An Adventure in the Upper Sea by Jack London
I am a retired captain of the upper sea. That is to say, when I was a
younger man (which is not so long ago) I was an aeronaut and navigated
that aerial ocean which is all around about us and above us. Naturally
it is a hazardous profession, and naturally I have had many thrilling
experiences, the most thrilling, or at least the most nerve-racking,
being the one I am about to relate.
It happened before I went in for hydrogen gas balloons, all of varnished
silk, doubled and lined, and all that, and fit for voyages of days
instead of mere hours. The "Little Nassau" (named after the "Great
Nassau" of many years back) was the balloon I was making ascents in at
the time. It was a fair-sized, hot-air affair, of single thickness, good
for an hour's flight or so and capable of attaining an altitude of a
mile or more. It answered my purpose, for my act at the time was making
half-mile parachute jumps at recreation parks and country fairs. I was
in Oakland, a California town, filling a summer's engagement with a
street railway company. The company owned a large park outside the city,
and of course it was to its interest to provide attractions which would
send the townspeople over its line when they went out to get a whiff of
country air. My contract called for two ascensions weekly, and my act
was an especially taking feature, for it was on my days that the largest
crowds were drawn.
Before you can understand what happened, I must first explain a bit
about the nature of the hot air balloon which is used for parachute
jumping. If you have ever witnessed such a jump, you will remember that
directly the parachute was cut loose the balloon turned upside down,
emptied itself of its smoke and heated air, flattened out and fell
straight down, beating the parachute to the ground. Thus there is no
chasing a big deserted bag for miles and miles across the country, and
much time, as well as trouble, is thereby saved. This maneuver is
accomplished by attaching a weight, at the end of a long rope, to the
top of the balloon. The aeronaut, with his parachute and trapeze, hangs
to the bottom of the balloon, and, weighing more, keeps it right side
down. But when he lets go, the weight attached to the top immediately
drags the top down, and the bottom, which is the open mouth, goes up,
the heated air pouring out. The weight used for this purpose on the
"Little Nassau" was a bag of sand.
On the particular day I have in mind there was an unusually large crowd
in attendance, and the police had their hands full keeping the people
back. There was much pushing and shoving, and the ropes were bulging
with the pressure of men, women and children. As I came down from the
dressing room I noticed two girls outside the ropes, of about fourteen
and sixteen, and inside the rope a youngster of eight or nine. They
were holding him by the hands, and he was struggling, excitedly and
half in laughter, to get away from them. I thought nothing of it at
the time—just a bit of childish play, no more; and it was only in the
light of after events that the scene was impressed vividly upon me.
"Keep them cleared out, George!" I called to my assistant. "We don't
want any accidents."
"Ay," he answered, "that I will, Charley."
George Guppy had helped me in no end of ascents, and because of his
coolness, judgment and absolute reliability I had come to trust my life
in his hands with the utmost confidence. His business it was to overlook
the inflating of the balloon, and to see that everything about the
parachute was in perfect working order.
The "Little Nassau" was already filled and straining at the guys. The
parachute lay flat along the ground and beyond it the trapeze. I tossed
aside my overcoat, took my position, and gave the signal to let go. As
you know, the first rush upward from the earth is very sudden, and this
time the balloon, when it first caught the wind, heeled violently over
and was longer than usual in righting. I looked down at the old familiar
sight of the world rushing away from me. And there were the thousands of
people, every face silently upturned. And the silence startled me, for,
as crowds went, this was the time for them to catch their first breath
and send up a roar of applause. But there was no hand-clapping,
whistling, cheering—only silence. And instead, clear as a bell and
distinct, without the slightest shake or quaver, came George's voice
through the megaphone:
"Ride her down, Charley! Ride the balloon down!"
What had happened? I waved my hand to show that I had heard, and began
to think. Had something gone wrong with the parachute? Why should I ride
the balloon down instead of making the jump which thousands were waiting
to see? What was the matter? And as I puzzled, I received another start.
The earth was a thousand feet beneath, and yet I heard a child crying
softly, and seemingly very close to hand. And though the "Little Nassau"
was shooting skyward like a rocket, the crying did not grow fainter and
fainter and die away. I confess I was almost on the edge of a funk,
when, unconsciously following up the noise with my eyes, I looked above
me and saw a boy astride the sandbag which was to bring the "Little
Nassau" to earth. And it was the same little boy I had seen struggling
with the two girls—his sisters, as I afterward learned.
There he was, astride the sandbag and holding on to the rope for
dear life. A puff of wind heeled the balloon slightly, and he swung out
into space for ten or a dozen feet, and back again, fetching up against
the tight canvas with a thud which even shook me, thirty feet or more
beneath. I thought to see him dashed loose, but he clung on and
whimpered. They told me afterward, how, at the moment they were casting
off the balloon, the little fellow had torn away from his sisters,
ducked under the rope, and deliberately jumped astride the sandbag. It
has always been a wonder to me that he was not jerked off in the first
Well, I felt sick all over as I looked at him there, and I understood
why the balloon had taken longer to right itself, and why George had
called after me to ride her down. Should I cut loose with the parachute,
the bag would at once turn upside down, empty itself, and begin its
swift descent. The only hope lay in my riding her down and in the boy
holding on. There was no possible way for me to reach him. No man could
climb the slim, closed parachute; and even if a man could, and made the
mouth of the balloon, what could he do? Straight out, and fifteen feet
away, trailed the boy on his ticklish perch, and those fifteen feet were
I thought far more quickly than it takes to tell all this, and realized
on the instant that the boy's attention must be called away from his
terrible danger. Exercising all the self-control I possessed, and
striving to make myself very calm, I said cheerily:
"Hello, up there, who are you!"
He looked down at me, choking back his tears and brightening up, but
just then the balloon ran into a cross-current, turned half around and
lay over. This set him swinging back and forth, and he fetched the
canvas another bump. Then he began to cry again.
"Isn't it great?" I asked heartily, as though it was the most enjoyable
thing in the world; and, without waiting for him to answer: "What's your
"Tommy Dermott," he answered.
"Glad to make your acquaintance, Tommy Dermott," I went on. "But I'd
like to know who said you could ride up with me?"
He laughed and said he just thought he'd ride up for the fun of it. And
so we went on, I sick with fear for him, and cudgeling my brains to keep
up the conversation. I knew that it was all I could do, and that his
life depended upon my ability to keep his mind off his danger. I pointed
out to him the great panorama spreading away to the horizon and four
thousand feet beneath us. There lay San Francisco Bay like a great
placid lake, the haze of smoke over the city, the Golden Gate, the ocean
fog-rim beyond, and Mount Tamalpais over all, clear-cut and sharp
against the sky. Directly below us I could see a buggy, apparently
crawling, but I knew from experience that the men in it were lashing the
horses on our trail.
But he grew tired of looking around, and I could see he was beginning to
"How would you like to go in for the business?" I asked.
He cheered up at once and asked "Do you get good pay?"
But the "Little Nassau," beginning to cool, had started on its long
descent, and ran into counter currents which bobbed it roughly about.
This swung the boy around pretty lively, smashing him into the bag once
quite severely. His lip began to tremble at this, and he was crying
again. I tried to joke and laugh, but it was no use. His pluck was
oozing out, and at any moment I was prepared to see him go shooting
I was in despair. Then, suddenly, I remembered how one fright could
destroy another fright, and I frowned up at him and shouted sternly:
"You just hold on to that rope! If you don't I'll thrash you within an
inch of your life when I get you down on the ground! Understand?"
"Ye-ye-yes, sir," he whimpered, and I saw that the thing had worked. I
was nearer to him than the earth, and he was more afraid of me than of
"'Why, you've got a snap up there on that soft bag," I rattled on.
"Yes," I assured him, "this bar down here is hard and narrow, and it
hurts to sit on it."
Then a thought struck him, and he forgot all about his aching fingers.
"When are you going to jump?" he asked. "That's what I came up to see."
I was sorry to disappoint him, but I wasn't going to make any jump.
But he objected to that. "It said so in the papers," he said.
"I don't care," I answered. "I'm feeling sort of lazy today, and I'm
just going to ride down the balloon. It's my balloon and I guess I can
do as I please about it. And, anyway, we're almost down now."
And we were, too, and sinking fast. And right there and then that
youngster began to argue with me as to whether it was right for me to
disappoint the people, and to urge their claims upon me. And it was
with a happy heart that I held up my end of it, justifying myself in a
thousand different ways, till we shot over a grove of eucalyptus trees
and dipped to meet the earth.
"Hold on tight!" I shouted, swinging down from the trapeze by my hands
in order to make a landing on my feet.
We skimmed past a barn, missed a mesh of clothesline, frightened
the barnyard chickens into a panic, and rose up again clear over a
haystack—all this almost quicker than it takes to tell. Then we came
down in an orchard, and when my feet had touched the ground I fetched up
the balloon by a couple of turns of the trapeze around an apple tree.
I have had my balloon catch fire in mid air, I have hung on the cornice
of a ten-story house, I have dropped like a bullet for six hundred feet
when a parachute was slow in opening; but never have I felt so weak and
faint and sick as when I staggered toward the unscratched boy and
gripped him by the arm.
"Tommy Dermott," I said, when I had got my nerves back somewhat. "Tommy
Dermott, I'm going to lay you across my knee and give you the greatest
thrashing a boy ever got in the world's history."
"No, you don't," he answered, squirming around. "You said you wouldn't
if I held on tight."
"That's all right," I said, "but I'm going to, just the same. The
fellows who go up in balloons are bad, unprincipled men, and I'm going
to give you a lesson right now to make you stay away from them, and from
And then I gave it to him, and if it wasn't the greatest thrashing in
the world, it was the greatest he ever got.
But it took all the grit out of me, left me nerve-broken, that
experience. I canceled the engagement with the street railway company,
and later on went in for gas. Gas is much the safer, anyway.