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Feather's Miscellany: The Gala Balloon

...It all started when Ira bet Joe one night in the Cycling Club that he wouldn’t go up in the balloon with Ira on Gala Day to scatter the annual hospital lottery tickets from several hundred feet up to the crowd beneath. Ira knew full well Joe had no head for heights and would be scared to death...

Joe has no track record for bravery, as John Waddington-Feather’s story reveals.

To read more of John’s stories and articles please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/feathers_miscellany/

No account of Keighworth Gala would be complete without the telling of the tale of Joe Oxenhead, Alderman of Keighworth, and the balloon which went adrift one Gala Day. It involved Ira Fotheringill again, that rascally, loveable Keighworth auctioneer and doyen of the Cycling Club, who constantly took the mickey out of Joe.

It all started when Ira bet Joe one night in the Cycling Club that he wouldn’t go up in the balloon with Ira on Gala Day to scatter the annual hospital lottery tickets from several hundred feet up to the crowd beneath. Ira knew full well Joe had no head for heights and would be scared to death, but Joe’s manly pride was challenged and after his third whisky he agreed to go. Ira, by the way, was an experienced balloonist from World War One when, as a youngster, he’d served as an observer for the R.F.C. in a captive balloon overlooking enemy lines.

In earlier years he’d actually parachuted from his balloon as a Gala stunt, but he’d grown too old and weighty so now he just distributed the lottery tickets from on high each Gala Day. The tickets fluttered down like manna from heaven and the person who picked up the lucky number in the crowd below won a gift-token to be spent at Royston’s, the expensive department store in Leeds.

Joe owned a small textile mill in Keighworth. He was a large blustery man full of his own importance and very wordy – very. He’d won fame locally during the war in the Home Guard when he’d captured the crew of a German bomber that had landed on Sammy Dickson’s farm, on the edge of the moors. The incident had happened towards the end of the war and the air-crew was surrendering, not bombing. They’d had enough. Sammy had seen them land in his field and phoned the police. They’d sent out a detachment of the Home Guard, including Joe Oxenhead. Now, Joe wasn’t a very brave man; far from it. He’d wangled himself out of the forces as a mill-man and had joined the Home Guard, where he rather fancied himself in uniform and bragged what he’d do if ever the Nazis landed. When they did land he was caught on the hop and frightened to death.

Armed with rifles, his detachment fanned out to track down the German airmen. Sammy had said they were heading for the road, so Joe made sure he went the other way, round Elam Wood – and there he suddenly found himself alone and face to face with the Germans each carrying a Luger pistol. Joe threw down his rifle at once and put up his hands, shaking with fear.

The pilot, who spoke good English, laughed and came towards him smiling, holding out his gun. “My friend,” he said, “it is we who are surrendering. The war is over. Please take us to the nearest police station.” Then he and the rest handed over their Lugers to Joe.

Dumbfounded, Joe picked up his rifle and marched them into town, where he was hailed a hero. He never did say what had really happened and was commended by his commanding officer for capturing the German aircrew single-handed. Telling his version of how he did it lasted Joe a lifetime, but Ira didn’t believe a word of it.

So when Ira challenged him to go up in the Gala balloon with him and distribute the tickets, he daren’t refuse though he was scared to death of heights. He was so scared he was shaking when he climbed into the basket slung under the balloon. He was still clad in his Alderman’s robes and hat, waving wanly at the crowd as the balloon was winched up, and up and up. After a minute or two he looked over the side and almost swooned. The park looked the size of a postage stamp. Worse still, in the strong breeze which suddenly sprung up, the balloon began jockeying about and the wind whistled through the rigging like a ship at sea. Joe closed his eyes.

“Chuck the tickets out, Joe,” shouted Ira, hanging onto the edge of the basket. “The quicker we get down, the better. This wind’s getting stronger!”

“I can’t!” wailed Joe, clinging like grim death to the basket. “I daren’t leave go!”

Ira picked up the sack of tickets and shook them overboard in a shower. Overboard, too, went Joe’s fancy Alderman’s hat plucked off his head by the wind. Then there was an ominous twang! And the balloon took off. Its mooring had snapped!

“What’s happened?” cried Joe, looking as if he was going to throw up.

“The bloody cable’s snapped!” Ira shouted back.

“Then do summat!” shouted Joe.

“There’s nowt I can do!” Ira replied, as the balloon rose higher and higher and was swept wildly down the valley.

Ira knew they couldn’t land till they’d cleared the built-up area below. They’d have to wait till they reached open country, and that was some way off. The whole of the Aire Valley was urbanised. So on they flew – over Bradford and Leeds and the neighbouring towns till they reached East Yorkshire and its farmland; and it was there Ira grounded the balloon in a large field full of very bemused cows. By this time, Joe was a nervous wreck, cowering on the floor of the basket white-faced and sweating, his eyes tightly closed. “So much for wartime bravery,” thought Ira.

Some hours later they and the balloon were picked up and transported back to Keighworth. Prayers were given up for their safe delivery in Keighworth churches the next day; and later, at a reception, the Mayor thanked them both for their public spirit, their bravery and keeping calm under duress. Joe beamed and swelled visibly; but he took good care to sit well away from Ira and avoided his eye. And Ira, honourable fellow that he was, never breathed a word about Joe’s conduct in the bottom of the balloon basket.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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