The other day one of my granddaughters (age five) was visiting us and she drew me a picture of a hot air balloon which she had just learned about at her daycare school. She was fascinated by the hot air balloon and its ability to silently fly over the countryside, so I told her a story of the time I flew over the Illinois prairie in a hot air balloon but with a specific purpose in mind.
At the time, I was the manager of the Research Park and Incubator (EnterpriseWorks) at the University of Illinois which when fully developed we projected would cover about 200 acres. There is no better way to show the scope and vision of a research park than with aerial photography, but the trick is how to do that on at least an annual basis (since things are always changing) and do this in a cost-effective way. The aerial photos are quite useful since they can be used on a website and in all types of printed literature, videos, and PowerPoint and Prezi presentations. (Note that I was trying to do this almost 10 years ago before we had the drone technology we have today which can carry digital and video cameras to shoot spectacular flyover images.)
I talked to a few of my pilot friends to see if they would fly me over the Park but they said there might be some difficulties with getting clearance to fly low enough and slow enough while banking to have a chance of capturing some good photography.
Hearing what those problems were, my mind immediately jumped to the idea of flying very slowly (as slow as 5 mph) in a hot air balloon, and luckily I have a good friend in town (Max) who had been flying hot air balloons for many years. So a little sheepishly not wanting to impose, I asked him if he would be up for this and he said yes!
Then I asked another good friend (Brad) who specialized in panoramic photography, if he would join us up in the balloon and take photography and he also said yes. It helps to have good friends with skills!
Max figured the best time to fly over would be around 6 PM, so we agreed to keep our calendars open in the 5 to 7 PM time window late summer. Days went by until one day Max called and said the wind direction and speed were perfect. So my wife and I met him and his wife and Brad in the parking lot of a hotel which was on the northwest side of the Park about a half a mile away.
Under Max’s guidance we were his ragtag crew. We got the balloon, lines, burner and gondola set up and within a half an hour we three amigos (Scott, Max, Brad) were in the gondola rising up into the sky and drifting on a perfect track toward the Park.
Brad the photographer had brought both a digital and panoramic camera. As we silently glided over the Park at 5 mph or less, Brad leaned over the gondola and I held him by his belt loops while he continuously shot photography switching back and forth between the two cameras. Because of the combination of flying very slowly on a peaceful summer evening, the images we collected were spectacular!
We flew about a mile beyond the Park and then Max slowly descended skimming the tops of the corn (just before harvest) until we found a clear spot and touched down.
Max’s wife and my wife had been following us in the chase vehicle. They stopped on the 2-lane blacktop road not far from where we landed, jumped out and ran to our location. Brad and I got out of the gondola and the wives got in and they relaunched with Captain Max while Brad and I followed in the chase van.
They ascended and flew for about a mile and then descended and made a smooth touchdown in another cornfield farther south. Apparently the farmer and his wife who owned the property had been tracking the balloon and made a beeline to us on four-wheeled ATVs. We weren’t sure what to expect when they arrived, but they were quite friendly and glad to see a hot air balloon on such a perfect evening since it didn’t seem like people flew them much anymore.
To cap off a glorious experience, my wife and I were asked to kneel on the ground with our eyes closed and then to our surprise they poured a bottle of champagne on top of our heads to induct us as first-time hot air ballooners. We didn’t mind – it felt and tasted pretty good – and we continued to party back at Max’s house.
The aerial photography we collected that evening was outstanding and served the University well for many years. So in addition to accomplishing something in a very creative way, we had one of the most memorable life experiences which we will never forget. That’s what I call a good day!
I had made a little video back then of the event not realizing that years later I would be able to show it to my granddaughter and encourage her to start thinking about the day when she will get to fly high in the sky in a hot air balloon.
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About 13 years ago (2002) I did something that I had never done before and have not done since, which is to take a full two weeks of vacation at the end of the year. It was ause it or lose it situation for me and I wasn’t about to waste those precious vacation days. The first week of this vacation my wife was still teaching and my kids were still in school and not yet out for holiday break, so I was home alone. I asked myself, what should I do? The Bible says idle hands are the devil’s workshop, so while I wasn’t about to do anything devilish, I was determined to have some fun!
We didn’t have HBO back in that day but my young-adult son (just graduated from college) had become a fan of the Sopranos so he sent me a box set that had several DVDs covering the entire first season. On my first day of vacation right after my wife and kids had left for school I settled in with the first DVD and as you might expect I didn’t come up for air until I heard my wife driving up the driveway coming home from school. When she walked in the door I said, “I’ve done something very bad,” and informed her that I hadn’t gotten off the couch since she left that morning. Now that’s not the worst thing in the world but for me it was extremely slug-like and I don’t think I’ve ever done that since. But of course binge-watching TV episodes is now the new normal so I guess I was ahead of my time.
To atone for my extreme laziness I decided I’d do something constructive the next day and I thought maybe I would get started on the outdoor Christmas lights. But then a thought popped into my head and I don’t know where this came from, but as I looked up at our big pine tree at the southeast corner of our house I thought maybe I’d put a star on top of that tree. It was to be a big surprise for my wife and kids that evening.
I had climbed on buildings and train bridges and up tall trees since I was five years old, and then as I got older I advanced to municipal water towers, so I had no problem with heights. I just thought I’d start climbing the tree and if I ran into a problem such as an irritated squirrel, I’d abandon the idea. No big deal.
So I made the rounds of the big-box stores and found my first star at Lowe’s. I came home, laid out 200 feet of electrical extension cord, and set up a ladder so I could make it up to the first branch about 20 feet off the ground. I fashioned a harness so that I could carry the star around my neck and attached the electrical cord to my belt so I could pull it up with me as I climbed the tree.
It was a very cold day and a little snowy as I started to climb the tree, branch by branch, very slowly and carefully, until I got as high as I could go, swaying in the breeze and afraid I might snap the top of the tree trunk. I secured the star to the trunk of the tree, plugged in the extension cord and slowly descended. I got down safely and ran the extension cord around the house and plugged it into an outlet in the garage. I walked around the house and looked up and saw the star glowing. It worked!
I unplugged the star and waited until my wife and kids came home and then when it got dark I asked them to come outside so I could do the big reveal. They were flabbergasted! My wife looked at me and said, “How did you get that up there?” I said nothing but just looked at her and then she looked at me and said, “You climbed that tree, didn’t you?” I nodded and smiled and I have been smiling about that ever since.
So for 13 years people have been asking me how I got that star up there. They all seemed to think I rented a cherry picker (boom lift). I would just say, “Oh, it’s a really easy tree to climb….. lots of limbs.” But most of them were skeptical that I actually climbed up the tree. The most recent skeptic asked, “Did you use a drone?” Nope, no drones in my air space, just me and the squirrels.
I decided to keep the star on until January 6 (epiphany) which is when we would typically take down our Christmas tree. But I didn’t climb back up the tree to take the star down. I left it up there with the cord running down the trunk and then I tied it off to a limb about 20 feet in the air, ready to be plugged in the next year. But it didn’t quite work out that way. You see, squirrels will chew on anything from a gutter to a garbage can to an electrical cord to a star. So about every 3-4 years I’ve had to climb back up there and replace a squirrel-mangled star with a new star. But each time I got a better, bigger, brighter star!
The holiday star has become an iconic feature of our neighborhood for all these years and gives me a great source of pleasure. Every year our neighbors look forward to seeing the star go on the first weekend after Thanksgiving and they are sad to see it go off on January 6.
I appreciate this is a very small accomplishment in the big scheme of things. I didn’t scale K2 or bring peace to the Middle East. But it is these simple traditions that make life so pleasurable and meaningful in a neighborhood such as we have on the Boulevard. We’ve been in our house for 33 years and plan on being here 33 more. I don’t know how long I will keep climbing up that tree for the inevitable star replacement. My kids remind me that I shouldn’t be doing this anymore. But how could I not?
This simple story has no best-practice takeaways for the busy linkedin professional, except to say I hope you can follow your star this holiday season while enjoying the fellowship and love of your family and friends.
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