The Ocean Sky
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
"I see," von Höllenteufel said, looking up from his newspaper, "that some fool is going to try and make another record balloon ascent."
I paused in the act of
pouring out a glass of juice and glanced at him. Von Höllenteufel spoke only rarely, and when he did, it was usually in generalities. I’d never heard this particular note in his voice before.
"Why do you say ‘some
fool’, Herr Doktor Professor?" I asked. "Don’t you think he’ll succeed?"
"Oh, he’ll succeed in
getting up there, I have no doubt." Von Höllenteufel rattled his newspaper for
emphasis. "But whether he’ll get down again, that is what I am not so sure
"Get down again? But
surely modern ballooning is pretty safe, isn’t it?"
"You think so, do you?"
Von Höllenteufel looked at me with contempt. "Do you have the slightest idea
what lies in the sky up there? Do they?"
"You mean, air currents
and storms and so on and so forth? I suppose they can be dangerous to a balloon, but..."
"I do not mean air
currents and storms." The big man slapped the table for emphasis. "That’s
nothing at all. The fools!"
He seemed genuinely
angry, the scar on his cheek twitching with emotion. I looked around to see if
anyone else had noticed. But on this rainy afternoon, the clubhouse room was
almost empty. Only the two of us sat near the radiator, while winter rain beat
on the windows and washed the grey street. And then I remembered something someone
had told me once about him.
"Doktor Professor," I
said, "weren’t you, once, a balloonist? And didn’t you try for a height record?"
Von Höllenteufel nodded
slowly. The flush of anger left his face, and he looked only upset and worried.
"I did," he said. "And that is why I know exactly what I am talking about."
I remembered something else I’d heard. "And it was after that attempt that you swore off ballooning and never went up again, is that right?"
"That is correct." Von
Höllenteufel hesitated. "Let me ask you something. You have contacts, right?
Contacts in the media? People you can trust?"
"Well, yes, I suppose
so." It was my turn to hesitate. "Why, Herr Doktor Professor?"
"Because if I tell you
the story of what happened when I went up that time, you will contact the media
people and try to have them call this record attempt off – that’s what I want.
"I’ll do my best," I
said. "It depends on what you’ve got to tell me, of course."
"All right." Von
Höllenteufel carefully folded and put down his newspaper, polished his
spectacles, and sat back. "Listen, then, and remember that everything I’m going
to tell you is nothing less than the truth."
I still remember exactly (von Höllenteufel said) my feelings as I strapped
myself into the capsule that day. It was not yet dawn, and the new day was a
faint flush in the east. Though dressed in a heavy flight suit and helmet, I
was shivering; with excitement, not with cold or fear.
The balloon in which I
was about to make the attempt was of my own design. The envelope, of
plastic-coated paper, was strong enough to withstand a knife, yet light enough
so that a man could carry it without effort. The gondola comprised a capsule of
high-strength metal alloy, consisting of a frame and a seat with a harness to
strap myself in. I had attempted to save weight in every way I possibly could.
Comfort was not a factor in this flight, altitude was.
In front of me, mounted
on a bar that swung to lock into place, was a pod with the simple instruments I
would need: a compass, so I could tell the direction; a ground speed indicator,
so I could have a rough idea how far I’d come from my launching point; a clock,
so I’d know how long I’d been aloft; a small thermometer, and, most important
of all, an altimeter, to measure the altitude I reached. I was determined to go
higher than anyone else had before in a balloon; higher, I hoped, than anyone
might ever go again.
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