Monday, September 21, 2015

Broadcasting from a Hot Air Balloon: An Adventure in Hard Landings!

Photo: Courtesy of Idalia Marinero
As a broadcaster in Dallas, Texas I was asked to become the Official Master of Ceremonies in Mesquite, Texas for the Annual Hot Air Balloon Festival. You may find it a bit strange that an aviation correspondent for an international magazine had never been on board a hot air balloon, but such was the case. 

When the morning of the event rolled around, I was instructed to report at 5:45 AM to a Holiday Inn, where a representative from the Federal Aviation Administration would give all participants the legally-required safety briefing at 6:00 AM in a side room. Breakfast for that morning consisted of hot coffee and yogurt with a small box of cereal. I was assigned to a pilot who had recently retired from Delta Air Lines. This would be a poignant flight for him. An avid hot air balloonist (along with his entire family) this was his first flight since losing one of his two daughters to cancer. I felt terrible for him when I learned this, and asked him out of respect, if he preferred to go up solo. He demurred stoically, and said that either way, he would have to make the trip sooner or later. He added that he was actually glad to have me along, broadcasting from a cell phone and a pair of headsets attached to a portable FM radio.This contraption enabled me to coordinate my report with the "live" radio station broadcast. My pilot's second daughter had her own balloon at the event--each one costing around $50,000 (US) each. I was surprised to learn that there were many more elaborate balloon's present at the site that exceeded this price. 

As cheesy as it may sound now, our production director back at the radio station timed our lift-off to the soundtrack theme of the motion picture, "Around the World in 80 Days". I'll admit it. I was white-knuckled as our altimeter showed our rapid ascent to several hundred feet. I decided to look straight ahead and tried to sound natural "on the air", while avoiding cliche's, such as "cars look like dots below us", choosing instead to focus on "the sunrise that looks as beautiful as an artists' canvas with so many custom-colored balloons around us". In other words, something to describe the event with imagination to listeners trapped in office buildings, or in their cars on the way to work during "morning drive time". After awhile, I grew more comfortable as we descended to toss down a white bean bag with our balloon number written on it, hoping that it landed near a bulls eye painted on the ground for competition points. My pilot remarked that he was happy that he finally got back to flying, and noted that his daughter managed to get ahead of us and score more points. This was decidedly friendly competition! 

Meanwhile, the radio station would cut-in regularly for "updates", announcing to motorists which balloon I was in (as if anyone cared). Actually, a few cars did park along the shoulder of the freeway and sounded their horns which was a good sign. Soon, it was time to land, and this is where the "adventure" portion of my story begins and ends!

My pilot explained that we could only go up and down and, of course, one cannot "steer" a balloon. We began our descent to the field where we lifted off earlier. Interstate Highway 20 was below us, and it appeared to me that micro-bursts of wind seemed to force our balloon craft down at a faster speed. My pilot tried to counter this by increasing the amount of propane burning from our on board tanks to stabilize our craft by making it rise--to no avail. We were flying about 60-feet over a suburb. I remember looking down and seeing a German Shepard dog barking at us from a fenced in back yard, jumping up and down as we passed over the house. Looking ahead, I noticed that we were just short of the landing area and clearly in trouble. My pilot tried to keep us aloft, but he was struggling against the wind gusts. Suddenly, he yelled, "Bend your knees and hang on tight!" 

God only knows what our horizontal speed was, but our gondola narrowly missed the roof of a barn and we struck the ground--hard. The impact caused my pilot to fall forward against the right front of the gondola. The propane tanks, all secured by special belts, nevertheless, fell against him. In that split second, I recall looking over at him and thinking that he might be crushed against the weight of the four tanks, as our balloon climbed back into the air. However, the gondola rapidly tilted to the right with the weight bearing load towards my pilot, as we struck the ground twice more. I was thrown forward over the gondola despite my tight grip on the cables. My running shoes somehow became caught in the cables, keeping me from being totally ejected. But my body was dragged three-quarters of the way out of the gondola across the barnyard, then across a blacktop church parking lot for approximately 35-feet. That final impact knocked the wind out of my lungs just as I heard our radio deejay through my headphones (in a comedy of errors) state: "Let's go back out now to Michael Manning, who should be landing about this time and check in on all the festivities at the Mesquite Balloon Festival. Michael?"...(silence)..."Michael, are you there? (more silence)..."Obviously we're having trouble reaching Michael, so we'll get back to him in a few minutes." 

At that moment, our craft was on the ground, the gondola was on its side and with the wind knocked out of my lungs, I was laying about 20-feet away. Fortunately, I managed to turn over, get some oxygen back into my lungs and scramble over to my pilot, who was also out of breath. "Turn off the valves!", he shouted. We both scrambled and turned the propane valves (with flames glowing) completely off. I pulled back the helium tanks, and my pilot managed to step out, telling me to get back to the radio broadcast. I started to hear sirens in the distance, as a dozen balloonists who had landed earlier started running toward us to render assistance. Once they saw that we were alright, they started to rapidly fold the now- deflated balloon material to secure the craft.

Image: Universal

Feeling a bit like Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in "Back To The Future", I searched for my yellow and black head phones, my portable radio and and my cell phone--all scattered on the ground. I waved off First Aid workers who arrived and looked at my torn jeans and bloodied elbows and arms. "Nothing broken", I said, as I located my cell phone and dialed the station. I reached the broadcast booth and advised our on-air personality what had happened. Fortunately, we had about 10-minutes before we would go back "on the air". When we did, I was asked to share the story of our hard landing. 

As I looked up,I noticed other balloons that were gliding effortlessly overhead for a smooth and uneventful landing--one of them was fashioned after the cartoon character of Snoopy the Dog from the "Charlie Brown" cartoon series. My humor was still intact, so I shared this fact in my radio report. By now, our balloon was being placed onto a truck, and I looked over to see my pilot's daughter run up to her father with a worried look that quickly turned to relief. 

The morning ended with a group of happy balloonists pulling us over to where they had gathered in a circle. My pilot and I were asked to stand in the middle of this circle holding plastic cups full of champagne hoisted into the air. The group broke out into an upbeat Irish song (that I had obviously never heard before). We toasted and drank up, before I learned that the song was a toast to celebrate our good fortune, having survived our landing! We all shook hands as I headed back to my car--worse for the wear--shaking my head and counting my blessings for being safe. Salute!    

A Post Script on October 1st: Soon after I posted this story, ironically, my computer crashed. Once again, I emerged relatively unscathed and will return after the repairs are completed!


Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Short Blog About Entering The Arena

Photo: my camera
If I could bottle up the remarkable conversations I've had with so many new friends at the gym, where the subject of obstacles invariably came up, it could fill a book. How they overcame those obstacles inspires me

Yup, that's me in the photo above. It is, in fact, a "hamming it up with humor" photo from this past May, and appropriate for a short story. 

Thanks to a tip from my doctor, I joined a workout facility that is reasonable and where a trainer is on duty seven days a week. Custom-tailored programs are created to meet your goals. It was also my good fortune to find myself yoked with a trainer who is a former NFL defensive lineman. In creating my workout plan, we dealt with obstacles, we tried routines, then abandoned them. Eventually, we came up with a workout plan that is on-target. There is no rocket science to it, only common sense. 

Recently, I was writing a note to a friend and I mentioned the sense of resignation, or surrender that I read occasionally on social media from people that I love and care about. To cite but one example that shocks me to my core: "We're old".  

At least three years ago, a former Olympic athlete who was rehabbing a sports injury--just as I was-- said these words to me: "Age is just a number". I won't tell you her age, but she is blowing away every world record in her new sport. So, when I hear someone say they are "too old", or "they've had it", it leaves me with the impression that life has left them at the gate without the airplane attached. This is so foreign to me, so I'm going to cite a quote from my favorite physical therapist: "As long as you are building muscle and eating a healthy diet, you are maintaining your youth". 

It's never too late for a teen or an adult to begin a fitness program. After all, there has to be a starting point. During my workouts, I'm inspired by the people around me who have successfully faced down psychological trauma or physical tragedy. They show up, they have bad days, better days and great days. And if you ask any of them how they got to their present goals, they will tell you that it  began with a decision to show up and get in the arena. This is a positive challenge to us all! 

Post Script: After re-reading my post, I felt it would be helpful to include the full quotation, relative to the fourth paragraph from my anonymous friend, who later wrote it. It reads as follows: 

"I believe that age is just a number; dreams and goals are NOT limited or governed by age, and neither is ability!

May this inspire all of you who stop by here. By the way, I appreciate your visit! 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Overcast Sedona Weekend

All Photos: Michael Manning
Many will argue whether the Official Last Day of Summer (September 16th) is accurate. Here in Phoenix, our high desert temperatures tend to run from late May through October. In any event, here are a few photos from a weekend drive to Sedona, Arizona that I took for a change of sceneryThis stairway was slightly off the Main Street path, but impossible to miss. Imaging returning home to stairs painted like this!

 The weekend in Sedona was overcast, and my salad was not the greatest in a restaurant that will remain anonymous. But, the cooler temperatures were a nice respite from a hot summer.

A couple of years ago, a friend back in Cincinnati asked me via email what I thought of Sedona and Scottsdale. Looking back on my answer then, I was too short-sighted and would have provided a better description if I were asked that question today. It is true, however, that most of the people I've chatted with in Sedona work in service jobs and commute from 30-minutes away in Verde Valley. Sedona is a beautiful,  albeit, expensive place to live. But the views are magnificent. These photos were shot with my iPhone as dusk was approaching. 

 Main Street was a bit more sedate, but then this was Sunday, and I suspect that it was sedate most of the day, given the cloud cover. As trite and over used as this next expression sounds: Have a nice week. Back soon! 

Monday, September 14, 2015

A Short Movie Review: "Mr. Holmes"

Roadside Attraction

Among the many movies with Sherlock Holmes as subject, some of the memorable examples have included: 1988's "Without a Clue", 2009's "Sherlock Holmes" and in 2010, "Sherlock". Now comes "Mr. Holmes", where the famous detective is 93 years of age. Furthermore, this movie is set in 1947, where Holmes takes a trip to Japan and witnesses the horror and devastation in the aftermath of the nuclear bomb. Holmes is not a fictional character in this film treatment. However, he makes it abundantly clear that certain embellishments such as his hat, his pipe (and most of the content owing to his legend), were the product of his late assistant Dr. John Watson. In "Mr. Holmes" Ian McKellen shines as the famous detective who struggles with a faltering memory to solve his last case from 30 years ago. This is a charming film that is well cast and worth your time to see a new treatment of Holmes, where his legend is debunked, but his formidable talent for solving mysteries remains intact and more believable.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Coca-Cola Turns 100...

Photo: Michael Manning

Donald Sutherland has established not only a great acting career, but a lucrative voice over career as well. His voice has graced products ranging from Volvo automobiles, Delta Air Lines and now Coca-Cola. To hear the latter, you'd have to fly to Atlanta and tour the downtown facilities of The World of Coca-Cola Museum. One of the many artifacts on display is the first curvy Coca-Cola bottle, one of two remaining original prototypes created by the Root Glass Company in Terre Haute, Indiana. The design is now 100 years old! Did you know that the faintly green glass was originally modeled after an encyclopedia drawing of the cocoa pod (not an ingredient in Coke)? This innovation became a distinguishing marketing characteristic that differentiated Coca-Cola from its competitors. Andy Warhol--who is said to have had a life-long obsession with Coca-Cola is represented at the museum with his "Coca-Cola (3)" on loan from (where else?) the Andy Warhol Museum. The painting of three Coca-Cola bottles in 1962 (coincidentally the year stamped on my bottle in the photo above) is credited with the birth of pop art. 

Growing up as a kid in Ohio, a neighbor of mine asked his son if he told me about Farrah Fawcett, a girl he described as being "shaped like a Coke bottle". That was the first time I heard Farrah Fawcett's name. Have a nice Sunday!

Friday, September 11, 2015

In Remembrance...

 All Photos: Michael Manning

Memories of September 11, 2001
Laid off from a broadcasting job with a one-year "non compete" contract clause, a friend of mine generously stepped forward to hire me as a corporate trainer. As I walked into his home, which doubled as an office, he looked ashen and said "Have you seen what is going on?" He turned on his big screen television and we sat riveted at images that were unimaginable. Our clients from all over the country were telephoning us, one after another to cancel all scheduled training sessions until further notice; so much was unclear and understandably, everyone was struggling to come to terms with this horrific event. All we could say to our clients was that we understood, and to please stay in touch. We did nothing that morning, except drink coffee and try to get beyond the sense of shock and numbness we were experiencing. 

My father died a year earlier, my cousin just two months before. I was relieved that they didn't see what we were viewing that morning. Their hearts would have been broken. 

9/11 remains our nation's saddest and most defining moment. Today, my prayers are with the victims in New York, Washington D.C. and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, their families, friends and co-workers. May God Bless our police officers, our fire fighters, our civil authorities and the untold number of volunteers who rushed forward for exhaustive hours, days and months to help us through this horrifying event, to rescue the fallen and to rise back up and demonstrate our resolve to the world that evil will not be allowed to stand. May we never forget those whom we lost, and the fact that freedom is never free. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Celebrating a Child During Chidhood Cancer Awareness Month

Gunner Gillespie
September 4,  2000 - October 23, 2008
It's a little embarrassing to be six days late celebrating the birthday of a special friend, but such is the case today. It's particularly poignant given that September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. 
Back in 2013--which feels like last night--I wrote a short column about Gunner Gillespie, a remarkable little boy, age 8, who bravely battled a little known cancerous brain tumor called DIPG (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma). His birthday of September 4, 2000 slipped by quickly for me, and I have no excuse. Sadly, we lost Gunner on October 23, 2008. But as I got up early this morning, I decided to try and record some memories of Gunner for new readers who may occasionally stop by, but never knew him. 
I came to know Gunner well throughout the hot summer of 2008. Gunner, his sister Garlynn and parents Gus and Janna traveled to Scottsdale, Arizona seeking alternative medical treatments after traditional approaches were exhausted. Originally, Gunner came to my attention through my friend Amy Aldridge, just two weeks after she and husband Shannon lost their daughter Sahara at age 13 to brain tumor cancer. In a blog post, Amy mentioned that her heart went out to a little boy and his family located roughly 90 minutes away from Cape Girardeau, Missouri in Benton, Kentucky. The boys name was Gunner Gillespie and Amy asked for prayers and good thoughts for his well being. I connected with Gunner through the website Caringbridge, a site funded by donations that serves family members and friends of critically ill children. This site enables updates to be more easily shared. Janna reached out to me with an email after noticing that I reside in Scottsdale, their destination for Gunner's upcoming treatments. I was asked to suggest some hotels nearby, so I jumped into my car to check on several potential places. Soon after, The Gillespie's arrived to Arizona we met for dinner and became friends.   
Gunner couldn't have asked for more supportive family. Gus and Janna were a tight knit team who did everything in their power to respond to Gunner's medical and emotional needs on a daily basis. What can I tell you about Gunner from "the outside looking in"? 
In no particular order, I can tell you that Gunner loved trains as much as I loved cars at his age. To this day, there isn't a television commercial about Norfolk Southern, an email that winds up in my inbox from The Grand Canyon Railway, or a train track crossing that I encounter in daily traffic, where I'm not reminded of Gunner. As every locomotive and boxcar passes by, with the weight of those rail cars causing the vibrations we feel in our cars as we sit idle at the crossing gate, Gunner's memory isn't far away. Apart from trains, Gunner was fascinated by reptiles and he had two dogs named after food: Cookie and Noodles. He loved his grandparents, Charles and Joan Gillespie, Anna Mae Henry, and Jon Pope. He loved his uncle, Gard Gillespie and wife Lori and cousins, Taryn and Tanna Gillespie, and Camille Andrews.
More than anything, Gunner loved his parents, Gus and Janna and his sister Garlynn. The Gillespie's are very devoted teachers in Kentucky. They met as teenagers in Southern Illinois and have been together ever since. Gunner's father, Gus is also a highly regarded basketball coach when he isn't teaching in the classroom. 
As with many children coping with cancer, Gunner became known to many far and wide through Caringbridge. As a child who was genuinely curious about people and their occupations as he was about watching the television program "Icebreakers", it should come as no surprise that Gunner assembled quite a collection of friends. 
One extraordinary contact I'll always remember is the flight crew of British Airways Flight 1. These men stayed in touch with Gunner's progress, mailed him toy airplane models and post cards urging him to fight on and to remember that he was foremost in their hearts and prayers. Daily interactions brought more friends into Gunner's world, with many kind and generous people in Scottsdale. 
Some days were good, others were downright tiring and challenging for Gunner. But he remained resilient. At the time of Gunner's nearly half-year stay in Scottsdale, I was immersed with work, physical therapy (following two sports surgeries), and losing 90 pounds in the process. But I do remember that the good days for Gunner seemed to outweigh the bad ones. To this end, there was swimming, visits to fun destinations (including the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park) and the kindness of yet more strangers. When the staff of one of the worlds' most elaborate indoor train track displays at the park (usually off limits to the public who remain in viewing stands) became aware that Gunner was visiting, they waved him inside for a special guided tour of the trains up-close. That too was a good day, along with dropping off and picking up the family at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport for trips to Disneyworld.   
Gunner Gillespie passed away from complications of DIPG on October 23, 2008. His father Gus, surprised me with a telephone call one night about two weeks earlier to update me candidly on developments with Gunner, who was now back home in Kentucky. I was grateful that Gus even thought of me, with so much taking place that night. News like this takes a while to sink in, and later I remember taking a very long walk in an effort to make sense of the previous several months, and all of us who were blessed to know Gunner. 
National Childhood Awareness Month is vitally important to raise awareness of pediatric cancer, and how woefully under-funded the research is for finding a cause and cure. But it's also a time to reflect on friends we love and the good memories we have of children we have lost. 
One of the things I've noticed about children overall, is that there is hardly a day that passes where someone doesn't become a new friend. I can still remember driving over to The Gillespie's hotel and watching Gunner get ready to go out for lunch or dinner. He would carefully arrange his toy trains, cars, trucks, boats and reptiles in a row on table near the hotel room door, put on his sunglasses and together, we'd all head to some restaurant. I always got a kick out of that! 
As I was getting out of my car from working out last night, I remember thinking aloud that Gunner would have been 15 years of age. Thoughts like this can leave you stunned of course, and also hurting. In 2013, I ended my post about Gunner with a quote I heard from the Neil Young documentary, "Journeys". 
In the movie, Neil is seen driving a restored 1956 Ford Victoria through his hometown in North Ontario, Canada. He is speaking on camera and reflecting about friends he has lost. "They're not really lost, because they're in our heart and in our mind", said Neil. But as he pauses and looks away, the emotion was evident. So, even if this post is a bit late, nothing can ever erase the smiles nor the friendship I enjoyed with Gunner. In thinking about all the other people in Gunner's life who sent cards, letters, toys and prayers from afar, I am convinced of one thing. They too remember a fun child who made others care, and who loved to use his imagination to better understand the world around him. Today and always, I celebrate Gunner Gillespie.