He is a curious man, somehow not quite right for what has to be done. He looks too frail, he is too glib and his obsession seems too studied, too laced with patter. His name does not help, either. It lacks the timbre and strength, the great promise that resonates from the sound of Thor Heyerdahl or Sir Francis Chichester. His name is Bob Sparks, and it is hard to look at him through the damp, melancholy mist of this Maine dawn two weeks ago and relate him as the central figure to one of the last exquisitely human adventures left to drip-dried man: to become the first man in history to cross the Atlantic in a balloon.
The attempt—the fourth in the last 15 years—is of no national interest, it seems. Here and there a few paragraphs have moved over the wire services but mainly the country is blind to this very human act, if not downright contemptuous. Has the nation become immune to adventure, one wonders, to the single act of grandness that separates us from the walking dead? Have our spirits become so numbed that we no longer even want to consider anything beyond the commonplace or believe anything beyond the corrupt? Sparks has listened: fool, charlatan, exhibitionist; he has been called all the names that have been used for centuries by the smug.
The inflation process has begun on an airstrip in Bar Harbor, and it will be finished soon, just as the first light of day comes. But for now the area is lit by great floodlights that struggle against a heavy mist. It is an odd sight, this balloon being given life. It is as if one has come upon a mastodon slowly regaining its senses after a long sleep, becoming terrifying and beautiful with each rush of helium. "The proportion of the size of the balloon and the pilot is just about right," says Sparks. "Nobody can ever be big enough for a balloon."
He considers the Yankee Zephyr, being prepared now. "There's never been a balloon like it," says Sparks. In a couple of hours, after it has been glutted with 73,000 cubic feet of helium, Yankee Zephyr will be nine stories high and 52 feet in diameter. Its colors are red, white and blue and they express Sparks' patriotic bent. The balloon itself has cost roughly $18,000. Most of the vast amount of sophisticated equipment in its $20,000 gondola, which is 14 by 7 by 3 feet, has been donated by firms speculating on publicity. Nothing has been left to chance, and never has a more professional attack been mounted on the Atlantic.
August 26, 1973
Sparks has come early to the staging area, this last step in a long, hellish pursuit, unencumbered by the slightest doubt. He is supremely confident that a balloon can be taken across the Atlantic. He hopes to land in northern France, but will consider any spot in Europe to be a pinpoint landing and he feels certain the U.S. will respond to the achievement, even though he knows many people are mocking him now. This country, he says, needs a release from the nerve storms that blow across its daily life, a distraction from its broken illusions.
It is hard to bring definition to Sparks, yet the impulse to catalog him is difficult to resist. It is a common and alarming failing among people to put others where they are easy to reach. Nobody wants to know anyone or feel anything except what shimmers on the surface. Maybe that is the only way it can be in our society, and if Bob Sparks is not an authority on the subject, he is conscious of being slotted more than most. "Let people think what they want," he says, wrestling with the difficult equation of who he is. "I know who I am."
The first thing about him, the combination of what his way of life is and what he is preparing to do, defies the credulity of most people, and the reaction is immediate. A stand-up comic in the Poconos? You mean he's going to take a balloon across the Atlantic? The distrust cannot be extinguished. The whole thing reeks of commercialism, the sly angle. He is simply not a serious man; whatever happened to all those lone wolves like Lindbergh? The problem does not envelop Sparks; he knows the only solution to it is to make it across the Atlantic.
At first, one can understand the skepticism that follows Sparks. There is a plastic quality to his responses, a rehearsed staccato of carny dazzle with bits of calculated substance thrown in. Always he is out in front with his finely honed facade grown sturdy from years of banging away at tough crowds, from the degradation of some of those years as a tummler on the circuit when he had to have the right smile, the right word and had to listen to calls come to his room at five o'clock in the morning like this: "It's raining outside. What are we going to do today?"
Even below the facade, though, there are parts in him that belong to the Southern evangelist or the flimflam man careening through life on his pluck and spiel. "That is sort of right," he says, "but I'd never rob from the poor. I never grew up rich. I grew up swinging high and wide." The swing began in Virginia, and it has taken him into many corners. He started to be a jockey and then became too big. He has sold books from door to door, sold eggbeaters in a dime store and sold himself to anyone who would listen. He has looked for gold in New Mexico and found some, lived in the woods by himself for weeks, worked on a dude ranch and ended up as a bank teller before going into show business. "I know how to take care of me," he says.
Slowly, as the days pass, as the caprice of the weather becomes almost unbearable, another side of Sparks takes shape, the side that is one with the adventure just hours off. Every day for three weeks he waits by the phone for a weather report. It is the right time of the year for a balloon crossing, but the weather will not line up properly. He seems to draw into himself with each bad prognosis; with each report an edginess seems to surround the project. One newspaper, prickly from the delays, refers to him as a replica of Clifford Irving.
He speaks with more emotion now and there is less measurement to his words. His rural face seems older than his age of 37. His hair is long, the antithesis to one set of his beliefs that rest heavily on God, country and flag. "I'll tell you," he says. "Any man can face a crisis, but it's the everyday living that can make an old man out of you. Life the way it is now has sapped the strength from people." All the while there is a softness to his voice, then a lostness as he talks of when he lived as a country boy where there were caves to be dug, tree houses in which to vanish and fish to catch.
It is difficult to define what is the lure of an adventure for someone. Few can express why it is that they must try the extraordinary, reach out for a moment beyond the comprehension of others. Adventure for its own sake seems enough, but often men are drawn to it and motivated by a myriad of things: physical hardship; danger; physical pleasure; companionship and solitude and escape; conquest; or maybe only the mystery of it all. Fortune, of course, usually lurks in the background, but it is rarely the primary force. "I'm not looking for money out of this," says Sparks, "but I'm not going to turn any down if it comes my way."
Sparks remembers the first time he saw a balloon several years back. "I was leading the parade of a band through a county fair audience," he says, "and I looked up and there it was." The man in the balloon looked down with absolute derision, or at least so Sparks thinks, and the insignificance that he felt engulfed Sparks for days. "The whole thing for me," he says, "was the total freedom of it all where people can't get at you, one dreamlike move from boredom. Well, I can't do anything halfway. I gave ballooning everything I had. And it was just what I needed."
Sparks speaks of ballooning with the enthusiasm of an amateur, but he has had over 500 ascensions and holds the world hot-air balloon duration record of 11 hours and 14 minutes. The trip across the Atlantic has consumed his being for the last three years and the route to this airstrip way up in Maine has been circuitous and painful and monetarily debilitating. He sat in offices for days, waiting for money promised to his project, and finally left with only the sound of the bankers' shuffle in his ears. He combed libraries for research material, drove 1,800 miles to the Bureau of Mines in Amarillo for a day and a half of study into gases and the effect sun has on them.
Finally, he put it all together. He was certain that the Atlantic could be crossed in a balloon. There was sound basis for it meteorologically. Hard, detailed preparation was what it would take, along with a break in the weather, and then the Atlantic—one of the great white whales in adventure—could be had. He knew the risks and what had happened to those who have tried since 1958. A balloon called The Small World, crewed by four Britons and in flight from the Canary Islands to the West Indies, went down in a storm. All were rescued. In August of 1968 two Canadian balloonists took off from Halifax for Europe; they were becalmed off Nova Scotia, and both were rescued. And then there was The Free Life, which left Long Island in September of 1970. The crew was Pam and Rod Anderson, wife and husband, she an aspiring actress and he a son-in-law from a modest background trying to prove his mettle to a wealthy father-in-law; and the pilot from England, Malcolm Brighton, who was heavily in debt and saw the trip as an exit. Brighton was the only one with experience. Less than a day and a half after takeoff a message was received saying that they were southeast of Newfoundland and "falling fast into the sea." No trace of the three or the balloon was ever found.
The probable technical causes of The Free Life's end seem innumerable, but the lack of professionalism and misguided motives were the major flaws. None of this seems to be evident in Sparks' campaign, but there is an undercurrent of bad feeling. His crew chief, who watches every detail concerning the balloon, is a man named Haddon Wood. A partner with Sparks in the conception of this trip, Wood becomes increasingly broken up by the fact that he will not be going as the reality of it nears. "I'm supposed to be on that balloon today," he says, and right up to the last moment he will consider tying himself to the tether and then climbing into the gondola with Sparks as it takes off; he has his bag and passport with him. Wood blames his rejection on what he calls "The Money." He says The Money wants this to be a solo flight; that way it is more dramatic on the market.
The Money is no enigma. Perhaps he is a disappointment because one expected to find him trying to prove a promotional point with Sparks and his balloon. But The Money looks at this flight purely for its market value. When asked why he is behind this trip, The Money says he wants to "buy a part of history." He says he feels like Queen Isabella. Most of the time he stays busy by looking out for anyone who may try to intrude on the commercial designs he has for himself and Sparks; even writers are questioned about their motives. "I mean," The Money says, "if you're going to turn this into a book, we want a piece of it." His last and most crass stroke is when he suggests loading the gondola up with brand name products for the journey, a supermarket in the sky, so to speak. The Money is resisted.
It has taken three hours to fill the balloon with the necessary helium, and now as light comes the Yankee Zephyr stands high and firm, far above any brazen indignities that have been and may be visited upon it, suddenly a force that diminishes all and anything below. There is not much else to do. There is a final check of all the balloon's systems. The crowd of about 1,000 moves closer to watch every move of Sparks, who is dressed in a red, white and blue jump suit and white boots. The women in the crowd wonder how he will feel being so alone, the men consider the danger of it all, and the kids are baffled as to how he will go to the bathroom. Sparks is ready now for the final step into a dream that began four years ago. Sparks kisses his two little girls, then embraces his mother, she with the Appalachian face and the resignation of a mother who has given up trying to understand.
It is all over in a moment. There is something inexpressibly sad about a balloon going off, a feeling of finality and a sense of things lost. Silently it glides up, and then it grows smaller. As it ghosts through the morning haze with its long tail it reminds one of a spider with a web flying in the wind, and there is a twinge of envy of a man who has found a way to be rid of the stamped-out hordes below with fallow imaginations and dehumanized souls. "When he clears land and sees that shoreline disappear," says one of his crew, "he will know that he is truly alone." A number of private planes follows Sparks and his balloon for a while and then leaves him moving northeast at 22 knots. He signs off, saying: "It's a going balloon...blue skies."
The balloon would go for only 22 hours and 50 minutes and a distance of 800 miles. At 8:25 p.m. Sparks was sleeping over North Cape Breton Island. At 9:25 p.m. he was awakened by a sudden explosion of sound he thought was a jet fighter. Coming to his senses, he realized he was in the middle of a freak thunderstorm, which had abruptly and inexplicably formed around him. "It was just plain rotten luck," the weatherman said later. "The odds were 1,000 to 1." Sparks gave a May Day transmission at 10:05 p.m., and at 4:35 a.m. he finally splashed down 45 miles northeast of St. John's, Newfoundland in six- to eight-foot seas. He was picked up by the Canadian Coast Guard at noon.
"Well," Sparks said later to Clint Laird, one of his crew, "I'm sorry. I let you down."
"Yeah, you really let me down. You just set a world record, man, flying in the eye of a storm for eight hours or something. That's not bad."
"Well, I'll tell you, there were a couple of times when I almost gave up. I couldn't go on. My energy was gone. I finally got so tired I couldn't lift a 25-pound bag of shot and throw it over. Also, I was cold. My wet suit saved me. Water was coming in three directions. There's not much left of the gondola."
"What about lightning?" Laird asked.
"Well, I thought I'd had it with that. When it sliced through, I just stood there, and it looked at me, and I looked at it and there were strange things, I'll tell you. My hair stood up."
"You mean the bolt was there for what seemed a long time?"
"Yeah, it was like everything slowed down. It just seemed to hold there, and I'll tell you what it looked like. You know the CBS eye. That's what it looked like. Then there was the funniest smell in the air. It was like electric, sort of magnetic. I could feel my hair and everything leaning toward it, sort of."
So Sparks survives—but not without abuse. He now must fend off the lances of critics within the balloon world, notable for its galaxy of rampant egos. The epithets are already cascading upon him from those who think for some odd reason that he has made "all balloonists look like a bunch of nuts." As for those people who are inclined to scoff at the futility, at the silliness of Sparks and his dream, they might look up these lines of the former pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Wind, Sand and Stars, written after listening to a conversation between two clerks on a bus.
"You have chosen," he wrote, "not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as man. You are not the dweller upon an errant planet and do not ask yourself questions to which there are no answers.... Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning."