Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Thanksgiving Story, or Steed's Shaggy Fish Tale

My crew

As is true for many of the great pairings—Crockett & Tubbs, Watson & Holmes, Mulder & Scully—Steed and I do not tell each other everything. It’s better that way; it keeps lines defined. This had the most charming consequence on Thanksgiving Day some years ago.

The Set-up

In 2003 (and again in 2004), through a friend of a friend, I was a Balloonatic-—that’s a balloon-handler in the Macy*s Thanksgiving Day Parade--a fact I did not share with Steed.

On Thanksgiving morning, I duly reported to the New Yorker Hotel at 5:30 a.m. to find fellow Balloonatics wrapped around the block several rows deep. The spirit is festive, even in the predawn, cold, pitch darkness. Like something out of a Powell-Pressburger sequence (think A Matter of Life or Death), we are sorted at the door by balloon, and sent to a particular room on one of the lower floors.

My balloon is one of the vintage, midsized ones, called The Fish, not one of the jumbo sponsored ones. There are racks and racks of jumpsuits, each with a name of a handler. Once you have enrobed, you head out to the buses waiting outside to hustle the teams up to the Museum of Natural History, where the balloons are quietly waiting. It is brilliantly organized.

The bus ride is a riot, jammed packed with rows of color-coded people and stragglers who have clearly lost their own regiments. Up on Central Park West we file out and then walk past the police barricades on 79 and 81 street. The whole day is about walking where “civilians” cannot go—-it’s one of the great cheap thrills for a New Yorker.

In the darkness, the balloons look like menacing animals that have been captured and tethered in the nick of time before destroying the village. It's actually very creepy. Then slowly the rising sun over Central Park changes the whole character of the scene, and the balloons no longer look dangerous, but are bright and cheery.

Waiting to join the line of march at 79th & CPW
We find the Fish, nestled in between Where the Wild Things Are and Super Grover. The whole block is slowly coming to life: the professional balloon people come and take off the netting holding things down, and the lines have been left a little slack, so that the Fish floats a bit up into the air. I did not go to the practice session at the Meadowlands, so this is my first experience of picking up the “bone,” the ingeniously simple cross piece with all the line wrapped around it. You circle it toward you to pull in the line, and away from you to let it out.

Out on Central Park West the bands and floats are amassing by the thousands. We hear the announcer officially open the parade and then welcome each participant as they step on to CPW, “Barney-—Welcome to the 2003 Macy*s Thanksgiving Parade,” to thunderous applause. Even to a seasoned New Yorker the parade from the inside seems very magical, if a little surreal.

Finally we get the “lines up” from the captain, and off we go. Up, up, up, we let the lines go higher and higher, and then turn on to CPW. It is a gorgeous, warm November morning. There is very little wind, and the balloon is holding beautifully.

We are directly behind a troupe of antebellum Southern Belles in pastel period costumes with parasols, who drop into a deep courtesy every once in a while, as their thing. It was a little disconcerting the first time they fell, looking like a “phasers on broad stun” scene from Star Trek. I happened to take their picture up on Central Park West as we were waiting to join the line of parade. More about that later!

"A Margaret Mitchell nightmare in pastel"

Going through Columbus Circle is really exciting—then the actual canyon of Broadway, to our 15 seconds in the spotlight in Herald Square. [Update: the parade no longer takes that route, no longer snakes through Columbus Circle, I am sad to say.]

We turn on to 34th street, where Macy*s families are in the bleachers. We turn on to Seventh Avenue, and that’s where we start to pull in the lines, and bring the Fish to the ground. Once it’s in arm’s reach, you have to look for the numerous airlocks that are beneath velcroed flaps, and open them all to let the helium out. It takes some coaxing, but once it’s deflated, we fold it and lift it into a hotel laundry basket on wheels. Then a professional comes and rolls it into a waiting truck, like something in a spy novel. Our duty is done—we go back to the New Yorker Hotel, return the jumpsuit, and join up with family festivities.

My 15 seconds on TV, going through Herald Square

And Now for the Shaggy Fish Tale Part . . .

The next day I had an e-mail from Steed. He had spent Thanksgiving morning at a brunch of a friend whose apartment overlooks CPW.

He said that he had been going to the window off and on, between plates of quiche, when he hung out there for a few minutes, his eye drawn to a “Margaret Mitchell nightmare in pastel,” and then to an old Fish balloon that came behind them, which, because it is smaller, flew most directly at the level of the window he was at.

And he looked down and saw me at the end of one of the lines. “M.A., what were you doing there?” he wrote in his best Patrick Macnee voice.

Honest to God truth. What are the odds? I’d say astronomical. It would have been amazing enough if he had been actively looking out for me, but not to even know I was there . . . . Another minute of getting to the window either way and he’d have missed me. Truly some people are connected, in very special ways, for life.

Best wishes to all for a wonderful Thanksgiving.


dorki said...

Balloonatics, eh! Thanks for an inside view of that wonderful parade.

There is a small group that is headed by a professor that calls themselves Balloonatics at the university here. They inflate and launch high-flying helium baloons that carry engineering and scientific experiments to 80, 000 feet or so. I witnessed one of thier launches and watched the TV link from the on-board camera as the baloon went up to near-space altitude. You could see the curvature of the earth, the bluish haze of the lower atmosphere, and the blackness of space, really breathtaking.

There is a lot of enjoyment that can come from the right kind of "bag of gas".

Tim Footman said...

"In something out of a Powell-Pressburger sequence (think A Matter of Life or Death), we are sorted at the door by balloon, and sent to a particular room on one of the lower floors."

I see you as the young Dickie Attenborough, eyes full of wonder.

M.A.Peel said...

dorki--ah helium, for the betterment of mankind in many ways.

Tim, very sweet of you to say. Of course the year following A Matter of Life and Death, Dickie played Pinkie Brown. Let's just chalk that up to versatility.