I was 6 years old when my dad took me to learn the art of balloon twisting with a nine-toed clown named Dusty. Most dads are happy with a little trophy or a World’s Greatest Dad coffee mug from their 6-year-old, but my dad asked me if we could learn to do something together to his birthday. When her child chose balloon animals, he didn’t hesitate. Instead, he grabbed a ball pump and ducked down.
I was 11 when he helped me start our family business: Big ball nation, which is still the western Kentucky region’s premier balloon operation (a hotly contested title, as you’re no doubt aware). I now think back to those early years as balloon artists, when our tip jar was a Folger can and we stored balloons in popcorn cartons. We had no idea what we were doing, let alone where we would end up.
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When I was 18, I got a college scholarship on the merits of my ball art. Vanderbilt University Curb Scholars for Creative Enterprise recruited their very first balloon artist, and I suddenly got to tell people that I went to college for hot air (everyone does, of course, but mine is wrapped in latex) .
And now, at 23, I’m about to embark on a globe-trotting expedition to spread balloons around the world. Using the skills I learned with dad all those years ago, I had the honor of being selected as Vanderbilt’s Keegan Travel Companion for the class of 2021. After a year’s delay COVID-19[feminine]I will finally embark on a kind of world tour, traveling far and wide to study the impact of the pandemic on artists around the world.
I will not only use my balls, of course. For a project like this, I’m going to have to use the other skill my dad gave me: the ability to befriend anything that moves. From scottish highlands at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, I will interview every creative person I meet. Street mime or coffee roaster, sword swallower or mariachi, I want to hear them all. Why do they do what they do? What happened when the coronavirus forced them to stop? How will they tell the story of COVID-19, so that future generations can avoid our missteps?
You might wonder, where will my father be while I am wandering and rambling? As always, he and my mother will hold the fort in Paducah, Kentucky. He will continue to make balloons. He will continue to give me advice that I did not ask for. Simply put, he will continue to be my father, even on the other side of the world.
This Father’s Day, I’m trying to spend as much time as possible with my parents, knowing I’ll miss them when I’m on the road. But I also take note of the advice they have given me over the years. As I plan my trips to more than a dozen countries, a phrase from my father keeps ringing in my ears: “Keep looking, you’ll see more.
This weekend, I celebrate dad. This year, I plan to keep looking. I hope you can join me for both.
Barton Christmas is a freelance writer based in Paducah, Kentucky. Over the next year, he will travel to more than a dozen countries as a traveling Keegan Fellow at Vanderbilt University. Keep an eye on The Courier Journal for periodic updates on his travels, follow his travel Instagram@KentuckyPilgrim or email email@example.com to join his weekly travel newsletter, Kentucky Rambler.