Aviation first came to Sonora with the hot air balloon. About this time every Spring the balloon ascension of the traveling carnival was advertised for miles around and the people flocked from far and near to witness the big event. The towering bag of the filling balloon was about the biggest man-made structure we had ever seen. Then the complicated rigging and the spidery trapeze served to build an awesome impression around the busy little man in the pink tights.
Here was one of the heroic adventurers of all time. All of a sudden, with a bold gesture, he would command “Let ‘er go!” Then he was swept off the ground like a flash. For a moment he was seen performing perilous stunts on the trapeze; then he becomes just a speck as the balloon rose higher and higher in the heavens. Altitude was unknown quantity in those days. Perhaps it was 1500 feet or 15,000. At least he was higher than Bald Mountain – or was he?
He was too far away for us to see his arm raised to cut the parachute loose. We could see the distant balloon slowly turn over and belch a cloud of black smoke, the fall like a leaf beyond the horizon. Somewhat later the tiny parachute could be seen drifting in the same direction. The great event was over, the kids took off over the hills to find the balloon and rescue the aviator (with rewards) and the crowds drifted in the direction of the noisy barkers, the gaudy tents, the spinning wheels and the merry-go-round.
There were some fine technical points in this operation “ASCENSION” Which were of great interest to the boys who became the fathers of the aviators of World War II. First a large flat place was required for the take off. It was found that the vacant lot where the Sonora Theatre is now located was ideal for this purpose. On the morning before the ascension the industrious boys made a few quarters digging and covering the fire trench. Those with previous experience could help to fire the balloon, using about ten gallons of kerosene and a scientific rate of feeding into the trench with a tin cup. The important job was that of the sooty man with a mask and sponge who directed the rate of firing from inside the balloon, who judged the temperature and protected the folds of material from the tongues of flame.
Lastly, was the briefing of the boys who were holding the writhing monster to the ground as it filled. Their most important assignment was to let go at the right time. Just before the zero hour there was the timely passing of the hat while everybody’s heartstrings and generous impulses were tugged to the limit by fond pink tights have one last embrace to his potential widow.
After many years of these events the people of Sonora became conscious of a depression in the carnival business and the annual show with their balloons were no more. It was rumored that equipment belonging to one of the troupes had been seized by local creditors. Then one Spring we became aware of a brand new aviator in our midst, a young fellow from the box factory who had bought the balloon and the tights, the mask and the sponge for $50.00 He was advertising a balloon ascension which was to be his maiden flight.
The old grounds were just the ticket and a fine Sunday dawned as the boys went through the motions of digging a trench and sorting out the voluminous folds of the great bag. A volunteer inflation crew went to work with cans of kerosene. The sooty man inside the was heavily loaded with mask and sponge and unforeseen responsibilities. Out new hero in the pink tights found that his job involved unexpected executive duties in addition to the role of aviator and acrobat.
His radiant pink became grimy and sticky as he bucked up the firemen and conferred with the spongeman.