Leaving Indianola – A Melancholy Departure

I was still a student pilot in the summer of 1970 when we first travelled to Indianola, Iowa.  What drew my wife Tucker and I there was the U.S. national hot air balloon championship.  Although the three championship flights that year were from the Iowa State Fairgrounds, the qualification flights to first cut the field to ten competitors were in Indianola.  For me the trip was a bit like returning to my ancestral roots, since my father had grown up on a small family farm in Minnesota near the Iowa border, outside a town a little like Indianola.

 

Indianola was a special place.  It was at the same time a small farm town and home to a small private college.  Its proximity to Des Moines, which was only 12 miles to its north, and the tinge of sophistication contributed by the college had attracted a few commuters who lived in or near Indianola and worked in Des Moines.  I had grown up in a northern suburb of New York City, but I felt more comfortable in a place like Indianola.  Both my parents were Midwesterners; I had been born and raised in the East by mistake.  I think I had always felt I belonged somewhere else.

 

In 1970 Tucker and I headed to Indianola and the Nationals to absorb everything related to ballooning we might find there.   Almost everything and everybody there was new to us.  And almost everything and everybody there was related to ballooning.  I sat at the feet of the giants of ballooning that summer in Indianola.  I could not guess that Indianola would inextricably weave itself into our lives over the following 18 summers.  That the Nationals each year would become a regular measure of my skill as a balloon pilot, a treasured annual pilgrimage by our family, and a thread of stability through otherwise changing lives. 

 

Towards the end of that period, in the spring of 1988, the BFA Competition Division Board decided to move the Nationals away from Indianola.  Much of the rationale for this was to get more sponsorship money.   Baton Rouge, Louisiana, won the bidding process, and the Nationals would be held there from 1989 through 1991.  Of course, my strong sentimental attachment to Indianola shaded my view of this move, but I also thought big money prizes would change the ambiance of a championship for the worse.  Money fogs a competitor’s frame of mind.  With money prizes in a sporting competition, no longer is the goal simply to do one’s best.  Also, more sponsorship money means more spectators.  More spectators mean more portable toilets, more parking, more concessions, and more crowd control.  The costs of an event increase geometrically.  A few of the more fanciful, optimistic, or perhaps delusional on the BFA Competition Board even talked of live television coverage of the nationals, like baseball, golf, or NASCAR racing.  But the sports that attract spectators in droves are the ones that many people have played or done themselves, like baseball, golf, or driving (if not actually racing).  Very few have flown balloons.  People come out to watch balloons because balloons are pretty, and that is a limited draw.  I thought that even the highest levels of balloon competition should remain amateur sporting events flown by gentleman and gentlewoman sportsmen.  “Amateur” does not imply less skillful just because it lacks big money prizes and crowds of spectators.  Money and spectators change the ambiance of balloon competition, and in doing so they destroy much of its magic.

 

For the first dozen summers that we trekked to Indianola we stayed in the dorms at Simpson College, the small Methodist school that had been founded in Indianola in 1860, when Indianola had fewer than a thousand residents.  Most years we were able to get the same room near the entrance to Kresge Hall.  Eventually, against the sometimes-scorching Iowa summer heat, we brought and installed a window air conditioner in this room each year, an idea others gradually picked up from us.  By the early 1980s Simpson College forbade this, and we resettled in the very basic, but comfortable, Woods Motel as our new Indianola home from then on.

 

In the second week of July 1988, on the last flight of the big Battle Creek meet I had barely missed each of the last two scoring areas and had slipped from 1st to 3rd overall, but I came away confident I was close to perfect competition form.  Two weeks later we arrived in Indianola for the final Nationals there, and settled in at the Woods, ready to do it one last time.  In the final task of the second to last flight, my marker landed just off the farm lane that was the scoring area, costing me more than 500 points on that task.  The next morning I averaged more than 900 points in each of the three tasks, but I could not overcome the missed scoring area the morning before.  I finished 2nd overall in the Nationals.  Rob Bartholomew, the guy who won, was a local balloonist who had competed in the Nationals for many years.  Somehow, seeing a local guy win the very last Nationals to be held in Indianola seemed appropriate, and I felt content with my 2nd place finish, much as I had when I finished 2nd behind my friend and competition buddy David Schaffer in 1981, when he won the National Championship.

 

In prior years, we had left Indianola filled with the joy of having competed in the Nationals in such beautiful surroundings and amongst such good friends.  In 1988, however, we knew we were forever leaving an important piece of our history.  Unlike every earlier departure from Indianola, we would never again be returning to compete in the Nationals there.  This brought a flood of memories as we started the drive home, with Indianola receding behind us, its striking water tower the town’s last vestige to disappear below the receding horizon in the rearview mirror.  Of course, I remembered the many flights I had made there practicing and competing.  Many of the giant disappointments and the giant successes had so burned themselves into my mind that I could relive these at will.  Complete focus and concentration leaves one with that.  But there were also many other memories that combined for me, Tucker, and daughter Courtney that raised Indianola to the status of a special place for us.

 

As we all settled in for the eight-hour drive home, I broke the silence.  “This a pretty big deal.  After nineteen years of heading to Indianola every summer for the Nationals, this is the first time we have driven away at the end of the Nationals knowing that we won’t be returning next year.  That we will likely never again be returning to Indianola for the Nationals.”  I paused.

 

“We sure have had a lot of amazing experiences there.”  Memories began to push forward in my mind.  Again I spoke.

 

“Remember our children’s brigade at the 1972 Nationals, back before we brought crew from home, when the kids of some of the other balloonists gathered around us to help?  Gosh, that was some kind of Pied Piper effect at work.  And wasn’t it great that our ‘children’s brigade’ ended up being the crew of the winning balloon.”

 

“Yeah”, Tucker responded, “and remember the meteorite we saw flash to the ground one dark night when were driving out east of town?  It seemed so close we thought it had landed in the field next to road.”

 

“Yeah, we were so sure of that that we had stopped and peered into the darkness for some evidence of it,” I added.  “I think I even said I wondered if that might have been a sign from above of the specialness of this place.”

 

“And, hey, remember when the local Dinkler kids volunteered to help, and how Fred and Bill and Earl became regular crew, and friends, in the years that followed?  It was kinda cool, even though their physician father worked for a big insurance company in Des Moines, that their family lived amidst the farmland east of Indianola.  It was also great that these three strapping kids grew up working on local farms in the summer.”

 

 “Yeah”, Tucker chimed in, “you sure knew you could count on them when they slept under our pickup truck on the balloon field some nights during the Nationals to be sure they would be there in time in the morning.”

 

“It sure didn’t hurt that they knew just about everyone in the county, either,” I added. We fell into silence as these images washed over us. 

 

But one wonderful memory led to another, and again I broke the silence. “Remember the time we drove into a field one evening to make a practice flight before the Nationals, the last of about ten balloons into the field, everyone in a hurry due to the late hour?  You know – the time when I tried to start the inflation fan, and it would not run.  And how I set the blower aside and inflated by having the crew give the mouth of the balloon that one big up, down, up-and-hold flap so that I could then start shooting bits of heat in. The coolest thing was that even with all this hassle I was still the first off.”  The conversation paused again as we reflected.

 

Then another memory pushed itself forward.  “And remember how I lobbied the officials to let us to compete in low level jets streams?  Marilyn deserves a lot of the credit for that.  Conversations with Marilyn convinced me that this would be safe.  It was sure great to have as part of our crew a person studying to become an atmospheric scientist.”  I paused, contemplating that good fortune.  “Once I realized that a low level jet would not cause the surface winds to get too strong for landing later in the morning, then the key was just to recognize what was a low level jet and what was plain old strong winds aloft. It turned out that when the sky had been clear the night before and the winds at sunrise were fast around a thousand or 1,500 feet above ground, but calm on the ground and above 3,000 feet or so, then that was a low level jet. It was great that we got them to hold competition flights in these conditions.  And, of course, it did turn out to be safe, and going 40 miles per hour at 1,200 feet did result in some challenging and memorable competition flights.”

 

Another reflective pause, each of us lost in our own thoughts.  Then I remembered another great Nationals incident.  “What about the Fly-In to the goals on the golf course greens?  The one before I began flying with Al Nels as my competition buddy?  Remember Al and I inflating in the same farm field upwind, and how I did not want to be the guy showing Al the winds at the target as he approached it behind me?  So, I pulled the top out during the inflation, and then quickly re-inflated to follow Al after he had gone ahead.”  I chuckled aloud.

 

It was Tucker’s turn.  “Remember all those great breakfasts at the Maid-Rite?  That lanky, gregarious guy who ran it made everyone feel so much at home in his uniquely country way?”

 

My mind turned to later in the day, and I added,  “And what about the times ice cream attacks would take us to the A&W for root beer floats?   Or the great onion rings that lured us to the Crouse Café for dinner?  Gosh, those places were like home to us.”  Even though we did not live anywhere nearby.  So many special memories.

 

Again I broke the background sound of the wind and the road.  “Remember the Nationals when the U-joints in our truck were disintegrating with that loud tinkling sound.  When a local directed us to a small auto shop west of town.  I was frantic about the chase truck breaking down in the middle of the Nationals and dooming any chance I had.  Those guys were amazing.  They dropped whatever it was they were doing and jumped right on it and had our truck ready by mid-afternoon.  And they charged a quarter what I had earlier paid back home for the same repair job.”

 

My mind drifted to the summer of Tucker’s auto accident, when Tucker was seriously injured three weeks before the nationals.  She had insisted on getting out of the hospital early so she would not miss our annual family journey to Indianola, even if she would not be able to drive or crew.  We took along a golf cart and a neighbor girl to drive Tucker around in it, and rented a car for Christian Amundin to drive Tucker around behind the chase truck during the competition.   I chuckled.  “Remember the night we all went to Shorty’s out east of Indianola for their famous steaks.”  I chuckled again.  “Remember how we knew that Christian would order the big steak 32 ounce steak, so we told the waiter when Christian was off to the restroom to serve him a steak twice the size of whatever he ordered, and assured the waiter that we would pay for it.”

 

Tucker laughed, and added, “The look on Christian’s face was priceless when the four-pound steak arrived hanging over the edges of the plate, held together with toothpicks.”

 

“And remember Christian carrying the leftovers around for days, occasionally pulling it out of his pocket and gnawing at it,” I added.

 

“And, hey,” I said, glancing over at Tucker, “what about the time when the cast on your wrist was squeezing your hand and causing unbearable pain, and David and I drove the golf cart to the hardware store on the town square and bought all manner of tools to use to modify the cast.  That had been quite the scene in our room as David and I carefully excised the offending part of the cast!”

 

So many memories.  In the joy of reliving the past, we excitedly reminisced as we drove.

 

“What about the time Mark Sullivan’s packed envelope had caught the wind while he was driving out to fly south of town.”  Like me, Mark left his envelope connected to the burner frame, with the cables and scoop bundled against one of the basket uprights, with the envelope packed into the packing bag in the basket.  Apparently on this particular morning the scoop somehow caught the wind as Mark drove 50 miles an hour down the highway, and pulled the envelope out of the packing bag, with the envelope quickly filling itself.  “Remember Mark telling us he had only realized something was wrong when the front of the truck suddenly reared up as the inflated envelope pulled hard on the top of the uprights of the basket that was strapped down to the truck bed.”

 

“Yeah,” Tucker said, “And that woman appeared out of the house where Mark pulled off to sort out the mess.”  Mark and his crew were able to turn the envelope right side out, but the lines of the parachute valve were hopelessly tangled.  The woman said she knew how to rig parachutes and could untangle the parachute lines.  She went to work, sorting them all out.  Just about as she had finished, an older woman arrived and quietly explained to Mark that the first woman was mentally challenged, and that her only exposure to parachutes was a TV show she had seen about skydiving.   Nevertheless, she had successfully untangled the parachute lines.

 

“The look on Mark’s face as he told us about this was priceless!” I replied, laughing.

 

I turned the conversation a bit.  “Remember all of Sam Edwards’ joking around.”  Sam was continually joshing me.  He had said he was showering in the same stall I used to see if that would help him to score better.  “Remember the shower stall thing – the sign Sam put on one of the shower stalls saying ‘Bruce, shower here’.” Sam’s shower stall sign reminded me of another incident from that same summer.  “That was the same week that someone changed the sign on one of the two entrances to the dorm bathroom from “Men” to “Women,” that resulted in two very surprised young women walking directly towards an equally surprised me just as I stepped dripping out of that shower.  Presumably a practical joke by some balloon kids.”

 

“But, Bruce, remember how that joking went both ways.” I did.  Like in 1981, when Tucker’s cast guy Tim Midura had become our friend and part of our crew.  And he had brought a full set of cast tools and materials so that we would have a way to deal with any problems Tucker might have with her current cast.

 

“Remember that night Sam returned in a very good mood from the ‘attitude readjustment seminar’, or beer bash, and ended up with a fiberglass short arm cast on his right arm.  He seemed content, so we left him that way that night.”  We had a generator in our truck for warming fuel if needed, and I made sure Tim had his cast saw along so he could remove the cast instantly if a competitive flight were set in the morning.  “And remember the time Sam showed up at a briefing dressed in cargo pants, blue work shirt, and white bucket hat, with his sighting compass on a cord around his neck – looking just like me, but shorter.  The photo of the two of us from that morning even made it into Ballooning magazine.”

 

I paused as I finished the sweeping turn from US 65 onto I-80, east of Des Moines.  I set the cruise control and settled into the monotonous rhythm of the interstate.  More memories arose in my mind.

 

“What about that evening we went to dinner during a competitive task?” I mused.  It was an evening that the task was a Fly-In from a launch site of the pilot’s choice at least three miles from the target at the balloon field.  The conditions were light and variable, but gusty, winds, so the championship director said the task might be cancelled.  If so, the officials had arranged that the local radio station would officially announce the cancellation, so that competitors spread across the countryside could all get the word.  We drove out upwind the required distance, parked alongside the gravel road we were on, and began to put up occasional pibals.  The wind was light and variable, but with occasional strong gusts.  It was hot as hell – just above 100 degrees Fahrenheit; it was so hot that when the wind gusted you felt even hotter.  We had been sent out way before the conditions might settle down into some sort of consistent steering I could use to get to the target.

 

I realized we were all suffering in the incredible heat for no good reason.  I suggested to the crew that we maybe should drive into town and get dinner at the Golden Corral, an air conditioned restaurant at which we occasionally dined.  It was only five minutes up the highway.  We could put a portable radio on the table to listen for a cancellation.  If none came, we would still have plenty of time to go out and make a flight after the steering had developed.   I was also thinking that if we did this all of us would be much better prepared to perform. I asked the official observer, who was part of our entourage in the chase truck until the task was over or cancelled, if this would be okay with him.  He seemed as anxious as the rest of us to escape the heat.  We all piled into the truck and were soon enjoying steak dinners in the air-conditioned comfort of the restaraunt on Indianola’s main drag.  “That was a pretty audacious move,” I grinned.

 

About the time we were finishing our desserts, the announcement came that the task was cancelled.  We drove the observer back to the balloon field to drop him off.  Driving in at the briefing building we passed Char Blount sitting in their van waiting for her husband Al.  “Remember how completely wrung out Char looked from having just spent hours out in the incredible heat.  And how surprised she seemed when I told her where we had been.” Probably my decision that evening enhanced the mystique there seemed to be around me in the minds of other competitors.  I suppose going to dinner amidst a competitive task is a gigantic statement of confidence.  But, geez, I never did anything quite like that again.

 

“How about the time you noticed that car with the hood open as we turned from US 65-69 onto that city street.  And the woman with the distressed look peering in towards the flames leaping from the carburetor.”

 

“Yeah, almost as soon as I exclaimed ‘stop now’ I had the passenger side door open and was reaching for the Halon fire extinguisher.  Remember how I leapt from the truck and sprayed a blast of Halon that instantly put out the fire.  That woman was sure surprised.  I thought it was cool how I just jumped back into the truck and we drove off as quickly as we had appeared.  I remember saying that all I had needed was a Lone Ranger mask, so that the grateful woman could ask no one in particular, ‘who was that masked man’.”

 

We both fell into silence as we cruised along the interstate.   My mind drifted into deep thought.  Having won a third of the 18 Nationals in which I competed in Indianola was an accomplishment towards which I had worked hard, and of which I was very proud.  But it was the addition of all these other incidents that made us cherish our memories of our times there.

 

I looked over at Tucker, whose head was turned towards the window on her side. She seemed to be gazing at the almost endless, verdant fields of beans moving past, but I supposed she was also lost in thought stirred by those memories we had been joyfully recounting.  I could feel the distance growing between those decades of magical connection to Indianola and whatever our future held.  I knew that connection would live forever in our hearts, but I also knew we would not be creating any new memories there to cherish.

 

Though I have returned to Indianola several times for other reasons, I have never flown there again.

©2021 Bruce Comstock, all rights reserved.