The shout from his mother made the small boy turn away from where his friends were playing party games. The bowl of ice cream tilted and the plastic spoon tumbled towards the grass. Norman noticed and reached with his other hand to stop the dessert from following. The cord of the large red balloon he had been holding slipped from between his fingers. It rose quickly into the air. The dwindling scene of the child grasping after the string shrank away.
From the higher vantage point more houses could be seen. Drives populated by SUVs and manicured lawns came into sight. Overhead a solitary white cloud waited to envelop the red object. But before the balloon could continue its accent a summer breeze caught hold of it and it was carried towards the centre of the small town.
The green and brown of a baseball diamond appeared below. On the mound the pitcher drew back his arm and let the ball fly; white leather glowed in the bright sunlight. The batter took a swing; the ball flashed past. No sound reached the balloon high above the field, but the signal from the umpire was clear: a dejected man turned and walked away from the home plate. In the dugout his fellow players stood or sat, their shoulders slumped with the heavy weight of defeat.
A cross wind found the balloon and it was pushed in a different direction. The houses began to thin, the roads became straighter. Soon there were fields of yellow wheat waving in the breeze. The land dipped and a lake came into view. Still water reflected the clear blue of the sky. A little boat rocked gently on the surface. In it a man dozed, his head shaded from the summer heat by a large umbrella. He did not notice the insistent tugging on his fishing line that dipped into the water.
Then the lake was also gone, this time replaced by stalks of waving corn. The balloon floated across a road. A solitary vehicle stood on the verge; the dark green of the jeep did nothing to camouflage it. The driver, dressed in military fatigues, kicked the front tyre. Beside him lay an upturned gas can, as dry as the asphalt it was on. As the scene started to dwindle the man grasped the container and began to trudge down the road. Above him the stream of air kept a tight hold on the balloon.
A small wood came into sight, the lush green of the leaves stood out against the yellow of the surrounding crops. The air was cooler over the trees and so the balloon began to drop. In the distance a large white house stood amidst the fields. Vacant windows watched the balloon plummet. As the farthest edge of the copse came into sight an outstretched branch snagged the trailing cord. For a moment it appeared that red strips would be spread across the canopy in an end to the flight, but the balloon pulled free, heading instead for the softness of the wheat beyond.
A young boy burst out of the tree line heading towards the house. In one hand he clutched a large glass jar. Two small creatures buzzed inside, angry at their detention. Close behind came a girl. Her hair was the colour of the field. Suddenly the bright red of the sinking balloon caught her eye.
“Charlie!” she called. “Look!”
Both the children changed course. The girl reached the balloon just as it began to rise up into the air again. She took hold of the string and turned back towards the house.
“Race you back to mine,” she shouted.
They chased through the field, the red balloon bouncing along behind them.
5 February 2010
Norman Rockwell died in 1978 aged 84. If he had still been alive this week would have marked his 116th birthday. He is known for his images of small town America that often hark back to more innocent days.
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