Ohio Connections Literary Exhibit
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Dreams as Big as the Blimp
By Kimberly A. Willardson
I heard the familiar “Ohm” humming of the Goodyear Blimp before I saw its Buddha-bellied bulk bobbing above my car. Daytonians, unused to “Blimp sightings,” lined the sunny street, shading their eyes and pointing up into the sky. The Goodyear Blimp has arrived as part of the “Great Blimp Flight” festivities to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Wright Brother’s First Flight.
“Let me tell you about Goodyear Blimps,” I wanted to shout to the gawkers. I spent the first half of my life in Akron, Ohio, and much of that time I lived in houses located under the flight path of the “Spirit of the Goodyear” and “Sprit of Akron” Blimps. When you live near the Goodyear Blimps’ flight path there are certain rituals that must be observed. In the summer and early fall, the Blimp makes a low throaty humming sound (during the cold winter months it’s more like a deep purr) and whenever you hear that sound you must drop whatever you are doing and go outside to greet the Blimp in a manner you find appropriate. Many people choose to wave frantically, as if spotting a plane from the deserted island they’ve spent the past two years on. Most children choose to scream, “The Blimp, the Blimp,” in urgent voices reminiscent of the way Tattoo exclaimed, “Boss, da plane, da plane,” on the “Fantasy Island” television show.
In a city familiar with the roar of F-16 fighter jets and the annual pilgrimage of precision flying teams, Dayton seemed enchantedly childlike in its response to the Blimps. More newspaper ink was spilled and television coverage aired over the Great Blimp Meet than any other of the “Inventing Flight” events. Why?
Fighter jets scream; Blimps burble. Fighter jets slice into the sky, spewing contrails; Blimps meander, almost as if lost in reverie. Human-powered flight began with a dream and there’s a dreamy quality to the way Blimps sail leisurely just above our rooftops, just out of our reach. And here’s one of the greatest beauties of the Blimp: it’s humble, murmuring, gently gliding presence stops all creatures (young, old, and in-between) in its path and asks only that they pause from all tasks—both mundane and meaningful—to take a few moments to look up. By the time the sky-ripping growl of a passing F-16 is heard, the fighter jet is beyond sight. Blimps are much slower than jets (averaging 35 miles per hour) and they are designed to fly very low (average flights are typically kept at only 1,000 to 1,500 feet), low and slow enough to entice people out to look up and wave.
And once you spot the Blimp, the first thought you usually have is how whale-like of a creature it is. Landlocked, Akron’s and Dayton’s closest exposure to whales comes, curiously, from Blimps as they glide, bob, and bounce through the air, much the way whales soar through the seas.
The first time my son saw the Goodyear Blimp pass over him, he was just seven months old. I was holding him in my arms and explaining why the leaves of the trees in my parents’ backyard were changing color and falling in the choppy, late October air, when I heard the familiar “Ohm” and the Goodyear Blimp bumbled into our field of vision. Still an infant, Tommy was wordless as he glanced quickly back and forth from my face to the gigantic, but obviously gentle silvery thing bobbing cheerfully over our heads. I was so delighted by his awe and wonder that I remained wordless too, until his ever-present po-po (pacifier) popped right out of his mouth with a funny “Splop” sound and we both burst out laughing. This was also around the time that his colic finally, blissfully disappeared and I do attribute his cure to his startled but joyful reaction to his first Blimp encounter.
I don’t remember the first time ever I saw the Blimp, but I do remember the first time in my more than twenty-two years in Dayton that I saw the Blimp visiting Dayton’s airspace. I was walking Stella, my German Shepherd Dog, over the hilly field in Cloud Park during the autumn dusk. The “Spirit of Goodyear” was bobbing and swaying over the woods across the street from the park. I stopped immediately and did what I had been trained to do: I was my arms over my head like a crazy woman signaling to an alien mothership and yelled “Blimp! Hello, Blimp, over here Blimp! Take me with you!” Stella, who’s naturally very protective and doesn’t care much for anything flying over her head, smiled hugely at the Blimp and wagged her tail, hoping, I could tell, that it would land near us so she could investigate it further. It didn’t land of course, but just before it vanished to the south out of my sight, the lights on its side clicked on, as if winking at me in the gathering darkness.
Nighttime sightings are the Goodyear Blimp at its best and it’s been interesting to watch how Goodyear has changed and adapted its response to the night over the years. I can even remember seeing the Blimp when its side glowed with gigantic lightbulbs dotting the Goodyear logo and wingfoot trademark, and that type of light display ended in 1966, when the Blimps were upgraded to using their “Skytacular” signs: 1,540 colored (red, green, yellow, and blue) lights per side. “Skytacular” was upgraded again in 1969 to become the “Super Skytacular” with double the lights to provide moving images (such as footballs being kicked over goalposts and dancing ladies) and text messages, and again in 1996, with even greater technology dubbed “Super Skytacular 2,” which allows Blimps carrying it to display up to 256 colors. The latest in Goodyear’s sign technology, “Eaglevision,” implements state-of-the-art computers and software, creating incredibly detailed animation and even real-time video.
It was probably this aura of cutting-edge technology, in addition to the sheer size and nearness of the thing, that drew us out of our beds and into the dark—even in the late of night—when we heard the Blimp chanting on its way home. What would the side of the Blimp bring us this time? I do remember the first time I saw the football player, a little rough around the edges and crudely drawn, but a football player nonetheless, kick a field goal over the posts on the side on the Blimp. It was ’69 or ’70 and there was enough summer left in the September air to call all of the neighborhood out onto the street—even cranky old Mr. Stobbs could be spied in the shadows of his shrubbery gazing up into the sky wearing nothing but a sleeveless T-shirt, poofed-out boxer shorts, and white socks, and taking surreptitious sips from a Pabst Blue Ribbon can. I remember the “Spfft” of more cans opening and smell of fresh brewing coffee and the snowy frost of the last Popsicles of the year being dug out and the mostly hushed, but happy jingjangle of my family and all our neighbors enjoying the heck out of the impromptu pajama party the Blimp had organized for us.
I remember the time my grandmother and her brother took me to the airfield where the Blimp goes to bed. I couldn’t have been more than five, but I can vividly recall the half-dozen or so men wrangling the placid, but gargantuan silver aircraft with what appeared to be gossamer thin wires. For years after, I believed the Blimp was an enormous, but pretty much docile animal, a pet if you will, that got around by being led by those running men with the wiry, strong leashes they’d tied to it. I wasted much of my childhood Blimp encounters not gazing at the Blimp in all its majesty, but chasing after it and scanning the earthbound landscape for the men who I believed were leading the Blimp around the universe (which, in my child’s mind, consisted of only Akron and a couple other places I’d heard of like Paris, Disneyland, and the Saharan desert).
In reality, the Blimp was and is kept moving by people like my dad, who worked at Goodyear for almost exactly forty years. My dad started out “on the floor,” sweeping the factory floors and scuttling trucks and boxes here and there around the Akron plant. Over the past four decades, my dad grew wiser, adapted, and learned amazing things about the world through his work with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. He faced and grappled with the computerization of the business world; he witnessed the effects of corporate raidership; and he ever took Japanese language and culture classes to assist him with his duties as an export customer service representative. My dad—and this is one of our most cherished family stories—even got to ride in the Goodyear Blimp!
It’s a rare and great honor to ride in the Goodyear Blimp. You must be invited by the Goodyear Company to ride in the Blimp—it’s not something you can just buy your way into, like, say, the Space Shuttle—and usually rides go to press members, dignitaries, clients, and winners of local charity auctions (passenger maximum is only six). Goodyear Corporation’s stated guiding principal behind the Goodyear Blimp is to serve as a “Goodwill Ambassador to the World” and that’s simply what it does. When I was a teenager, my friends and I wanted to be journalists, just like Brenda Starr, the comics page reporter who was always on the trail of the dashing and mysterious Basil St. John. But our main objective in pursuing such work was to somehow garner a ride on the Goodyear Blimp. How we wanted to sail in the belly of that whale!
When he was 24, my dad was sent by his supervisor to deliver a package to personnel at the Blimp hangar. “Oh, and go ahead and take a ride on the Blimp. It’s getting ready to take off,” his supervisor told him. And that’s how my dad got to meet and ride with Dean Mealy, one of the legendary Goodyear Blimp pilots. They flew over the apartment building where we lived at the time, and when my dad asked Pilot Mealy what would happen if the engines shut off, the pilot shut off the engines and showed him. Nothing happened. Nothing. Dad says the Blimp went totally inert and he says it was one of the most peaceful moments he’s ever experienced in his life.
When I’m watching Monday Night Football and the Goodyear Blimp or its particular view of the world is shown, I instinctively think of my dad and my mom and the rest of my family and friends and the happy memories I have of growing up in Akron. The Blimp is a touchstone to my childhood.
I’ve lived in Dayton half of my life now, but I’m an Akron girl at heart and always will be. Dayton can lay claim to the Wright Brothers and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, but I’ll take the goosebumps the Blimps give me over airplane chills any day. That’s why the exuberance of the Daytonians’ welcome to the Blimps delighted me just as much as seeing the old Goodyear Blimp did. I took pride I the fact that the Goodyear Blimp drew more crowds than the other three Blimps (the Saturn, Metlife, and Fuji Blimps) did at the Great Blimp Meet. We all got jazzed up and choked up and beamed like children when we looked up at the sky. And it wasn’t because of the snazzy jet fighters and their topguns; it was the humble benevolence of the Goodyear Blimp that did it.