I stood under a small grove of tall black pines on a knoll overlooking a clearing, and lifted my binoculars to observe the scene in the valley below. I wished there was a way for me to photograph the incredible spy balloon, but any type of camera equipment would be bulky, and the distance between the red Renault I'd hired, and the activity below, would've provided grainy images at best. Instead, I purposed to imprint every detail on my mind as I observed.
In the valley, a group of about thirty infantrymen stood under a huge grey and green, sausage-shaped balloon hovering about twenty feet in the air. A dozen of them managed a network of ropes and weights, wrestling to keep it stable as it inflated. A few worked to remove camouflaged wooden panels that had been leaning against the balloon to keep it stationary.
I moved my binoculars to follow another group of men hauling a basket, large enough to carry three or four men with limited equipment. A truck parked at the nose of the balloon had a hose attached to it. I could hear the sound of a compressor engine, no doubt pumping the hydrogen into the balloon. Another truck had a large mechanical winch with several men struggling to attach cabling from the winch to the basket.
I spied a man in a British officer's uniform standing a little bit apart from the group by the basket, observing and taking notes. I decided to go down and get a closer look. Perhaps the man knew something about the operation of the balloon. My curiosity got the better of me, and I carefully made my way down the gentle slope towards the officer.
"Good morning!" I called out in English. I registered his uniform. "Sergeant, is it?"
He said turning towards me, his forehead creasing in puzzlement. "Madame?" he said sternly. "What are you doing here?"
I improvised. "I'm here at the crown's request to document this event." I made a point of posing my pencil over my notebook. I wasn't the only spectator talking notes for a government agency or newspaper, but, as was common, I was the only female. "Perhaps you could help me?" I smiled and batted my eyes. I was grateful for the face that God had given me as it was useful in times like these, when I desired certain rules and protocols to be bent. "Do you know a lot about these balloon contraptions?"
"I should know, madame," the sergeant said, his voice softening. "I am going to be going up in that one soon."
We both turned our attention back to the balloon. The men beneath it were tugging it slowly towards the basket, looking very much like a team of ants maneuvering a large piece of bread across the lawn.
"Is that so?" I said with intentional awe. "You are the pilot?"
The man dropped his chin. "Not the pilot. I'm the observer."
"What is the mission?" I asked coyly. "To spy on the Bosche?"
The man chuckled with a tone of vanity. "Tracking the Bosche to determine what they are going to do next is always the mission."
He grinned at me with a hopeful look, searching my eyes for a sign that I'd been duly impressed. I offered a flirtatious smile in return, pushing a lock of my darkly dyed hair behind one ear for added effect.
"How terribly exciting," I said encouragingly.
"Yes, but today is simply a test. If it stays airborne, tomorrow it will be deflated, folded, packed, and moved to the front. You see that cable?" He pointed and I squinted to follow the line of his gaze. He continued, "That's a telegraph wire. There is another man on board to run that."
I fluttered my eyelashes. "You're not afraid of being shot down?"
"Well, one would be inhuman if one didn't acknowledge a little fear. However, the excitement of the experience, of the possibility of seeing a battle from a bird's eye view is greater than the fear."
We both stood and watched for a while longer as the crews went about their business of attaching the now nearly fully inflated balloon to the basket.
The sergeant turned to me and offered a slight bow. "Duty calls. If you hang around, I'll give you a quick wave."
"Thank you," I said. "I'd be delighted."
I noted how neither of us offered names or asked for names. Sadly, one doesn't expect to meet up again in times like these.
I watched him climb into the basket, and then how it lifted high into the air, as far as the cables would allow. As promised, he waved. I waved in return, then headed back to the motorcar, eager to write up my report for Captain Smithwick.