Up, Up And Away: Balloon School For Parade Newbies Balloons are a mainstay of Thanksgiving Day parades across the nation. It takes skill, strength and teamwork to control those helium-filled bags of fun — that's exactly what balloon school is for.
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Up, Up And Away: Balloon School For Parade Newbies

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Up, Up And Away: Balloon School For Parade Newbies

Up, Up And Away: Balloon School For Parade Newbies

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The Thanksgiving Day holiday traditionally brings with it parades and balloons - really big balloons that brighten the skylines of cities like New York or Detroit. And as Quinn Klinefelter of member station WDET discovered, there is special training for those who walk those big guys down the street and keep them from floating away.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: In a massive Detroit parking lot, a star is rising. It's a happy star. You can tell by the grin painted on it. It's a balloon ready to be used by those practicing for the upcoming Thanksgiving Day parade. Balloon school is in session. The man in charge here is Don Morris.

DON MORRIS: Just feel the balloon again. Have the rope in your hand. I don't think people are used to having something, you know, 3,000 cubic feet of mass above their head and that can be moving all over the place.

KLINEFELTER: It can take as many as 30 people to pull and prod a three-story-tall balloon. Newbie handlers, like Kelley Marcaccio, say it makes for a full-body workout.

KELLEY MARCACCIO: It's windy. It's awkward. It's like a giant kite. A couple times, the balloon wanted to crawl away from us or fly away from us.

KLINEFELTER: And what did you do?

MARCACCIO: (Laughter) Held on tight and prayed.

KLINEFELTER: The balloons soar as high as 40 feet above ground. Don Morris says back in 1990, one balloon here soared quite a bit higher.

MORRIS: Three balloons let go at once. We were able to catch two. The one that was in the middle of everything, unfortunately - it was the penguin balloon - and unfortunately, all of a sudden we just watched him rise up. And we went to the Detroit Police Department and said, listen, you're going to have to let planes in the area know that we have this 3,000 cubic-foot mass that's floating in the air somewhere.

KLINEFELTER: The penguin balloon, called Chili Willy, eventually crashed in a lake 25 miles away. There's a new penguin balloon here now inside this expansive warehouse, which is stuffed with floats and costumes. It's time for balloon school's final exams.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Kermit - Gingerbread and Kermit, Clowny, Captain Underpants, Rainbow Fish, Penguin.

KLINEFELTER: Even veterans like Chris Matus, who says he married into a family of balloon handlers, sometimes need a refresher course.

CHRIS MATUS: There was one year where the ropes got tangled and one year where a friend of mine got his hand caught in the rope and the captain had to cut it out. And I saw once, it caught a lamp - street lamp but, you know, nothing is ever broken. Nobody's ever gotten seriously hurt. I mean, it's part of the fun, right? You know, kind of the controlled chaos of the moment. It keeps it exciting.

KLINEFELTER: And there is a real sense of family among the volunteer handlers. Actually, Jeff Scheumann says he's here because of his late mother.

JEFF SCHEUMANN: She was somebody that enjoyed the holidays. She loved making other people smile. And so for me it's like, you know what? I'm out here making everybody smile.

KLINEFELTER: Instructors have one last lesson to impart. It's not all about flying these balloons.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nobody is done until that balloon is rolled up in the bag. We really need you to stay with the balloon, help us deflate it.

KLINEFELTER: But the spirits of the hundreds of handlers are anything but deflated as they eagerly await the chance to showcase their balloon on the Thanksgiving parade stage. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.

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