ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — What’s a pirate’s favorite letter of the alphabet? Rrrrr.
What has 12 arms, 12 legs and 12 eyes? A dozen pirates.
What kind of socks does a pirate wear? Arrrrgyle.
Tom Schroeder, pilot of the hot-air balloon “Pirate’s Treasure,” and his chase crew have heard all the jokes before – and are quick to repeat them at every opportunity.
And why not? They sport pirate hats with perching parrots, carry swords, wear eye patches and fly the Jolly Roger skull and crossbones.
The idea is to have fun, stand out from the crowd and leave a lasting impression, says Schroeder, 56, who is known as “Terrible Tom.”
He and other balloon pilots and chase crews have been successfully doing that for years, making the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta – one of the most colorful and photographed events in the world – a bit more memorable and larger than life.
The pirate persona started about 15 years ago. “There’s a line that goes from the top of the balloon to the gondola called a crown line,” he says. “Pilots often fly a flag or two from the crown line, and one of our crew members, Fred Chavez, brought a pirate flag so we began flying it and it snowballed from there. We started wearing pirate hats and saying pirate things like, ‘Shiver me timbers,’ ‘Ahoy, matey,’ ‘Thar she blows!’ and ‘walk the plank.’ ”
Schroeder, a technical recruiter for a local staffing firm and a pilot since 1986, subsequently had someone sew together a pirate jacket for him modeled after garb seen in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. Meanwhile, crew members pieced together their own outfits from various sources, including Party City and eBay.
“During the fiesta there’s this constant din of noise as the balloons are inflating and the burners are roaring and suddenly people come upon us and stop and ask to get a photo with us. It’s not that we’re doing anything different than other balloonists, but it’s the costumes that make us stand out and seem a little different.”
As eye-catching clothing goes, it doesn’t get much more colorful than the tie-dye T-shirts worn by the crew of the balloon “Tentai,” a Japanese word that means heavenly body, says balloon pilot and call center director Jerry Garcia.
Yep. That’s right. Jerry Garcia – his real name – which explains the quintessential psychedelic art, the Grateful Dead music they often play after returning to the launch field, or Garcia’s cellphone ringtone that blares the song “Truckin.”
“We have tie-dye flags that we hang on the balloon and that match the different tie-dye T-shirts we wear,” says Garcia, 60. “People have made the shirts for us, and sometimes you can buy them in stores or find them online. Bell bottom pants – now those are tough to find.”
As a practical matter, he says, the tie-dye shirts make it easy to spot his crew in a crowd.
Of course, not everyone immediately makes the Jerry Garcia-Grateful Dead-tie-dye association.
“People have come up to me saying, ‘I really like your ice cream,’ ” a not-quite-on-the-mark reference to the Cherry Garcia ice cream flavor from Ben & Jerry’s.
Others have asked if he was named for the Grateful Dead’s lead guitarist, “who would have been 7 or 8 years old when I was born, and presumably didn’t play guitar at that time,” he says.
In fact, his parents didn’t name him to honor any living or “Dead” person, he says. “They just liked the name Gerald, and they called me Jerry, and they named my twin brother Lawrence, and they called him Larry. So we’re the Garcia brothers – Jerry and Larry.”
He admits that he gets “a little mileage every day out of the Jerry Garcia name thing” but insists he truly is a fan. “I grew up listening to the music and I still have Grateful Dead 8-track tapes and vinyl.”
More on the dramatic side is the Darth Vader balloon. The giant helmeted floating head pays homage to the heavy-breathing villain from the “Star Wars” films and draws an enormous crowd, not just for the special shape balloon, but for the costumed characters that help it get aloft.
Albuquerque financial planner Joseph Perez, 48, is a member of the Dewback Ridge Garrison of the 501st Legion, a local garrison of an international Star Wars costuming organization that primarily makes appearances in support of nonprofit and charity events. Members also come out to support the Darth Vader balloon, which is owned and operated out of Belgium.
“We wear different costumes from the entire ‘Star Wars’ universe, including Vader, storm troopers, snow troopers, biker scouts, clones, Sith lords, TIE pilots and AT-AT drivers,” he says. Costumes are handmade and cobbled together from various sources, including parts from vacuum-formed ABS plastic kits.
Bottom line, says Perez, “they must be screen accurate.”
And they can be quite expensive. “A friend of mine put together a Darth Vader costume that cost upwards of $6,000 or $7,000. I have a clone biker scout costume that cost about $2,200 and took me nine months to build – six of those months just painting it. In all, I have seven different character costumes that cost me $1,500 to $4,000 each to put together.”
Statewide, there are about 60 members of the organization, but the annual Balloon Fiesta also draws costumed members from garrisons in Colorado and Arizona who gather for what they call “trooping,” Perez says.
“We march from the parking lot to the launch site, followed by throngs of people who watch as we create a perimeter and do crowd control around the balloon as it’s being inflated. Once it lifts off, we remain in character and stay for hours, taking hundreds of pictures with people.”
The first “Star Wars” film was released in 1977 and the most recent one in 2008, with talk of three more still to come. “That makes the ‘Star Wars’ films multigenerational,” Perez says, much like the Balloon Fiesta itself.