Craig’s Most Excellent Birthday

…and a bit of recent Napa County history

From time to time, I have come across some tales that I have felt should be put to paper (or at least digital binary bits), so others can hear of it.

Our car club has a monthly drive that has been popular for some years. The host will plan a route somewhere in No CA and people are advised of it via email. They can show up Sunday mornings or not, no reservations required.

The drive for August was a drive through the back roads of Napa County, culminating at a Napa County institution in St Helena, Gotts Roadside. To call Gott’s a “hamburger stand” does it an injustice, although gourmet hamburgers is the main faire. How many hamburger stands offer a complete wine list?

After all, this is the Napa Valley.

It was an interesting drive coming in, because in addition to the wonderful twisty and curvy back roads going through canopied forest, we could see evidence of the latest fire from about 2 years ago. Napa County has had 2 devastating fires, although I believe the worst one, the Santa Rosa fire, was about 5 years ago. Although this National Geographic article just referenced stated that the Glass Fire of 2 years ago did the most property damage. I do know that our club has a member who lives in the area, and had built an immaculate showroom for his 20 or so collector cars (including coupe, cabriolet, and roadster versions of the very rare Mercedes-Benz  50s 300Sc), and the Santa Rosa Fire burned his house to the ground but miraculously skipped the showroom building.

Maybe the car gods intervened.


The optional and informal tour started after lunch when fellow club member and friend Inger suggested that we take the Silverado Trail on the way home, and visit the home on Atlas Peak where she lived as a child. Inger and her family emigrated from Norway when she was a wee nobbit, to quote a nautical bard.

I got a bit of Napa Country history along the way. For example, did you know that the Silverado Trail (and by extension the famed Silverado Country Club (now Silverado Resort and Spa), were named because of Robert Louis Stevenson? Apparently, he lived in the area at the time and wrote about the Silver Mines of nearby Calistoga.

 I didn’t know Napa County had silver mines, either.

Did you know that if it weren’t for the courageous actions of the Napa County Supervisors in the late 60s (1966) Napa County as we know it, full of national and world-renowned wineries, would be very different today? Full of suburbs and not vineyards?

There was a war between the developers and the county supervisors, with even lives threatened. A supervisor Inger’s family knew felt compelled to carry his pistol, the threats becoming so dangerous.

But they voted to enact a law, the Napa Agricultural Preserve *, that mandated that much of the county would remain agricultural, with an owner required to have at least 40 acres.  

Also on the “tour” was a winery that contained a former slaughterhouse, the Chimney Rock Winery. Inger was saying that the people who started the winery bought the former golf course that contained the big building that, into the 1960s, was a slaughterhouse.

But the tale today involves the trip to Inger’s former home on Atlas Peak, and the story of 8-year-old Craig’s birthday. After hearing this story, I think it was a birthday that Craig remembers to this day. How many kid’s birthdays have a military intervention?

Inger’s Former Home Today. Never Rebuilt from the Santa Rosa Fire – only the Front Patio Survives.

Inger was showing me her home, or what is more accurate, what remained of her home, destroyed by the Santa Rosa fire 5 years earlier. For some reason, it has not been rebuilt although the nearby neighbors all had new homes, or ones that was still under construction.

Like a lot of long-term Californians, we wondered if we could afford the places today that we knew as children. Inger’s first California home, before Napa, was in Palo Alto, today valued at over $9 million. It was considerably less back then…

In the case of this Atlas Peak location, what a view!

Off to the southeast was part of the Napa Valley, San Francisco Bay and Mt Tamalpais.

To the Southwest was a bit of the Central Valley.

So it came to pass, this being yet another phrase borrowed from Hizzoner, of the anniversary of young Craig’s 8th trip around the sun.

A party was planned by his friends and neighbors. Inger had an old Air Force weather balloon she bought from a catalog to send to the heavens, but alas, it burst before it could be launched.

One of Craig’s friends was a Japanese exchange student, whose sponsor was an Air Force Colonel. And the Colonel apparently had another Air Force balloon stored in his garage. What to do? Why, rush home and get the Air Force balloon!

Unlike the weather balloon, this balloon was far more sophisticated with a specific purpose. Its purpose was to help downed Air Force pilots survive in the water. It had a hydrogen generator that was activated when in contact with water (just add water!), and a silverish reflective coating that, once aloft, helped the Air Force (or Navy) spot it with radar.

Inger decided to adorn the balloon with some artwork. On one side was a drawing of Snoopy and the other, the inscription “You can do it Charlie Brown!”

Their plan was to attach this balloon with fishing line and a fishing rod, and launch it.

How high did it go? Well, the question I had was how many hundred yards of line can a fishing reel hold? Was it a deep-sea rod or for fly fishing?

This I don’t know, but I do know that the balloon, tethered by the fishing rod, went up a L O N G way. It was high enough that the Air Force began tracking it from Travis AFB, at least 50 miles away.

Now, in its full glory at altitude it came to pass than an elderly neighbor looked up and out her window and saw the silver spherical orb just hovering way above her house.

It began to worry her no doubt, with stories of aliens abducting unwary humans to do unspeakable things.

With probes.

Worried her so much that she called the authorities to report a UFO, who eventually contacted the Air Force.

Who soon dispatched a helicopter from Travis AFB in the Valley to attempt to intercept this spherical object.

I am trying to imagine the pilot’s reaction who eventually found it, guided by the radar operators, to see this with the inscription “YOU CAN DO IT CHARLIE BROWN!”

I am trying to imagine the reactions of the Air Force personnel in the radar room upon hearing the pilot’s finding.

In any event, since it was tethered by the fishing rod, finding its origin was not difficult and Craig’s family had a visit by an Air Force officer in a blue sedan the following day.

As far as I know they never found out how the balloon was obtained.

The moral of the story?

There is no moral – I just thought it was funny. And I am sure Craig, in addition to Inger, remembers it to this day.

** Despite the claims of the Napa Agricultural Preserve of this being in 1966 (55th anniversary) , Inger claims with some authority that it was 1968.

“Sorry!  I’m right and they’re wrong!  I was there!  (I didn’t leave for U. of Grenoble until 1969!)  I was dating Bud Wigger, County Supervisor Henry Wigger’s son at the time and getting the day-by-day update on the threats etc. when they were getting ready to vote and make it law.  His dad had a body guard, and they had extra security at home, etc. and he carried a hand gun.  It was a very suspenseful time for all the County Supervisors!  They had been working on it for a long time, so it may have started in 1966..”

We can thank the county supervisors of that time for having the courage to stand by their convictions.


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Filed under Air Force, Humor

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