Michael Ross drifted through life. His mother, sweet and indulgent, called him her dreamer. His father, grumpy with pointless expectations, called him lazy. Michael grew up in a sort of vague balance where he managed to never quite fit in, never quite fulfill his father's expectations, never quite played the best or the worst in any sport, never quite got the highest grades, but never failed a class.
He played baseball, because all young American boys played baseball. He liked Right Field, because in a county of right-handed batters, almost everything went center or left. He never caught a winning out. He never played well enough to make district all-stars.
In school, Michael continued to walk the middle line. No-one could call him popular, but no-one hated him. 'Wallflower Ross' was the worst insult thrown his way. Just smart enough to take college-track classes, but clever enough with his hands that he could master every vocational option, his teachers had no idea which way to push him, and Michael didn't give them any hints.
The only thing Michael seemed to really enjoy was art. He drew a lot, filling the margins of his papers and the backs of handouts with sketch after sketch of familiar objects and scenes. Of course, he never actually took a class. After all, Art was for Sissies, according to his father.
Unmoved by the frustration of both parents and teachers, Michael floated along. If absolutely pressed, he might say he was waiting for life to start. He had an unshakeable sense that SOMETHING would happen to him. He just wasn't sure what or when.
At 18, like all the other young men, he registered and got his little card. Much to his mother's shock, he was called up almost immediately after graduation. Michael shrugged and reported, ironically humming a particular Crosby Stills Nash and Young tune that had just come out as he went through the physical, got shaved, and suited up. One man in a uniform sharply asked if he was from Ohio. Tempted to lie and say Mississippi, an equally inflammatory answer that year, Michael placidly replied, "Nebraska, sir" and left off the humming.
He did well enough in basic training. What caught the sergeant's attention, however, was Michael's placid indifference. He didn't get nervous. He didn't get angry. He shrugged off insults and compliments alike.
His trainers dubbed him "morally ambiguous" and offered him a post with extra training, extra pay. Michael shrugged and accepted the assignment.
In a few short months, he went from Nebraska to Vietnam. He just missed Son Tay, but was deployed in time for Operation Lam Son 719. Over the next few years, Michael's indifference was tested. He saw massacres and murders. He went where he was ordered, shot whomever he was pointed at. He walked through villages full of burning huts and bodies, wiped out by air-strikes. He saw a fellow soldier, a man in his unit, nod calmly when told of a new mission, then simply draw his sidearm, place the barrel in his mouth, and blow the back of his head all over the bunker wall. He heard other men mutter and moan through the nightmares. He might have done some of that himself.
By some miracle, the worst injury Michael suffered was enough to get him a discharge, but perfectly able to heal, given enough time. Just shy of 23 years old, Michael returned to the house outside Omaha where he'd grown up, to find a home and a country drastically changed.
His parents, glad to have him home and safe, didn't want to know what he'd seen, what he'd survived. His mother was pathetically grateful, and plied him with food and gossip about local girls. His father bragged about 'my son, the green beret!' and never quite met Michael's eyes. Both patently ignored the nightmares, and the marijuana cigarettes he rolled himself daily. His younger sister, a pretty thing only three years his junior, glared at him from under her braided locks. She'd sneer and call him 'warmonger' and 'toy soldier', and wouldn't let him play with her infant son, conceived in a one-night-stand after some anti-war protest.
After collecting his pay, Michael bought himself an old Indian motorcycle and took to driving around the countryside alone. Eventually, he even started sketching again, little things, a pumpkin, a cat. Uninterested in work, and disinclined to company, he'd toss pads of paper and pencils in a knapsack and spend all day wandering. Anything to escape the walls of the house where no-one talked, no-one admitted anything, and everyone hated each other for unfulfilled expectations.
One day, his mother spotted some of his sketches in his room while she was putting away laundry. She smiled, a little sadly, and said he was like Norman Rockwell. A quick trip to the library had Michael both sneering and smiling at her analogy. Still, it nudged him to take his drawing a step further, and soon Michael was painting. Fields of wheat, farmhouses, little boys fishing in the creek. Simple, everyday subjects that had captured him before the War regained something of their appeal.
Then, after more than a year of painting and drifting, still haunted by memories of the jungles of southeast asia, Michael was out riding his motorcycle, and a vision appeared before him. From beyond a copse of trees rose a magnificent sight.
The hot air balloon was colored with purple and gold stripes. It's gilded basket held four people, who laughed and waved wildly when they saw him looking, slack-jawed and still on his bike in the middle of the road. The brightly colored vision floated over his head, high against the sky. A wind picked up, moving it off. The balloon against the sky had seared into Michael's brain, and without a thought, he gunned his bike, following the balloon's progress as best he could.
Almost an hour, and a state line, later he found himself in Prairie Rose State Park, Iowa, surrounded by candy colored balloons. "Balloon Festival" said the sign. Michael stared up as the colorful blobs began to descend around him. One, a remarkable emerald green with gold trellis-work on the balloon and gilded basket, like something right out of a World's Fair poster, descended right near him. He could hear the dragon-hiss of the flame.
"Hey, there, son! Grab a line, wouldja?" Called a voice from above, and Michael jumped to grab a cable dangling from the emerald balloon. A woman also came up to help. Together, they helped settle the balloon.
Four laughing passengers clambered out of the basket, thanking their pilot. As they moved off, Michael stared as if entranced at the balloon, its propane burner system, the weave of the basket.
The pilot chuckled. "Never seen one up close before?"
"No I haven't," Michael answered. "How does it work?"
Soon he was deep in conversation with the pilot, a man named Dick Myers, and his wife, Maggie. They were an older couple, older than Michael's parents even, from down Kansas way. Dick chatted with Michael in a friendly manner, teaching him about the balloon, how it worked, how to manage it. Then Maggie invited the young man to join them for lunch – "Lord knows, we always have plenty of food." – and the three settled on lawn chairs next to the Myers's truck.
"We'll go up again this evening, for a short ride. Then, once everyone's back down, we'll do a balloon-glow." Dick explained that they could switch out the propane tanks for one that put off more light, illuminating the balloons like giant glowing light bulbs.
The summer sun was warm, and eventually, Dick shrugged off his flannel overshirt. Michael froze when he saw the tattoo on Dick's forearm.
The elder man noticed, and cocked a brow at Michael. "You too?" Wordlessly, Michael rolled up his sleeve to reveal a similar tattoo.
Dick and Maggie exchanged looks, and she promptly handed over a few cans of beer and wandered off to chat with some of the other balloon operators.
Dick settled back down in his chair, handing over a can. "Korea for me. And then, did some time from sixty-eight to seventy-three in training camps. Bum knee kept me state-side. They just pensioned me off two years ago."
"Cambodia," Michael said softly, "and all over the place. Medical discharge. Broke the collarbone and a shoulder-blade bouncing off a tree when…." He stopped, unable to go on.
Dick nodded. It wasn't pitying or sympathetic. It was understanding. "You back at home?"
"Smokin' pot to keep the nightmares away?" Michael gave him a sharp look, but Dick shrugged it off. "Lemme guess – they wanna be proud of their son, but not deal with the nightmares, the twitches, the paranoia. So you make it easy on them. You spend the days ridin' that bike around, and the nights so doped up, you can't tell if you're asleep or not. Betcher puttin' on some weight."
Dick nodded again. He looked over to where Maggie was watching them at a discreet distance. Husband and wife must have shared some silent communication, because then Dick offered, "You could come home with us. Could use another hand with the balloon, and you won't shock us. I've seen it, Maggie's dealt with it. Haven't got any kids of our own."
Michael stared at the man. These total strangers had just shown twenty times the understanding and kindness of his own parents.
"Place is a bit coming apart, mind," Dick warned him, continuing as if the sudden offer was commonplace. "I'm not much of a farmer. Got some fields, corn mostly. We're living off the military pension, so I don't really work much on the farm. Seed in the spring, harvest by tractor in the fall. If it fails, it fails, I don't worry about it. Big ol' barn. Chickens. No cows, thank god – neither one of us wanted to be up at the crack of dawn everyday." By this time, Maggie had rejoined them, quietly picking up the remains of their picnic. Michael glanced at her, but her expression was serene and welcoming.
That afternoon, Michael went up with Dick in the emerald balloon, learning about lift and ballast and drift. That evening, he helped wrangle the yards and yards of silk, hoisted the basket into the back of the truck, and followed their taillights for hours. Though they passed right through Omaha, Michael never considered stopping. Past midnight, the truck led him through a small town, with only one blinking yellow caution light in the middle of Main St. A few miles later, a winding drive led them through a windbreak of trees, and up to a ramshackle white farmhouse, with a picket fence, and a home-made heart-shaped sign bearing the number 39.