going on. By this time the fire was a roaring one, but still the balloon was not more than half inflated. The spectators were covered with soot, and John, happy though he was, had some misgivings: “Just wait till Mother sees us.” Now the greasy smoke was pouring out from under the bag and we could barely make out the white man sitting on a keg beside the raging fire. When the wind blew the smoke away for a moment we could see him take another swig from the dock and dash another bucket of coal oil on the crackling flames. We wondered how he could live in such a place. Bill said that the man had probably spent so much time enveloped in smoke that good fresh air would likely kill him.

Although a tremendous amount of heavy smoke was swirling about the square, some of it was manifestly rising within the balloon, which had begun to sway back and forth and tug at the restraining ropes. We could see some smoke spewing out of several breaks in the fabric and, because the Negro was so tall, we could sec him towering above the smoke clouds as he went languidly about closing the ruptures with clothespins. By this time Bill and John and 1 were sooty like everyone else, and tears were streaming down our faces; we had never been so excited and happy. We had to be careful, though, for Mother had sent Mammy Callie to get us. We could easily hear her as she pushed through the crowd calling out, “Where at dem Falkner boys?” Then louder, using her name for Bill, “Memmie-Memmie. Yo’ Mammy says where at is us all and git home.” We stayed put and did not reply; nothing could have dragged us away.

By now the motley crew had attached four ropes to the basket which was to hang beneath the balloon and carry the pilot, or whatever that individual called himself. It took considerable thrashing about to get the white man and his crock aboard. During the process the basket was dragged too close to the flames and one rope was promptly burnt through, leaving the basket (anted over on one side with the pilot lying on his back and taking a good stiff swig from the crock the while. Thick smoke was rising from the fire, and the balloon was straining at the ropes. We were beside ourselves with excitement. The pilot took the crock away from his mouth long enough to yell at the Negro, “Cut, damn it, cut.” In a second the Negro became a flying dervish. With axe in hand he charged the restraining ropes one after the other—swish pam, swish pam, swish pain. His transformation was amazing. He slashed one rope, then darted to the next one, slashed it, and so on until the last one had been severed. Smoke seethed; we were rigid with attention and anticipation. The balloon slowly began to rise and we could easily hear the pilot cursing the canting basket, the smoke-spewing balloon, and, very likely, the general laws of physics as well. Anyway, he was airborne, and as soon as the craft rose above the buildings on the square, a gentle north breeze set its course a little east of due south, toward our home. Bill sensed this at once, caught John by the arm and called out, “It’s going directly over home—let’s go!” Lots of other folks had the same notion, but they rushed headlong down South Street. We took a short cut, every foot of which was known to us.

We squirmed through the crowd and scurried down the wooden steps and into the lot below Brown’s Store. Now we were on our own—alone and streaking across the lots and gullies between the square and our back lot. We realized quickly that it was tough to run headlong over the rough countryside and to look up in the sky at the same time. It took us weeks to get over our collective skinned knees, hands, and faces, hut we had to follow the (light of the wonderful balloon, not having any idea as to its cruising range, altitude, or speed. One astounding thing we learned pretty quickly was that the thing had very little forward speed. Indeed, we were outrunning it. And, more than that, it was already beginning to lose altitude. In fact it was moving so slowly and so low that we were suddenly shocked to realize that the pilot, still stretched out full length on the low-hanging side of the basket, was talking right at us between swigs at the crock. We could not make out what he was saying, but he was certainly addressing us, since we were the only ones in sight. Now we had arrived at Mrs. Powell’s fenced-in backyard, where that good lady had chased us out of her apple trees often enough. This time she was waiting for us on her back steps, but she hadn’t yet seen the balloon, and we didn’t propose to lose it, fence or no fence. Dill never hesitated, knowing that where he went we would follow. We shinnied over the fence and pulled John along with us, then charged across the yard to the fence on the other side. The lady must have seen us a split second before the balloon came into view. She gathered her apron about her, waved her duster at us, and called out, “William Falkner—you boys stop right—” then, “Oh My Lord!” as she suddenly noticed the low-flying, slow-drifting balloon with the cursing pilot on his back in the canted basket drifting silently across her yard. It was truly fantastic. As we scrambled over the fence on the far side of her yard, Bill said that if we could have had a balloon overhead every time we had been in Mrs. Powell’s orchard, she would never have caught us taking green apples.

By this time the marvelous craft was barely floating over the treetops, and our back lot was just beyond. As we climbed up and out of the last gully we saw that there were two people near our barn, Mother and Mammy Gallie. The latter, not having to contend with the balloon every step of the way, had beat us home and was doubtless explaining to Mother that she couldn’t find “dem boys” on the town square. Mother was not often in the back lot, but was there this time seeing about some flower stands that one of the handymen had built for her and left near the barn for the paint to dry. Our three ponies were standing happily in a row behind Mother and Mammy, being the most docile of beasts and given to following any member of the family.

Now we had climbed over the last fence and were in our own back lot, and we could sec that the balloon was certainly going to land there. We hesitated but a second in reflecting that if we continued on we would find ourselves fate to face with Mother and Mammy, covered as we were with soot, with clothes ripped and torn, and with gashes all over us. Rut it couldn’t be helped: we had lived with this splendid aircraft too long to give it up before the end—which was fast approaching. There was a quick and heavy swish just above the chicken house, and the ponies instantly looked skyward. Surely these were the first horses in the whole South to see a machine coming down from above. They backed oil, stamped the!: feet, and shook their heads in disbelief. Mother followed their gaze and saw it too, just as the collapsed bag enveloped the barn and the basket plunked down on the roof of the chicken house. It dumped the pilot out onto the roof on the back of his neck; his hand holding the crock made a big arc, smashing into the shingles and breaking the crock, from which whiskey poured down on the unsuspecting chickens calmly at roost below, instantly they set up a cackling that could be heard a mile away. The pilot slid gently oil the roof and onto a pile of hay beside the chicken house. Mother and Mammy were transfixed, but not for long. Both were small in stature, but ten feet tall in determination and will power. Mother said, “This man may be hurt.’ But Mammy was all action in a very respectable endeavor; she was setting out to protect her folks. She grabbed a scantling [a piece of lumber], longer than she was tall, and muttered, “Effn he ain’t hurt, Ah garntee he gwine ter be.” She charged toward the pilot stretched out on the hay and drew back the scantling. As she did so she saw Bill and John and me standing beside the chicken house, clothes torn, faces blacked, knees and elbows bleeding from our cross-lots chase.

For once in their lives Mother was shocked into speechlessness and Mammy into frozen immobility. Mammy’s feet were set far apart, she was stretched to her full five feet in height with the scantling held by both hands high above her head, and she literally seethed with anger and astonishment; even the fringes of the perpetual kerchief on her fine little head seemed to stand out and quiver in rage. This was a sight to sober even the pilot, who, seeing his chance, quickly rolled away from the chicken house, jumped to his feet, and bolted with a speed and precision that put his wonderful balloon to shame. Mother recovered her speech and, seeing that Mammy was set to haul off in hot pursuit of the pilot, touched her on the arm and said, “Mammy, let him go.” Then they turned and looked at the three ragged, dirty little Falkner boys. Mammy dropped the scantling, turned to Mother, and said, “Miss Maud, what we gwine to do wid dem boys?” We knew the answer to that one, yes indeed we knew.

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