I opened my door one day in Key West, Florida, to find a tall, stout, jolly man with blue eyes that twinkled behind old-fashioned rimless glasses. He had curly reddish hair and beard and a childlike toothy grin. Magic Marker stripes decorated his cheeks. He wore a tie-dyed T-shirt and khaki shorts.
A flock of large colourful balloons, which blossomed at the ends of multi-coloured strings fastened to his belt, peered curiously over his shoulder.
"Hi, I'm the Balloon Man," he announced.
I gave him my best counter-sales pitch, emphasising the tears when balloons inevitably break. I left out the part about balloons being useless. He looked harmless, but he was big.
"They're free," he said cheerfully when I had finished. "I'm the Balloon Man."
The word "free" always makes my hand jerk forward automatically, and I found myself clutching a fractious yellow plastic globe filled with helium and air. The Balloon Man found no answer at the house next door, and he tied a blue balloon to the doorknob.
I learned from the paper the following day why the balloons were free. The Balloon Man had been arrested for selling balloons without a licence. It took two police cars to haul the criminal and the evidence to jail.
During the next two days, my wife named the balloon Charlie and tamed, scolded, cheek-rubbed, and saved him from unspeakable disasters in the kitchen. When he finally expired, she buried the wrinkled remains in a tearful ceremony. I commemorated the event in an article for a local paper: "It Was a Gas While It Lasted".
About a year later, I ran into the Balloon Man near the town centre. Now fully licensed and legal as a street trader, he was inflating balloons halfway from a helium tank, then bringing them into full bloom with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. A flock of balloons was tethered with lengths of coloured yarn to a tree, where they jostled like children at a bus stop.
We were discussing the psychological effects of balloons on people - how, like stars and church steeples, they direct the eye and the spirit upwards - when an old woman known only as the Shopping Cart Lady approached timidly. She slept in doorways at night, and by day she plodded the streets wearily with her head down, pushing all her worldly possessions in the shopping trolley.
She looked up at the tall Balloon Man with wide, wondering childlike eyes.
"There's something I always wanted to know," she said shyly. "When you carry all those balloons at once, what keeps you from just floating up into the sky with them?"
The Balloon Man cupped a hand to her ear and whispered secretively, "I wear special magic shoes." He lifted one of his size 14s and pointed to it. "They keep me firmly attached to the ground."
"Oh," she nodded wisely. "I see."
"They're lovely balloons," she added.
"Would you like one?" the Balloon Man asked.
"Oh, I couldn't afford it," she said.
"Which colour would you prefer?" he persisted.
She carefully selected an independent-looking blue one. The Balloon Man separated it from the flock and ceremoniously tied it to the handle of the shopping trolley.
Without the Balloon Man's special magic shoes to keep her firmly attached to the ground, the old woman stepped lightly as a teenager down the street, her head raised high to watch the balloon dancing above her. She seemed to be imitating the balloon's efforts to reach as near to Heaven as possible, while being buffeted one way and another by the winds of this world.
I know it sounds makey-up, but it happened just like that, and I wrote down the dialogue word for word before I left the Balloon Man.
My five-year-old goddaughter, Aoife, plopped the family Bible down in my lap one day and said, "Read this - from the beginning." I summarised the Creation and the Garden of Eden stories, skipped lightly over the list of "begats", and turned confidently to every child's favourite Bible story, Noah's Ark.
With a child's instinctive sense of justice, Aoife accepted that God was right to send a flood to kill the bad people and warn Noah to build a boat to save himself and his family because they were good. But one thing troubled her. She pointed to a drawing that showed the bad people and a cow standing on a rapidly diminishing piece of land. The people were waving their hands in despair as the ark with the good people floated away in the distance.
"Why are those people waving their hands?" Aoife wanted to know.
"They're unhappy because they're going to drown."
"What's that cow doing?"
"The cow is mooing because she's going to drown."
"Why did God kill the cow? Was the cow bad?"
Had the uncompromising eye of a five-year-old caught our just God with his thumb on the scales of justice? I didn't have an answer, until I thought of the startling number of prophecies that the end of the world is due any minute now.
There was a misunderstanding, I explained. God didn't send a flood to kill the people. He knew a flood was coming, and so He warned everybody, but only Noah listened. The other people weren't really bad, but it's bad not to listen to God, and this is what happens to people who don't.
After careful consideration, Aoife accepted my interpretation, and then she identified the real cow-killers.
"If everyone had listened to God," she said, "they would have built arks as well, and the cow wouldn't have to drown."
Living in the Past
The old woman shuffled across the waiting room in the Outpatients Department at Saint Vincent's Hospital in Dublin. She leaned heavily on the arm of an embarrassed-looking young nurse, looking down as she carefully placed one foot in front of the other. Then she stopped suddenly and looked up, raising her eyebrows in happy surprise. She turned her head to the right and to the left, smiling and nodding graciously - not to the strangers in the waiting room, but to a room full of friends and relations invisible to the rest of us. It might have been her 21st birthday party or her wedding breakfast or her 50th wedding anniversary, but it was clear that she was at the head of the table and the centre of attention.
She was joyfully oblivious to the fact that she was being stared at by strangers in a hospital waiting room. She was at peace with the world - her own world of past glories and friendship, love and affection.
I told that story on RTE radio some years ago, and a woman wrote to me with this story.
She went to visit her elderly mother. The door to her mother's cottage was open, and as she knocked softly, she could hear two people talking - her mother and another woman whose voice she didn't recognise. She followed the sound of the voices to her mother's bedroom. As she entered the bedroom, she saw her mother in conversation with a young woman who looked vaguely familiar. They both looked up as she entered. The mother said to her daughter, "You remember Mary Whelan," and indicated the young woman. Yes, the daughter remembered Mary Whelan, one of her mother's best childhood friends, who had died some years before at an advanced age. The daughter turned to look at the young woman, but she had vanished.
"Oh, she's gone now," the mother said. "We were having such a grand chat about the old days, when we were young."
Wilbert (Bill) Snow was known as "the Maine Coast Poet". In the 1960s, when Bill and his wife, Jeanette, were in their seventies, they were enjoying their retirement at a pace that would have driven most working people into the ground. They were travelling around to universities in the United States, where Bill lectured on poetry and read his own.
Bill's best-known poem is called "Conflict", about a boy born in a seacoast town, where
The sunburned rocks and beaches
Inveigle him to stay,
While every wave that breaches
Is a nudge to be up and away.
In the early years, Bill was a maverick university professor who didn't always conform to university policy, and so he often found himself between teaching positions. He spent some time counting reindeer in Alaska.
I was riding in the back seat one day when Bill was driving with Jeanette through a strange city in rush hour traffic. He was having trouble changing lanes to make a turn. Jeanette watched for openings in the traffic, and when she spotted one she would say, "All right, Bill, you can go now."
By the time Bill looked around to double-check, the gap would be filled. After this happened several times, Jeanette said in exasperation, "Oh, Bill, you've lost your opportunity again."
Perhaps remembering the reindeer, Bill said calmly, "I've lost a lot of those in this life. Just keep looking."