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Communicators AND Others Enjoying Retirement
Issue 34October 1998Volume 3 - Number 11

Welcome to the CANDOER News. Suggestions as to what you would like to see in the CANDOER are welcome. Letters to the editor, articles consisting of general information, feature articles, G-rated jokes, or poems, written/submitted by retirees or OC/IM employees, past or present, will be published, unedited. Material may be submitted on a 3.5" floppy disk (disk will be returned) using WordPerfect Version 6.1 or earlier (if it contains graphics), on a plain sheet of paper (if it has no graphics) or via e-mail. The deadline for submitting material is no later than the 25th of each month. Material received after that date will be published in the next issue of the CANDOER, space allowing. Please, restrict articles/submissions to two single spaced, typed pages. No hand written submissions, please.

The snail-mail address for submissions or letters to the editor is:

Robert J. Catlin, Sr.
Publisher/Editor CANDOER News
2670 Dakota Street
Bryans Road, MD 20616-3062


Samson in Pretoria

by Jim Steeves

In the early spring of 1979 our good friends were declared persona non grata in Israel and had to leave the country within a few days but they didn't mind terribly. Their new post was Pretoria, South Africa. They packed hastily and off they went with children, dog, and household effects. Their dog was a silver poodle, as was Samson. (The dogs were not related.) We were sorry to see them go but that's life in the Foreign Service. Several months later, I was informed of my transfer to Cape Town, via home leave in the States. We had once taken Samson home, (from Ireland) on home leave which, for us, meant traveling from Maine to D.C. and Wisconsin, with countless stops on the way. It isn't quite as much fun as it might seem. This time, the cost of shipping him to the States and later to South Africa would be prohibitive, so we asked our friends in Pretoria to make the necessary arrangements to board Samson in a kennel while we were on home leave. Naturally, we hoped they would offer to keep him at their house and that, if they did, their dog would not object. They did make the offer, so we sent him on a flight that traversed the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar and thence down the west coast of Africa to Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg. Quite a long flight for the little guy but he had already done two trans-Atlantic crossings, so we felt he'd be okay. Indeed, we got a telegram from our friend telling us that he had arrived and seemed to be getting on well with their dog and that we should not worry while on home leave.

Several months later, in October, after an overnight flight to London from New York and a 13-hour flight from London to Johannesburg, we wobbled into the terminal just a hair short of insanity. Our youngest daughter had an ear infection on the plane and screamed for nearly six hours during the flight. Somewhere around the Canary Islands, our body clocks had given up trying to figure out what time it was and, combined with the anxiety about Jenny's condition, we were ready to throttle anyone who got in our way. All we wanted was to see our friend and get to his house, where we were going to spend several days before continuing our journey to Cape Town, with Samson.

After clearing customs and being disappointed that our friend hadn't managed to find us, we searched the terminal for him. He wasn't to be found. We were beyond weariness. I found a phone and telephoned the Embassy. The operator put me through to our friend's office. I forget now whether he forgot the flight or just couldn't make it but he gave us the address and suggested we take a taxi to his house in Pretoria. We began the job of finding a taxi and fitting forty pieces of luggage and us into it.

The driver found Pretoria without difficulty but he hadn't a clue where our friend's neighborhood was. Eventually, after asking several pedestrians, we got onto the right street which led north and up a very long, gradual incline. We were bedazzled by the view of the Jacaranda trees in full blossom. As we got closer to the street number, we spotted, about a block ahead, something which appeared to be a sheep, sitting quietly alongside the busy street, outside the walls of a large house. We continued slowly and when we got near the animal, saw that this was our friend's street address and, by then, we realized that the animal sitting there was a dog. It seemed curious that this animal would just be sitting there, watching the traffic. When one of us got out of the car, all gradually became clear. After a few moments of hesitation, when it seemed to be examining us, it charged over and went wild with excitement. It was Samson, with a six-month growth of fur and several pounds of dirt!

I don't remember our reaction but my wife and me, and our two little girls, were awfully happy to see the little guy. We also wondered how he got out there. We had to walk around the corner to find the gate; took all our stuff through it to the house and told the missus that Samson had been outside. She was as astonished as we were. She said he had never gone outside the gate but that it was occasionally left open for short periods for one reason or another.

Samson never told us whether he went out there now and then to look for his family.

DEATH OF Vivian L. Haynesworth

It is with deep regret that I inform you of the death of a one of our GS colleagues, Vivian L. Haynesworth. Vivian died on August 6, 1998, from complications of severe Arthritis. Vivian retired from OC/T with 31 years of government service in 1979.

DEATH OF Sam and Sarah Spector

It is with deep regret that I inform you of the death on August 30 of Sarah Spector and on September 4 of Sam Spector. Sam died after a long fight with dementia at a hospital in Clearwater, Florida.

Sam and Sarah's internments were at Arlington National Cemetery on September 8, 1998.


I wish to thank those of you who responded to my request for more stories. You will find an article in this months issue from Bob Sandberg about his successful fight against prostate cancer.


The following thoughts were furnished by Bill Weatherford. In Bill's e-mail message he said he "lifted them from the New Mexico Prime Time, a local senior citizen Paper, and should help you put your age in perspective."

Consider this:

The majority of the Freshman class entering college this fall was born in 1980.

Their lifetime has always included AIDS. Atari predates them, as do vinyl albums. They may have heard of an 8-track, but chances are they probably have never actually seen or heard one. The digital disc was introduced when they were one year old.

As far as they know, postage stamps have always cost about 32 cents. They have always had an answering machine. Most have never seen a TV set with only 13 channels.

They were born the year Sony introduced the Walkman. They have no idea when or why Jordache jeans were cool (although I'll admit I have trouble figuring that one out, too). They never went swimming in the ocean and thought about jaws. They have no idea what "... and my name is Charlie. They work for me." means.

They don't know that 867-5309 is Jenny's phone number. They don't know who Mork was or where he was from. They never heard the expression "Where's the beef?"

Last but not least, Cyd Charise is 76.

How's that make you feel?


On September 7, I received a call from Phineas Restaurant. They called to let me know they would be closed on Tuesday, September 8, the day of our luncheon. They have a blocked/broken sewer pipe and have to close the restaurant, until they can correct this situation.

Up-Date - Embassy Bombing

Since last month's issue a lot has transpired in regard to Clyde Hirn and Frank Pressley.


Clyde has been transferred to the Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. He suffered a closed head trauma that is going to take time to mend. Clyde has many family members in Ohio. He will be able to receive visits from them. The Doctors, at Walter Reed, believe that this close proximity to family may help Clyde in his recovery.

On September 8, I received an e-mail from Clyde's sister, Ellie. Ellie said that Frank is sounding less confused and disoriented, but he is frustrated because his memory is so slow coming back.


Frank was discharged from Walter Reed on August 27. He was released for outpatient care. For a while he is staying at the Malogne (pronounced Malone) House Hotel, on the grounds of Walter Reed. Malogne House Hotel is a family living quarters where his family stayed while he was hospitalized.

I will let you know how Frank is doing, in his own words:


The first few weeks were very, very hard, with many questions, stress, and just plain confusion. As I lay on the many operating tables and transferred from airplane to airplane to ambulances, many thoughts went through my mind. The one most important to me was that Yasemin is well, my children are well and I knew that I would make it --- although I would have to endure a lot of pain and frustration on the road to recovery.

My jaw was completely shattered in the front and broken in three other places. What a pain. My mouth was wired shut and I couldn't eat, skin ripped apart and I had several operations. All but a bit of the swelling is gone now, and I can open my mouth. I have braces on the top and lower teeth, but the braces will be removed soon. The initial problems are gone. I still have some plastic surgery to come and they have to remove the plates they inserted in my mouth and jaw and do some fine tuning of some broken and moved teeth.

I was wired shut until a few days ago and had to eat through a straw or syringe, I don't recommend this diet plan! I can now eat soft foods, i.e., noodles, soups, and the past two days I have had broiled white meat fish --- GREAT!

With food, I feel so much stronger each day. I am still on antibiotics but no other drugs or IVs.

I am walking every day now, slowly, but walking. All the stitches are out of my legs and left knee. Looks like I will be okay there.

My left shoulder lost a chunk of bone at the very top and I lost the large muscle on the shoulder plus the rotator cup. So while I have full use of my left elbow and hand, not much movement with the left shoulder. I have had five operations on it, but am somewhat back to normal. I can move my fingers and arm but the shoulder is really painful, plus I have to go through physical therapy to build up muscle in my shoulder. Surely, I won't have 100 percent use and full movement of the shoulder, especially elevating it above my head, but otherwise, I should be able to scratch my nose, comb my hair, and place and remove things from my pockets. Not a bad price to pay for LIFE.

They moved me out of the hospital to a hotel just three blocks from the main hospital. Very convenient for myself and my family. My wife takes care of me daily. She too was in the Embassy during the blast. She had minor cuts and scratches, plus some hearing problems being experienced. Otherwise, except for the shock, she is doing ok. We found out in Germany that she is pregnant. We are very happy about that.

My children are here, across the hall, so I have some privacy but can also see them daily. We are doing good under the circumstances.

I am very strong and will get stronger. All in all, it will be a slow recovery but I am very lucky to be alive. Lucky to have my sight, legs, arms and just to be able to function with some limitations. We are taking one day at a time but spirits are HIGH. Keep the prayers coming.

All the best from Washington.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Many of you may have heard from Frank by now. He arranged with the AF bureau for the loan of a computer. I sent him a CD/ROM with 100 free hours of AOL and he has gotten free e-mail with Juno and is networking with many of his friends. Frank asks that you use AOL as his primary e-mail address.

Retiree's Report

On August 26th, I received an e-mail from David Neuser. David had heard about the CANDOERs from Rey Grammo. David furnished his bio which can be found in the Pen and Ink section of this issue. David also has an e-mail address, which may be found on the last page of this and every issue.

On August 27th, I received an e-mail from Tom Schuh. Tom asked to be added to the e-mail list of CANDOERs. You will find Tom's e-mail address on the last page of this and every issue.

On August 28, I received an e-mail from Audrey Anderson. Audrey is assigned to Geneva and wanted information about the CANDOERs. I sent her my standard CANDOER note.

On August 30, I received an e-mail message from Frank Pressley. Frank is on-line and furnished his and his wife's, Yasemin, e-mail addresses. They may be found on the last page of this issue and future issues.

On September 1, I received an e-mail from Sid Reeves. Sid is back on assignment to the Washington area. His new snail-mail and e-mail addresses may be found in the Pen and Ink section of this issue.

On September 1, I received a call from Doug Goodgion. Doug was looking for information on Frank. He furnished his e-mail address. It may be found on the last page of this and every issue.

On September 7, I received a call from Charlie Hoffman. I had Charlie's birthday wrong in the Directory of Members and he called to furnish the correct date and his career assignment list. This information will be shown in the next issue of the Directory.

On September 7, I received an e-mail from Floyd and Patti Hagopian. They are now living at Embden Pond, Maine. Their new e-mail address may be found on the last page of this and every issue.

On September 8, I received an e-mail message from Richard Kalla. He furnished his new e-mail address. It may be found on the last page of this and every issue.

On September 9, I received an e-mail from Vic Maffei. Vic furnished his bio and e-mail address. This information may be found in the Pen and Ink section of this issue.

On September 15, Barry Leonard furnished his work e-mail address. It may be found on the last page of this and every issue.

On September 17, I received an e-mail message from Glenn Jones. Glenn's e-mail address may be found on the last page of this and every issue.

My Fight Against Prostate Cancer
by Bob Sandberg

A recent issue of the CANDOER News (Volume 3 - Number 9 - August 1998) solicited articles for publication. It occurred to me that perhaps a recounting of my recent experience with prostate cancer, the second most fatal cancer in men, might be of benefit to others.

In the spring of 1997, I took a routine Prostatic Specific Antigen (PSA) test which revealed an elevated PSA. However, a sextant biopsy failed to detect any irregularities and I was advised to return in six months. With a false sense of complacency, my wife and I continued to plan our long-awaited six week trip to Cape Town. However, by the end of November my PSA had again risen. At this point, I elected to go to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. They performed 10 segment biopsies, instead of six segment biopsies. The result was cancer, in the areas not previously biopsied. My life took an abrupt turn. Fortunately, South African Airways refunded our ticket cost and we were off on a new, unexpected adventure.

My wife, Sally, and I immediately began to research various forms of treatment, after rejecting the Mayo Clinic's recommendation of a prostatectomy, because of known side effects.

Quite by accident, I learned about the Radiotherapy Clinics of Georgia in Decatur, a suburb of Atlanta, which has the oldest implant program in the U.S. Dr. Frank Critz, Medical Director, is an advocate of radioactive iodine seed implants, followed by external beam radiation He has a ten-year track record whose success rate is equal to that of having a prostactectomy.

Fortunately, there was a cancellation in December and on the 22nd I had the seed implants in a 30-minute procedure. I, personally, experienced some discomfort, but others did not have the same complaint. The seed implantation is a minor surgical procedure done under general anesthesia. A urologist inserts thin, hollow 8 inch needles through the perineum (area of skin between the testes and anus). Usually 25 needles are inserted. Dr. Critz then injected the radioactive seeds through the hollow needles into the prostate. The number of seeds depends on the extent of the cancer and remain in the body.

Because I was from out of town, and staying in my motorhome, I elected to remain in the hospital overnight. The next day, I left the hospital at 8:00 a.m. and Sally and I drove back to Florida! There is no blood loss during this procedure, although I felt fatigue.

Three weeks later, I returned to Georgia for the mandatory external beam radiation. The usual course is six weeks but as I had an aggressive cancer, (Gleason score 8 on a scale of 10) I was given the longer treatment. The radiation was carefully charted and monitored. The daily treatments were very brief. However, there was often time to chat with other prostate patients when they were running behind schedule. My wife and I met many interesting people from all of the U.S. All had researched their options and were very pleased with their choice. Every other Tuesday there was a complimentary dinner get-together at the clinic which was a very upbeat experience, as was the daily routine.

About the second week, I began to experience more fatigue and found that I slowed down and needed an afternoon nap. (The biggest complaint we heard was boredom with shopping and watching too many movies!) I also had, and continue to have, some mild discomfort and take medicine to relax the prostate area. Virtually everyone experiences urgency of urination which lessens with time, but can be a big inconvenience, unless you plan your life around restrooms.

Needless to say, every cancer is different and treatments vary. I am most pleased, however, that I selected this option. I later learned that there was a 50 per cent chance the cancer had escaped the prostate, and gone to nearby areas, and probably considerably greater given my "scary" Gleason score. A prostatectomy likely would not have had the desired effect.

Most physicians believe that the PSA is the true indicator of the progress of the cancer and post-treatment success. Under the Clinic's criteria, a patient must achieve, and maintain, an undetectable PSA of at least 0.5 and preferable 0.2, for 10 years following treatment, to be considered cured. At three weeks, and again at three months, my PSA had dropped to 0.3. My most recent PSA, at six months, was 0.2! We have remained in contact with all of the others who were at the Clinic at the same time. Some have seen a significant drop in their PSA's, although none as dramatically as mine nor as quickly. It can take up to 18 months to achieve the lowest PSA.

It is imperative that men take a simple blood test annually, starting at age 50, or at age 40 for those who have a father or brother who had had prostate cancer. The same is even more true for African American men. Unfortunately, we heard sad stories about individuals who waited too long, who had been given bad advice by their primary care physicians, or who were thought to be "too young" to have prostate cancer. You must educate yourself about prostate cancer and take control of your life!

The Radiotherapy Clinic publishes a very informative free brochure about the seed implant/external beam radiation procedure. They may be reached at 1-800-952-7687. There is also extensive info on the Internet.

If anyone would like to speak with me personally, I can be reached after November 1st at my home in Stuart, FL (561) 288-1757.

I appreciate receiving the CANDOER News and would enjoy reading articles by retirees about how they are filling their lives these days, retirement utopias they have discovered, recommended health plan changes upon reaching age 65, etc.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An Internet search, using radioactive+iodine+seed+implants resulted in 58 hits, all giving information about this procedure. Many of the hits listed different locations, throughout the U.S., where this procedure is available.

Resourceful RCO
by James F. Prosser

The Foreign Service has had a number of memorable Regional Communications Officers (RCO), but none was more resourceful than Howard Brown, known affectionately to all as "Brownie."

When I was stationed in Leopoldville, in the Belgian Congo 1962-64, we had an extensive regional emergency shortwave radio network. Brownie at the time was the RCO in Accra, Ghana and came for a visit to address the post's antenna problems.

The Embassy roof was already a forest of antennas, and the emergency network reception suffered because of the proximity of several higher powered ones. Brownie said, "We've got to move the antenna away, and raise it much higher. Let's get the Ambassador's permission to move it to the Marine House which is only 100 meters distant and has plenty of grounds."

Permission was quickly granted.

When Brownie found out, a Canadian military unit was responsible for United Nations communications in the Congo, he said, "I want to meet their commander." I arranged the meeting for that afternoon, but had no idea what he had in mind and could not accompany him as the communications center was overwhelmed with work.

About three hours later, Brownie comes back in a UN truck loaded with a 120-foot antenna tower in 10-foot sections, plus all the guy-wires and anchoring equipment! All we had to do was furnish the coaxial cable link to the Embassy and relocate our 3-element rotary beam antenna on top of it, once it was erected.

Brownie told the Administrative Officer, this was all gratis and that "the Canadians would be over Saturday morning to erect it. Make sure there are plenty of Primus beer and food available!" I don't recall how much was consumed, but whatever the amount, it was worth it.

Now that's resourcefulness!

P.S. Brownie, now in his 90's, had an incapacitating stroke about 10 years ago. He and his wife "Bobbie" live in Salinas, California.

Remembering My Assignment to DC/T - 1957-1960
by Graham Lobb

We returned to the U.S. from Southampton on the SS America. Most of the passengers had the Asian Flu, including Roberta and David. It was a very rough crossing, according to the crew who put up ropes around the decks used by passengers.

Our home away from home was the Francis Scott Key Apartments, located on the campus of The George Washington University, not far from State. Here we awaited the return of our effects and made arrangements for an apartment at Fort Bennett-just off Lee Highway in Rosslyn.

Since I had Civil Service status, from a previous job in the Federal Government, I reverted to a GS-5 and was assigned to the day shift in DC/T, under Supervisor Ray Watson. He was assisted by Ruth Rinker.

I recall the other day shift employees as follows: Bill Ward, Eugene Caruso, Don Prince, Bob Liebau, Bill Devoe, Jim Gansel, Margaret Griffith, Mary Stevens, Leotha Jones, and George Mitchell.

Earl Newton was Chief and Bob Nichols was his deputy. Morton Lawlor was in the front office.

Elsie Crim's Training Section was located near the Code Room. At the time, I remember, Helen Campbell, Judy Kley, "Lindy" Lindberg, Henry Parisella, and Katherine "Willie" Williams. I had previously known "Willie" in the WACS, assigned to the Central Bureau in Australia.

There were others in the various sections which made up the Telegraph Branch. I recall, Mrs. Helen Malloy, Bob Lochmiller, Bill Callihan, Jeff Searcy, Reuben Gomez, Lee Harris and his wife Betty, and Mrs. Sears.

Foreign Service personnel were also assigned to DC/T. It was there I met Bill Ewing, Milton Cochran, Jim Homes, and others that I no longer recall.

Frank Horton and Vince Monti were Watch Officers. Augie Brahn was in the Cage. I almost forgot Warren Spurr.

Our effects arrived and we moved to the Fort Bennett Apartments. On weekends, I could drive into State, for I had no regular parking.

Roberta was at home with David, too young for school, until later.

DC/T was a work factory, which always reminded me of Jackie Gleason's scene; as he finally placed a cherry on the finished cake! There were telegrams and more telegrams; at old 66 WPM circuits handled on commercial circuits by the International Records Carriers (IRCs).

Cuba was to become a problem as Castro took over.

In July 1958, came the coup in Baghdad, where I was supposed to go. I felt relieved to be in the U.S. with my family.

On vacations, we went each summer to Oklahoma, exploring a different route back across America which was fast losing out to the new Interstate highways. We stopped at motels, fishing camps, and flooded out our MG in the Ozarks! We saw Harlan Country, Kentucky, visited Sykeston, Missouri, crossed the Mississippi at Memphis; and then got chiggers picking blackberries in Oklahoma. Roberta caught a giant channel catfish near Fort Gibson.

Foreign Service friends from our previous assigned posts dropped by as we had Kabul, London, and The Hague reunions.

1959 marked Castro's takeover of Havana, which confused the Eisenhower Administration. To this day he is still in power!

Other DC/T old hands were Eleanor Lowery, Jean Towns and Helen Koval.

Circuits reached State on local loops from the IRCs. Aside from UNCLASSIFIED, the others were five letter code groups or scrambled tape. They came up from the fifth floor to the sixth floor. Here, hard copy was retained and the Code Section did the rest! A long conveyor belt ran from the Code Room around to where the hard copy and finished copy were matched to the State Internal Control Number.

Sometimes completed messages became twisted around the conveyor belt. I can still see Ray Watson digging out a message that went astray!

The Code Room had a Service Desk, that sent service messages overseas to posts resolving garbled telegrams, missing portions, and undecipherable. It fell on the new FS trainees to work on the undecipherable.

Along side the conveyor belt were MOT positions and a circuit to Warrenton. Here, a State group enciphered and set out messages via Western Union.

In the rear of the Code Room were MEC five-rotor or ten-rotor encryption equipment with a row of baskets to hold the rotors. The MEC was similar to the Army Sigaba, but with Navy features, then readapted to State for diplomatic use.

In the front room were Editors who prepared the deciphered messages for eventual typing to be run off on HECTO and later Mimeograph.

I would not say modernization hit State communications until the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Ogg Report.

As I prepared to leave for Port-au-Prince in early 1960, Bob Nichols was working on the new Philipps System. I almost forgot Tim Tangeman who once worked at the Pentagon, as did Lou Correri, now at USUN New York.

Promotions were hard to come by and I finally made GS-6, before converting back to FSS. The Department was a true hardship post in the economic way, especially with a family!. I welcomed any and all overtime while on duty in DC/T.

By 1959, David had entered school in Arlington County. We were ready to head out again and my name went to the Panel. The Moscow assignment fell through, then came Tripoli, and finally it was Haiti.

In late May, we sailed from New York on the ANCON, of the Panama Lines, for Port-au-Prince and a new career in the Foreign Service.

While being in DC/T, I made long time friends, like Bill Callihan, Bob Nichols, Lindy, Henry Parisella, Milton Cochran and others who came out on FS assignments.

I recall Stu Branch, Sam Blaise, Randy Goodnight, Paul Terry and others who rendered maintenance to the equipment and would turn up overseas.

The Governor Shephard or "Good Shepherd" as Bill Ewing called it, was a place to pour libations and shoot the breeze. I also fondly remember Kitty and Als' and when Maroccos was up on the Avenue.

Still standing is the Allan Lee, some called "Allan Flea," and the Francis Scott Key which became part of the George Washington University campus.

Letterman's was once a real tourist home with rocking chairs on the porch. Also the All States Dining Room was a spot where one could get a chicken dinner for a buck in the days before inflation.

The other day, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a call from Eugene "Gene" Caruso a former member of the DC/T day shift. Gene still plays golf every day. He sounded hale and hearty and is in touch with Bill Ward. Recently I heard from Bill Callihan. We also recall our TDY in San Jose, when Castro was kicked out of the OAS and also Trujillo.

The members of DC/T were hard working, dedicated and played a key role in supporting Diplomatic Communications.

In closing, I almost forgot going on an EXERCISE with Bob Nichols and Carl Verney to the site at the old remount station near Front Royal. It was an alternate site in case of nuclear attack on Washington. Thank God, we never had to evacuate!

Fall Spectacle - Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta
by Jim Steeves

There are two kinds of Fall spectacle, which come to my mind. One is the work of Mother Nature and the other of human design. I come from Maine where the color of leaves in late September dazzle the eye and mind. Driving along rural roads is intoxicating when you see branches from one side of the road reaching across to touch those on the other side; when the leaves are a riot of colors with blue sky above.

The other kind of spectacle also takes place in the Fall but a few thousand miles west of New England. It's in Albuquerque. Imagine a day during which the temperature is 75, the air bone dry and the sky as blue as can be from horizon to horizon. I mean a hundred miles of horizon from Albuquerque to Mt. Taylor to the west (about 100 miles), or the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Santa Fe (about 75 miles north), distant mountains way off to the south. On the eastern edge of the city one cannot see beyond the Sandia and Manzano Mountains which rise up over 10,000 feet.

Picture then, all that blue sky and weather so beautiful and then add a hot air balloon in that sky, it's colors so bright, silently moving across the city with the breeze. Got it? Now imagine not one, or two but two hundred other balloons up there. If you can do that you have an idea of what the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta looks like. There are hundreds more balloons which are entered in the 9-day Balloon Fiesta but it's hard to have more than a few hundred up at the same time. The Balloon Fiesta in 1996 was, I think, capped at 650 balloons. There is nothing like it anywhere in the world. Other major hot air balloon events may have as many as 40 or 50. This one is in a class by itself. So, what's it all about?

Almost 25 years ago thirteen balloon owners gathered at one of the shopping centers to fly their balloons. The following year more balloons were launched and an even larger crowd was attracted. The numbers grew dramatically in the succeeding few years. The event had grown too large for the shopping center so the city allowed launching of balloons at the race course in the state fair grounds. Eventually it outgrew the fairgrounds too so a still larger location was provided.

In 1995 the number of official entries reached 600. Entrants had been capped at that figure because the balloon field could not accommodate all who applied. Many late applicants found a launch site on the west side of the city but they were unable to participate in the official events. Still, they were balloonists from around the U.S. and abroad who enjoyed spending time with other balloonists so they kept coming. I doubt anyone kept track of the official and non-official balloons - it could have been 800 or more.

By 1996 the city had acquired the current balloon field which is half a mile north of the previous one. Once again, the number of entrants was increased. I don't know what it is now; probably above 700.

Apart from the visual delight of several hundred balloons in the sky, why should it interest you? Perhaps because you can walk in and around the fields where balloon crews are spreading out their balloon envelopes, getting them ready to inflate. You can help. Of course, you can also trip over a rope and get yelled at. Sooner or later someone is going to get hurt badly, perhaps killed, and then spectators on the field will come to an end. You can feel the heat of the gas jets, tug on a rope to help the crew, help tether the balloon until launch or just stand around and snap photos. (Be sure to use 36-exposure film because you'll be snapping a lot of pictures and won't want to reload every ten minutes.)

Here's how they do it.

I'll have to make up numbers because I'm a little behind it now since missing the Balloon Fiesta in 1997. When the entrants were held at 600, three waves of balloons were launched during the "Mass Ascension." (That's when all the balloons are scheduled to fly.) Three waves were needed because there was room enough on the field for only 200 balloons to prepare for launch. Officials gave launch instructions to all pilots in the first row. They moved to the second row and ordered those balloons launched, and so on down the field. As soon as a row had cleared of balloons, new crews moved in with their pickup trucks and another row of balloons was prepared for launch, and so on down the field. When the last row of the first wave had cleared, the officials returned to the first row to start the second wave.

Depending on how the wind blows (too much halts the whole shebang), balloons will stream south, southeast. or to all points of the compass as the wind shifts. In an hour the sky can be filled with balloons.

There are two main types of hot air balloons: normal shaped balloons and special shapes. The special shapes can be just about anything. About a hundred special shaped balloons participated in the 1996 Balloon Fiesta. Among many others they had: a moon with a cow jumping over it; a statue of liberty; a witch on a broom stick; a steam locomotive; a Harley hog with rider; bottles of whiskey; the Klondike polar bear and the list goes on.

When is it?

The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, as it is known locally, (the "official" name is "The Kodak Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta" but locals are contemptuous of that advertising rubbish) starts on the first Saturday of October. It runs through the week and ends on the second Sunday - so it's nine full days from start to finish.

There are three or four "mass ascensions" in which all entrants participate; there are special shapes events and there are balloon glows. A balloon glow is where several hundred balloons are tethered to the ground, at night. They pour the gas to their balloons so they glow kind of like a jack-o-lantern. Again, one or two is something to see but a hundred is hard to describe.

Special events take place during the nine days of the Balloon Fiesta. One of them is called "The Key Grab." That is an event in which participants launch and then try to maneuver their balloons so that they can grab a set of car keys which are placed atop a tall pole. To make sense of what I mean by "maneuver", I must explain one of the features that make Albuquerque uniquely suitable for a balloon fiesta of this magnitude.

Albuquerque has what balloonists call the "box." The box is an imaginary vertical rectangle. OK, on paper, draw a rectangle. Turn the paper up on an edge and you have a vertical rectangle. The pilot fires his gas jets; hot air provides lift; the balloon rises. At a certain height the balloon is caught in a breeze and drifts, say, east. The balloon floats a mile or two east then the pilot gives it some more gas. The balloon lifts higher and catches a breeze blowing west. The pilot gets near where she wants to be and then opens the top of the envelope a little to release hot air and the balloon descends. That, plus a sense of knowing which way the wind blows at various altitudes, is how to "steer" a balloon. It works; every year someone wins the car. A heck of a lot of balloonists come close to the pole and often it looks like a crew member will fall out of the gondola trying to grab the keys.

Sequence of preparing a balloon for launch.

A crew spreads the envelope over an area of about 50 by 100 feet for a standard balloon. Twice that, perhaps, for a special shape balloon. Several crew members hold open the throat of the balloon while a really big fan powered by a lawn mower engine blows cold air into it. At some point of inflation, the jets on the gondola, which is sitting on its side, are fired blasting hot air into the opening. As hot air continues to enter the envelope, it rises and eventually lifts the gondola upright. The crew and anyone else who cares to help, holds on to the gondola to keep the balloon tethered to the ground until zebra-stripped officials give the launch signal.

Weather conditions.

At about a mile above sea level, in October, it's pretty nippy on the balloon field when it's dark. You should arrive at the balloon field no later than 6 a.m. and you can be sure that it will be cold. You should have a hat, a pair of gloves and layered clothing and you'll still be cold. (Bear in mind that, in the desert, especially high desert country, there's a big difference in temperature between day and night.) When the sun rises above the Sandias, around 7:30 it warms up quickly. You'll be full of hot chocolate or coffee by then but you'll also start removing clothing because by 9 the temperature will have reached 75 . Then you can move around comfortably if you have a backpack in which to stash all that excess clothing. You also want to have a strong sunscreen - say around 45 because you'll be in short sleeves by 9 and the sun in that part of the world is hell on any exposed skin. There's over 5000 feet less of the thickest atmosphere between the sun and you in high desert country compared to most of the U.S. Don't put this to the test because you can get a vicious burn in half an hour. Baseball caps are not as good as hats with a brim all the way around, unless you don't care about burning off your ears and getting lobster necks.

I've already mentioned the pleasure of being right on the field and feeling the heat from the gas jets when the temperature is around 40 but there's another perspective to the whole thing too. There are locations where you can park your car and watch the hundreds of balloons drift on past, some just a few hundred feet high and others only a few feet up. Viewing the show from a distance allows a view of many more balloons than you can see on the Balloon Field (you can only see a few dozen closest to you) though you absolutely must go to the balloon field to see it from there, too.

During this nine day love affair with balloons, one can witness strange things, such as your dog going nuts for no apparent reason until you hear the whoosh sound of the gas jets on a balloon floating thirty feet above your house. And chase crews provide quite an interesting thing to keep in mind. Each balloon has a chase crew. There's a pilot and, if he/she is local, the chase crew will be drawn from among family and friends. They help launch and recover the balloons all year round. Other balloonists who come from out of town, are provided with a local chase crew through the event organization. For example, my retired neighbor made himself available to anyone who needed a chase crew. He had himself to offer and a full-size pickup truck so he was fully qualified. The organization lined up several other people and, together, they constituted a chase crew that was assigned to two British businessmen and their wives. They had a wonderful time ballooning, socializing and touring around and above Albuquerque for a week.

Chase crews must, of course, drive onto the field to line up as directed by the officials. They then follow pilot instructions to prepare the envelope for inflation. When it is released to the sky they pile into the pickup and head out the gate, following the balloon by radio. As you would expect, the balloon will go whichever way the wind blows but the pickup kind of has to stay on the roads. When a balloon comes down in a field, a back yard or an industrial parking lot chase crews make every effort to assist the pilot in avoiding damage to the envelope from cactus or any other hazardous object. The pilot might just set down to let off a passenger and take on a new one for a ride or, might want to pack it all into the truck. That can be a very tricky operation, depending on the room available and other circumstances. At this time of year, there is a lot of traffic within a radius of 5 miles of the balloon field. You should not be surprised if a pickup with three or four people in the back heads the wrong-way down a one-way street; bounces over a sidewalk or heads of into the bush. In New Mexico, driving laws are kind of winked at in the best of times so that's another reason why the Balloon Fiesta (not "festival") is particularly suited to Albuquerque.

OK, what do you do when the show's over for the day? Well, my routine evolved to watching the first wave take off and then heading for the car - half a mile away. Then we'd head for one of my favorite restaurants for a big Mexican breakfast: breakfast burritos being among my favorites or to Marie Calendars' (Spain and Eubank) for a pile of pancakes, eggs and bacon. Excellent Mexican restaurants near the Balloon Field include "GrandMas" on Osuna and "Fiesta" on Carlisle and Montgomery. The "Cracker Barrel", just off I-25 is beautifully situated to see the balloons float by. While at the restaurant, don't be surprised to see a balloon land in the parking lot with the chase crew looking like the Keystone Cops trying to clear traffic, find space to pack the envelope and throw the smallest member of the chase crew into the bag basket. (It's a tradition.) Another restaurant for really hot food is Sadies on 4th Street, near Osuna but you'd better know what you're doing if you eat at Sadies. The gratis chip dip alone will take the tip off your tongue. Finally, ride the cable car (for some odd reason the locals call it "the tram") to the top of the Sandias' and look down on Albuquerque and the Rio Grande Valley from 10,650 feet, especially when night falls and the city lights are on. There's a restaurant at the cable car station which makes a nice locale for a romantic evening.

Then, having got up around 4:30 to head for the balloon field, it's time to go home for a snooze. But there's a lot more going on in Albuquerque during the Balloon Fiesta.

There's a great excitement in this city of about 600,000 people, because the Balloon Fiesta brings in hundreds of thousands of people from around the country and from many foreign countries. Among the visitors are RV owners (many probably come with balloons). There is a huge area to the north side of the balloon field where perhaps a thousand RVs are parked, very close to one of the entry gates. It's an ideal location because it's a very short walk to get into the balloon field (as opposed to the half mile walk to the general parking area). RVers get to chit-chat and make new friends with other RVers; visit the city's other attractions including gambling at the nearby Sandia Indian Pueblo, a really fabulous Flea Market on Central, (the old route 66) where every weekend acres of booths set up to sell everything from silver Indian jewelry to whatever you can imagine and for those who love hot Mexican food, they'll be in hog heaven. Mexican food that is not hot is available although the folks in Albuquerque consider it a curious condition if you can't eat a jar of jalapenos for breakfast. But if you specify you don't want hot chili, they'll serve just what you want. If you think you can take it really hot though, beware! This ain't TexMex. You might get the hottest stuff down the hatch with only burned lips and tongue but the next time you go to the toilet you might want an ice pack handy.


I don't know of anyone who died from the hot chili (though I've seen some people who looked like they were going into orbit) but there are fatalities caused by balloons running into power cables. Every couple of years a balloon will run into cables somewhere during the Balloon Fiesta. These fatal accidents come about when for whatever reason the pilot fails to do an emergency vent of hot to drop quickly to the ground or fire the jets full blast to climb above the cables. When an envelope hits the cables, it kind of explodes and the gondola, with three to five people aboard, drops like a stone. Some balloonists have been killed when the gondola strikes the cables.

One event which excites balloonists, is dipping into the Rio Grand River, a mile to the west. The gondola touches the water and then lifts off again. Sometimes it doesn't work so the chase crew really has a job to get everything out. The river isn't awfully deep and there are lots of sandbars but it can be a real mess getting a balloon and gondola out of the river.

How to get there, when to make reservations?

Take either I-40 or I-25; both highways cross about 5 miles south of the balloon field which is just off I-25. Make your reservations as early as possible; June is possibly too late for the Balloon Fiesta that year. I'd guess Kodak is right about one thing: It's the most photographed event anywhere in the world. So take a load of film with you; don't buy it on the balloon field! You might have caught a glimpse of the balloon fiesta on your local TV news station but that ain't nothing. Go to the southwest; see the Grand Canyon (a good time of year for that, too) and see the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta; you'll never forget it.

A note of caution for those who go.

It's high altitude country and you'll need to maintain fluid intake (you don't know you're sweating like a hog because it's so dry) but health officials constantly remind visitors that high altitude and alcohol are a very tricky combination. You can overdue it before you know it.


See you next month.

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