Behold the Mighty Air Balloon

Hot air balloon flight of the Montgolfier Brothers. Artist: Claude Louis Desrais

Some [in the 18th century]considered that there might be an arms race in [hot air] balloon technology. . . . Much more menacing, however, especially for the British Isles, was the possibility that they could support an airborne invasion army from France.

Richard Holmes, Age of Wonder

January 17th, 1787

The wind ruffled the loose flaps of Gerard’s waistcoat, swaying him closer to the wicker basket’s edge and the water below. He held a newspaper with fingers turned white by altitude and raw nerves.

September 8th: The malefic intent of the English laid bare, our good King Louis pledges France to Mars and our ambitions to the exploits of Daedalus. Last July, an air balloon from an English town across the Channel arrived in Guînes. While this is an unprecedented feat of aerostation, there exists no doubt that the air balloon, manned by the Royal Society’s Jean-Pierre Blanchard, signals invasion. Therefore, His Majesty conducts advanced warfare, sending a force of ten thousand fighting men under supreme aeronaut Jean-François Pilatre to British lands. Equipped with gossamer wings to angelically modulate the aether–

Another gust tugged at the air balloon Le Manche. The netting creaked in protest. Gerard looked at its “gossamer wings,” a pair of silk “oars” that jutted from a crude rotor. The storm had cut out the heart of the oars so that naked wire frames remained.

“Browsing your own tripe again?” said Pilatre from behind Gerard. A small man, Pilatre sat neatly in the center of heaped scientific instruments. He had already stripped down to his breeches and undershirt. He peered at the sky through a wealth of brass and lenses, stopping only to take notes on a map or feed the balloon’s fire with coal from a sackcloth bag. “I could’ve drafted it, spared you and His Majesty some embarrassment.”

Jean-François Pilatre de Rozier, Balloon Artist

Air Balloon poster

Gerard sighed. “Just because you’ve met His Majesty once doesn’t mean you know what he thinks. I doubt he thought poorly of it. He probably didn’t read it at all.”

“One can only hope, cousin. Maybe you should pray on it?”

“I’m too busy praying for the mess you’ve created,” Gerard said. “Where do you place the rest of the army, by the by?”

“By my calculations,” Pilatre said, “somewhere over the Adriatic.” He scooped up his tools and lugged them to the edge of the abyss. They refracted sunlight wildly as he heaved them over the side.

Gerard winced at the sudden burst of light. He wiggled his unshod toes and a fresh pang of icy pain prompted a second wince. “That’s the last of it. So we’re in the hands of Our Lord now, eh?”

“A novice would say that. Unbuckle your breeches.”

“What? Why?”

“An average man makes half a stone of water per diem. At present, we have a stone of ballast.”

“You must be joking,” said Gerard.

“Be glad I don’t ask for more.” With a clink, Pilatre drew his britches down and bared his knobby knees and drawers. “I’m not keen to make a display of ourselves, but I’m even less taken by the prospect of drowning.”

Gerard searched Pilatre’s dour and lean face . He had lost his eyebrows to a hydrogen experiment and that gave his face an especially severe look.

“I refuse,” said Gerard.

“Relinquish your trousers or be forcibly parted from them, sir.” Pilatre drew a gold-handled hunting knife from some hidden pocket.

“Where’d you get that?”

“A gift from a rather clingy duchess. It’s a long and tedious incident involving a pet poodle and a Leyden Jar.”

Gerard frowned. “Here I am, urinating from hundreds of feet in the air–“

“Thousands,” said Pilatre.

“–thousands of feet in the air, and you didn’t toss that first.”

“Fine, fine,” said Pilatre. “But the trousers. Off.”

Gerard did as ordered, grumbling to himself the entire time.

On the Balloon: Fifteen Minutes Later

Fifteen Minutes Later

The Harpsichord Lesson – Painter: Jan Steen (1626-1679)

Le Manche’s flame, ensconced in a suspended tin urn, did not gutter. The maintenance of the balloon didn’t demand attention; nothing excused the two men from their gloomy predictions. If nothing came of their frantic jettisoning of dead weight, they would drown in the English Channel.  If they touched land, they would be ripped apart by men gathered under the cheery Union Jack.

They assumed respective fetal positions. Pilatre’s posture resembled that of an ogre: head stooped, his arms and legs slung low like manacles. Gerard’s despair was decidedly more conventional: hands clasped around buttocks, his knees fused together.

The only land sighted was in Gerard’s head. Home. Metz, a city into which two millennia of history flowed. It passed like a scepter from empire to empire: Celts, Romans, then Karlings, then all those who came after. To the world, it was marble and velvet and palisades and triumphs and blood.

Gerard remembered it as a stroll along the River Seille. He would begin in the direction of the Saulnois, a place of shrubs and creeks, of the mouse and the vole. The only interruptions of the landscape were little cottages and wives filling laundry lines. Then he would walk miles — to and through the dockside coffeehouses. Sex. Politics. Religion. Poetry.  Bourrées in the bedroom. Dalliances with Voltaire. He would end up at uncle Mathurin’s inn for a free meal. Bathing in the dusk and eating outside, he would espy some fleeting beauties, some portraits that he would take if he possessed a hand for paint. His latest favorite: a young woman with a perpetual frown and the most sensuous taste in song. She would glare at her harpsichord and the sheet music as if furious, but produced the loveliest Couperin or Lully.

He would never know her name.

That thought somehow terrified him. The vast scope of possibilities was narrowing to a single point: he was going to die in this damned balloon.

“Hail Mary, full of grace,” he blurted out. “Our Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women–”

“Stop,” said Pilatre. “I refuse to let that gibberish be the last thing I hear.”

Gerard opened his mouth to retort and discovered that his lips were forming another “Hail Mary.” So he recited the prayer inwardly, in the back of his mind, and said aloud, “How much time do we have?”

“Another twenty minutes. You assume we’ll alight at all.”

“I don’t. In fact I–” Gerard swallowed a lump of phlegm. “I should like to set my soul to rights.”

“Well, I shouldn’t like to fill my last hours with nonsense that’s plagued me for my entire life.”

“I’ve faith, cousin, even if you don’t.”

“I have faith,” said Pilatre. “I have faith in my arms, my eyes, the cords that bind this balloon, and the hydrogen which buoys it. Turning water into wine or raising the dead? Not so much. Manpower and ingenuity are better receptacles for your faith, I daresay.”

Gerard felt the words bruise, yet all he could hear was: Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed among women.

He reached an amen in his head before Pilatre spoke again. “At least I’m not an Anglican.”

Gerard laughed. “At least.”

“What will the beefeaters do to us?” asked Pilatre. “I doubt they know the difference between scientists, journalists, and soldiers.”

“Same thing they did to your papa, except they’ll take more than a leg.”



The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre – Artist: François Dubois (1529-1584)

During Gerard’s childhood, Mathurin Pilatre’s wooden leg served as a reminder of the wider and crueler world. After long evenings of waiting tables and playing the gracious host, Mathurin would attend to the stump with foul-smelling salves and unguents. One particularly busy night at the inn stood out in Gerard’s memory. No sooner had the door closed on its last patron than Mathurin’s welcoming smile turned into a rictus of agony. He scrabbled like a madman at his trousers to get at the leather strap, almost tearing his clothes in the process.

Mathurin often joked that the Seven Years War should have gone for 94 more years to beat out the other one, but his wounds manifested in certain ways. British visitors would find their beer watered down and its cost doubled.

Gerard also remembered tales from Catholics fleeing England. Somewhere along the road to London, one said to him during drinks, lay the bodies of his wife and child, and they did not die from natural causes.

On the Balloon: The Present

On the Balloon: The Present

Photographer: Barbara Mürdter

He heard a sharp cawing. Both men rushed to the basket’s side. Below them, a gull wheeled in gyres that drifted northeast, toward land. Columns of detached rock, sea stacks, strewn across the water led to white cliffs wreathed in fog. A hint of verdure, a fringe of green on those white cliffs, appeared and disappeared intermittently.

A current of air parted the mist near a sea stack. There, nestled against the column, was a French balloon, its blue and gold colors unmistakable.

“Maybe some of us made it,” Gerard said.

The craft was like a broken bottle. Gunpowder encrusted the water, mixing with sea foam. Eddies pillaged and re-pillaged the basket, lifting up and out only to cram back in. He spotted blankets, the butt of a musket, two shanks of salted mutton, three wooden stakes, and a trench shovel.

“Why didn’t they unload?” he said. “Actually, why did they have so much to begin with?”

“Generals,” said Pilatre, “have no sense of economy. A perfect-weather estimate and they supply them with enough to live in the mountains.”

Gerard sighed. “What a mess you’ve gotten us into-“

“Don’t give me that. You said you wanted to be the first ‘war writer.’ I had to petition the King to get you on this balloon.”

“Oh, I blame myself. I should have gone into gazettes like all the rest.”

Le Manche snapped forward as if swatted by a giant. Gerard tumbled back and would have fallen out had Pilatre not caught his leg. He said something that could have been thanks, but his frantic brain wasn’t sure.

Pilatre, in sharp contrast to Gerard, was strangely unperturbed. He licked a finger, held it up. “A sea breeze must have caught us. We’re gaining speed.”

“Ready for a vulgar death?” said Gerard.

“Those rocks,” Pilatre said thoughtfully, as if he were hemming and hawing over where he wanted to picnic, “could, from this height and a certain angle, quite painlessly dash a man’s brains out.”

The mist around the Isle had receded, baring the cliffside’s wicked teeth. Gerard’s stomach churned.

“Nevertheless, I’ll try and deliver.”  Pilatre took hold of a rope and placed a bare foot on the balloon’s basket. “We want an even-keeled approach and a slight curve. We’ll stand on opposite ends for mechanical equilibrium. It might even out our course.”

Gerard positioned himself appropriately.

“Impact in five . . . ” said Pilatre.

Rope. Hoist. Feet on wicker. Uncalloused feet; the ridges of the material bit into his soles. Nevertheless, he successfully balanced himself on that thin bannister. He immediately felt the exposure: a zephyr carried the scent of salt to his nostrils, and the crashing of waves roared in his ears.

“. . . four, three, two. . . .

The mist thinned, and through it Gerard could see forest, pasture, and fen. Frigidly idyllic. On the other hand, the drop. . . . Black dots blurred everything. Sometimes they were a product of mild asphyxiation and sometimes they resolved into bodies, real or imagined, down there in the surf. Queasy, he–

The wind shifted. He toppled. There was a clonk, a grunt from Pilatre, and a spiderweb of pain extending across his cranium. They’d bumped noggins like damned jesters.

When They Awoke

Within the Balloon: When They Awoke

In the Woods – Painter: Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)

The balloon’s envelope engulfed the pair in blackness. When Gerard came to, he could barely make out his cousin in the light that filtered through the balloon’s cloth.

He crawled to Pilatre and shook his shoulder. “Awake?”

“I think,” said Pilatre.

“Broken bones?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so? How do you not know–”

A twig snapped.

Grass rustled about their makeshift tarpaulin. Gerard heard voices outside. They were gutteral, indistinct, and certainly not French.

“Do you hear that?” he said.

“Hear what?” said Pilatre.

Gerard gathered his courage and balled his hands into fists. “Stay close to me.” He calmed his nerves with a few deep breaths, then flung up the envelope and charged, swinging wildly and yelling as loud as he could. Soon, his arm grew tired and he slowed. His awareness of the world outside his pumping limbs returned. He now understood what war veterans meant by “battle blindness.”

The clearing around Le Manche was empty aside from a family of deer. They stared quizzically at this big, nearly naked Frenchman who had, for the last few minutes, shadowboxed. The wreck lay at the bottom of a hill squared off by a vast forest. Atop the hill’s bald pate, a ruddy red pinpoint of light emanated from a cottage porch. It was dusk, and the symphony of nocturnal life struck up its overture.

“Where to now?” said Pilatre, who had extricated himself and was now at Gerard’s side.


Gerard allowed himself a moment. He stamped his bare foot on Albion’s soil. pounded his chest and roared. They’d won. They were alive. Now to get out of here-“

His stomach gurgled, and he came to a basic and humbling realization. Chuckling to himself, he trudged toward the cottage.

“Where are you going?” said Pilatre

“You know why the quartermasters packed so much food?”

“I don’t see why-“

“Without food, hunger,” said Gerard, “always wins a war.”

The Cottage

When he rapped on the door, he could have credited his trembling to hunger or guilt. He wasn’t sure whether or not he could bring himself–

A heavyset man, the sort of fellow who drinks to excess and until affable, answered their knock with an arquebus in hand. He froze and looked at the Frenchmen strangely. He obviously was paralyzed at the sight of two young, rough brigands like themselves. Gerard’s heart quailed. Maybe they should have taken their chances in the woods.

Then the Brion laughed, and then Gerard realized that those “brigands” were cold, dirty creatures stripped to their unmentionables.

The man ushered them inside and shut the door. They were seated by a fireplace and swaddled with furs before they knew it.

The Briton barked something jocular to his wife in the kitchen. His son, a towheaded boy, played on a clavichord, the most expensive item in the house – no doubt the gift of a doting father. Lithographs on the walls depicted Jesus walking on water, handing out loaves of bread, and healing the sick.

A note, a familiar theme, something about the clavichord’s song tugged on Gerard’s memory. He settled on the bench beside the boy.

Lully?” Gerard suppressed his accent to the extent that he was able. He would have to tell his hosts where they’d come from, but not yet.

The boy played on and Gerard listened, both bound by more than words.

Two Years Later

After the Balloon: Two Years Later

Photo Credit: Leandra-Bischofburger

Shanklin was the sort of sleepy British fishing town which knew little correspondence. Indeed, most of its residents knew neither books nor how to write their names. Gerard’s choice to settle down there exasperated his London publishers to no end and they regularly tried to cajole him into relocation. In his mind, fate (and aerodynamics) had planted him on the Isle of Wight two years ago and there he would remain.

So, when a letter appeared on his doorstep one morning, he didn’t need to guess its author.

Dear G,
In response to your last note, father strongly suggests you forestall any visits. There has been some commotion around the Bastille and much noise made about “natural rights.” Susan says that it’s a political fad, but I reminded her that her King George III thought much the same about America.
P.S. Father pesters us about grandchildren. If he asks, change the subject. Best to put up a united front.

A warm someone tucked herself underneath Gerard’s arm. “What is it, love?” she said.

Gerard curled a tuft of his wife Lucy’s brown hair around his thumb and forefinger. “From la patrie. It is in a bed of lambs.”

Lucy chortled so hard that she broke into a cough. “Bedlam, you silly person.” She kissed him on the cheek. “I think you do it on purpose.”

“And if I do?” he said, and kissed her back.

“Then I shall love you all the same.”

shanklin britain july 24th 1789