Last week, 83-year-old Helen Hulsker decided to visit one of her good friends who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
As they sat together, she quietly made conversation with herself and decided to share the event she was preparing for that Friday.
“I told her I was going to be going up in a hot air balloon,” Hulsker said.
At that moment, Hulsker said her friend illuminated with new life. She looked up at her with bright eyes, the corners of her mouth twitched up into a smile, and she began laughing uncontrollably. It was a laugh that Hulkser said she hadn’t heard for quite some time. She knew that this was a sign that her impending hot air balloon ride would be something she would never forget.
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Hulsker was one of the few first-time riders who got to check riding in a hot air balloon off of their bucket list during the Hot Air Balloons Over Marine event Sept. 22 and 23.
“I never thought I would get to do it, but it was great,” said Hulsker, who lived in Marine for 36 years before moving to Edwardsville.
Hulsker rode in Kaleidoscope, the gargantuan, four-passenger, rainbow-patterned balloon owned by Gary and Jan Sines, who have come from Columbia, Missouri for the last couple of years to participate in the festival.
“We love sharing this experience,” Gary Sines said. “It’s fun for us, too. But we really love taking up people who have never been up before.”
At 5 p.m., spectators began to gather, laying out their blankets and lawn chairs for the main event. Hulsker watched as person-sized baskets were unloaded and the colorful canopies of the balloons were unfurled. In the minutes leading up to the flight, if Hulsker was nervous, it did not show. As she watched the balloons being filled with air, a wide smile crept onto her face. The only tangible emotion she showed — excitement.
Then it came time to lift off. A roar from massive fire burner blasted hot air into the balloon.
Kaleidoscope slowly drifted upward, pulling the basket upright as the crew labored to keep it on the ground. Sines said it was time to go, and Hulsker was helped into the basket. Joining her were Sines, who was piloting; a reporter; and William Bugg, an Alhambra resident and the other VIP passenger.
All at once, the basket jerked and balloon escaped its tether.
Their balloon was the first to take off, rising slowly at first. As Hulker and Bugg realized what was happening, they began to wave at the crowd, which instantly erupted into a chorus of cheering voices. It seemed as if the basket was ablaze as the Sines operated the burner, filling the balloon with more and more hot air. Marine Village Park began to fall away as the balloon started to gain altitude more quickly, leaving the crowd and the other two balloons below.
When the burner stopped, Hulsker and Bugg uttered a few shocked gasps as the balloon hung, suspended over the village. The view that struck them seemed to take the words out of their mouths, as they stared in awe out over the city.
“We are so tiny,” Bugg said as he peered down on what he said looked like a miniature version of the town.
As the balloon drifted northwest, passing over the town water tower, another cheer sounded from the distant crowd. The passengers looked behind them to see the other two balloons rising over the treeline.
Though they had never met before, the passengers seemed like old time friends as they pointed to familiar places in the countryside, sharing smiles and memories of their stomping grounds.
“I got to see the farm where we used to live,” Hulsker said with a smile.
After about 30 minutes, Sinse eyed a bluegrass lawn for a landing spot. Sines expertly navigated over a surrounding field, carefully timing bursts of hot air to control the altitude of the balloon. The balloon drifted only a few feet off of the ground as he planned for the landing. Sines only missed the lawn by a little bit, bouncing the basket down on a nearby road.
Bugg and Hulsker both said the experience was beyond words, and they would encourage anyone to do it if they had the chance.
“I’d say do it,” Bugg said. “Do it as many times and as often as you can. The only thing is, it just didn’t last long enough.”