Boomer Balloon Boys

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By Ryan McSwain, ©2015

In November, 1944, the Japanese Imperial Army began launching 9,000 hydrogen balloons armed with explosives. What would later be called the jet stream carried these fire balloons over 5,000 miles to Canada and the United States. The balloons, made of silk or special paper, carried a payload of 1,000 pounds. The Office of Censorship told newspapers and radio stations to make no mention of any balloons that reached the United States. Because of the bombs’ perceived ineffectiveness, the Japanese launched the final fire balloon in April, 1945. Many of the balloons were never found.

1959 was a fine summer to be a twelve-year-old boy in Flatland, Texas. Our president wanted us in space and you could read a comic book adventure of the Flash for one thin dime. Which explains why John, Benny, and I were sitting on the sidewalk and rubbing pennies.

The herculean task of rubbing pennies may require explanation. Pennies were easy enough for a kid to scavenge for back then, even though grown-ups still took the time to bend down and pick them up.

Or you could just steal one from your parents’ dresser and hope they didn’t notice.

Once all three of us had a penny, we’d sit down on the sidewalk outside my house on the edge of town and rub the pennies on the concrete. It took a patient hand, which was for tough for John. But the promise of future riches put dollar signs in all our eyes, just like old Scrooge McDuck.

We each had our own system for turning one cent into ten. Benny slid his on the concrete in slow, careful motions, but his mighty sausage fingers could exert the force of a glacier cutting through bedrock. I discovered that a steady figure-eight resulted in the most consistent shape. Johnny just rubbed his Lincoln on the sidewalk with the speed and insight of a dog scratching a flea.

The fact we had never successfully spent the product of this alchemical exercise did not perturb us. I always tried to spend mine in the gumball machine outside Paroubek’s Drugstore, and the machine always ate it. But John’s older sister told us about a kid that went to the movies on rubbed pennies. The legend said he even bought a soda and popcorn.

I had my doubts, but the conversations on that sidewalk were worth the low cost of admission.

“There’s no way the Wolf Man could beat Dracula,” John said as he furiously rubbed his penny on the sidewalk. “It’s just not possible.”

Ben shook his head as he slowly pushed his coin against the concrete. “Wolf Man would take him out. No problem.”

“But he can’t think when he turns into a werewolf,” John said. “And Dracula’s an evil genius. He’d trap him in a cage or something and shoot him with a silver bullet.”

“Does Dracula even know how to use a gun?” I asked. “He’s ancient. His castle probably doesn’t have running water.”

“Maybe he could outsmart a werewolf,” Ben said. “But Wolf Man only turns into a wolf a few nights a month. The rest of the time he’s just a guy who can’t die and maybe has, I dunno, low-level wolf powers.”

John laughed. “What the heck are ‘low-level wolf powers?’”

“I don’t know, smart guy,” Ben said. “Maybe he’s extra strong and can smell things like a bloodhound. What’s important is he can walk around during the day when Drac and his girlfriends are helpless. All he has to do is find Dracula after lunch and stick a tree branch in his chest. Dracula can’t even use that silver cane to kill him, because vampires can’t touch silver.”

“That ain’t true, is it?” John asked.

The two of them looked to me to break the tie. Ben asked, “How ‘bout it, Richie?”

“Ben’s right. Silver usually hurts vampires.”

“Ha!” Ben said. “Dracula can get bent.”

I interrupted before the debate turned into a fist fight. “You guys want to go see a movie at the Ingram tonight?” The Ingram Theater had air conditioning.

“Nah,” John said. “Only thing playing is Darby O’Gill and the Little People.”

“They got House on Haunted Hill at the Sunset,” Ben said. He meant the local passion pit, the Sunset Drive-In.

John hopped up. “Oh, okay, fin. We’ll just take my invisible car.” He shuffled up and down the street, his hands on an imaginary steering wheel. “Get in the trunk, you guys, I’ll sneak you in. You won’t even have to pay.”

Even Benny laughed. I wiped a tear from my eyes. “How about we go camping?”

“Where?” John asked. He made a honking sound as he pretended to honk the horn.

“Whaddya mean, where?” I waved my hand in the direction of the vast empty plains at the end of my block. In 1959, that neighborhood was brand new. The only thing east of my house was a horizon so wide you’d swear the earth was flat. “We’ll camp out in a field like we always do. It’ll be great. I’ll bring my dad’s transistor radio.”

Ben looked at the ground, and I regretted mentioning the radio. His dad was out of work most of the time. My dad made good money working at FARM, a government facility in town that made the bombs that kept us safe from the communists.

John hit the brakes on his invisible car. “How about the Woods?”

I froze at the suggestion. Flatland didn’t have any true wooded areas, but a half-hour bike ride away were a few miles of pathetic trees and brush clumped together. Most of us avoided it because a drifter killed a little girl there during the war.

Ben stopped rubbing his penny. “Nuh-uh. No way. I don’t wanna see no ghost of Eloise Potts.”

“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” I said. “But that don’t make it a good idea. That’s where the teenagers go.”

“For what?” Ben asked

“You know what,” I said. And we did know. Kind of.

John shrugged. “No, no, it’s cool. If you guys are chicken, I get it.”

“I’m not chicken,” Ben said.

I was a little bit chicken, so I decided to keep my defense as vague as possible and said “That’s right!”

A cloud formed over what had been a sunny day. The three of us were true blue, but John and Benny fighting was nothing new—once they gave each other matching black eyes—and this kerfuffle had the possibility of ruining the whole weekend.

“Let’s go spend our dimes,” I said, which was enough to distract them.

Ben attempted to get a Coke and a nickel change from a vending machine, but his penny got stuck. John tried to buy some cherry Lik-M-Aid at the supermarket, and the cashier threatened to call his parents. We hurried out of there and hit the drugstore. Benny and John stood in shock as I walked past my usual gumball machine and into the store.

I walked past the soda fountain and went straight to the spinner rack, that beautiful revolving column of four-color comic book bliss. There was the kiddie stuff like Casper and Woody Woodpecker, assorted Westerns, and The Adventures of Bob Hope. They had some Superman stuff I already had. But there, hidden behind a Little Lulu by some other rotten kid, was The Brave and the Bold. On the cover was none other than the Viking Prince himself, saving a princess from a monster squid with nothing but his sword and leather underpants.

Old man Paroubek sat behind the register reading the newspaper. He’d barely looked up when I walked in. I guess I looked too much like a white-bread goody two-shoes to be a shoplifter.  He just looked annoyed that his reading was interrupted for a short bit. I held up my comic and handed him my penny, smooth as a river stone. He dropped the penny in the cash register, and it let out a ding as he slammed the tray shut. He returned to his paper. “Now get.”

I got. The three of us ran all the way back to my house. We stood on the sidewalk, our hands on our knees as we gasped for breath.

“Don’t you see, Richie?” John said. “The Brave and the Bold, man. The Brave and the Bold! It’s a sign. We’re the ones who’ll be brave. We’re the ones who get to be bold.”

Ben and I knew better than to resist such an omen. We adjourned to our respective homes to get our gear and tell our parents we were camping. None of us said where.

Ben didn’t have a bicycle, so we went on foot. The sun had just kissed the horizon when we reached the edge of the Woods. I was scared, but aside from us there was no sign of life.

“C’mon, guys!” John yelled and took off running.

“That guy was born with a slot car track where his brain should be,” Benny said, and we laughed as we raced to catch up to John. I was the only one wearing a backpack, but I didn’t let it slow me down. We ran deeper into the Woods than we had ever been before. The trees got thick enough that it started to feel like a real forest, and it was hard to see where we were going.

Benny and I were running so fast that we didn’t see when John finally slowed. We plowed into him and all three of us slammed into hard dirt. It was lucky my dad didn’t let me take the radio, or I’d have busted it for sure. I had the wind knocked out of me, so it took a while to see that John and Ben were staring at something.

At first I thought it was a parachute. It had been covered with layers of dead leaves for so long, it was hard to tell what color it had been. The three of us approached the thing with care.

“What is it?” John asked. I hadn’t heard such awe in his voice since we’d found our first girly magazine.

“I think it’s a balloon,” I said. “It must have been here forever. Maybe since the war. All that rain we got this spring must have uncovered it.”

“I bet we’re the first ones to find it!” John said. “We’re just like Tarzan, discovering lost treasure in the jungle!”

Attached to the bottom of the dead balloon was a metal ring. Tied to the ring with thin rope, half-buried in the dirt, were sandbags and metal tubes with writing on them. It was two symbols, printed again and again in flaking black lines.

“What kind of writing is that?” John asked. “I can’t read any of it.”

“It’s Japanese,” Benny said. “My dad fought in the Pacific. I’ve seen it on his war stuff.”

“Oh, wow!” John said. “I bet it’s something wild.” He started to reach for the tubes.

I grabbed his hand. “I don’t think you should touch it.”

“What happened to the brave and the bold?“ John asked. “I thought we weren’t going to be afraid anymore!”

“This is different,” Benny said. “I think Richie’s right.”

“Whatever,” John said and started toward the balloon.

I put my hand on his shoulder to stop him. He spun around and shoved me to the ground.

“Lay off, ya nimrod!” John yelled. “Touch me again and I’ll belt you one!”

Benny stepped between us. “Hey, John, c’mon.”

John shoved Benny. “You know Richie’s nothing but a nerd. He’s lucky we even let him hang out with us. Look at ‘im. He’s already crying like a baby.”

For a boy trying to turn into a man, there’s no greater shame than crying. Sure, it happened, but the etiquette of all boys dictated not to point it out. Even two kids who hated each other wouldn’t dare mention one was crying.

“To hell with you,” I said.

“Richie, wait!” Benny yelled as I ran out of the Woods. My lungs threatened to jump out of my chest and my legs wanted to fall off, but I didn’t stop running until I got back to my house.

The house was never locked, so I tried to creep in through the back door. I thought if I could just get to my room without being seen, maybe I could avoid further embarrassment.

But my dad was sitting at the kitchen table, reading and smoking a cigarette. When he saw me, he dropped his book. Between the crying, the dirt, and the marathon run, I must have looked terrible.

“Richie, sit down here. What happened?”

“I got in a fight with John, so I came home. Is that okay?”

“If that’s what you really want,” Dad said. “But I bet if you headed back out, you guys could make a good night of it. You might even convince me to let you take the radio.”

“I don’t think so, Dad.”

So we sat at the table staring at each other, him hoping I would man up and go back outside. I just wanted to take off my pack and grab a shower. If I got in bed caked in dirt, Mom would have put rat poison in my Sugar Pops.

“So what were you two fighting about?” he asked.

“The balloon. That idiot thinks it’s full of treasure.”

“A balloon, huh? What do you think it’s full of?”

Dad couldn’t have any idea what I was talking about, but I could tell he was trying. I looked up from the table and saw how tired he looked from his long day at the F.A.R.M. facility. What do you do there that wears you out so much, Dad? I wondered. Is it the bo—

The image of the balloon’s metal cylinders exploded in my mind. I saw the flaking Japanese characters. “It must have been here forever,” I had said. “Maybe since the war.”

“It’s a bomb.” I said.

Dad looked up from the paper and saw my hands were shaking. “What did you say?” he asked.

“A bomb! The balloon’s a Japanese bomb!”

Panic chased the weariness from his eyes. He grabbed my arms with both hands. “Are you sure? Where’d you see this?”

 “In the Woods!”

“Are Benny and John still there?”

My face told him all he needed to know. He rushed to the phone as I ran to the door.

“Richie! Get back here!”

But I was already on my bike. My legs forgot they had been limp as noodles only moments before. The ace of spades rattled off like a machine gun on the spokes.

By the time I got to the Woods, the Moon was the only light. Lucky for me, I’d forgotten to take off my backpack. I pulled out the big silver flashlight and ran into the trees, which pulled and tore at my clothes and skin.

“John! Benny!” I screamed at the dark. “Don’t touch it! Don’t touch it!”

My lungs and legs burned. Sweat stung my eyes. I was terrified I wouldn’t find them again, but I stumbled into the clearing where we’d found the balloon. My flashlight lit up John and Benny. They were still standing there, a good twenty feet from the sandbags and metal tubes, and for a moment I felt relief.

That comfort fled when I saw the blood on Benny’s face. His nose was broken, and he had bled all over his chin and shirt. I shined the flashlight on John, but he wasn’t hurt at all.

“Get out of the way!” John yelled. “It’s mine!”

“I’m not letting you touch that thing, John,” Benny said. “I don’t care if you believe it or not, but I’m your friend. And so’s Richie. He said not to touch that thing, and we should trust him. I don’t care if you keep hitting me. You know I can take it. We can do this all night.”

I stood beside Benny, trying to get the words out as I gasped for air. “John, you got to listen to me. I was talking to my dad—”

 “Oh, great, now you’re a nerd and a tattletale!” John was raving. “Richie the Snitchie! Richie the Snitchie!”

“Shut up, you idiot!” I said. “That thing’s a bomb! It has to be. You touch it, it’ll kill you!”

“Aw, what does he know?” John bent down and picked up a rock. Not a skipping rock and not a throwing rock. It was a killing rock. “Whatever treasure is in that thing belongs to me. Now move it!”

“There’s no treasure in there,” I said. “I wish there was. I’d let you and Ben have all of it, I swear to God. But if you touch that thing, you could die.”

“It might kill all of us!” Ben said. “Is that what you want?”

“It’s not a bomb, ya sissies!” John lifted the rock over his head with both hands. “I’ll prove it!”

He heaved the rock as hard as he could. Without a word between us, Benny and I leaped forward and grabbed him. All three of us hit the ground as the rock crashed into the balloon’s payload.

For several seconds, the world was quiet. But just as I thought we would have to drag John out of the Woods kicking and screaming, the bomb exploded.

The shockwave hit us like a boot to the chest, rattling our guts and attacking our eardrums. Dirt clods struck us like hail stones. I opened my eyes just in time to see a pillar of fire erupting high into the sky. It moved like a living thing, a monster ready to eat anything and anyone it could touch. Just as I thought it would reach out and burn us to ash, it disappeared.

My leg felt strange, like it was asleep. I looked down to see a chunk of wood sticking out of my thigh, an impromptu handle.

John was the first to get a look at my leg. “Hey, Richie, you okay?”

I looked at him, but my head was swimming too much to answer. He grabbed a blanket and started wrapping it around my leg. “Hey, Ben, what if Dracula used his powers to hypnotize a bunch of people to protect him? Give each one of ‘em a fork from your mom’s set of good silver. They can protect their master.”

“That ain’t fair.” Ben said, helping John with the first aid. “What if Wolf Man just bit a bunch of guys until he had a werewolf army?”

“Wolf Man wouldn’t do that,” I said, gritting my teeth. “He’s a good guy.”

“Fine, whatever.” Ben used twine from his bedroll to secure the blanket around the wood jutting out of my leg. “How about he just gets a job bagging groceries, saves up, and hires an army to beat up Dracula’s bodyguards? Using other people doesn’t count.”

John snapped his fingers as sirens whirred in the distance. “How about this! Vampires live forever, right? How about werewolves?”

They looked at me again. “It depends on the story. Sometimes they live a long, long time, and sometimes they age like a person.”

John smiled wide. “So all Dracula has to do is wait long enough and Wolf Man will die of natural causes.”

Ben rolled his eyes. “Are you for real? Waiting for Wolf Man to die? Ya think that kind of fighting will replace pro wrestling? I’d rather watch Donna Reed vacuum the rug.”

The sirens had no trouble finding us, not after the flare we’d sent up.

Aside from Ben’s nose, a wicked scar on my leg, and a ringing in our ears that I still hear in quiet moments, we were okay. Later, my dad told me most of the explosives were probably duds after being outside in the elements so long. But if the shrapnel hadn’t gone into the dirt, we might have been killed even at the distance we were standing. If John had been touching the device when it went off, he’d have been a goner for sure.

Our friendship withstood the foreign attack. Benny’s nose healed, and it almost pointed straight. He’s been getting free drinks off the balloon story for decades. We went our separate ways as people do, but we all kept in touch.

The last time I talked with John about the incident, he said, “I’m just glad you guys were there. I don’t understand what came over me.”

But I understood. He was a kid, and kids do dumb things. What I couldn’t figure out was Benny. John tried to fight his way past him, but Benny never hit back. He just stood there, an impossible wall, taking a beating for at least an hour to protect his friend.

Sometimes it’s hard to live up to the example set by a twelve-year-old.

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