Event draws crowds while carrying on long-standing tradition

by: TIMES PHOTO: JOHN LARIVIERE. - Balloons light up the evening with the festival's annual Night Glow. Thousands of spectators headed to Cook Park in Tigard over the weekend for the annual Festival of Balloons.

It was an action-packed three days, with good weather and plenty of rides, games, music and, of course, hot-air balloons.

The giant, colorful aircraft took to the skies Friday and Saturday mornings at dawn and returned at dusk for the annual Night Glow. Families also enjoyed rides, music, a 5K run and barbecue eating contest.

But while thousands saw the balloons take off each morning, few saw the traditional after-flight picnic that took place a few blocks down the road.

At a small park not far from the event’s morning festivities Koh Murai knelt in the grass, a glass of champagne in his hands.

The time was just after 8 a.m., but the glass of champagne wasn’t for him, it was for the newbie — the volunteer crewmember who helped him all weekend and flew with him inside the basket.

The champagne is a traditional part of ballooning, said Murai, dating back to its earliest days.

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After the hot-air balloon was invented in the 1780s, balloonists had a problem on their hands, Murai said.

Early balloons were a lot different from what pilots use today. Balloonists would use dung, wet leaves and animal hides to make a black, smoky fire inside the basket to lift the balloon, Murai said.

Only birds had ever flown as high as balloonists could suddenly achieve, and most villagers didn’t think such an invention was even possible, said Murai, who works at Mega Fluid Systems in Tualatin.

“So imagine you are some guy in a field in the 1780s and this thing comes flying into the countryside, belching smoke,” Murai said. “It smells horrendous, it lands and sets crops on fire. It spooks all the animals and generally raises hell and havoc. What do you do? You do the only thing you know how to do — you call the local priest to exercise the demon, and you try to kill it with pitchforks.”

Often, Murai said, that included the pilots, whom farmers mistook for demons.

So balloonists began bringing food and drink along with them to help prove they were human, Murai said, hanging a bottle of champagne from a rope to give to farmers.

“And from that day to now, we carry that with us for ceremonial purposes,” Murai said.

Murai shares a glass of champagne with everyone who flies in his balloon for the first time, then signs the bottle and gives it to the passenger as a souvenir.

There’s also a short prayer he gives them while they drink their champagne.

“The wings have welcomed you with softness,” he began. “The sun has blessed you with its warm hands.

“You have flown so high and so well that God has joined you in laughter and set you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth. Welcome to the world of ballooning.”

As the passenger drinks, someone pours some champagne onto the passenger’s head, completing the ritual.

“Oh, and I forgot to mention,” Murai said. “You might get wet.”

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