When we were kids, the family Christmas tree always featured fat electric lights, traditional bulbs, and tinsel. For those too young to remember it, tinsel was long, shiny, quasi-metallic strips that you hung from tree branches.
Tinsel also had the added benefit of being a great way for a brother to torment his sisters.
The most important feature of tinsel was its extraordinary reaction to static electricity. In fact, I would wager that most boys growing up during the ’60s learned about the properties of static electricity from two objects — tinsel and balloons.
Tinsel was always the last thing to go on the tree, after the electric lights had been strung and the bulbs placed to cover the inevitable gaps on the tree itself. Mom would open the pack of new tinsel and solemnly remind us to place the tinsel one strip at a time, rather than hurling unsightly gobs of tinsel on the tree limbs. The preferred single strand hanging approach approximated icicles and turned your tree into an object of glittering beauty.
The single strand placement approach was incredibly boring, however. My sisters would dutifully follow instructions, but it didn’t take long before I was placing the single strands on the back of my sisters’ sweaters, or on their hair, or shuffling my feet on the carpet and waving my hand past the tinsel to watch it move in response to the static electricity charge. After that, it was just a matter of time before I was giving UJ and my sisters static electricity shocks and all semblance of an orderly tree decoration process was lost.
Maybe there’s a reason people don’t seem to use tinsel like they used to.
The story about the crash of a hot air balloon near Luxor, Egypt — an incident that killed 19 people and seriously injured several others — is one of those odd, faraway stories that nevertheless hits home for me.
I’ve never been in a hot air balloon, nor have I ever been to Luxor, where the fabulous Valley of the Kings is located. But, I could very easily see myself visiting Egyptian antiquities and being tempted to take a balloon ride that would allow me to get a bird’s-eye view of all of the sites. Such tourist options — like the opportunity to go parasailing in the Caribbean, or go skydiving, or engage in similar kinds of novel vacation activities — are so commonplace that we tend to assume that they are extraordinarily safe. But, of course, things can go wrong, and if they go wrong when you are in an unsupported balloon a hundred yards in the air the consequences are more likely to be devastating than if they go wrong when your feet are on the ground.
The Luxor balloon was close to landing when a rope got wrapped around a fuel tube and severed it, causing a fire. The fire produced heat that rose into the balloon, causing it to shoot up into the air. Some passengers jumped out; others remained helplessly on board as the balloon rocketed skyward, the gas canister exploded, and the balloon then plummeted to the ground.
Ever since I went snowmobiling without knowing what I was doing, and realized that I could easily kill or seriously hurt myself as a result, I’ve been very stodgy and boring about such activities. There is risk in everything we do, of course, but some risks have to be assumed, whereas others are only optional. I’m sure that, if I were one of the unlucky tourists on that ill-fated Luxor ride, as the doomed balloon was falling downward I would be thinking: “Why in the hell did I ever decide to do this?”