Fredericksburg Features

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UFOs? Not exactly, says this earthling




AS ANY TEENAGER in the commonwealth knows, the fireworks for sale around here suck. That’s why, when we were younger and smarter, my brother and best friend improved those otherwise earthbound fountains by duct-taping model rocket engines to them.


The first time we set one off, it could not have been more spectacular—a glowing ball of fire that arced through the night like Spotsylvania County’s own Hale–Bopp Comet.

That glorious flying explosion traveled higher than any of us expected, soaring over the alfalfa field, burning all the way to its zenith and beyond. As it succumbed to gravity and headed back toward the ground, it occurred to us that we might have miscalculated. Our skyrocket had turned into a projectile, sending a sulfuric firebomb into the pine plantation a few hundred yards from where we stood. When our homemade missile landed, if was still burning bright.


So we did what we could. We held our breath and watched, trying to decide how much continued darkness proved the absence of a forest fire.


And the woods were dry, right? Of course they were—it was always dry in the summer, and my Dad was always telling us as much. For a family that relied on the value of trees, those pines stood on the horizon like stacks of dollar bills doused in gasoline. Our trees, we were always told, were the opposite of fire-retardant.


We breathed deep and crossed our fingers.


Those same fears were sparked about a year ago, when my brother and I helped set a Chinese sky lantern aloft in a friend’s backyard. It’s pretty simple, really—a pint-size hot-air balloon fueled by a burning piece of wax paper that glows romantically as it rises into the night. Or, in our case, into the branches of a nearby tree.


Instead of setting the tree on fire (and subsequently a few cars and maybe a house or two), the balloon managed to free itself and went on a fairly spectacular flight that ended—for us—when it disappeared through the clouds.


I didn’t dwell on it, but I did consider where it might land, and if it might still be burning when it did. There is, after all, a downside to separating fire and its immediate consequences.


I have memories of real forest fires, ones that burned dozens of acres in western Spotsylvania. U.S. Forest Service trucks would line the roads and my dad would be up for days, helping to cut fire lines.

When the fires died out, he would take me out at night to look for glowing embers. When we found one, he would hit it with a jet of water from his Smith Indian fire pump or douse it with

a shovel-full of dirt. The air around Todds Tavern smelled like a campfire for weeks.


But those fires weren’t caused by fireworks or novelty hot-air balloons. The best I can remember, they were caused by dirt bikes or untended campfires. Still, sending a flame aloft without being able to control the consequences is probably a bad idea.


And there’s another reason to consider other people when you send glowing balls of light into the sky: heartbreak.


We are at that awkward point in the sky lantern popularity cycle when some people know and love them, and others think they are UFOs. The Free Lance–Star recently fielded a deluge (OK, a trickle) of calls from frantic locals convinced they were having a close encounter. Alas, the lowly sky lantern had only roused unrealistic expectations in a few folks who went disappointingly probe-free that night.


Still, those lanterns are beautiful, especially when they are set off en masse in magical locales like China or Thailand or hippie music festivals.


A cursory Internet search revealed few documented instances of fires sparked by those lanterns, but they have happened. British news outlets seem particularly opposed to sky lanterns, for reasons that I imagine are related to the prevalence of thatched roofs across the pond.


Although they may be rare, sky lantern fires can happen, just as those bullets that Detroit fans fire skyward after a championship occasionally find a leg on the way down. The risk is high enough that some states—Hawaii and Minnesota among them—have banned the sale of sky lanterns. Heck, you can’t even use them in Minnesota. Or Brazil. But smart Hawaiians know about Internet shopping.


So even though sky lanterns are cheap and easy to buy, it’s hard to imagine any employment-loving fire marshal endorsing the flaming balloons. Maybe it’s best to abide our better angels and keep the celebratory fires limited to old couches in a properly monitored backyard pit.


At the very least, think of all the poor sky-watchers standing in the darkness, praying desperately for an alien abduction. And think of me. I already get enough calls from crazy people.


Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036