Sunday, May 2, 2010

"El Globo Grande"

My Father's Last Flight

The El Globo Grande on fire as it drifted towards the Rio Grande River.

On October 3rd,1982, the El Globo Grande caught fire, causing the gondola to explode. This picture was taken just moments after my father and pregnant step-mother were killed in this tragic accident. You can see in the photo that there is very little left of the “gondola” other than a portion of the superstructure. To date, this is the worst ballooning accident in New Mexico ballooning history.

My mother left my father in 1968 when I was only a few days old. The final straw was when he came home one night especially drunk. He was a full-blown alcoholic by this point but this night was different; he became physical. My father took me from my mother and forcefully threw her out of the house. She was 2 weeks out of the hospital from my birth and still had stitches in her stomach.  My father and I were locked inside alone and all my mother could do was watch us through the windows.  He stumbled about the house with me in his arms, eventually passing out.  My mother was able to get back into the house. She grabbed me, and a couple changes of clothing and left my father.  My parents were divorced shortly after and I’d only see my father a few times in the next 8 years.

My father in Albuquerque 1967

In 1976 when I was 8 years old, my dad wrote me a letter.  He wanted to re-connect with me. He was living in Colorado where he owned an insurance company.  Not long after receiving his letter, my dad let me know he was driving to Albuquerque to see me. I’ll never forget the day.  I stood out at the corner down the street from our house at the southwest corner of Los Alamos and Laguna so I could see him coming.  He was supposed to arrive at 2:00 pm.  I remember vividly looking into every car that passed by for my dad. At 8:00 pm,well after dark, my Grandmother Marion "Bama" Cornish walked down the street, put her arm around me, and held me tight as she walked me home; not a word was said.  I fell asleep that night crying with my pillow over my head so nobody could hear me.  I still can’t forget the feeling of being worthless, my own father had forgotten about me.  He never did showthat spring and I didn't see him for a very along time after that.

My dad’s life was intense. He was born to William Anton Rank and Mary Collaer. William, my Grandfather, was partners with and a very distant relative of Conrad Hilton of Hilton Hotels.  William was killed in a mugging in El Paso, Texas, when my father was a child.  As a result of my grandfathers’ murder, my father inherited millions of dollars when he was eighteen.  My father enjoyed his inherited money and lived the life of a jet setter.  He was drawn to Hollywood where he produced music and television.  My dad however,was just another young good looking rich kid who eventually was chewed up and spit out by Tinseltown.  He wasn’t cut out for swimming with the sharks.  He retreated to Colorado to rebuild his life.

One of the albums my father produced with partner "Sam Riddle"

Tract 1:

Tract 2:

I eventually reconnected with my father and began going Colorado to spend time with my dad twice a year. This was absolutely an amazing time for me.  My life in New Mexico was chaotic and confusing; I was bouncing from home to home. But twice a year, I was with my “dad”, he was great and we had a ton of fun; he could do no wrong in my eyes.  I was never with him long enough to see his character defects, his human side.  I just saw the man who was always excited to see me, was new and exhilarating and lived a life that I desperately wanted to be a part of. 

I'm on the far right, then my half-brother Tom, dad's 3rd wife Martha and my father.

When I was thirteen, my grandparents let me know that my dad was moving back to New Mexico. They told me that he’d checked himself into a treatment center and when he got out, he’d permanently live in Albuquerque.  I was ecstatic.  I spent the next month fantasizing about how good my life was going to be with my dad home. My dad lived up to absolutely every expectation I had for him.  His first year home was an amazing year and to this day, it was the best 12 months of my life. 

My father and PJ at their wedding.

My father had remarried and his new wife, "PJ", was an extremely cool and beautiful woman.  We had so much fun together.  She had a great sense of humor,which made her a perfect stepmother for me.  My dad was working part time at a law firm and part time as a disk jockey at a local fm country station.   I used to love to go down to the station with my dad and just watch him work.  He had a wonderful deep voice and always said cool stuff.  One night, I went down to the station with my stepmother to hang out with dad.  My dad was pretty busy doing something so PJ and I started exploring the radio station.  We found another broadcast booth and started pretending to be disk jockeys.   We were singing into the microphone and saying the silliest things.  PJ really got into it and was acting like a complete clown.  Partway through her silly skit, I decided to play a joke on her.  I gave her an incredibly shocked look.  She stopped her routine and asked what was wrong.  I said, “the microphone is on, you’rebroadcasting over my dad!”  Well PJ absolutely freaked out.  She went tearing down the hallway to my father’s broadcast booth.  He was on the air, live as PJ slid into the room.  She was mouthing, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over.  My dad, headsets on, cigarette in his hand, microphone to his lips, talking to 100,000 people over the airways gave PJ the funniest look I’d ever seen.  I was behind PJ in the hallway bent over laughing, snot coming out of my nose.  My dad shifted his confused look from PJ to me.  The look on his face went from confusion to a wonderful grin and obvious understanding of the situation. 

Dad signed off by saying “This is Nick Brainard at KRST; I’ll see you all tomorrow night.” He flipped the switch in the microphone, spun around in his seat and started to laugh.  PJ was still trying to explain that she’d drowned out his broadcast with the silly skit in the next room.  She was convinced that she'd been talking and singing to all the listeners out there in Albuquerque and she was mortified.  My dad of course knew this wasn't true and that I’d played one hell of a trick on PJ.  His laugh went from his chest to his belly; a deep cheerful laugh.  PJ was a great sport about my joke but I did have to watch my back for weeks after.  She never did get me back.

My father and PJ Christmas 1981

Although my father and PJ were not drinking anymore, they smoked lots of marijuana.  My great grandmother who we called “Granny” was the president of the African Violet Society.  She had a huge green room at my grandparent’s house that was filled with flowers.  Granny would help my dad grow his pot.  The two of them would start the plants in her greenhouse under the grow lights. Then, they’d transplant the marijuana into the back yard amongst the various garden bushes and trees.  I was fourteen, it was 1982 and I loved to swipe off my dad’s pot plants and get stoned.  I’m sure he knew but never said anything.

My father cleaning his "dope" with a little assistance from me.

By the fall of 1982, I was starting my freshman year in high school and my dad’s new wife was pregnant. It was a happy time.  For the first time in my life, I felt completely secure.  It was also time for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.  This event draws up to 500 + hot air balloons; it’s amazing.  Since PJ was new to Albuquerque and had never seen it, my dad decided we needed to take her the next morning.

My freshman high school ID - 1982

That evening, I got a call from a really cute girl I’d met at the beach in La Jolla earlier in the summer.  Her name was Erin, she had blonde hair, and I had a huge crush on her.  Erin was in Albuquerque for a couple of days and wanted to go to a movie with me the next day.  Of course, there was no way that I was going to the balloon fiesta now!  I was an Albuquerque native and had already seen it.  But a blond cute girl asking me out on a date, well that just doesn’t happen every day and my hormones weren’t going allow me to pass up this opportunity!

"Erin" in La Jolla, California 1982

As my dad and PJ got ready to go home for the night, I told them that I couldn't go to the fiesta the next day.  My dad told me that was fine and they'd decided to go up to the top of the mountains to watch it from there. The Sandia Mountains tower over Albuquerque.  There is a spot at the top where you can look down at the entire city.  I was surprised that my father wanted to take PJ up therefor her first Balloon Fiesta experience.  It was a long drive and would be nothing like being at the launch site.  I spent a long time trying to convince my dad to not go to the mountains. I told him that PJ would have a much better time walking through the balloons as they inflated and launched.  It is a breathtaking event to be a part of.  I persisted until my Dad finally relented and promised to take PJ to the fiesta instead of the mountains.

The next morning, I awoke early; I was excited to go on my date.  Granny and I where the only ones in the house.  Both my grandparents and parents had gone to the balloon fiesta.  Granny and I were talking about my date with the cute blond from the beach while we ate breakfast.  She wanted to know all about the girl and what we were going to do.  Of course as my words told her about going to a movie but my hormones were telling another story!  The television was on; live scenes of the balloon fiesta were coming in over the airwaves.   As we were talking, a “breaking news” broadcast came blaring out of the television.  The reporter announced that there had been a balloon crash and the following scenes were not suitable for children.

The screen jumped to a very large balloon whose’ gondola was filled with passengers.  As the balloon landed we could see somebody jump out as if something was wrong. Flames appeared and the balloon began to rise back into the air. Several more people jumped out, the quick drop in weight caused the balloon to ascend rapidly.  By this point, both the gondola and balloon were on fire.

As the balloon reached a substantial altitude, there were a series of explosions and a lot of fire rolling in every direction.  I sat there with Granny, our attention fixated on what we were watching.  Yet another large explosion followed by two people falling from the balloon.   These people were holding onto each other as they fell to their death.  Smoke following their bodies as they plummeted to the earth.  The impact was brutal and there was no doubt that they could not have survived that fall.

It was a terrible scene, we’d just watched 2 people fall to a gruesome death and there was no doubt that other passengers had died as well.  People were scurrying all over the place trying to help.  The camera would occasionally focus back in on the balloon, which was engulfed in flames and disappearing over the horizon.  Until my dying day, I’ll never forget Granny, without taking her eyes off the TV screen saying, “I sure do feel sorry for the families of those people.”

A short time later, a friend came over to hang out and get stoned with me.  We went out into the back yard, lit up a doobie, talked about the balloon wreck and started throwing the football.  Partway through our smoke, my friend glanced into the house.  From the back yard, you could see the street in front through a large window.  His jaw dropped wide open, he turned back to me and said that a police car was parked out in the street.  I froze; I knew that they were there because of my dad’s marijuana plants.  Before I could say a word, my friend ran and jumped over the back wall.  I ran through the house and got to the front door just as the policeman knocked.

When I opened the door, there was a policeman in a suit and two uniformed officers.  I thought I could see my father and PJ standing out in the street, their backs to me.  The police came in and to my surprise didn't say a thing about the pot plants.  They told Granny and me that there had been a terrible wreck involving Mr. and Mrs. Brainard.  The policeman didn't say that they were dead; he just said “terrible wreck.”  Granny, being the wise old soul she was, looked the officer in the eye and said “are they dead.”  There was a long pause while the policeman stared at me.  He then looked back to Granny and whispered “yes.”

Rescuers on scene of the El Globo Grande crash

Granny sat there with her hands over her face, crying.  The policeman gently rubbed her back and tried his best to comfort her.  I was still standing there stunned, my grandparents had been killed.  I’d never experienced anything like this before.  I had no way to process what had just happened.  I stood there frozen, trying to make sense of it all.  How did it happen, where was the car wreck, why did it happen?

Granny sitting on my fathers lap in 1967

After a few moments, I looked outside towards where I thought my dad and PJ were. I needed my dad right now, I needed to hold him. I ran past the police officer and out the front door towards them.  Just as I ran out the front door, another car pulled up into the driveway.  As I ran, I looked over to see my grandparents pulling up. They were alive.  I stopped cold in my tracks.  I could see the wide-eyed look on their faces as they took in the scene taking place in the front yard of their house.

I was shocked, I’d just been told that they were in a wreck and were dead.  I was trying to comprehend what was happening, did the police have the wrong family? 

I turned my head back towards my dad and PJ.  They were no longer looking away from the house, they were looking towards me and they were not my dad and PJ, they were two more police officers dressed in civilian clothes.

In an instant, my world came crashing down around me.  Everything went into slow motion.  I couldn't stand, my legs didn't work.  I fell to the ground. I watched the young police officer run across the yard to intercept my grandparents.  I could see my grandmother’s face grimaced with agony as she was told that her oldest son was dead, the officer had to help her sit down; she too couldn't stand.  Then my grandfather, the toughest man I’d known in my life, started sobbing like a child.  It was an absolutely horrible scene.

I clearly understood now that there was no car wreck, this had nothing to do with a car.  My dad and PJ were the two people we’d watched being blown out of the balloon, falling to their death.  I’d just watched my parents die a drawn-out and violent demise.  I’d watched the whole thing not knowing it was two people who I dearly loved. Granny had said that she felt sorry for the family of those people and it turned out that we were those people. I don't know if this was Nick, PJ or another victim. 

I went into a deep shock that lasted for a long time.  To make matters worse, I got a little lost in the confusion.  My father was so popular and loved, not only in the family but in the community.  People were flooding the house and everybody was beside themselves with grief.  I can remember sitting in the corner, no able to move, not able to cry, not able to do anything but sit there, stunned.

At one point, a family member noticed me sitting by myself in the corner.  She walked up to me, rubbed my head and said that she had just the thing to make me feel better:she handed me a joint.  This was such a common solution to problems with my family, inebriation.

The person who really touched my heart and allowed me to grieve in the days following their deaths was my uncle Dar.  I was sitting in my father’s van. It had just been towed back from the Balloon Fiesta parking lot. I’d been sitting there for a couple hours.  It smelled like my dad and PJ so there was nowhere else on the face of this earth that I wanted to be.  Dar came out to check on me.  He opened the door and asked me if there was anything I wanted. I said “I just want them back.”  Dar grabbed onto me and we both started crying.  It was really the first time I’d broken down since their death.  I’ll always be grateful to my uncle Dar for that moment. I believe in my heart it’s what I needed to survive.

The next few weeks were a nightmare.  All the television stations kept replaying the scene; we didn't dare turn on the TV. People were coming and going and there seemed no time to decompress and grieve.Then I watched as people started to come and take my father’s things, right in front of me. I don't think the thought even crossed their minds that my father’s and PJ’s belongings should go to their children.  It was awful.  Their personal belongings were being carted off as if we were having a free yard sale.  People who had little to do with my father helped themselves to his belongings.  As I write this today, I still have a tough time keeping my resentment in check for these individuals.  I wish I still had every item of my fathers.  The few that remained, my brother and I have cherished as if they were the Hope Diamond; they're irreplaceable to us.  I've often wondered if anything was given to PJ’s daughter. I've been reconnected to her for a few years now but never had the courage to ask.

During the period that the looting of my father’s belongings took place and the constant stream of people flowing through the house, I found the perfect coping mechanism:Alcohol.  My grandparents’ house always had booze here and there but now it was overflowing.  People were bringing liquor by the gallons and nobody was paying close attention to me.  I found that a cup full of booze, the headsets over my ears to drown out the sounds, and Dan Fogelberg playing on the 8 track put me in a frame of mind that I could handle.  This was the beginning of a long and brutal battle with alcohol and drug addiction for me but I’ll save that story for another time.

It came time for my father’s funeral and this too was a terrible experience. There were so many people and I only knew a few of them.  I can remember during the service, I was up near the casket, I looked into the audience and there were two girls I went to school with; Kerry and Tanya.  I was grateful to see their faces, two friendly faces that I knew and liked very much.

When they put my father’s body in the ground, I couldn't believe what I was seeing.  I’d just been with him at the radio station having fun. He’d just let me drive on the road without my license!  We'd just sat in his cool green van and listened to music with PJ.  This couldn't be happening. I couldn't go back to my old life!  He couldn't leave! And that’s when it hit me; I’d talked my father into going to the balloon fiesta instead of the mountains. The realization that I’d killed them spread throughout my body.  All these people watching his body being lowered into the ground, mourning this tragic loss and it was because of me.  I couldn't look anybody in the eye. I just stood there staring at my father’s casket.  I desperately wanted to touch his coffin and say goodbye but I couldn't bring myself to move.  To this day I still regret not walking over and touching his coffin.

The level of guilt that I carried for the next twenty years was absolutely brutal. No fourteen- year-old should ever have to shoulder this kind of responsibility.  It warped my life in the most incomprehensible ways. I feel incredibly fortunate to have survived.

My addiction took me to exceptionally dark places.  I lived a viciously destructive life which put me in many deadly situations that normal healthy people wouldn't dream of getting near.  After all these years of reflection, I know that I was in a constant state of deep depression.  


I was compelled to relive this experience when my brother tracked down the autopsy report for my father. I still don't understand why he did it. He gave a copy to me twenty-seven years after his death.  I was rattled by the brutality inflicted on my dad’s young body.  I’d always thought that although his death was clearly violent, his body was intact and relatively unscathed.  I believe that this was a coping mechanism of a young boy.  All these years later, I now know better and it hurts as much as it did in 1982, if not a bit more.

2012 - Albuquerque Journal Article

2013 - Surprise.

Various Photos                                    Nick and PJ's wedding