Early in January, 2012, I attended a talk on the early balloon ascensions from the StratoBowl near Rapid City by Arley Fadness of Custer, who worked on balloon design with famous aeronaut Ed Yost. The ascension of 1935 was the beginning of the space age, but earlier experiments with balloons of various types had occurred all over the world.
I was surprised to learn that George Armstrong Custer, later a General, was involved in surveillance ballooning during the Civil War. The flamboyant Custer was said at the time to dress “like a circus performer gone mad.” His nickname was “Cinnamon” because he slicked back his long hair with a cinnamon-scented pomade. Assigned to balloon surveillance, he reportedly insisted on being accompanied by an experienced aeronaut and sat in the bottom of the gondola. Fadnes didn’t explain how he was able to spy out enemy movements from that position.
Custer’s connection with ballooning surprised and delighted me because a few years ago I wrote a poem about attending the balloon races in Custer, SD-- named for the General. When General Custer insisted on becoming part of the poem, I wasn’t especially happy but I did allow him to march onstage. The poem ended with evidence of my dislike of the General and his treatment of the Indians in the West. Now that I know more of the history of Custer’s experience with balloons, my poetic speculations about what Custer might have done with balloons in Western warfare seem less far fetched.
At the Balloon Races in Custer, South Dakota
In this green and granite canyon Horatio Ross found gold;
Yellow Hair wrote dispatches while the miners met.
In this green and granite canyon
we find sunrise and balloons.
Coffee steams as balloonists talk
to ranchers; breath explodes in still air;
three women in shorts jostle in a patch of sunlight.
Seven baskets lie beside seven fans,
chill air swells silk pockets bigger than the bank,
the blue and white one looms over the courthouse,
twice as high as the sheriff's office.
Patchwork colors shimmer, as if
christening dresses and ball gowns
were sacrificed and stitched
No man can steer a balloon;
wind is its only master.
Seven balloons inhale flame;
Bags of air high as mountains
bob like boats on a bowl of air.
Like fat men in bright nightgowns
bumping bellies, the balloons quiver.
A burner blazes. There is no signal.
A balloon rises. No one cheers.
The man below the burner waves;
we all wave back.
Seven balloons lift
over the broad green valley where the ghost
of Custer rides. Eight hundred spectral men
pick pale flowers to garland spirit horses.
Custer nods, waves, smiles to see
they sent balloons to meet him;
his worth is recognized; now
he can send the gold dispatches,
begin wresting this land
from the savages
who don't appreciate him either.
# # #
This poem appears in Land Circle, published 1991 by Fulcrum Publishing.
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