A Special Birthday – A Children’s Story

(I dedicate this story to my Great Niece, T, who shares a special birthday.)

Once upon a time, on a chilly November 2nd, a baby was born. This was a beautiful baby! Word spread quickly throughout the town as this was a special day.

From a telephone booth at the hospital, the daddy excitedly called the grandparents at home. The grandparents called the family members, and the family members called the friends. Soon everyone knew that the baby had been born on November 2nd.

Good news travels fast!

The proud and happy parents named their beautiful chubby baby Carl Vincent, II, after his Daddy. His blue eyes were just like his Mommy’s eyes, and he had brown hair just like his Daddy’s hair. He was a happy baby who liked to laugh, and he loved his family.

Carl Vincent, II grew up loving music. When he was a boy, he studied guitar. First, he played an acoustic guitar, and later he bought himself a beautiful electric guitar. It was very fancy and very fine. He played slow songs and fast songs and serious songs and silly songs and old songs and new songs. He made great music.

When a singer named Elvis Presley became famous, Carl Vincent, II played and sang just like him. He even danced like Elvis. When cousins came over to visit, Carl Vincent, II played his guitar and everybody sang. Every time Carl Vincent, II pulled out his guitar, there was a little family party with lots of music and singing and laughter!

One day, Carl Vincent, II met a wonderful woman named Janis. Janis also liked to sing and play the guitar. The couple was very happy together and were married in the presence of their loving family and friends. After the beautiful ceremony, the younger family members decided to go for a swim in the family pool because it was quite warm outside. Now most people do not go swimming at weddings, but Carl Vincent, II saw the children in the pool, picked up his guitar, walked very close to the edge of the pool and began to serenade the children. Everyone loved this! He even played Rock ‘n’ Roll.

So Carl Vincent, II and Janis loved their family, and their friends, and music, and laughter. And they loved something else — Animals. Mikey, a gorgeous green macaw with colorful, long tail feathers, lived in the dining room in his large birdhouse. He enjoyed watching people when they entered the house and everyone said hello to Mikey. Was Mikey a clever and funny bird? Yes!

From his birdhouse, Mikey liked to call Carl Vincent, II. “Carl, Carl,” he exclaimed, and Carl Vincent, II and Janis would laugh. Sometimes it sounded like the microwave was beeping, but really it was just Mikey making the b-e-e-p sound. When the telephone rang, Mikey said, “Hello.” “Hello.” And when Janis stroked his beautiful feathers, Janis and Mikey would both sing, “That feels g-o-o-d!” Every time someone approached the big birdhouse, Mikey would bob his head up and down; he loved his family and his friends.

On one chilly November 2nd, Janis gave Carl Vincent, II a special birthday present. It was gray in color, had four legs, was very soft, and meowed and purred. Carl Vincent, II named his new kitty “Mrs. Jingles the Cat,” and she lived in the house, too, except she didn’t sleep in the birdhouse with Mikey.

Mrs. Jingles the Cat loved to jump on the sofa and relax with Carl Vincent, II and Janis. Purring like a little motor, she stretched her legs and rolled on her side when they stroked her soft, smooth, pretty, gray fur.

While Mrs. Jingles the Cat and Mikey may not have been best friends, they did well for a cat and a bird. Both animals liked it when Carl Vincent, II played his guitar. The kitty swished her tail, and the bird bobbed his head up and down. When family and friends visited, the animals enjoyed the little party with lots of music and singing and laughter.

Mikey liked special birthday parties most, because the dining room table was right next to his birdhouse. While he nibbled on his favorite delicious little birdie num num treats, everybody sitting around the table nibbled on delicious lemon meringue pie, Carl Vincent, II’s favorite birthday treat. Afterwards, Carl Vincent, II would play his guitar and Mikey would dance a little dance, bobbing his head up and down while people sang and laughed.

Mrs. Jingles the Cat was happy, too. She swished her tail and stretched her legs and rolled on her side as the children stroked her soft, smooth, pretty, gray fur, even while she was hiding under the bed! Purring like a little motor, the children knew that she was saying, “That feels g-o-o-d!”

The End

This book is also dedicated to the memories of my brother and my sister-in-law, the coolest people ever!

Kathy Galgano

Original Copyright November 1, 2013,  Renewed Copyright November 2, 2014

All Rights Reserved

Kathleen M. Galgano

The Chase Is On (Part II, following “Ready, Set, Launch!”)

Even when the kids are all grown up, a mother can’t help being a mom. I insisted on sharing my warmest clothing with my daughter, who was going to wake up in the middle of the night to attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta with me. She was jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, and a very good sport, but at least I could help her stay warm. The locals called the temperature the previous morning “chilly,” my California senses found it “freezing,” and my daughter, an East Coaster, might handle it well now, but I’m an unapologetic mom.

We grabbed a coffee and breakfast at one of the many booths set up next to the field. So early, and all these people are working, making and selling food, inviting the public into their spaces, offering jewelry, native Indian art, handmade clothing, furniture, trading pins, all things balloon-related, and tchotchkes. High school band kids walking through the crowds sell balloon Fiesta calendars as a fund-raiser. The temporary lighting in this area is good even though the sky is star-filled. And in the adjacent dark giant field, balloonists, the pilots and the crews, are also hard at work.

After the warm breakfast, we are ready to hit the field. Balloons are carefully being spread out and inflated on the cold, wet grass. We look at all the different types of balloons and marvel at them, the colors popping, even against the dark sky and unlit field, the styles, artistic swirls, timeless patterns and whimsical themes, and the woven baskets, those Old World vessels of beauty in a high tech world. We talk to team members. Some people have accompanied a single balloonist for years, using their hard-earned vacation time each year “to crew.” Others volunteer at this event and assist many different pilots, with a love for the sport and a hope of being asked to ride in the gondola during a mass ascension.

The public can pay to ride. There is a tent set up with long lines of people waiting to secure a spot in one of the larger gondolas that hold a dozen people or more. On my plane flight to Albuquerque, I spoke to a person who had arranged for his entire book club, on board that flight, to ride in a gondola that weekend. Their sense of excitement was contagious.

And as my daughter and I wandered through the field, photographing, pointing, smiling the whole time, talking to people, and trying to stay warm, we began to feel a connection with this place, with the energy of this crowd, with something so foreign to us and yet so comfortable. We connected with these people, these balloons, and the passion for something requiring hard work, practice, knowledge, experience, a love of beauty, and a desire to explore, to test oneself, and to do it the way it has been done for generations.

One pilot was unrolling his balloon alone. I stopped and asked him if he needed a hand but he looked up at me and said, “No.” He preferred to do it alone. Everybody else had other people helping; perhaps he had a crew coming? I didn’t know the first thing about this process except for what I had witnessed that morning, and the day before. So my daughter and I wandered on through the field and talked and enjoyed our time together; how I loved sharing this incredible event with her.

Over the years, my family has been quick to point out to me that I am always talking to people, “To Strangers!” they would exclaim. I thank my Dad’s Italian heritage for that – he and his siblings, and our relatives in Italy are not reserved individuals. We love to talk to people, to listen to others tell their stories and to add our own to the mix. It’s cultural. It’s who I am. And it’s a good way to connect with others. It’s not something I set out to do, it’s just what happens, and this day was no exception.

So we started to talk to a gentleman with this one beautiful balloon. He and a couple of other people were preparing it, opening it on the ground, and I just asked again, “Could you use any help?” “Yes!” I had to ask if he meant this. Maybe he didn’t understand. “Yes” again. My daughter looked at me with this huge smile on her face. We had seen the balloons being prepared and filled, tilting as the heated air turns them skyward, and ascending, but now we were going to be a part of it!

It turns out that the pilot, a Mr. David “Lopper” Lopushinsky from the Province of Quebec, Canada sewed this remarkable balloon himself. This one piece of information is unfathomable to me. I am no sewer, and have trouble seeing things “spatially.” And this gorgeous, multi-colored spiral step balloon was created by hand? On a sewing machine in his living room? It’s striking and it’s perfect, pure and simple. The pilot’s wife, Ms. Leslie Manion, is the Crew Chief. They were very sweet to us and told us that they were a little short-staffed that morning and welcomed the help. My daughter and I think they were magnanimous and could have taken care of business just fine without a couple of neophytes in tow, but we will remain forever grateful.

As we held the strong rope lines of the balloon, the pilot turned on a powerful fan that rapidly inflated it while crew members continued to spread out the uninflated sections. I had stashed my camera near the towing vehicle, and a passer-by used it at my request to take a few snapshots of “the Mother and Daughter” team doing something we were fairly certain would not be believed without the shot. My daughter playfully said, “Only my mother would get us on a crew!” I laughed. Well within the time allotted to us by The Zebras, the folks sporting the black and white referee-style shirts who manage the order of balloon ascension, Pilot Lopper told us to continue holding onto those lines, but to turn our heads away. Oh man! Out came the flames! The heat! The noise! The thrill! And the energy it took us to keep “Wicked,” the name of this beautiful baby, in one place really surprised me. We were holding our lines with everything we had as the propane burner did its job. I’m not too weak of an individual, and my daughter is an athlete. But this was work! And we loved it. And soon, Wicked tilted, and then you could see her colors spiraling upwards, and there she was. Vertical. Stunning.

The pilot jumped into the gondola and we were invited to put our weight on the sides of the basket, Quickly! We were holding onto Wicked right before ascension. Amazing! There were two men in the gondola now, and the next thing I knew, we were told to let go and off she went. (I really have no idea if balloons are given female status, much like sea vessels, but it seems right to me.) I grabbed my camera to photograph this sight being directly underneath her. Wicked was now gaining altitude along with dozens of balloons. I thought we could pick out this balloon from all the others, but then I realized that many of the balloons were spirals, and so in less than a minute’s time, I started to doubt that my eyes were following the correct balloon.

Knowing that the ground team was about to take off for the chase, I asked if someone could please just let us know when the balloon landed; the mother in me that always demands a safe-arrival call, text message or email from visiting family and guests, wanted to make sure that Wicked descended safely and that her team was well. Minutes before, we had been told that the winds were Easterly. The pilot said that when winds go toward the East, he looks to put the balloon down quickly. There are too many hazards to contend with when the balloonists don’t have the “Albuquerque box.”

“The Albuquerque box?” We learned about wind conditions next. This is when the lowest winds move in one direction and the higher winds move in the opposite direction, and pilots take advantage of these winds to steer. So the way I understand it is that pilots take off, fly, and land in the same spot, and the ground gazers never have to move to witness the whole thing. Pilots ascend to the lower area where winds push the balloon from the north to the south.  After a time going south, they ascend a bit by turning on the burner, and the winds carry the balloon back to where they started. Then they can descend again, and catch the lower wind and once again drift towards the south, and re-ascend to catch the north-bound winds. Pilots do this for quite a long time, keeping an eye on their fuel gauge, descending, ascending, and the winds will bring the balloon back each time.

But today, there is no Albuquerque box, and Wicked’s pilot, and all the other pilots, need to avoid the high tension wires and the mountains in the not too distant East, and find a landing site. Now the mother in me is getting even more anxious about the crew’s safety, even though they have been doing this for years. But they just looked at me strangely when I asked them to keep me posted on their flight. “Aren’t you coming with us?”

Again, my daughter and I exchanged meaningful and puzzled looks, and I asked them to repeat, please. “Aren’t you coming with us?” “You want us to come and be on the chase team with you?” They didn’t seem to think this was out of the ordinary. My daughter and I smiled at each other and at our good fortune and at our most wonderful hosts, and jumped in the chase vehicle. What a rush!

Leslie communicated with her husband, and we were off. Our Crew Chief handed us cards with the photo of Wicked so we could identify their balloon among all the balloons in the sky. From the air, it must be tough to keep an eye on which exact streets you are crossing, and my daughter and I activated our own phones’ GPS systems which were different from the Crew Chief’s system, and after a short drive through town, the team found the street where Lopper told us he was descending. We didn’t know it but there are two parks on that residential street, and we took a right on the street because we could see a large park, instead of a left. It took us several long minutes to turn around and reach the second, much smaller park, where “we” found “our” balloon, because the entire street was jammed with chase vehicles. Balloon after balloon had descended in that large park.

By the time we reached Wicked, a dad and his young son and some other people had helped Lopper land. The story is that as the pilot targeted this area, making his descent over the homes in this residential neighborhood, a family about to sit down to breakfast saw Wicked passing over their house. They realized the balloon was headed straight for their little park. So dad and his son took off, running down the street, following it. Dad had “crewed” before! Lopper fixed his spot on the grass next to another balloon, still fully inflated, and with no room to spare, came down softly without a hop. The kind neighbors grabbed hold of the gondola to secure it, and even helped prepare the balloon to be re-packed.

My daughter and I also helped squeeze the air out of that colorful fabric. According to the autographed cards we were given, Wicked, a 77,000 cubic feet balloon, weighs 180 pounds! It takes a fair amount of strength to work the balloon, tie it up in sections, fold it, and pack it back up. Leslie handed out a little keepsake pin to the father and son team who had been so helpful. When done, the crew playfully “stuffed” the little boy in the basket much to his delight and our cheers.

On the ride back to the field, my daughter and I were so happy. Everyone was safe. The balloon was in perfect shape. We had learned so much. The team was wonderful. We had experienced something we could only have dreamed about. And then, we were asked if we would like to relax with everyone and share a beverage upon return to the field? These people were amazing!

I don’t know how many times we said, “thank you” to our hosts, but it never seemed like enough. Their “Yes” reply to my silly little question asking if we could help was a life-changer for me and my daughter. We have the photos, the treasured pins and cards they gave us, and our memories. Also, we have the experience of what happens when you ask a simple question without giving thought to exactly what that question and request means for the people answering it, and they still respond in the affirmative. We have glimpsed a world of old-fashioned beauty, of industrious, creative, tenacious, smart, thoughtful people with a great sense of humor who seek adventure and drive thousands of miles to practice their craft. We have witnessed humanity at its best, most giving and open-hearted, sharing in the magic they make without reservation. And it was magic.

The Balloonist’s Prayer

May the winds welcome you with softness.

May the sun bless you with its warm hands.

May you fly so high and so well that God

joins you in laughter and sets you gently

back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.

For more information on the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and this prayer, please go to http://www.balloonfiesta.com

Living History

The media is full of history stories leading up to our nation’s July 4 birthday celebrations. Francis Scott Key’s inspiration for writing The Star-Spangled Banner during the Battle for Baltimore in the War of 1812, and how this piece was chosen to be our National Anthem, is perhaps my favorite story this year. Listening to my local NPR station, I heard Steve Vogel, author of Through the Perilous Fight – Six Weeks that Saved the Nation, talk about the lawyer, Mr. Key, and his experience during this night of bombs and rockets. It’s beautiful – the telling of a story that is perhaps just another page of retold facts in kids’ history books. Aboard that British ship, the constant blasts must have been deafening, and lack of knowledge of their consequence, frightening, wondering how the troops in Baltimore could withstand this barrage. Read for yourself…

 “During the night, he can’t see anything at the fort, but he sees and hears this tremendous bombardment that actually picks up during the night with amazing intensity after midnight, as the British launched hundreds of bombs at the fort plus hundreds of rockets. Then a little bit before dawn, everything goes silent. You know, while the bombs were going off, Key was at least reassured that, well, the fort hasn’t surrendered. And it wasn’t until the sun came up, and it was a very misty morning, that they were able to see some flag hanging limply over the ramparts at the fort, and they couldn’t make out whether it was British or American. And finally, a little breeze kicked up and they were able to see the stars and stripes. For Key, it was a very emotional moment. …  http://www.npr.org/2013/07/04/198418605/for-star-spangled-banner-a-long-road-from-song-to-anthem

Now this is living history. Author Vogel is our eyes and ears to the experience. And this piece, the history, is all the more poignant knowing that the man who penned the poem that we proudly recite in song before civic meetings, sporting events, at parades, the Olympics, and in schools, was against the war! There is the sense of urgency in Vogel’s retelling – Key didn’t know if Baltimore would be British or American after that deadly bombardment, and whatever his politics, Key felt that his citizenship was on the line. Vogel recaptures the immediacy, and the passion.

The words that Vogel chooses inspire the connection between the past and the present. He makes us understand the historical players in terms that are meaningful to us today. We can just imagine the blasts of the bombs, the smell of the smoke-filled air, the anxiety of not knowing what might happen. The times when we experience such a deep and profound association with the past are ones that are indelibly marked in our psyches; they are life-changing.

It is a great gift that Vogel gives us – the ability to link us with the past. He does it with his knowledge of the times and his choice of words. But we can create our own connections, our own deep associations that bridge the past to the present in ways that create the same life-transforming instances of powerful memory and connection.

Last week, my husband’s family in Wisconsin hosted the Sixth Anderson Family Reunion, and Wisconsin is where it all started. My father-in-law and his siblings grew up in Merrill, a community that was originally inhabited by the Chippewa Indians, and later was a logging town on the Wisconsin River. This bit of history is just a recitation of names. But when our relatives chartered a motor coach, one of those beautiful large and splendid buses that’s pure white with no advertisement on the outside and comfy on the inside, and we embarked on a road trip from Fond du Lac to Merrill, the story took a life of its own. We spent maybe an hour and a half on the road, but I’m not sure because I spent the time enjoying the green grass and gorgeous farms while chatting with family members and listening to stories recounted by relatives who are from the area, as those of us in the back of the bus encouraged the use of the microphone. We didn’t want to miss a word!

I’ve known since joining the Anderson clan 28 years ago that photography runs in the genes; my husband’s grandfather owned a highly-respected photography studio in Merrill, my father-in-law was a gifted amateur photographer, and my brother-in-law is an equally gifted and skilled professional photographer. On the bus, my brother-in-law took the microphone and talked about what photography was like years ago when his grandpa photographed clients in his own studio with a glass wall to provide a light source – how the cellulose nitrate film was flammable and how his dad held the plate of virtual “gunpowder” to produce a flash that would further illuminate the subject, hoping that the spark from the flash would not ignite the flammable film and start a fire. “Photography was dangerous,” my brother-in-law said. There were three fires at that studio. And he told us how his grandpa continued to photograph during the Great Depression, when he could not afford film, and how he made his own glass photographic plates, and bartered a studio session and portrait for a side of pork to put meat on the table when times were so difficult. Suddenly, learning about cellulose nitrate film wasn’t just a piece of random trivia; it was an historical fact that impacted our lives today. Nobody spoke during my brother-in-law’s impromptu speech. The impact of an explosive photographic mistake could have been deadly and far-reaching. Again, history came alive for us as I imagined my father-in-law as a young kid helping his father out in such a dangerous job!

We arrived at the newly-acquired building for the Merrill History and Culture Center at 100 East 3rd Street, and it’s loaded with family history. Docents had prepared well for a busload of Andersons. They had gathered and displayed photographs from the Anderson studio that Grandpa had taken. They had photocopied pages from high school yearbooks listing some of the children.  And the site itself provided a treasure trove for us; as the former Bethlehem Lutheran Church, one cousin walked to a covered window (they are doing some upgrades on the property) and asked for the dust covering to be removed. The docents obliged, and revealed the stained glass window that the Anderson Family dedicated to the church years ago. Now it was the docents who were surprised! And the docents opened the Baptismal Register for us and we turned the pages and read in lines of beautiful handwriting of the baptisms of all the kids, with my brother-in-law photographing and documenting each and every page. The docents even created post cards of the photography studio building as souvenirs for us.

In that beautiful coach, we toured the town, and cousins told stories of where the family lived, and showed us where the cottage on the lake once stood. As we drove around the streets, we could see a few people opening curtains and glancing at this big unmarked bus. Little did they know we were looking at them and their well-maintained edifices through the dark, tinted coach windows, and imagining the children of the photographer and his wife, running down the steps and heading off to school, or to the river to fish, or off to play. On the ride back, our Uncle told stories, speaking into the microphone that his daughter extended to him, recounting life on the farm and incidents during World War II. Again, every person listened intently.

Roots grew thicker, stronger, and deeper that day. We linked our lives to a set of parents and their seven children growing up in a small Wisconsin town. Two of those siblings stayed in Wisconsin and raised families there, others settled in four other states, and representatives from all those families in those states and now other states shared in this piece of living history. It may not have been an event that changed the course of our nation, or that one will recall via a poem that future generations will sing. But it brought to life the deep connections between our Merrill elders to every individual there. There are several traits that can be found in the Merrill family of then, and the cousins of today. For one, that “Can-Do” spirit of the photographer and his wife and their children has been passed down through the generations like a genetic trait. This is a family of hard work and energy and faith in humanity.  One cousin worked all night every night for a week to finish work on a large, beautiful structure that he built for his own business and his wife’s studio/business, just so it would be ready for the reunion. It is a family that cares about its own and others. There is the shared value of the importance of family and of making time to continue these wonderful reunions, where cousins greet each other warmly and pick up on conversations that they had engaged in several years before and where kids grow up before our eyes.

While the original seven siblings have all passed now, we are thankful that several spouses, our aunts and uncles remain, and through them we continue to explore the stories and memories of the Anderson Seven and life in the extended family. And the sense of humor is evident, too; folks unable to attend this reunion might just have to plan the next one! Everyone agreed that we will engage the youngest family members; our future and theirs as members of this wonderful extended family is linked with the past. And so in three years, we will gather again, place to be determined, and make more memories, learn some more about the past, bring each other up to date, eat more great local food, laugh a lot, sit for the family portraits (one portrait for each family descended from each of the Anderson siblings, and still another portrait of everyone together), and stand united in memory and family and living history. But as for this past trip to Wisconsin, we are so grateful for this experience; it will never be forgotten.