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facts & arguments

SAM KALDA/The Globe and Mail

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It's so easy to put a smile on a little boy's face: a raspberry Popsicle on a summer's day, a funny picture book, Velcro-fastened sneakers that light up with each bouncy step. These early memories of my son's childhood are lodged in my soul.

As my little boy Adam grew into a teenager, life became more complicated. He slammed doors, lost his $200 orthodontic retainer, and stayed glued to the Internet. I managed to get through the obstacle course of his adolescence until he finally arrived on the cusp of manhood. I began to see the delight of self-hood on my son's face. He used technical words I didn't know, made clever political jokes at the dinner table and bombarded his father and me with passionate opinions about ethics in the online world.

I wasn't surprised when Adam jumped into computer science at university. At seven, he had bounded upstairs from the TV room, an unfamiliar booklet clutched in his small hand. "Guess what, Mom? The VCR has a manual!" He was already on page 27. I realized then that no matter what future career I might imagine for him, his individual path was likely set.

When Adam was about to turn 21, I mulled over how to celebrate this milestone birthday. I wanted to provide him with the kind of thrill he had felt at his dinosaur-themed party or his outing with 13-year-old friends to a video-game parlour.

I tried to think of a novel and exciting activity that two middle-aged parents with arthritic knees could do with their 21-year-old son. Skydiving, bungee-jumping and zip-lining were out of the question. I went online to search for birthday adventure ideas, and Google offered the answer – a hot-air balloon ride.

On a late afternoon in June, we drove for an hour from Montreal to a hotel parking lot in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, the meeting point for our excursion. The actual balloon launch site would be determined by the day's wind speed and direction.

We waited in the car, wondering who and what would show up. A 10-seat van arrived, pulling a surprisingly small box trailer with a picture of a hot-air balloon on its side. How could this colourful little cube on two wheels contain everything needed to safely launch my family into the air?

We met the three balloonists, climbed into the van and drove 15 minutes to a farmer's field. The pilot and his two assistants unloaded and spread out equipment: a wicker gondola; ropes and fans; a burner and propane cylinders; and the multilayers of a folded rectangle of red and yellow nylon, the "envelope" that would lift us to the sky.

Once the balloon was unfolded and attached to the gondola lying sideways on the ground, the pilot set up a two-metre fan to fill it with air. The envelope was more than 25 metres long, its rip-stop nylon walls undulating and expanding under the steady stream of air. As it inflated, the pilot invited us to walk inside. "You have a few minutes. Go ahead and take a look."

I watched Adam and his father stroll through, chatting about cubic feet. I trod carefully over the cloth, checking for patches and flaws (thankfully, I found none). My husband touched the walls and joked, "Feels pretty thin. Do you think it'll hold us up?" Both of them chuckled. Their banter only added to my trepidation. The "chase crew" in the van could do little more than track us and arrange for a landing spot. I kept reassuring myself that hot-air balloon flights had an excellent safety record.

The pilot told us to be ready to jump into the basket, and he lit the propane burner, shooting final blasts of hot air into the envelope. The gigantic balloon rose, pulling the gondola upright. "Get in now!" he said.

There was no time for second thoughts. We scrambled over the side into the wicker carrier. The assistants unfastened the tethers and we lifted off. We rose 300 m into the air and began our silent drift. My nerves disappeared as, enthralled, we gazed down on miniature buildings and tiny cars on grey ribbons of roadway.

During a hot-air balloon flight, the pilot uses propane heat and vents to adjust air temperature inside the envelope. He controls only altitude. A current of wind might modify a balloon's direction, but like judicious parenting, there is no direct steering. We were gliding freely across the sky, not knowing what heights we would reach, not knowing what the exact destination of our journey would be.

We drifted eastward over lacy treetops and aqua gems of swimming pools, which dotted the patchwork of suburban lawns. The periodic roar of a blast of propane interrupted long interludes of silence. As we rode on a breeze above a tawny field, we waved and shouted hello to a farmer on a tractor below, who was plowing under the remnants of his old cornstalks.

"Pretty cool, Mom," said Adam.

I watched my son's face, his square jaw and the stubble on his cheeks. His eyes scanned back and forth between the scenes beneath us and the huge orb of colours over our heads. He smiled at the thrill of sailing through the sky at the whim of the wind and at his new perspective on the world.

My grown-up son beamed with delight – like he did as a child, like I hope he will do in the future – his spontaneous smile still reaching the deepest part of me.

Karen Zey lives in Pointe-Claire, Que.

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