PHOTOGRAPHY

Sittin’ On the Docket of the Bay

Watching the Balloon Roll Away

Tom Zimberoff
Oct 11 · 14 min read
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Kitty Hawk at Dawn Over the Sierra Nevada Mountains at the Outset of the First Transcontinental Balloon Flight / ©1980 Tom Zimberoff

Part One

A Time magazine assignment took me to Sausalito to cover the outset of an historic journey: the first non-stop, trans-continental flight over North America in a balloon. It would be a milestone achievement in aviation history. Kitty Hawk, referencing the most singular aviation milestone of all, was the name of the craft (the gondola, actually), co-piloted by Maxie Anderson, a businessman and gubernatorial prospect from New Mexico, and his son Kristian. Maxie helped pioneer Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta, an annual mass ascent of hot air balloons, arguably the most photographed event in the world: five hundred gargantuan confections arrayed willy-nilly on terra firma then loosed from gravity by igniting an open flame to rise like spirits; soundless but for, here and there, a whoosh of propane; a visual crescendo, culminating in a phantasmagorical armada suspended in a brilliant blue sky. You’ll see plenty of traditional hot air balloons. But you won’t need drugs to see a two hundred-foot-tall parrot flying past a Brobdingnagian beer bottle looming above Darth Vader’s disembodied head, which is itself as big as a Disney castle with crenelated parapets meandering past a flying Parthenon. It gets nuttier. (Did you know that a lighted match held in hand while darting across the sky in the basket of a hot air balloon will not blow out? I tried it, lighting my cigar.) Maxie was already a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal for co-piloting the Double Eagle II, the first balloon to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and the Double Eagle V, first to conquer the Pacific.

The Kitty Hawk was like a big birthday balloon — helium, not hot air. But its string was tied to a NASA-like space capsule, hermetically sealed to protect her crew. This was sophisticated aeronautics, no open-basket job. They were scheduled to launch bright and early on May 7, 1980 from Fort Baker, a former army post adjacent to Sausalito on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. I had a chartered helicopter standing by so I could shoot from the sky during lift-off. I imagined all kinds of glorious aerial photographs, starting with the Kitty Hawk wafting toward the San Francisco skyline with the Bridge in the foreground.

At dawn the “bag” was filling with gas. Navigational instruments, life-support systems, communications gear, and miscellaneous supplies including food for the days-long trip all checked out; Kitty Hawk was good to go. Then the winds changed. The Andersons and their ground crew scrambled to come up with an alternate plan so their craft wouldn’t get blown capriciously over the Pacific. They were aiming for the east coast of Canada, after all. The solution was to wait, then lift off after midnight when the wind was expected to blow in the right direction: east. That was how it had to be. But how the hell could there be any fanfare in the dark? This was a big deal. Ballooning competitions were ballyhooed all over the world with big prize-money at stake from corporate sponsors looking for public relations triumphs. A non-stop round-the-world flight was in the offing: the brass ring. How well could the Kitty Hawk story be told, better illustrated, if it went aloft in the dead of night?

I scrambled too. First, I called off my helicopter ride. A helo would have been ideal because it can hover, used like a very expensive and very tall tripod high in the sky, in the days before drones. But it would be useless trying to catch up with a balloon, long gone with the wind. I found a phone booth and scoured the Yellow Pages for the closest civil aviation airport where I could charter a fixed-wing airplane. I discovered Gnoss Field, twenty miles north of Sausalito near the Marin County town of Novato. I needed the speed of a fixed-wing airplane to catch up. I also needed the range and ceiling it would afford to cover lots of sky, searching for Kitty Hawk and then to linger once we found her; to shoot pictures and still have enough fuel to fly back.

I ran out of quarters and scooted over to my hotel to use the phone in my room. I started calling every charter flight company until someone answered who:

  • . . . was willing to meet me and take off at 4 o’clock in the morning
  • . . . could stay in radio contact with Oakland Center air traffic control, hoping to see Kitty Hawk on radar and give us a navigational fix; because tracking a balloon soaring tens of thousands of feet in the air and in the dark (rising higher, as the day wore on) was crazy implausible
  • . . . had an overhead-wing airplane to preclude obstructing my view looking out with a camera
  • . . . had a pressurized cabin capable of high altitude, yet with a window I could open to shoot out of; and finally
  • . . . was okay with losing cabin pressure and oxygen in sub-zero cold when I opened that window.

Taken together, it was a steep hurdle of requirements to jump. I got lucky. I found a game pilot with a Cessna 210 that fit the bill on all counts. Thank goodness for my Time expense account.

It was dark alright at 0400. But I found the tiny airport situated in a marsh, just visible from the freeway and halfway to the Bay shoreline; accessible by a narrow asphalt causeway. The pilot had already taxied out on the ramp, propeller spinning. I stopped my car next to a hangar, jumped out, and jogged to the waiting plane; a jumble of cameras banging against my hips. We were wheels up in less than two minutes, flying fast and straight for over an hour to where we guessed the Kitty Hawk might be, given wind speed and direction. We were searching for running lights. As darkness gave way to lighter sky, we scanned for a translucent dot drifting like a dandelion seed, high over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Then, just as the sun broke over the snowy summits, we spied a glint of light the size of a pinhead far off on the horizon. Banking hard to port, we bore closer and saw it was the Kitty Hawk’s silvery pellicle. My yell for glee startled the pilot. Closer still, we could make out the gondola dangling by its tether below. We flew rings around this magical midair contraption as the father and son inside stared back through a porthole in their pressurized cocoon.

The Andersons were as thrilled to see the Cessna as we were to find them. It was pure luck. Oakland Center couldn’t pinpoint them; too small, too far away. Even though I raised Maxie on the radio as we were closing in, he was hard pressed to explain where he was in relation to our separate positions in the sky. Neither of us had radar. The Andersons were relieved, now that they had avoided one of those if a tree falls in the forrest situations. The world would get to see Kitty Hawk, after all, en route high in the sky as she began her voyage across the continent. I was glad I could help Maxie and Kristian make a “noise.

I got right to work. The 210’s wings were nearly vertical, perpendicular to the ground, as it circled the balloon like a fighter plane. G-forces and severe buffeting made it hard to hold my Nikon out the window and up to my eye. And because it was open there was no cabin pressure; the lack of oxygen more than four miles up can lead to hypoxia, bad decisions and, ultimately, loss of consciousness. I had to be quick. Besides, it was -15º F out there; I had’t thought to buy gloves. Cold makes film brittle, too. So I advanced each roll through the camera at a modest pace, frame by frame, to keep it from snapping in two. I rewound each roll slowly, hand-cranking it back into its little yellow Kodak canister, to avoid ruining it by creating a static discharge inside the camera (like a miniature lightning strike). Altogether, this was like hanging onto Mount Everest while it’s moving at 250mph.

As long as I had the Andersons in sight, I stayed on an open mic exchanging comments about the spectacular panorama and the cold. My pilot continued to circle for ten minutes while I shot hundreds of frames of film. I got what I wanted and pulled the window shut. Kitty Hawk was carried into history by the jet stream, to land 99 hours and 54 minutes later, 2,823 miles away near Sainte-Félicité, Quebec.

Inside the Cessna we breathed easier, literally, and blasted the heater while speeding back to Gnoss Field. As soon as we landed and taxied back up the runway, I jumped out and ran for my car, to head back across the Golden Gate to SFO and ship my unprocessed film to Time in New York. I put it in a special packet on the next commercial flight out. A messenger would pick it up at the gate at JFK and take it straight to the lab in the Time-Life Building in Midtown Manhattan. I had a publication deadline. This was news. Then I drove back to Sausalito to celebrate with the Kitty Hawk’s ground crew.

Part Two

I was grateful that the Kitty Hawk story brought me to Sausalito. I’d been there once before, ten years earlier in 1970. I drove up the coast from LA in my ’69 Fiat 850 Spyder to look up a girlfriend who’d moved to San Francisco. (She hadn’t told me she was stripping at a club in North Beach.) And I wanted to check out the Trident, the trippiest nightclub on the West Coast, perched on a Sausalito pier over the water. The Trident’s interior looked like it had been built by an LSD-addled shipwright. The bandstand, on any given night, might feature an impromptu performance by musicians recording at the neighboring Record Plant studio: the Stones, the Dead, the Airplane; maybe Bonnie Raitt or Joan Baez. David Crosby called it ground zero for sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Janis Joplin had her own table but she died that year. Philosopher Alan Watts held court when he wasn’t aboard his houseboat. You might find Clint Eastwood or Sonny Barger (of the Hells Angels) at the bar. Robin Williams bussed dishes for awhile. The Tequila Sunrise was invented there. If you couldn’t afford a cocktail, the contact high was free. There were stupendous views of San Francisco, high on a pill across the Golden Gate. My Fiat broke down (surprise), and I was stranded for a week — still fondly remembered. Fast-forward, while winding down from the suspense of my airborne adventure, I felt like it was frosting on the cake to be back in Sausalito. I was even getting paid. With the balloon up, up, and away, I could re-explore. I loved it.

The Trident had lost its luster, ten years on. And I was reveling with the Kitty Hawk crew in a bar that never had a name. The sign hanging out front, still there, is simply expository: Bar. To locals it’s the “No Name.” I was the last to leave, tarrying to kibitz with the barkeeper about the town’s history while he closed up: Miwok Indians; Prohibition bootleggers; construction of the Golden Gate Bridge; erstwhile shipyards that flourished during World War II. When I finally stepped out, I paused for a moment on the sidewalk to inhale the sea air. I waved perfunctorily to a cop who looked up from his parked cruiser across the street: on Bridgeway, the main drag that bypasses 101 and runs along a picture-postcard waterfront facing San Francisco, winding all the way up a hill to the Golden Gate. Sausalito goes to bed long before ten o’clock. It was already midnight.

No Parking Between 3am and 6am. It was clearly posted. I had to move my car, even though I was staying at the Sausalito Hotel right across the street; a small Victorian building next to the ferryboat dock. Once a workingman’s boarding house, it’s now a tourist trap. It was still pretty low-rent 1980. The parking lot was next to my car. But the entrance was half a block south, and my car was pointed north. There were only two cars on the street: the cop car and my rental. I strode across Bridgeway and got in. I fired up the ignition and eased into a U-turn. I’d been up for forty-two hours, notwithstanding a catnap before I drove to Gnoss Field. After a good night’s sleep, I’d be sittin’ in the morning sun, watching the tide roll in. Wastin’ time. Yeah.

“Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay.” According to local lore, Otis Redding wrote those lyrics, in 1967, while he was staying at the Sausalito Hotel. Just as likely, though, they came to him on a houseboat moored close to the same dock. But close enough. That’s why I chose the place. Redding’s inimitable, octave-shattering whistle still moves me when it comes at the bridge to the song, after he pines I left my home in Georgia, headed for the Frisco Bay. (He’s given artistic license for not knowing the we never call it Frisco directive.) He came out West to play a gig at the Fillmore, in the City, and followed up with his breakout performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. (The song was recorded in 1968 at Stax Records in Memphis with co-composer and guitarist Steve Cropper; released that year.) But my reverie was killed by the whoop-whoop of a siren and lights in my rear-view mirror. The cop had wheeled around behind me. I pulled over in front of the No Name before I even went anywhere.

“Do you know why I stopped you?,” the officer asked.

“I hardly think stopped is the right word,” I replied. “Why didn’t you just honk?”

“Do you know why I stopped you,?” he repeated.

“I can try to guess but, no, I don’t,” I said. “

“Have you been drinking?”

“Not to be snide, officer, but you just saw me walk out of a bar and get in a car; so, yeah, I’ve had a couple of beers over the last few hours. But I haven’t been drinking per se. I’m sober.”

“That’s not why I stopped you.”

“What’s with the lights and siren then? Isn’t that a bit over the top?” I pointed to the driveway across the street. “I was just turning into the hotel parking lot for the night,” I said. I was beginning to think this guy was the town’s Barney Fife, and this was Mayberry, not Sausalito.

“You made a U-turn in a business district,” he said.

“Is this ‘Candid Camera?’” I craned my head from side to side, hamming it up. I said there hadn’t been any business in this town since the bartender locked up his cash, half an hour ago. Not one t-shirt shop was open.

“It’s the law. License and registration, please.”

I handed them over. I even tried to play the VIP card, and said I could show him the cluster of laminated press passes in my camera bag, usually dangling from a pelline chain around my neck; issued by state and federal law enforcement agencies. He ignored me, walked back to his cruiser, and came back writing a ticket.

“Sign here.” He pointed with the pen he was about to hand me. “It’s not an admission of guilt. But you are required to appear in court . . . blah, blah, etcetera.”

“I’m not signing it,” I said.

He didn’t like that at all and gave me a warning that almost sounded like a hiss. “If you don’t sign, I’ll have to arrest you.”

“Exactly.” I said. “Do you really want to do the paperwork? It’s after midnight. Besides, I’d be embarrassed to let my captain read the arrest report, if I were you.”

“Out of the car!” (Well, you know where this is going.)

The Sausalito Police headquarters used to be a tiny little building, like a tin star sheriff’s jail in a frontier town, and it was only a couple of hundred yards away from the No Name. I was handcuffed, put in the police car and taken for a fifteen-second drive. Then I was frog-marched to the jail, down the basement stairs and into a cell. No fingerprinting. That was a good sign. I don’t even remember there being anyone else on duty at that hour; he had to unlock the building before we went in. But I spent an uncomfortable hour, still sleepless, looking up at a closed-circuit video camera on the ceiling but staring it down. I may have flipped the bird once or twice.

By refusing to sign the ticket, I knew I’d still have to post bail in court. Who knew when that might be? If I didn’t pay up, though, I’d remain a guest of the county indefinitely. This was Marin County. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the jail. (Of course he did.) It was nicknamed the Glamour Slammer. I was beginning to think it might be my home for the weekend. Then I’d be on the docket for traffic court in the Wright-designed Civic Center, too. If that sounds merely like the quintessential outcome of a gonzo adventure, I should admit I was acting like an indignant and obstinate wise-ass. I thought I could talk my way out of this without actually getting hauled off to the clink. But my hand played out better than it perhaps should have. In spite of myself, my luck held from earlier that day — technically the previous day. By the time that hour in jail ticked slowly by, the cop came back proffering his police department business card and an apology. He unlocked the cell door telling me he woke up on the wrong side of bed that day. His card, he said, was good for the beer he’d buy, next time I came to town: a real get-out-of-jail-free card. Almost. He said he was sorry, too, because it would cost me nineteen bucks to get my car out of hock. It got towed. We shook hands.

I walked back to the hotel. I caught a few hours of sleep; got up; showered; walked to impound yard to retrieve the rental car; drove to the airport; and flew home to LA. But Sausalito continued to occupy a place in my mind, beckoning. Seven years later, despite joking about how I spent my first night there in jail, I resettled and made “Slease-a-lot-o,” as my neighbors affectionately called it, my home for the next fourteen years. The Golden Gate Bridge was practically my driveway to the Spencer Avenue exit off 101, up to the top of Wolfback Ridge. With a spectacular 320º view from my rooftop office windows, I sat often in the morning sun, watching the tide roll in. It was the heyday of my life and career, like flying high in a balloon.

Epilog

I wish I could remember the police officer’s name. I recently did some digging to find out. But SPD didn’t keep duty rosters going back forty years. Nor, regrettably, could I remember my pilot’s name. And, sadly, Maxie Anderson was killed in 1983. He was participating in a prestigious European balloon race with his co-pilot Don Ida. Unable to control the fickle winds blowing them off course, and hoping to avoid veering over Communist East Germany or Czechoslovakia, they tried to land in West Germany. They dropped ballast and off-gassed to lose altitude. But the explosive bolts that were supposed to release the gondola from the bag failed to fire when they touched down. An untimely gust of wind blew them back into the sky. Too high. Belatedly, the bolts deployed. Both Anderson and Ida were killed on impact from the fall.

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Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and…

Tom Zimberoff

Written by

ARTREPRENEUR, PHOTOGRAPHER, CLARINETIST, MOTORCYCLIST Fate follows the path of least resistance. Success follows the path of maximum persistence.

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

Tom Zimberoff

Written by

ARTREPRENEUR, PHOTOGRAPHER, CLARINETIST, MOTORCYCLIST Fate follows the path of least resistance. Success follows the path of maximum persistence.

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

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