Thursday, February 26, 2015

Liftoff at the Court of Versailles

The balloon was a 37,500 cubic feet sphere of sky-blue taffeta held together by 18,000 buttons, coated with a varnish of alum and decorated with flourishes of gold and the signs of the zodiac. The crew consisted of a sheep, a rooster, and a duck. They were placed in a small wicker basket attached to the balloon by cords of hemp. Each time one of them was placed in the basket, they promptly jumped back out, barely missing the open pit in which the fire crackled. Some grass, seeds, and worms were deposited in the basket which ultimately persuaded the crew to remain put.
King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette pinched their noses to block the stench of smoke, a mephitic blend of burning wool, fetid hay, and old shoes. It was assumed that the smellier the smoke, the more buoyant the craft.
It was a warm September day. Hundreds of people gathered about the great lawn of Versailles.
The fire crackled, the duck quacked, the rooster pecked at a worm. The sheep let out a long vibrant bah as the balloon rose higher and began to drift over the palace.
Heads tilted back. Voices murmured.
Sacre bleu! exclaimed Marie Antoinette.
The flight lasted approximately eight minutes, covered two miles, and obtained an altitude of about 1,500 feet.
The basket hung still as the balloon floated weirdly and majestically over the topiary of Versailles and thence into the rougher countryside, diminishing in size as it began a slow descent and landed at the carrefour Maréchal in the bois de Vaucresson. The sphere drooped like a wounded celestial body as the wicker basket glided over tremors of green grass and came to a stop.
It was to be expected that the duck, rooster and sheep would be transformed for better or worse after attaining such height, but they appeared quite normal when the first people gazed into the wicker basket. The duck quacked, the rooster crowed, the sheep baaad. The animals were fine.
What were the thoughts that the crowd took home with them that day? The mind has a light that delights to dance on its own suppositions. For this is the day that flight became possible, and free will shined louder in the vineyards, whose bounty, it was said, exceeded all records that year. 

1 comment:

Bob Amman said...

I didn't remember that the grandson of the Sun King, was the first king into space (1500 feet in a balloon). But I did get to see the Palace at Versailles one day, courtesy of Uncle Sam & the Draft. That was about the same year you lived in a garage reportedly, then moved into a bus. Meanwhile, you were here in East Lansing, somewhere in time. And I made friends with two fellows from Seattle, more recently. I read with interest, your story published in about 2009, for the Mari-Times of Sturgeon Bay, Wis. About the Gales of November, though you had a different title. I was on the same boat, in the same storm. But my memory and writing was as a farmer's son, not a lofty prose-poet. 3 days after departing Manitowoc, before we stood on dry ground on the Ludington side, instead of the usual 4 hour crossing. You can view my posts and related pics about that on Facebook, at: I have another thread also on FB, with my own pics, about the carferries, the life boat from City of Midland, and my visit to Sturgeon Bay. Bob A.