The unforgettable balloon man

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 26, 2014


I’ll never forget the balloon man.

A loud jingling pierced the quiet of the street on a military post in Germany.

My seven-year-old son had been playing in his room. Now he sprinted into the living room to look out the big picture window. “It’s the balloon man, the balloon man!” the child said, bouncing from one foot to the other.

I found my purse and dug out a few coins. He dashed out the door.

My warning to be careful on the three flights of stairs went unheeded. He raced down them as fast as his little legs could carry him.

I stepped to the window and looked down at the object of his attention.

An old man sat perched on a three-wheeled bicycle in the middle of the block. Balloons, attached to the bike by strings, fluttered in the breeze. He stepped off and opened a big container attached to the back of the bike.

Children raced toward him from every direction. I smiled. He reminded me of the legendary Pied Piper of Hamlin, who attracted the children of that town with his music, then spirited them away.

But the balloon man had no such idea. He sought the children’s nickels, dimes, and quarters and knew how to collect them.

They waved their coins in the air and shouted their wants at him, pointing and gesturing. There was no language barrier there. He understood, and he worked frantically, sometimes impatiently, exchanging toys for their coins.

They emerged from the crowd with colorful whirligigs, little plastic guns, cars and airplanes, tin poppers, and other flimsy toys.

They ran and skipped; they made the whirligigs turn; they squatted on the sidewalk and raced the little cars. Little girls compared fragile miniature dolls and blew into bubble pipes. Several waved red and white balloons.

For a few minutes, the balloon man wrought magic.It was a familiar scenario. The balloon man visited often. I knew there was more to come.

I spotted my child moving out of the crowd, his head down, a toy in his hand, walking toward the apartment entrance. His feet dragged on the stairs as he approached our apartment. The door swung open. He frowned and waved a flimsy toy at me.

“It broke,” he said, tossing it on a chair. “I’ll never buy anything else from that old balloon man. Everything always breaks,” he muttered, and flung himself on the couch.

I stepped to the window. A few children were idly drifting back to their apartments.

The balloon man closed his box, mounted the bike, and pedaled down the street. Several boys and girls chased along beside him.

As he pedaled out of sight, a balloon floated upward behind one of the apartment houses.

I knew the balloon man would wait a few months before he reappeared—long enough for those like my son to forget this experience. His jingle would lure the children back to give him their coins once more.