Victory Junction

And this is what my ballooning friends do in the summer on Tuesday nights. Victory Junction is a camp for kids with sickness or special needs, and their families, started by the Petty family of racing fame, in memory of Kyle’s son Adam Petty. It’s a first rate camp with amazing staff, and we are fortunate to be able to bring smiles to some special kids.

At this week’s NASCARnival, Richard Petty was on hand, as well as driver Joey Logano, one driver who almost always comes with his team and puts on a little driving demo to take it to the pit for the crews to show what they can do. I have no pictures of either, but the kids were proudly showing off their autographs.

I Love……Preparation

I love PREPARATION. I understand that those of you who know me well are giggling as you read this. Note that I did not like saying I love doing the preparing. Quite honestly I love that so many of my friends are uber-preparers and cover my rear so I don’t have to do it myself. But whether I want to do it or not, I appreciate the need to do it.

I spent most of today in a hot air balloon safety seminar. Our balloon association ( holds this seminar every year so that our local pilots and crew learn how to be safer in this sport we love. Certainly there is much preparation that goes into planning an event like this, and having the right speakers and the right subjects does much to make it successful. What I loved about today most, though, was the interaction between balloonists as they helped each other get better at what they do.
Balloonists talk a lot. Safety is a big topic of discussion. One of the hallmarks of safety is preparation. Not only does a pilot and their crew need the right equipment to fly a balloon, they need to know how to use it. Knowing the mechanics of how to fly a balloon  isn’t enough. Judgment us critical. They have to prepare for all of the possibilities. Those possibilities occur both in the sky and on the ground. Dissecting what could happen in both places makes for a better balloonist, because it makes them think through how they would react in a situation before it occurs.
I’m not a great preparer. I’m the woman who throws stuff in a suitcase right before I go out the door for vacation. I have been known to pack for two weeks in Europe in 15 minutes. I have ever been a studier and when in school often went into tests without even reading the whole assignment it covered. I don’t usually make grocery lists, which sometimes means multiple trips to the grocery store to prepare a simple meal.

I admittedly have stressful periods when I wonder if I have done or remembered everything I need to know. There are many moments of panic in my life where I fear, or discover, I am unprepared for the situation.  I am not always unprepared, though. Because I know my shortcomings, I have learned ways to streamline preparation for myself. 
When getting ready to travel, I pack inside out, for example. You start with underwear and work your way out. It doesn’t take much time when you think it through that way. While I may not have read assignments in school, I did go to class and listen. Thankfully I was given a brain that could remember much of what it heard. Instead of fully reading assignments, I got by retaining what went on in the classroom. While at the grocery store I stand and do a mental checklist of what I think I need to prepare the meal I am going to make….and if I don’t know for sure I have something I need at home, I buy extra.
I can’t stress enough the joy of having friends who are excellent preparers. My friend Debbie is like Mary Poppins…..she’ll have a bottomless bag full of everything either she or I or anyone else could possibly need in any situation. It’s amazing. Obviously the secret to good preparation is having friends like Debbie.
At the safety seminar today there were a lot of folks like this. People who opened their carpetbag and freely pulled out their own ballooning experiences, both good and bad, to help other balloonists. They traded stories and tips and ideas and even equipment. Ideas came from the young and old, pilots and crew. The best preparation is collaborative and thorough….even exhaustive.
Maybe we all need personal “safety” seminars, strategizing how we can live our lives in a way that lessens the possibilities of bad things happening. We can surround ourselves with people who chip in with advice, and we learn from their experience. We can look at things from a different perspective, a different angle, with a different set of eyes. We need to think through the possibilities, and how we would react in certain situations, so we aren’t caught off guard should they occur.
It’s said that Benjamin Franklin said that “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” I’m not sure I fully agree with Ben, but I do agree that by failing to prepare our odds at success diminish. Be it safety, or living life, we should go for the best odds. That’s why I love preparation. (Usually!)

When Dreams Come True

The Balloonist’s Prayer

“May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well that God
joins you in laughter and sets you gently
back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”

I used to think the best part of ballooning was watching balloons taking off, or even better….feeling them take off with me inside. Yes, both of those things are still a big thrill and I think will always be for me. It occurred to me today that there could be something better, though.

I grew up seeing balloons float over our county, but never got to ride in one. When I moved back to Statesville, I got involved with the Chamber of Commerce. It was through the Chamber that I met my friend Debbie Hartman (now Debbie Swing), I think at a Business After Hours event. (Come to think of it, I think that was the time she told me she would teach me how to play golf. It still hasn’t happened. But that’s OK. We found better things to do!)

Debbie and I both volunteered to crew at the local balloon festival that year, and it was then we both got our first ride. I think we were probably balloonists before we ever set foot in a balloon….we caught the bug quickly. Personally I think I caught it while watching balloons float over North Iredell High School in the late 70s when we were playing broom hockey at 8 a.m. in the morning. (Yes broom hockey. The best sport ever. Don’t knock it if you have never played. Or even if you have. I think it was the only PE activity I ever enjoyed in my first 12 years of school.)

Anyway, back to the ballooning bug. Debbie and I began to jump in any time would mention any activity to us that was balloon related. It was a great to have a friend as passionate about it as I was. I know the introvert in me would not have gone to as many events had she not been willing to go with me. So thus started our ballooning “career.”

The teacher and the student

I have never wanted to be a pilot. They have to pay attention to a lot of things, and with my ADHD mind, the thought terrifies me. I do have that ADHD ability to hyper-focus, so I am sure if I put my mind to it I could do it, but the stress it would put me under would take away the fun for me, I think. So I am content to hang out with ballooning people. To promote the sport as much as I can. To do the administrative and behind-the-scene things I am best at. And to ride any time anyone lets me in the basket.

Debbie has never felt that way. From the start, she wanted to be a pilot. She always was more serious about it than me. She always listened a bit harder, tried to pick up information. Everything moves quickly with ballooning, and while that makes it very fun on one level, it is sometimes difficult to learn as you crew for different pilots. Each does things differently. Most also do things automatically. And when they are flying, they are often in flying mode….not teaching mode. Since some of us need to fully understand the whys to learn the process well, the way to cope for many of us (OK, me) is to put yourself on autopilot and just do as the pilot says. Nothing more, nothing less. Do that and usually no one gets hurt! (Or yelled at. Pilots can be vocal when they are concerned In other words, when you do something stupid.)

So time went by and life got in the way, and Debbie had almost given up her dream of flying. When our friends the Morlocks decided to sell their balloon last year, she was able to buy it. That was one dream coming true, but still…..she had to learn how to fly it.

Debbie and Tommy listen intently

Today Debbie got her first flying lesson. Our friend Marc Klinger stepped up and offered to teach her. It’s a big commitment, for him and for her. Thankfully for us all, balloon pilots are not created overnight. It takes many, many hours of training.

I can’t tell you how much fun it was to watch Debbie’s first lesson. Seeing the combination of nervousness and excitement. Watching her intently listen to Marc. Seeing her husband Tommy listen just as intently as he prepares to partner with her as a very able crew chief. Watching them make mental checklists of all of the things they need to do, of all the things they need to put on their own checklist (which Marc will not give them….he will make them come up with it themselves as part of the training.)

And it is a lift off!

During the past couple of years I have also seen my friends Daniel, Damien and Mike train to be pilots. Now Debbie begins. What occurred to me today….while I love watching and riding, seeing the dreams of my friends come true is even better. I got to see Daniel fly his balloon, lovingly restored by him, for the first time. I got to see Debbie fly hers for the first time today. About six months after purchased. I’m sure I will be around a lot as she trains, taking a million pictures. I will be there when she solos for the first time. I also plan to be there as 13-year old Duncan Dunavent trains and takes his first solo flight. Really….it will make you weep. It’s a tough road, and  to see them get through each obstacle and test is simply amazing. It is a privilege to watch.

Future pilot Duncan

What’s even better is when you see people like Marc Klinger and Drew Egerton train others to become pilots. I think it takes nerves of steel at times, but they are patient and thoughtful and compassionate as they do it. It’s time consuming, and at times frustrating, but our sport will not continue without such generosity. Other pilots will lend a hand along the way, I know. Before Debbie finishes, I can guarantee she will fly with several seasoned pilots. Each will teach her something different. That is how you learn best. They will pass it on not only because they are generous, but because they love this sport. And they not only want people flying, they want people flying safely.

A dream in flight

I have been able to experienced a lot already, but I have a lot of great ballooning moments ahead, I think. It’s exciting to see it all evolve. I can’t wait to ride with each and every one of these new pilots (and quite a few more advanced pilots I know I haven’t ridden with yet!) Being a good pilot requires not just knowledge, but the ability to know when to apply it. It requires you to think on your feet, be alert to what is over and under, in front and in back, how to get out of tight spots, be a superstar of public relations (some folks get a bit cranky when you land on their property), be a weather and wind expert, and be very cool under intense pressure. You are floating in the sky in a wicker basket with only the direction of the wind to steer. And you’re making dreams come true. Your own, those that watch you, and those that are fortunate to ride.

So anyway, to both balloonists and non-balloonists, I say this. Dream dreams. Big dreams. Tell your friends and family so they can share them with you and see them come true. Because really, it is such a great joy and a privilege to see dreams become reality. And as you talk about it, you may find a few fairy god-people out there that will help make it happen.

The greatest part about seeing dreams come true? It reminds you that we don’t dream enough, and that’s a downright shame. I’ve decided my dream list has become too short and needs to be extended. I will work on that. Join me!

“Take delight<sup class="crossreference" value="(A)”> in the Lord,
 and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
Psalm 37:4<sup class="crossreference" value="(B)”>

A Game of "I Spy" With Our President

In our world today we seem to sensationalize and glorify the acts of people who have done nothing.  I love reality television, but my fascination with it is probably a bit different than most others.  I find the sociological aspects of it fascinating.  It celebrates the norm….or maybe it is more precise to say we celebrate less than the norm.  Supposedly it makes us feel really good about own dumb choices when we see someone on national TV making dumber choices for all the world to see.  For me I watch and think “What are people willing to do this for a tiny bit of fame and why?”  These silly people, often with less self-awareness and character than the average person, become household names.  Because we make them that way.  Because often we seem to celebrate it.  Which doesn’t make me feel good about me at all.  But like I said,  it fascinates me because there are a lot of levels to it that say a bit of who we have become.  And I want to figure it all out, so I can figure out a solution.

Instead of glorifying the bad and mediocre, I think we need to point out the things in this world that are good, and the people who are doing them.  Keep up an ongoing game of “I Spy.”  Remember that game?  I think the adult version should generally start out “I spy something good.”  Or maybe we also need to add “I spy something bad” so people can identify that, too.  Because I think the lines are really fuzzy these days and for some reason people always define fuzzy as good.  Maybe we can add “I spy something mediocre” and help people see that it’s not identical to good.   And for those cynics who buy into the reality tv culture and think only the tawdry is sensational and interesting, the real truth is….good does not have to be boring! 

Some of my friends are almost rabid when people use the word “hero” cheaply.  They say simply living up to your responsibilities shouldn’t make a person a hero.  I agree that’s probably right.  But in today’s time, living up to your responsibilities has become way too rare.  Things that used to be rare, are now common.  Teaching your children right from wrong (and modeling it so they can see it in action), paying what you owe (even if it requires extreme sacrifice), looking out for the needs of the others around you, being a good neighbor, being a good employee, looking after your family and friends, noticing injustice and taking action – these have all in some ways become heroic acts to us because they now so outshine the norm.  We have lowered our standards and lowered our expectations of what we should expect ourselves to be.  Not that I am a believer in shaming people for their failures or hiding our own imperfection….but we shouldn’t celebrate it either.

My personal definition is that a hero is an ordinary person who does extraordinary things when faced with a challenge.  Not the definition that others may use, but it is how I choose to define it.  As someone I admire.  From what I have seen the best heroes don’t like the label, because it is inconceivable to them that simply doing the right thing can give them a title that is to them the highest level of esteem.  Which they don’t see in themselves because they just see the ordinary. But our character comes out in these times of challenge and while a heroic act shouldn’t cover over the rest of who we are, it does show a dimension of it….who we can be when we are put to a test.  And at times this needs to be acknowledged and celebrated.  So for me a hero, a person I admire, is someone who simply makes the right choice at the right time.  The impact of that causes ripples that travel the world.

The Presidential Citizens Medal has been given out for over 40 years to Americans who have “performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens.”  If you go to this site Presidential Citizens Medal you can find out about a few of the recent recipients of the award.  It strikes me that a lot of them are simply normal people, who have used their lives for others.  Many are people who have used their own personal tragedy to make a difference.  I like that we honor this.

There are a group of us who believe Ed Ristaino should be a posthumous recipient of this medal.  When faced with a challenge, he made choices that were a testament to his character.  He was piloting his hot air balloon, carrying five skydivers who were going to jump from the balloon.  When a storm unexpectedly came up (yes, it happens even with all the amazing weather prediction tools we have today), he was faced with the challenge of keeping all of them all safe.  He put the balloon in position for the skydivers to jump, and ordered them to do so.  Right then.  Even though it meant the weight of his basket would drop, which would make it even more difficult for him to land his balloon safely.  All five skydivers lived, Ed’s balloon was ravaged by the storm and he lost his life.  An ordinary American who did something extraordinary when faced with a challenge.

I can argue that Ed was more than ordinary in his day to day life.  He cared for others, in both his job and in his personal life.  He got involved and helped make dreams come true.  He was not a man who was content to just exist and go through the motions.  But simply by saving the five skydivers, he let our country keep five people who in their own ways will change the our country and our world.  That one unselfish act will impact generations.  In both ordinary and extraordinary ways.

Please join us in our little game of “I Spy” by asking our President to honor Ed’s memory with this award.  You can sign a petition at Ed Ristaino for the Presidential Citizen’s Medal,  review the qualifications at Qualifications of Presidential Citizens Medal , or write your own letter of recommendation to bring Ed to our President’s attention.  

If you aren’t familiar with the “I Spy” game, just begin by telling him “Mr. President….I spy something great.”  Normally then he would guess until he sees what you see.  But let’s suspend the rules of the game a bit and not let this busy man just guess until he gets it right.  Give him a lot of clues so he can see what we see and quickly win the game!  I don’t think in this instance it would be considered cheating.  

(Oh….and P.S.  He doesn’t have to be the only one you play the game with.  Your senators, your House members…..anyone who may be able to get the ear of the president and make a nomination is a good playmate!  Here’s another place to get you started….Link to Contact Info for our Elected Officials.  But remember many of them are out amongst us.  If you see them, have an in-person conversation!  And spread the word to all of your friends.  You can ignore the buzz of one little bee, but not the roar of thousands.)