By Thomas G. Clark
Little Richie Bauer knelt in the dust before a chalk outline at 12th and O. Two of his friends sat across on a rough, uneven section of pavement awaiting their turn in the ring. Jimmy reached forward, planted his knuckle, and nervously fingered his emerald “killer” into position. A sharp flick of his thumb launched the orb, scattering three smaller marbles to the outside; they were now his to keep.
From the corner of his eye, something caught Richie’s attention. A dark oblong structure was rising rapidly on the western horizon. He turned to follow the object and remained statue-like for a few moments before pointing to the sky. The other boys followed his gaze and remained transfixed, wordless for the first time that Sunday.
Southwest of Lincoln, the rhythmic pulsating of cicadas echoed from the Epworth Park trees, the shade providing welcome relief for the handsome couple boating on Salt Creek. The young man was rowing effortlessly as his wife, facing him, enjoyed the dappled sunshine and crisp late spring air.
As the boat rounded a grassy bend, a clearing revealed the silhouette of a balloon rising high above Capitol Beach. The woman squinted through the daylight and recognized something she had seen dozens of times before.
On weekends, the Nebraska amusement park sponsored a unique solo act: a daredevil who rode a balloon into the heavens and returned via parachute to an enthusiastic crowd of spectators. Just last summer she’d seen the performance first-hand, surrounded by scores of others.
But today, something appeared different in many respects. First off, the balloon was accelerating at a tremendous speed. It appeared asymmetrical, tilted significantly to one side, and evidently no platform was attached. And then there was the matter of the trailing rope …
She squinted, and thought she made out a human form suspended beneath the balloon. The person, if that indeed what she was seeing, was dangling twenty feet below it.
What the couple saw from their rowboat and the young boys observed from the sidewalk was indeed a person hanging beneath a balloon – and the incident made national headlines at the turn of the century:
-Carried up 6,000 feet: New York Times
-Youth is Carried Aloft by Balloon: Helena (Montana) Daily Independent
-Boy Jerked in Air by Balloon: Cullman (Alabama) Times Democrat
-Youth Yanked Mile in Air by Balloon Rope: Los Angeles Herald
-Terrifying Flight of a Young Boy: Tulare (California) Advance-Register
-Swept 6,000 feet in the Air: Iola (Kansas) Daily Register
-…dangling from an escaped balloon: Honolulu Advertiser
The date was June 12, 1910, and many newspapers characterized the event as an aviation accident.
However, this was indeed not an accident. The youth had every intention of making this daring flight, although without permission. The man who operated the balloon, Adolph Weiberg, would be a footnote to the day’s events.
Gustave “Adolph” Weiberg was born August 3, 1881 in Malmo, the third most populated city in Sweden. His family arrived in the U.S. in June 1883, where they joined fellow Swedes who had already settled into this popular mid-western city.
As he grew up, he took an interest in aviation, something under serious development at the time. When Adolph turned twenty, the Wright Brothers celebrated the first powered flight, creating a whole new method of transport. Their accomplishment whetted Adolph’s ambitions. However, for someone of Adolph’s means, reliable and affordable biplanes were still a decade away.
As a compromise, he turned to something more practical: balloon flight. The first untethered balloon was flown over Paris in 1783. So both the technology and cost were attainable for Adolph in 1910, providing him with an expeditious means to commune with the clouds.
But ascending into the heavens was not enough. He was also a businessman who understood ballooning attracted great public interest. So he decided to merge pleasure with profit and purchased a second-hand airship. He then thought about enhancing his performance by adding a twist.
He attached a platform or “trapeze” beneath the balloon to permit him to push off the platform and deploy a parachute for completing his performance.
Transitioning from a mere hot air-balloon operator to an aeronaut would make a unique show, so he approached the owners of the local amusement park. For his derring-do, Capitol Beach agreed to pay him $25 per jump – the equivalent of $580.00 in today’s dollars. It would be handsome earnings for a few hours of work.
But it wasn’t all thrills and showmanship. Hard work and planning were needed to prepare for each performance; he needed to wrestle the awkward canvas bag into position, anchor stakes, and secure ropes. All this work was backbreaking.
And then there was the matter of retrieval. After he pushed off the balloon’s platform mid-flight the balloon continued to rise until the upper altitudes cooled the bag, causing it to return to terra firma. When the balloon was retrieved, it was a difficult slog back to the park to ready for the next performance.
The sum of all these efforts required several strong hands – and fortunately for Adolph, many young men freely offered their services.
One of his assistants was the amusingly named Clyde Heckle (think “Jekyll and Hyde”). Clyde was eighteen years old and “possessed a ruddy complexion, unruly light brown hair and piercing gray eyes.” He was tall, with a wiry build, working as a waiter at his parents’ restaurant in Lincoln.
Clyde and Adolph knew each other well, having worked alongside one another for over a year. But Clyde had ambitions greater than serving as an assistant; he was itching to be a performer himself. He often asked to make an ascent on his own, but Adolph always turned him down, even after Clyde offered to pay him $100 for the chance.
Evidently the refusals did not dampen Clyde’s spirits. He told friends that one day he would have his ride with or without Adolph’s permission.
And so, on June 10th, Clyde was ready to execute a bold plan he had devised weeks previously.
Prior to the scheduled performance that Sunday, Adolph hadn’t noticed anything awry: his equipment was intact, properly laid out, his workers attending to their assignments.
The final step in readying the performance – filling the balloon with superheated air – was already underway. As the balloon began to inflate, the hemp ropes tensed under the strain and pulled hard against the iron anchors. The assistants then ran to their positions awaiting Adolph’s orders. The weather was ideal with gentle winds whiffing softly under a blue cloudless sky.
Adolph ran through his pre-flight checklist. No sign of punctures – check; trapeze secured and leveled – check; parachute harness attached – check.
By now hundreds of Sunday afternoon spectators had encircled the balloon, jostling for the best vantage point to watch the release.
With everything at the ready, Adolph shouted to the fairgoers:
“Good bye, everybody!”
Then turning to his assistants:
“Let go, everybody!”
With a tremendous lurch, the balloon shot upward.
To his astonishment, Adolph remained grounded –stationary, completely inert. His embarrassment was of the first order, the crowd laughing in derision. He chastened himself how he could have overlooked some critical item on his checklist, so at first he attributed the failure to an equipment malfunction.
But his assessment changed seconds later when he heard a familiar voice coming from his wayward balloon:
“It takes a man to make a balloon ascension!”
The orator was Clyde Heckle, and Adolph realized immediately that he was the victim of an airborne theft.
In the moments leading up to Adolph’s order to release the ropes, Clyde used a hidden knife to sever two ropes attached to the trapeze.
He had also tied a loop midway up the clutch rope forming a makeshift stirrup. By placing his right foot inside the loop and grabbing the upper rope tightly with both hands, he was able to ride beneath the balloon like a circus cowboy.
Clyde would now have his solo flight after all, albeit sans platform and a parachute.
As the balloon ascended, Clyde shouted down:
“Everyone eat at our restaurant!”
The airship rose quickly, as if shot from a cannon, and Clyde hung from one side while the balloon slowly rotated. It then spun a little faster as it gained elevation.
Although the wind was light, air turbulence caused the balloon to climb and dip in fits. Except for those who witnessed the launch close-by, others believed they were viewing an aerial mishap in the making.
The balloon bounced and danced over the next fifteen minutes before reaching atmospheric equilibrium. Meanwhile, Clyde was enjoying the view:
While I was making the ascent, the Earth seemed to be dropping below me. I could scarcely perceive that I was going up until the atmosphere became more rare. While I was not perfectly at home when I ascended 6,000 feet in the air … still I was not one whit afraid. What I did, I planned. If I was afraid I would not have made the ascension.
How did the city look? Just a little speck when I was at the highest point. I couldn’t make out Havelock at all. University Place was hardly perceptible. When one goes skyward, the horizon appears to close in. You don’t get to see much of the surrounding country.
The balloon and its thrill-seeking passenger eventually descended over the middle of a nearby lake, about half an hour after Clyde left a humiliated Adolph sitting red-faced on his trapeze.
Clyde gently splashed down, with the balloon following a few yards away. Fortunately for Clyde, a non-swimmer, he was able to keep his head above water long enough to be hauled aboard by a gasoline launch. A soggy but cheerful Clyde was returned to shore as a large crowd pushed forward to meet the devil-may-care youth.
But not everyone was there to give him a hero’s welcome.
As he disembarked from the skiff, Clyde was met by a local constable who promptly announced his arrest, which the crowd met with loud protests. They were there to celebrate the young man’s spunk, not to see him punished.
Moments later Adolph arrived, elbowing his way to confront the joy-riding thief. Adolph’s earlier embarrassment had turned to uncontrolled rage when he saw his canvas balloon mired in a muddy swamp. He edged ever closer to Clyde, then swung a vicious right hook toward the young man’s chin. Clyde, seemingly one step ahead of Adolph that Sunday, anticipated the blow and ducked to his left. Poor Adolph once again came up empty.
As the officer turned to restrain Adolph from another assault, Clyde saw his chance and sprinted through the crowd, which quickly closed behind him. In a comical chase by the magistrate and Adolph, Clyde easily eluded his pursuers by weaving through the crowd. His luck continued when he jumped aboard a departing street car.
For the next few days, Clyde lay low in Lincoln, even though he was celebrated as a folk hero.
With the passage of time and the drying of his canvas balloon, Adolph eventually dropped charges of theft against Clyde, and the two agreed to part company permanently.
Adolph resumed his summer performances without incident for several more years. He later retired from his aerial exploits to become reacquainted with Mother Earth as a successful trapper.
Clyde still boasted of his intention to become an aeronaut. His opportunity came when he was drafted into the U.S. Army on June 5, 1917. However, he was discharged less than a year later, apparently because he had “flat feet and weak eyes. ”
That was unfortunate.
With a decent pair of binoculars and a good balloon, he would have made an excellent reconnaissance officer.