“He looks like The Great Oz,” a friend wrote. I found this caricature while researching my house. Myers, the guy who built it, is in a balloon because he was a member of the Kansas City Aero Club. In his day, around the turn of the 20th century, flying was a dangerous, wacky hobby.
Last weekend, I drove up to the monastery in Atchison for the retreat I had signed up for. The theme of the retreat was “The Wizard of Oz.” I have loved the story for years—the book and the movie. As I drove north, next to the river and back and forth over the Missouri River, I was eating a sandwich and thinking about The Great Oz. He was a flim-flam man, a con artist, a Harold Hill, a charletan. And he was into balloons, like George Myers.
The Great Oz (not his real name) goes up in a hot air balloon, gets blown off course, and ends up in Oz. Like Dorothy, he doesn’t especially want to be there, but there he is. He is hailed as superhuman (like Dorothy), and installed as Wizard by the people of the Emerald City. He makes himself a wizard, because people want to think he is one. He pretends to power, although he has some authentic power. He can make a balloon rise. It’s just the navigation he struggles with.
I ended up in the Oz of the compound, that is, the mansion and the carriage house where I started renting three years ago. My landlord, who first welcomed me, didn’t exactly proclaim me a god, but he was short of stature and cheerful—part munchkin, part Truman Capote.
Dorothy and her crew, of course, expose Oz. He is a humbug. “Humbug” is old-fashioned for “bullshit.”
Frank L. Baum, creator of The Great Oz, was a flim-flam man himself. He tried a million different jobs, moved all over, and made a huge mess of his life before turning the Oz business into a business. Just last week, we read an essay in my class which included this quote: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” and in every class I had a kid who could explain what that meant in the context of the story: “He’s not a real wizard.” The story endures.
My retreat was in Atchison, hometown of Amelia Earhart, famous flyer. Near Atchison, my grandfather is buried in a country cemetery. He also flew out of northeastern Kansas. In the 1940s, when flight was less dangerous, but still glamorous, he left rural Kansas to become a pilot. There is an airplane etched on his headstone. He came back to where he started, in the end.
I’ve always wanted to learn to fly, to go up in a small plane. I always wondered if my grandfather passed some flying lust on to me. He would not approve of me trying to fly a plane, though. I know that. “Never fly with a weekend pilot,” he said. “These guys are dangerous. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
On my list of things to do before I die, composed in third grade, I had “go up in a hot air balloon.” I haven’t done it yet.
I am flying now. Living without a landlord, wrangling the utilities and setting up a party without the luxuries of electricity or heat. I do feel light-headed, off the ground, and invigorated. I am above, loose, seeing things from a new place.
On the handouts at the retreat, there were images of hot air balloons. I thought, planes may not be for me. Last year, they didn’t agree with me at all. I might be more of a hot air balloon person. I have heard that they are quiet. Once the air is heated, and you are aloft, it is silent. There isn’t a zoom to take off. Just a rising, rising.