A world adventure completed, the three men who crossed the Atlantic in a balloon came home yesterday to a rousing and pride-filled greeting by thousands of friends, supporters, admirers and fellow balloon fanatics.
Their accomplishment was so great and their hometown skyline so modest that when the city ran out of threestory buildings it used a helicopter to wash shredded paper over the three as they rode slowly down Central Avenue in a 1925 Cadillac convertible.
The car was of appropriate vintage, for the fire trucks with the Dalmatian dog, the sirens and the scene were as old-time as the means by which Ben Abruzo, Maxie Anderson and Larry Newman flew from Maine to France.
"Welcome Home, Heroes," was the banner headline held up to them as they rode from Albuquerque International Airport to downtown. If everyone loves a balloon, and everyone loves a parade, then yesterday in the heart of Albuquerque everyone loved the three men whose balloon had caused this parade.
Anderson, Abruzzo and Newman were whooshily saluted with propane blasts from 12 hot-air balloons that marked the route of their triumphant return home, gestures of the fraternity of balloonists who, by dint of ideal weather and western camaraderie, have made Albuquerque the nation's balloon capital.
"We have added a little excitement to their lives and a lot of pride," said Anderson after standing knee-deep in the clumps of streamers that filled the trio's car.
"Now that our three famous citizens of New Mexico have made a triumphant crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon in the name of the United States," one resident recently noted in a letter to the editor, "Joe wonders if people of other parts of the country will finally get it through their thick skulls that New Mexico is really a part of the United States."
The three balloonists, two of whom had tried before to cross the Atlantic and failed, arrived to chaos at the airport as their private jet was mobbed and officials abandoned scheduled welcoming ceremonies in favor of a successful escape.
Behind them as they returned were five balloons, multicolored and tethered, and near them was a replica of the Spirit of St. Louis. But it was clear that while Charles A. Lindbergh had pushed technology forward with the Spirit, these men had turned technology back with their spirit.
Before them, there had been 17 attempts at crossing the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon. Some had died in the effort, but these men succeeded. Yesterday they came home to the city that boasts a world champion balloonist, a national champion and an annual October balloon festival that draws participants from all over the world.
Placards proclaimed them No. 1 in more than just their becoming the first to cross the Atlantic in a balloon.
They were treated to a cheer of "BAL-LOON BAL-LOON!" and to a song written in tribute:
"From Albuquerque right by the silvery moon, they sailed across the ocean by balloon."
It is said by those who live here that ballooning has become such a sport in these parts because of the ideal year-round weather. "You tie $5,000 up on a toy and use it only two or three months -- you're limited," said Michael Corlew, 34, an office manager who has been ballooning for 3 1/2 years. "Here you can use it yearround. I used to fly in Texas and everytime we landed we used to fight with the farmers.
"Here, there is so much open land and public land that you can go for miles."
It is true that many places in the Southwest have good weather, but Albuquerque, which is either a big town or a small city, has a friendliness and a relaxed nature where balloonists indulge each other regardless of anything.
"There are people who don't know where their next bottle of propane is coming from," said Sheri Bachtell, a balloonist, and there are millionaires.
"They fall in love with a balloon."
"Here, it's the people, laid back and friendly," said Linda Niswander, who has worked on a balloon crew for two years. "They aren't like that everywhere. If I were someplace else I might not be in it."
Yesterday, however, it was nothing but friendliness and pride for this city of 330,000, which now finds itself somewhat a center of world attraction. It is a fitting climax to an event two years ago when some Albuquerque balloonists formed a balloon fiesta committee and its new chairman proclaimed: "What we feel is very important is that Albuquerque be known as the Hot-Air Balloon Capital of the World."
Is there anyone now who doubts that it is?