February 29, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Helios 21

By |2018-03-21T18:23:25+01:00December 25th, 2016|Area 51|
Wanting a present meant repeating its name.

hort of the moon and well before girls what I most wanted for Christmas was Helios 21. Most means a lot. Most is a must masquerading as a hint.

Helios 21 was a silver dirigible inflated by a helium canister the size of a thumb. You then flew it around from a battery-powered remote box. It was billed as the “giant spaceship of the 21st century.”

I found it in the Sears catalogue under “Toys,” a vital category not to be confused with the “Tools” and “Tunics” that lurked nearby. The catalogue had 50 pages of toys but only Helios involved the extraordinary idea of small propellers attached to a plastic airship that would hover on command. I extrapolated from the catalogue and imagined myself in the gondola of a great dirigible waving to my parent as I coaxed my way into the clouds. I traveled over the great Spanish valley of “Telefonica” where in my reveries ocean liner captains with bushy beards lined up to salute me. I saluted back.

Please is not a word in a hurry. It is self-indulgent and insidious.

Please, I told my father. Please, I told my mother.

Please is most effective when it has time on its hands. It requires constant repetition. Short of the girl and before the moon, please was all you needed to know about the obtaining of desired presents.

I should also tell you about the amazing tree.

Every year my father absconded to the Big Lot where he picked what he explained was a “newly razed” tree. I understood razed as raised and imagined resuscitated trees nourished by the magi of Big Lot.

That year, the year of Helios, we got the best of the Big Lot, a grand tree whose tip grazed the dining room ceiling and, annoyed it couldn’t go further, accepted a glowing angel atop it as a grand consolation prize. My mother put it there in a ceremony I attended, As she worked, her face glittering with the reflected orange light the tree gave her for luck.

I should also tell you about the kitchen and the oven and how we built the food. Mostly, though, I encouraged the genesis of my mother’s cookies, which involved heaping quiet praise on the dough, the sugar, and getting as close as possible to the oven’s brown heat.

Please, told them, and the cookies baked.

Of the many gift boxes under the amazing tree only one received full attention — it was long and lazy, luminously wrapped and entirely impenetrable.

The box picked me out and I waited.

In my youth, waiting was a state of grace that pitted yearning against restraint. My father explained that being instructed to wait was a deprivation that was also lesson in maturity. To wait was to learn to grow up. To wait was to not do what could be done because the appropriate time hadn’t arrived. That kind of waiting has fallen from favor. Adults, including presidents, behave like relapsed children and tear things apart at will.

The box that picked me out gave me Helios 21.

On Christmas Day, I rippled the red and green packaging until I got to the dirigible. Don’t break it, said my parents, their smiling faces reflected in the sliver of silver with the word “Helios 21” scripted sleekly at the center of the balloon. I yelped. I’d gotten what I wanted. At those moments I couldn’t imagine not getting what I wanted ever ending.

After the opening ceremony we went to the yard where I could finally inflate Helios and send it on its first mission. We did the ritual of inflation and the rite of the batteries. I pressed a button and the little propellers whirred.

When Helios was ready it rose fast, far too fast, much like so many other things that lay ahead of me.

Maybe my small hands were nervous. Or maybe, as my father suggested, I dreamed too much. I should be more practical. I should stop imagining things. I should do my schoolwork more diligently. I should reduce my dreamt forays to “Telefonica,” though he had no idea how much the captains needed me. Or the ocean liners. How to tell him?

Helios got to the height of the apple tree and then went higher still.

“Telefonica,” I should tell you, has orchards and coasts and lips and hopes. It has cookies and ovens and beards and ports. Much there is expected to stay the same, and does. That’s the way my mind is ordered.

Blame it on the wind, said my father. Some events you just cannot predict. What he said made no sense to my disbelieving eyes.

By then, Helios was a caprice in the sky’s unforgiving distance. I sobbed at the unfairness of it all. I sobbed for the whole of the darkening day. Please give it back! I wept at the air, but nothing happened. I want! I said, to no avail.

Short of the moon and before girls what I most wanted was Helios 21.

I got it, and then it vanished.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.