Town of Washington continues charity launch tradition |

Town of Washington continues charity launch tradition

D. Todd Davidovich
Submitted to The Union

In the chilly hours and minutes of Nov. 25, the residents in the little town of Washington knew where they wanted to be.

High on a Sierra Nevada mountain ridge, the legacy of "Poison Bob" warmed the locals' spirits once again for their annual Charity Launch tradition. This time a weather balloon piloted by Muppet "Beaker" in a converted capsule took flight for Mission 006: Beaker goes ballistic.

With the high stakes launch time less than an hour and counting, pressure began to mount at 11:30 a.m., binocular-clad spectators gathered on the ridge. Parked cars and lawn chairs lined the chalk drawn launch pad. Panting dogs paced the mountain road. U.S. flags flapped in the wind. Birds scattered from trees and the welcomed smell of free tamales from "Whino John" filled the autumn air. Meanwhile, back at the Mission Control Center in Henry DeCorte's remote Washington Hotel & Saloon, the launch team leaned back with their drinks, relit their smoldering cigarettes and smiled.

Systems check. The final countdown had begun.

Ten years ago, celebrity Kermit the Frog arrived in Washington, California with The Jim Henson Company to film a Ford Escape Hybrid Superbowl commercial. Once the filming ended after a few blustery sleet-filled days, creative inspiration enkindled the mountain town and tucked away in his small trailer amongst the snow-covered pines, the imagination of townsfolk member Poison Bob was caught by the wind. The annual launch, the day after Thanksgiving, has since created a gathering for the town where all find time to give thanks for one another, welcome new friends, say goodbye to old friends and seek comfort in a shared smile.

In 2011, Kermit the Frog lifted off in a converted vegetable steamer capsule for Mission 001 while Miss Piggy was launched in 2012 for Mission 002 to find him. In 2013, fueled by cheers and barking dogs, Animal rocketed into the clear blue sky for Mission 003. Fozzie Bear piloted the spacecraft for Mission 004 in 2014, "Spirit in the Sky" when the town said their farewells to the late Poison Bob, who was softly carried away by the winds on the very journey he created. In a gusty 2015, Mission 005, Gonzo went intergalactic, clipping an outstretched branch of a tall pine on liftoff before disappearing into the unknown. No capsules have been found to date.

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"Come on Titan, get in", said town local, 'Space' to his plump black & white dog who hopped into the rear bed of his antique rusted pickup truck in front of the Washington Hotel, "Let's go." The engine roared, gears grinded and the truck rolled forward leading a long parade of vehicles decorated with flags and tinsel streamers up the forested road. A speaker strapped to the roof of an SUV blasted a Star Wars theme song, horns honked and Titan paced side to side in the rear of the pickup truck barking all the winding way to the launch pad.

As the low hanging clouds moved in overhead, the flight crew stretched out the copper-colored high altitude weather balloon and turned the lever of the tall metal helium tank valve.

"She's going," said Flight Crew Lead "Merv."

A subtle hiss of gas began to fill the cavity, which slowly swelled into a squid-like oblong shape approximately 8 feet in diameter and held by a kite string. Kids quickly sprinted back over to "Whino John" who handed out small helium balloons, and returned to the launch pad, hugging their inflated treasures tightly in a two-handed grip.

Five, four, three, two, ignition, one, blastoff!

The weather balloon yanked Beaker's spacecraft vertically with a jolt. Small balloons were released from their warm hugs. A "meep" was heard within the capsule and off Beaker went, vertically on his distant journey towards the clouds.

As the capsule slowly drifted and disappeared into a calm wilderness of whiteness, silhouettes of the smaller chase balloons playfully danced beneath and moved in different directions. All went silent from below, smiled, hugged, held hands and let their imaginations quietly catch the wind. Even Titan stopped barking for once.

If Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Animal, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo or Beaker are found, please contact Henry DeCorte at the Washington Hotel 530-265-4364. All donations collected from the launch are gifted to Hospice of the Foothills in Grass Valley to help provide compassionate and supportive care to those in need.

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