Memorial Day weekend always holds a special place in my heart. The tiny town of Chagrin Falls, Ohio annually hosts the Blossom Time Festival, complete with hot air balloon competitions, a carnival and parade. From the age of 3 years old, my brother had always wanted to become a balloon pilot. By the age of 15, he accomplished that goal and now flies every year at that exact spot of conception.
Thursday evening begins the event with the community gathering at the fields behind the High School. The earlier you get there, the better your seat for the evening’s entertainment. Local restaurants set up their tents, food trucks arrive and the smell of kettle corn entrances the guests.
The excitement begins when the balloon chase vehicles start coming out on the field to set up. Each finds a spot on the field to begin inflation. Depending on the weather, some do a quick flight. Others set up in a large semi-circle in preparation for the night glow.
As the light fades to dusk, all the balloons stretch out on the field and the sounds of inflation fans brings cheers from the crowd. One by one, the balloons expand their colors with the crews holding the crown lines in place, trying not to bump into their neighbors. The pilots hit the burners and slowly, the hot air expands the chambers and the balloons stand upright.
The flickering lights are seen as the pilots keep the balloons steady and by nightfall, the event is ready to begin. The DJ announces each pilot and balloon by name with the crowd cheering for their favorites. Because my brother is a native of Chagrin Falls and has the prettiest balloon, he usually gets the loudest chants. “Sky Berry! Sky Berry! WOOOOO!”
The choreographed music begins and the pilots are ready with their walkie-talkies in hand. “All balloons with red, glow! All balloons with rainbow colors, glow!” The music of “Up, Up and Away” by The 5th Fifth Dimension is a crowd favorite. “Twinkle!” comes across the radio waves and all the pilots flicker the burners to create a magical effect on the field. The countdown starts when the DJ calls out on the loud speaker. “Get your cameras ready. All Glow in 3, 2, 1!” The pilots burn and all of the balloons are lit up at once for these fantastic photo opportunities.
Once everyone has had their fill of delicious food and balloon glows, the crowd heads home but the party is just getting started. The crew helps break down the balloons and head over to our house for a Blossom kickoff after party. We have pizza delivered and the fire going to roast marshmallows. I even got a call from my mom one year to grab hot dog buns on my way over. A raccoon broke into the dining room and stole the bag of buns off the credenza! This is one of the first ballooning events of the year so many people have not seen each other since the year before.
The next morning starts bright and early with a morning flight. Sometimes it is a competition like a game called “Fox & Hound” where one balloon takes off and the others have to chase it. Whoever lands closest to the original balloon wins. Other times, “X Marks the Spot”. The event organizers pick a pre-determined spot in the area and the pilots have to fly over and drop a baggie closest to the center of the X. These may seem like simple tasks but when you factor in air currents and temperatures at the different altitudes, everything changes at a moment’s notice and your flight path can change directions in an instant.
The weekend events conclude on Sunday with a parade. The balloon chase vehicles gather at the local church to get set up. The pilots but the baskets together with their burners and decorate their trucks to match the excitement of the day. The crew sits along the edges of the truck with buckets of candy and wait for their turn to join the procession. As the line of balloon trucks make their way down the parade route, parents and children alike call out for candy. The crew makes sure to throw far enough into the crowd so the kids don’t run out into the street and the pilots make sure they are not turning the burners on while going under power lines or low hanging branches.
Because this weekend is such a popular event, many people come back home to see all of their friends they may not have been in contact with for years. Sitting on the edge of my brother’s truck, I see a lot of familiar faces, many not since graduation. My name is called out and friends come running up to the truck to say hi. I throw candy to the back of the crowds and wave at people as we pass by. Pictures are taken and I get notifications that we were tagged in posts or made the front page of the local paper with the glow a few nights before.
These ballooning memories will stay with me for the rest of my life. The lovely little community of Chagrin Falls has a true gem of a tradition and I look forward to participating each and every year.