John and Karen Bullock, with their son, Zane, who’s now 9, and is part of the crew
On Thursday, July 7, about a dozen pilots arrived in Wausau to set up for the annual Balloon & Rib Fest, that storied event voted the city's favorite five years and counting.
Among the pilots who make the trek each year is John Bullock, a 1985 Wausau East High School graduate who now lives in Genoa City with his wife and two children. Together, as they have since 2007, John and Karen launched the familiar pale blue balloon with orange fish on the side and fly above the city they once called home.
For the 49-year-old Wausau native, piloting is about much more than seeing the sights and feeling the wind in his hair. For John and Karen, flying their hot air balloon began as a way to cope with the grief of losing three infant children, and became a way to stay more closely connected to their two children who survived.
The couple's fascination with ballooning started in 1998, Karen says, shortly after John graduated from UW-Platteville with a degree in civil engineering. Newly married, the couple made their way to Genoa City in southern Wisconsin, where John took a job with the Dept. of Transportation as a railroad safety inspector and Karen went to work at Brookwood Middle School. Once settled in their new town, they started looking for things to do as a couple. Then the brochure arrived in the mail that would change their lives.
The flyer detailed a list of special events throughout 1998 as the state celebrated its sesquicentennial year. There were dozens of events to choose from, but the one that caught both their attention was the Hudson Hot Air Affair, an annual festival of hot air balloons, arts and food to be held in February. They booked a room and made plans to see the show.
In Hudson, John and Karen happened to stay at the same hotel as a group of balloon pilots. After sharing some laughs in the hotel lounge, one pilot invited the couple to come out the next morning and fly with them.
"It was incredible," Karen says. "It's hard to explain how peaceful it feels. I was hooked."
As Karen recalls, that inaugural flight was the start of great friendships with the pilots they met and the birth of a hobby that would later become a cornerstone of their lives.
For nearly five years, John and Karen attended as many hot air balloon shows as they could. They both secretly dreamed of the day they would own their own craft, though neither dared to raise the possibility with the other. After all, they were fresh out of college and both paying off massive student loans, just getting started with their lives. Owning a balloon seemed like a crazy idea they just couldn't afford. They also were new parents, after celebrating the birth of their daughter, Elizabeth, in 1999. Their dreams of someday owning a balloon simply had to wait.
A dream after tragedies
Both Karen and John knew they wanted a big family, and on Christmas Day 2002, they were overjoyed when Karen prepared to give birth to twin daughters. Their happiness soon turned to grief. Gabrielle was stillborn; Katherine, born a few minutes later, sustained catastrophic brain damage during delivery. Months of surgeries and hospitalizations followed for Katherine, whose chances for survival were slim.
Baby Katherine was 9 months old when Karen, sitting in the Intensive Care Unit at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, got a call from John. He cautiously mentioned that two of their friends, Bob and Bonnie Marhoun, had a balloon for sale, a light blue craft called Bubbles.
"Needless to say, it was a rough time for us, and we weren't exactly in the market," Karen Bullock says.
Yet something told her to go for it. "It was a ray of hope for us, something to look forward to."
Less than two months after that phone call, in early November, 2003, Katherine slipped away. It was later that month that John and Karen finalized the deal to buy Bubbles, the balloon that had come to signify courage and hope to the grieving couple. The deal included flying lessons for John, who spent seven months learning the ropes before taking his first solo flight in the spring of 2004.
Their new hobby didn't erase the pain of loss, but flying somehow helped the two cope with the loss of their baby twins. They began to heal, Karen says, finding solace in the skies.
In late 2005, Karen gave birth to another daughter, Anastasia, a beautiful baby who was perfect in every way. She was just six weeks old when tragedy struck again. The infant’s small intestine twisted and within hours she, too, was gone.
"It was unbelievable to us," Karen says. "The conditions that caused the deaths of our children were not genetic. We were just apparently incredibly unlucky."
Karen's obstetrician encouraged them to try again and in 2006, Karen gave birth to their son, Zane, who is now 9.
Through it all, they continued to fly. And by then, John had earned enough pilot hours to begin participating in balloon rallies. His first was in August 2006, in Seymour. The Bullocks began coming to the Wausau balloon festival in 2007 and haven't missed a year since.
Because John is from Wausau and Karen is from Stratford, (they met while in school at UW-Marathon County), the annual event gives them both an opportunity to visit with family and friends and stay connected with the area they once called home.
"We have lived away from Wausau for awhile, but it's a thrill to get to see people we know and visit the shops and restaurants we went to when we lived there," Karen says. "We usually have breakfast at The Mint and try to fit in a stop for some Wausau Mine Italian fries or Sam's Pizza."
Balloonists who appear at events like Wausau’s Balloon and Rib Fest typically receive a nominal show-up fee and are reimbursed for expenses, such as fuel. It’s a hobby, not a money-making career, and definitely a labor of love.
Both their children, Zane and Elizabeth, know a great deal about ballooning and have been an indispensible part of the pit crew for about as long as they could walk.
Elizabeth, now 17, has had a student pilot license since she was 14 and has a strong interest in aviation. This summer, she created and is teaching a class to middle school students, called Fun with Things that Fly, as a way to earn her Gold Award in Girl Scouts.
Zane has sometimes been the character inside the Wally mascot often seen at rallies, and is a great crew helper in his own right, Karen says.
In addition to the Wausau event, the Bullock family participates in three to five other rallies a year. They participate regularly at Wisconsin events in Hudson, Seymour and Waterford, and have traveled as far as Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with their Bubbles balloon and equipment in tow. They often look for new venues. And each time they fly reminds them not only of their lost children, but of the gift they have in Elizabeth and Zane.