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					                            The Helium Tank
Travis K. Kircher
                                                                        “Oh! Oh! Oh!” Barney was jumping up and down with
                                                                   excitement in a fair imitation of a jack-in-the-box on caf-
You  want to give a kid the ultimate birthday present?             feine.
Get him a helium tank.
                                                                       “Nah,” I responded. “We’ve got better things to do.”
                                                                   Blowing up balloons sounded about as exciting as eating
     I’m not kidding. When I was 11, my 17-year-old
                                                                   my grandmother’s infamous “heartburn hash”.
cousin Leonard rented a 55-cubic foot helium tank to fill
balloons for a church carnival. I still remember coming
home to find him unloading the shiny aluminum cylinder                 “Suit yourselves,” Leonard shrugged his shoulders.
from the back of his truck.                                        “Have to go. I’ve got a date with Su-San” (he empha-
                                                                   sized the two syllables) “Tyler! We’re gonna go see that
                                                                   new Body Snatchers movie. Now you guys stay here and
     It was a hot summer evening, and Barney—my 7-
                                                                   DON’T TOUCH NOTHIN’!”
year-old neighbor—and I had just returned from con-
ducting experiments on Old Man Peterson, who was crazy.
Peterson was a hermit in his late ‘70’s who lived in a                 He hopped excitedly into his truck and in a moment
decrepit wooden shack in a field next to the woods. The            he was off.
shack had a tin roof, and Barney and I had discovered
that by applying the appropriate stimulus (namely by                     “Don’t touch nothin’” happened to be one of my
throwing small pebbles onto Peterman’s shiny tin roof              cousin’s favorite phrases. He was so fond of it, in fact,
from the relative safety of a clump of trees) we could             that I was quite sure he had begun using it reflexively. As
extricate the old man from his home (usually in his paja-          I watched his truck drive off down the street leaving a
mas) and cause him to dart madly about his yard, flailing          trail of dust and exhaust in its wake, I suddenly realized
his arms and chittering angrily.                                   that he really hadn’t meant ‘don’t touch nothin’’. Rather,
                                                                   he had intended to say ‘don’t let Barney touch nothin’’.
     The experiments proved to be very educational.
Barney would later remark that the waving and chittering               “Stay away from that tank!” I shouted to Barney who
was similar to something he had seen on the Discovery              was slowly being drawn to the cylinder like a zombie in
Channel, when electrical stimulus had been applied to              some hypnotic trance. “This should only be handled by
lab rats.                                                          professionals.”

     But now we were home, and we slowly coasted our                   “I want to blow up balloons tomorrow!” Barney
dirt bikes to the door of my garage and paused quietly             whined. “Why can’t we ever do what I want to do?”
before the newly arrived helium cylinder. Sitting upright
in the middle of the driveway with a gleaming point on                 “Because I’M the superhero, and you’re just my trusty
the top, it looked very much like a rocket. At that point in       sidekick,” I responded, running my fingers over the
my life, I had become a student of all things aeronauti-           smooth aluminum tank.
cal, so I was naturally intrigued.
                                                                      “Besides,” I added, an idea slowly forming in my head.
    “What is it?” I asked Leonard, a little awe struck.            “Why would we want to waste our time with balloons
                                                                   when there are so many other things we could launch?”
     “What does it mean?” Barney added. He stood with
his mouth open, his wide eyes hidden by dark sunglasses                “Like what?” Barney asked.
and his tie-died shirt fluttering in the wind. Barney’s par-
ents had been at Woodstock.
                                                                        I quickly darted to a shelf near the back of the ga-
                                                                   rage and picked up a box of those thin latex gloves—the
     “It’s a helium tank, kiddos,” Leonard shouted, an             type surgeons often wear. Standing on a chair, I fitted
excited smile on his face. He was carrying a large plastic         the open end of the glove to the nozzle of the tank, ap-
bag filled with balloons of various colors. “See? You fill         plied pressure, and watched as the five-fingered extru-
‘em up and set them off!” he demonstrated, launching a             sion swelled into the approximation of a plump hand.
bright red balloon into the air. It soared quickly into the        Barney giggled. After a few attempts, my nimble fingers
sunset sky and vanished behind a low-flying cloud.                 were able to tie off the opening, and I was delighted to
                                                                   see that the glove shot into the air as soon as I let it go—
    Barney’s eyes followed the balloon until it was lost           ascending even faster than the boring balloons my cousin
from sight, his neck craning back into the shape of a 90-          had used. I stared after it with a growing smile on my
degree plumbing elbow.                                             face as Barney jumped up and down, clapping with glee.

    “I’m gonna be blowing up balloons all day tomor-                   Moments later, the clear blue sky was peppered with
row,” Leonard said. “You guys wanna help me out?”                  dozens of latex gloves, perhaps the earliest precursor to

Experience The Arts With                                       7                                        Skyline Magazine
 “Hands Across America”. Barney was ecstatic and rushed                began to make sense.
 back to the garage to get another box, but I was already
 bored with the prospect. We needed something bigger.                       The letter we attached to each balloon was written in
                                                                       crayon. In it, we announced the formation of Heli-bags
     “Garbage bags!” I said excitedly.                                 Courier Service and explained our corporate mission: to
                                                                       fly stuff really far and make a million dollars. Because it
       Barney’s eyes became the size of—well—garbage                   was important for us to know the distance our garbage
                                                                       bags could cover, we included a self addressed stamped
 bags—and I rushed into the house, returning moments
 later with a box of super-jumbo black plastic trashbags.              envelope whereby the recipients of the bags could write
 With a growing sense of giddiness, we watched as the                  us back with their names and locations.
 first bag expanded with helium until it was roughly the
 size and shape of an infant pachyderm. The yellow plas-                   “Please accept this caramel as a small token of our
 tic ties that came with the bags did a great job of keeping           appreciation,” I wrote on the outside of the envelopes.
 the helium from escaping. Barney tugged on the bag a
 few times as it floated towards the ceiling of the garage.                Every morning, we would watch as dozens of gar-
 It displayed a surprising amount of lift.                             bage bags would float away into the distance. Some
                                                                       mornings the wind would blow in gales and the bags would
                                                                       be swept away immediately. Other days, the bags would
     “Hey!” Barney said excitedly. “It’s so light! I bet we            disappear behind large clouds. Either way, we knew that
 could use it to carry stuff!”                                         they would be transported to some far-off distant land.

      Before I go any further, there’s something you need                  “Maybe China,” I assured the anxious Barney.
 to know about Barney. He sprang from a very liberal,
 left-wing background. His father had been a key player                     A week and a half went by, but we heard nothing. I
 in the organization of Woodstock, and now made a living               ran to the mailbox every morning with expectation, only
 as a college professor and traveling speaker who lec-                 to be disappointed. Finally one bright Tuesday morning, I
 tured on what he called “the excesses of capitalism”. His             was surprised to discover one of our self addressed
 mother was a writer of New Age literature and an openly               stamped envelopes addressed to “Heli-bag Courier Ser-
 devout socialist. Thus I bore the full responsibility of teach-       vice”. Excitedly I tore open the envelope and read the
 ing Barney the ways of the world—especially in the areas              following letter:
 of business and making money.

     “Barney…you and I are gonna be rich,” I whispered.
                                                                                Dear Sir:
      Shortly thereafter, we launched what would prove to                       My name is Jeffrey. I am five years
 be the briefest start-up business ever recorded. We called                     old. How old are you. Thank you for
 it the “Heli-bag Courier Service”—an ambitious effort to                       the candy. I live in Shelbyville. I like
 deliver any payload (weighing under one pound) to any                          big bugs. My daddy was zooming on
 destination, utilizing a series of helium garbage bags. Of                     his motorcycle and hit your garbage
 course, any young entrepreneur knows that before you                           bags so he fell into a tree and that’s
 can get customers, you have to do surveys. Lots and lots                       why he is in the hospital. Do you like
 of surveys. So every morning at 8:00 AM (just after my                         big bugs too?
 cousin left for work), Barney and I would inflate dozens
 of garbage bags. To each bag we attached an envelope
                                                                                Mr. Jeffrey.
 containing a brief letter and a small piece of caramel.

     “Why do we have to use all the caramels?” Barney
                                                                       The next day, we were surprised to receive another letter:
     I sighed, amazed at Barney’s lack of business sense.
 The kid had so much to learn.                                                  Hey kid:
                                                                                I’m not going to give you my name
      “Because we can’t expect them to respond to our                           because I’m a vicious axe murderer
 surveys without giving them something in return,” I ex-
                                                                                who kills little children when they’re
                                                                                asleep at night. Do you know why I
     “But why can’t we use YOUR caramels?” Barney
                                                                                kill little children when they’re asleep
 asked.                                                                         at night? Because they send their
                                                                                stupid science projects to litter up
      “Because I’M the corporate CEO,” I said, trying to be                     innocent taxpayers’ property, that’s
 patient. “I need the sugar intake to stimulate my brain,                       why! I came home last night to find
 so I can keep coming up with innovative ideas and bril-                        eighteen garbage bags floating
 liant marketing ploys.”                                                        around my backyard! At first I thought
                                                                                it was some kind of veiled threat—
      Barney took this in slowly, glared at me skeptically                      maybe I had become the target of
 for a moment, then quietly relented. I could see that the                      some bizarre cult or something. Then
 more he thought about it, the more my point of view

“Reach for the Sky”                                                8                      Skyline Magazine Spring 2007
         I find out it’s you idiots! I wouldn’t be               tionally, I unzipped a knapsack to reveal boxes and boxes
         going to sleep from now on, if I was                    of jumbo garbage bags. I had also brought along a small
         you!                                                    fishing pole.
         The Boogeyman                                                “What’s the fishing pole for?” Barney asked quizzi-

                                                                     “We can only get arrested for littering!” I smiled mis-
We were even more mortified to discover this letter:             chievously. “If we tie the bags to a length of fishing line,
                                                                 we can reel them back in! No littering!”
         Dear Sirs:
         As a representative of the Federal                           “Ohhhh….” Barney replied, finally understanding why
         Aviation Administration, let me first                   I was the hero and he the sidekick. “But it’s dark! What’s
         congratulate you on the formation of                    the fun if we can’t see the bags?”
         “Heli-bag Courier Service”. The
         federal government encourages                                I reached into my knapsack and pulled out my next
         young entrepreneurs to take an active                   surprise: a string of battery powered flashing Christmas
         role in their community. However, I                     lights. Barney was elated.
         must inform you that your “payload
                                                                      We spent the next several minutes inflating garbage
         delivery apparatus” is in violation of
                                                                 bags—more garbage bags than we had ever used be-
         two FAA regulations and a state law                     fore. I brought along a length of string to tie them to-
         that prohibits public littering. The                    gether into one huge mass. We worked quietly, trying to
         punishment for such violations may                      keep out of eyesight of Old Man Peterson’s cabin. We
         include (but is not limited to) a $5,000                knew the danger, but his was the only place with a large
         fine and sixty (60) days in the county                  enough field nearby.
         Please take whatever action is                               After we had created a monstrous conglomeration of
         necessary to ensure that these                          forty-seven garbage bags, we wrapped them in a tidy
         infringements are rectified. Perhaps                    ribbon of lights. Our creation looked somewhat beautiful,
         you could try delivering your payloads                  if not downright artistic, with red, blue, green and or-
         by sailboat?                                            ange pinpoints flashing in a myriad of colors. Barney said
                                                                 it reminded him of the various colored sparks he saw
                                                                 when his father once stuck his finger into a live electrical
         Robert Gundafeld
                                                                 socket. It was very educational.

                                                                       The only problem was stability. We had the balloons
    Not surprisingly, the bottom subsequently dropped            tied to a small root in the ground and we knew that if we
out of “Heli-bags Courier Service”.                              tried to attach them to the fishing pole, they would get
                                                                 tangled up in the line. We had to find a way to keep them
    *             *                 *                            pointed in an upright position—something similar to the
                                                                 tail of a kite. Barney had the idea to fill some small bags
     “Get your stuff together and meet me out by the big         with pebbles and use them as ballast—an additive that
field near Old Man Peterson’s house,” I said. It was mid-        slightly impaired the lift of the balloons, but did its job
night, and I was standing on Barney’s front porch.               effectively.

    “Why? What’s going on?” Barney said, rubbing his                  At last we were ready to launch. As Barney held the
eyes. “My parents are asleep!”                                   fishing pole, I attached the end of the line to the balloons
                                                                 and walked them out to the center of the field. Barney
    “I know!” I whispered frantically. “Don’t wake them!         gave a short countdown.
My cousin has to take the helium tank back to the rental
store tomorrow! This is our last chance to use it!”                  “5…4…3…2…1…LIFTOFF!!!!”

    “I thought we gave up on that old thing!” Barney                  I let go of the bags and Barney punched the release
spouted angrily. “I’m too young to go to prison! I’m             button on the fishing pole, letting out a length of slack.
haven’t even been out on a date yet!”                            The balloons rose into the air in a brilliant wash of color.
                                                                 Length by length, the spool of fishing line unraveled, send-
    “We’re not going to prison! I’ve got a plan! Now get         ing the massive glob of garbage bags higher and higher.
your stuff and let’s go!” I said frantically.                    It was a wonderful moment. I cheered. We exchanged
    It was a windy evening, much cooler than usual for
the summertime. Near the edge of the field, the trees                Then the spool of line came to an end.
swayed and rustled furiously. There wasn’t a cloud in the
sky and the stars could be seen in all directions.                    There was a hideous shriek as Barney jolted forward,
                                                                 his stubby legs pounding, his tiny body forcing a tattered
     Barney was surprised to learn that I had already car-       path through the tall weeds. Although he had a death-
ried the helium tank to the field via a small cart. Addi-        grip on the fishing pole, I could see that it was exerting

Experience The Arts With                                     9                                        Skyline Magazine
 enormous upward force—almost enough to whip Barney                       That afternoon, my cousin came home and took the
 off the ground. It wasn’t quite enough though, and I made           helium tank back to the rental store. That was all right
 a mental note to add more bags next time. It was very               though—Barney and I already had our work cut out for
 educational.                                                        us. The following week, we began selling flying saucer
                                                                     detection kits for $5 a piece.
    “AAAAAAAGGGGHHHHH!!!!” Barney screamed. “I

      It was quite comical to watch Barney tear this way
 and that through the grass, whooping and hollering as he
 went. Things were made even more exciting when the
 wind picked up, causing the bags to tear though the sky
 in a wildly erratic pattern.

     There was a sudden jolt and far above, I could see
 one of the “ballast bags” rip open, raining hundreds of
 small pebbles down upon—of all things—Old Man
 Peterson’s roof, which was several yards away.

      I froze. A small porch light flickered on, and true to
 form, Old Man Peterson shot out like a bullet screaming
 and frantically waving his arms. When he saw a wild-
 eyed Barney madly rushing towards him with a fishing
 pole, he rushed back inside only to return with a large
 shotgun which he repeatedly fired into the air at irregu-
 lar intervals.

      Barney squealed and—much to my disappointment—
 let go of the fishing pole. Both it and the garbage bags
 soared into the air and disappeared from sight, the flash-
 ing lights vanishing off into the distance.

      I had been hiding behind a tree at this point and
 Barney sped by me in a flash, muttering something like
 “I have to go. I think I hear my pop calling me.”

      I found it somewhat surprising that Barney was able
 to hear anything over the gunshots and wild screaming
 coming from Old Man Peterson, but presently I thought I
 heard the call of my own parents just over the wind. I
 frantically scrambled for home and the safety of bed.

      The very next morning, Barney and I were shocked
 to learn that our town had recently been the unlikely
 tourist attraction for alien invaders.

      “It wasn’t saucer-shaped, like you see in the mov-
 ies,” claimed one eyewitness who had apparently seen
 the alien spacecraft and was being interviewed on the
 morning news. “No…it was much more terrifying. Big and
 bulbous…with red and blue flashing lights!”

      “The thing was huge!” cried another observer. “I’ve
 lived in this town for over fifty years and in all that time
 I ain’t never seen nothin’ so ugly poison our skies!”

      “I was working in my backyard, and the thing popped
 right into view!” said another. “It just hovered there for a
 few minutes—no doubt them alien critters was running
 one of their body scans over me. I got down on my hands
 and knees like they tell you to do during nuclear drills
 and just sat there waiting for them to take me. And then
 all of a sudden the darndest thing happens! I get beaned
 in the head with some doggoned fishin’ pole and the space-
 ship floats away!”

“Reach for the Sky”                                             10                     Skyline Magazine Spring 2007

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