Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Story Of Balloonpopper Chillingsworth, As Told By All-but-Dissertation Tucker Dummychuck

Since I started writing about the men and women on John Hodgman's list of 700 hoboes, I am constantly being asked by no one about my sources.  While I won't divulge all my secrets, I can share one.  

His name was All-but-Dissertation Tucker Dummychuck, and he completed all but his dissertation on the subject of American vagrancy in the 1930's.  In fact, he had signed a deal to write a series of articles for the New Yorker on the inner workings of Hobo Nation, but his subject so enveloped him that he failed to provide anything beyond his first submission, before disappearing forever.  

Here is what the magazine ran in July of 1938:

Balloonpopper Chillingsworth

       Never ask a cruel man his motivation, for you may not like his answer.  I first heard about Balloonpopper Chillingsworth in 1934, and three long years would pass before I would finally track the man down and meet him face to face.  He was the first drifter I had studied who had created a name for himself outside of the world of the dusty vagrant.  [Mr. Dummychuck refused to use the word "hobo" in any of his papers or articles.]

Simply put, the man was known for popping balloons.   

From Boston to Boca Raton to Burbank, he has spent years lurking in the shadows and springing upon unsuspecting passersby - mostly children - to burst their balloons without warning, and with, it seems, no shortage of mal intent. He often takes it a step further, pricking the owners of said balloons with pins, tacks, nails and bits of broken glass.  He bellows at his victims a short, profane speech, the upshot of which is that no one will ever enjoy a balloon again if he has anything to say about it.

I had heard the stories.  By last year, many of them had made it into the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times.  Chillingsworth has been described as a menace to society, a creeping night terror, a public health hazard, and a very mean bad man who ruins birthday parties and childhood visits to the city zoo and the circus.  Having lived with the wandering poor for several years already, I was not afraid of him; I was intrigued.

When I finally met him, it was a cold December morning in the CA&E rail yard outside of Elgin, Illinois.  He emerged from behind a cattle pen, his arm across his face, most of which was becloaked 'neath his ratty black cape.  He shot furtive glances this way and that, then fixed me in his steely gaze.

I knew better than to jump straight in and ask the only question to which I truly wanted an answer, so I ran through my customary script of queries.
  • He wasn't certain, but he thought his given name had been Reginald Chillingsworth, of the Manhattan Chillingsworths.
  • He had been riding and walking the rails since before The Great Crash, although he did not recall the year of his departure from civilized society.
  • He had received training in the clown arts from P.T. Barnum's school, but had never performed.
  • He could name and create 114 distinct balloon animals and other shapes, but he'd be damned if he ever would - at least, not for "some damn-fool reporter from New Holland."
  • He was six foot, six inches and wore a size 9 3/8 hat. [That's a very large hat.]

I quickly grew bored of the same old stories of rail yard living, destitution and scrapes with the law.  I asked him the question.  The Question.  

"Why must you pop everyone's balloons?"  

First, he congratulated me on my restraint.  It seems other reporters, including one from the Trib and one from RKO Radio, had posed the same question, and then promptly fed him answers.  They posited that the balloons were symbols of life's joy, and that if he was to live a life devoid of joy, then so would everyone else.  They said the same of love.  No love for him, they said, no love for anyone else.  One interviewer suggested that his soul had been stolen by the devil and was last seen drifting off in a balloon, and that young Chillingsworth was on a mission to recover it.  

He rolled his eyes, sighed heavily, then told me what it was that compelled him to pop everyone's balloons.   It was heavy in its simplicity, like a child's conception of Love.

"Balloons killed my parents when I was nine, and since that day I have dedicated my life to ensuring that they never kill again."


My research confirmed the strange circumstances that surrounded the deaths of his parents.  They had owned and operated an extremely lucrative business, supplying balloons and decorations to the most sought-after party planners and event operators in New York City throughout the 1920s.  The senior Chillingsworth was known as "The Balloon Man," and his wife was called "Mrs. Hydrogen."  On the night of September 4th, 1928, they were riding home along Park Avenue when a large and rather unruly costume party released some forty-five hundred of the Chillingsworth's balloons from the balcony of one of the new hi-rise apartment buildings on the upper east side.  The balloons were to have been filled with hydrogen, which would have lifted them playfully to the sky, but the Chillingworths' apprentice had mistakenly used plain oxygen.  The balloons sank en masse to the street below.  The couple's driver, momentarily blinded and terrified by the balloons, veered into a tree.  He and the Chillingsworths were ejected and promptly trampled by a pair of horses who had been spooked by the crash - and by the popping.

That apprentice was Billy "Balloonpopper" Chillingsworth, and he had watched in horror from the 21st floor as his parents died Lat the hands of the family balloons.

I can hardly blame him for his obsession.  As he turned to walk away, his last words to me were,

"Never again shall the death cries of innocents fill these ears.  At least, not at the whim of those wicked bags of air.  Not while I draw breath." 

No comments:

Post a Comment