and my muscles aren't sore at all

It was a day.
It was long enough to be a day and a half.
We met at 4:15am at my house. It was dark and chilly but not raining.
We made quick time into town and parked and walked into where the streets had been closed. There are dozens of closed streets for the parade (one of my friends was physically stopped by the police).
We arrived at the hotel that acts as a staging area at 5:00 only to discover that there was a long line of people waiting to be let upstairs. I could not believe balloon handlers were meant to stand on this line in the cold, but I was wrong. Eventually, over half an hour, we all arrived (20 of us, hundreds of others) and were sent upstairs to a labyrinth of rooms to find our costumes.
A bag with my name on it was waiting for me: one huge black heavyweight jumpsuit with a score of pockets, one apron, a pair of very large, very thick fleece lined gloves, a too-big knit hat, and a plastic rain poncho in a teensy packet.
We laughed a lot over the fit of the suits. While my boss, for example, looked okay, KT had a saggy big butt and I resembled a small child in an older sibling's snow suit. The costume mistress offered to pin up my legs but I didn't want to stand around. I was too anxious to get to the balloon!
Downstairs there were people to guide us to waiting coach buses.
It was pretty funny seeing bus-loads of adults in costumes. Dozens of clowns milled around and balloon handlers were identifiable by their aprons.
I don't know how many balloon handlers there were in the entire parade but our balloon had 90. (How many balloons are there? 10? Anyone?)
On the bus, we headed up town. Slowly. With great anticipation. (Not completely, now that I mention it. A Kermit fell asleep across the aisle from me.)
KT and I were stuck together like glue. Laughing at our ridiculous hats, trying to remember where we put all our stuff (phone, lip balm, ID, instruction sheet, money) the suits had so many deep pockets that we kept losing things.
We noticed, suddenly, that the bus was six blocks beyond the location of the balloon and not stopping.
The driver drove hesitantly and was clearly lost. He made a tentative turn and we hoped he had figured it out but he seemed confused about where he was taking us.
Everyone was nervous. Our instruction sheets were so specific about our arrival times and things seemed so tightly run that I decided, with the help of all the balloon teams present (the Buzz Lightyears were particularly encouraging) I staged a mutiny.
I went and told the driver to let us off the bus. He argued that his supervisor had not given him permission to do so as yet and I told him my instructions said otherwise and to pull over.
He did! Just in time!
We got off the bus, walked through some barricades, which was easy to do as we were obviously WITH the parade, and found our balloon lined up on the street with many others.
It was eerily quiet.
I had seen the balloons on television the night before. Crowds come from all over to watch them being inflated but now, at 6:00, there wasn't a soul around.
We could see people milling about in the museum next-door. The Inflation Teams sleep there, how cool is that? That's another few hundred people. There must be thousands of support people for the parade.
KT and I were filmed by a news crew because we are adorable. We had to do a TA-DA move ten or twelve times in front of our tied and netted balloon. Many conversations were had regarding the loo (I went at the hotel but I could go again) but it sounded like the porta-lav was very far away and I had too many things on.
At about 7:00 (boy this post is going to be long!) our Pilots and Captain and support team wandered over. The anticipation was palpable. So was my anxiety. What if they didn't let me hold the Right Foot?
They started choosing people for various positions based on their size. (Have I mentioned KT and I lied? That we don't make the weight limit?) The head and feet of our balloon are heavy work and KT kept looking at me as if to say what if they put us someplace else and as I had already commandeered the bus, I was brave enough to approach the biggest guy (huge happy guy, santa-like beard, stained teeth) and said we reallyreallyreally wanted to have the right foot. He made a concerned face and did a little speech about how hard it can be. A woman in the support team asked if we could run, REALLY run and though neither of us is athletic we assured her we could. I'll tell you what, then. I'll let you do the foot but I'll give you back-up. I'll put some people behind you in case of any problems and if you get tired you tell your pilot and he'll put a sub in for you.
They opened a barricade and let us rush in!
KT and I got the right foot!
My boss was just ahead of us on the right hip.
C was just next to him.
The friend that drove us into town was on the left foot.
IT WAS VERY EXCITING. And still dark.
We stood for well over an hour, in our positions, waving to the crowd that had assembled on our right and listening to our team get wind readings, weather info, instructions on start times.

Thousands of people are responsible for the organization and it is terrific. There is no guess-work.
We were told the wind speed at each intersection and each Pilot had a card describing how to fly the balloon at each wind speed.
The wind speed at start time was 2.9mph. Our Pilot (there was one for the feet and three others) said we would fly at 50 feet.  They were very excited about it. The Pilot reminded us that at that wind speed and that height we would Go Wide on all turns.
Each element of the parade joins on the main thoroughfare at a different point and then moves forward. We joined at 9:12 and were finally walking.

It was surreal.
Thousands of people lined the streets cheering.
There was distant music but, for the most part, it was quiet save for the crowds. Deafening in some places and silent in others.
It's hard to put into words. Two and a half miles. Walking attached to someone I've come to care deeply for. Working incredibly hard - intersections and turns involved quite a bit of running as hard as I could (FEET GO WIDE, FEET GO WIDE, CENTER UP YOUR LINES) past film crews and scores of police with police running alongside us. We worked very hard to steer this giant thing past light posts and buildings and, to make camera marks at certain times we ran, full throttle, together for several blocks and then had people rearranging us slightly and fixing the way we looked.
Toward the middle of the parade I heard a crowd shout my name and looked over my shoulder to see K and Middle and ten strangers cheering and waving to me!
It was a most extraordinary experience.
The part where the telecast was was the least exciting. We were whizzed in and out, perfectly timed, past a crowd in chairs and fur coats.
But then, another corner was turned (turns are the most fun, FEET GO WIDE!) and we found ourselves on a ten block long stretch of deserted street for the deflation. 90 foot mats were set out and we lowered our balloon until we could touch it. We knelt on our "bones" while the support team opened the zippers and were warned to lie close to the ground and not breath the 100% helium as we would immediately black out! The balloon slowly deflated and we could see the other balloons behind us. We were then told to lie on top of our section to flatten it and that the next balloon would pass over us. So, there we were, lying on the ground, in the middle of the avenue, in the dead quiet city whilst another huge balloon was maneuvered over us!
K and Middle were some distance away but had managed to find their way near the closed zone and could see us deflating.
We stood, my team, and hugged and laughed and celebrated.
Exhilarating. Extraordinary.
Back to the hotel, amidst thousands of clowns, de-costume, hustle and bustle, meet K and Middle, more hugging and goodbyes to teams...on to the train...home and hot coffee...off to my Aunt's.
Overwhelmed and tired.
Grateful and happy.
bb and KT

Comments

Jen on the Edge said…
What an incredible experience! Thank you for sharing it with us. I'll never look at the balloons in the parade the same way again. :-)
Paola said…
And now it's as if I really saw you.
Thanks.
Badger said…
So cool! I looked for you, but did not see you. Of course, they BARELY showed the balloon wranglers on TV (here, I mean, maybe not THERE) at all. WHAT IS UP WITH THAT?!

Your balloon looked FABULOUS, though! It sounds so fun! And a little nerve-wracking!
Hilary said…
WOW! what an amazing experience!
Anonymous said…
Great story! I am jealous, it sounds like so much fun. But I still don't know, what float did you carry?
Jenny
margalit said…
This wasso interesting. Thank you for writing it up. I watched the parade but NBC was so busy promoting all of it"s shows, they barely filmed the balloons. It really ticked me off because the balloons are the whole point of making the parade different than any other.

One question. You never said which balloon you were flying. Can you give us a hint?
Carol said…
What a report! So cool! We saw the front handlers of your balloon on TV and they got a wave in to the camera but no chance to spot any of the people at the feet.
Amy A. said…
What a great run down! Thanks for letting us feel a part of it. :)
kmkat said…
I kept switching between NBC and CBS (stupid ABC seemed to ignore the parade altogether), but they barely showed the balloons and not the handlers AT ALL. Crud. Were you on the Kung Fu Panda? That one looked the most like what we saw of your balloon in your rehearsal post.
Crazy Mom Tats! said…
I looked for you & found your balloon, but the wranglers were barely shown. I'll put a shot of your balloon on my blog.

Sounds exhausting, but fun!
Suzanne said…
That was terrific! I am sending the link to this post to a former stage management friend of mine who used to work on the parade. I'm sure she'd be pleased to read such a glowing account about the experience from a balloon-handler's point of view. Thanks for sharing the whole (black)bird's eye view of the whole thing! It was truly the next best thing to being there!
MizDahlia said…
Hey! I am that friend that Suzanne (above) mentioned, and I'm grinning from ear to ear reading this. I'm so thrilled you had such a magical experience - there's really nothing else like it. I was the Balloon Program manager for the Parade for six years, and this post brought back such great memories. Cheers to you!
BrizKaren said…
You made that sound like the best fun anyone could ever have! I love your writing - you really make us feel as if we were there with you.
Extraordinary. I mean, bafflingly extraordinary.

I simply had absolutely no idea.

And the Thanksgiving Parade gets NO coverage over here. At all. *harrumph*
eurolush said…
Nice balloon-wrangling. You're like a balloon cowboy.
alice c said…
I find that I am very proud of you - almost as though the success of the entire Thanksgiving parade was dependent on one Blackbird. I knew you could do it!
Terese said…
You write an amazing description from the inside of an iconic event, that we have nothing like in Oz. Glad that you kept running round those corners. Im trying to find an internet video that I can match up to your words to give me the full effect.
barbra said…
Loved this post! I watched the parade on TV! I love the way our parade ("The Granddaddy of Them All") comes together as well, and all of the pre- and post-business. It's great to get an insider's account of the other Big One! I had no idea!
This was amazing to read about--I read your post 3 times before I can utter this: YOU STAGED A MUTINY!
And what a huge and wonderful thing to be part of. I am so awed.
Anonymous said…
What a fantastic story and what a thrilling experience...for you to have had and for us to read about. Wow. And I love that the former Balloon Program Manager has chimed in here. What the heck! Bb, you really do just know how to live life.

jbhat

Popular Posts