Two Stories about Jean Roland

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

Despite his reluctance to tell unverifiable tales, my grandfather did tell me two stories about Jean Roland, one which took place before he came to the New World, and one which took place after.

The first story went like this: once upon a time there was a young Frenchman named Jean Roland who stole a goat. Goat-theft was a terrible crime in those days, and Jean was put in prison. He would have spent the rest of his short life there, if it had not been for two brothers, Jacques-Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier, paper-manufacturers in the city of Lyon, who had just invented the balloon. Never mind how they did it. The point of this story is that they brought their invention to the King, Louis XVI, who would himself be imprisoned just a few years later. It happened that a young nobleman at Louis’s court, Pilâtre de Rozier, saw the balloon, and said that he wanted to fly in it. The King was hesitant to grant his request. No one knew what would happen to a person who flew; no one had ever flown before. What if there were demons in the upper air, waiting to seize anyone who rose up? What if there were angels? But Pilâtre insisted, and finally the King agreed to a compromise. They would send up a test flight, with some animals and a prisoner, and if nothing bad happened, Pilâtre would be allowed to go up next.

You don’t have to ask who the prisoner was: Jean. He volunteered. According to my grandfather, no one else would; this was one of the many parts of the story that defied belief. Anyway. One morning in the gardens at Versailles, the balloon was inflated, and Jean, still in chains, was loaded into the basket, along with a sheep, a rooster, and a rabbit. They let the balloon go up. It came down some time later in another part of the forest, where peasants menaced Jean with pitchforks—they mistook him for a demon, and would probably have killed him if the King’s men hadn’t showed up. As it was, Jean was unharmed; the animals were fine, too, although the rooster had become agitated and pecked the rabbit.

Pilâtre de Rozier ascended in the same balloon a few days later before a crowd of tens of thousands, and he entered the history books as the first human being to get off the ground—the first European, anyway. The Turks have their own claimant for that title, and so, as always, do the Chinese. But really Jean had been the first. As a reward for his bravery he was released from prison, but the King would not allow him to remain in France, for fear that he’d tell people about the balloon. So Jean was banished to America. Let him talk all he wanted there, said the King: no story that came from America could be believed.

The second story is sad, and quite factual. It concerns Jean after he had come to America, and the valley was settled, the town of Thebes constructed, and Jean had a son, Oliver, who had grown to manhood. Jean had wanted the town of Thebes to be self-sufficient, an entity more or less closed off from the rest of the world. Oliver, who was more American than his father, saw an opportunity to make money by sawing up the trunks of the hemlock trees that used to grow around here in great numbers. Oliver and his father argued about the prospective sawmill for a long time, then Jean agreed to put the question to a vote. He presented his arguments against the mill: it would bring money into town; money would bring strangers; strangers would bring discontent, etc. Oliver pointed out that the mill would make everyone rich. Not one person voted with Jean, not even his wife, who wanted to buy herself a mirror, and some carpets, because her circulation was poor and she complained of the cold from September to May. The mill was constructed, and it did make money, for a while, until the hemlock forests were exhausted.

But after it was built, Jean withdrew from Thebes society. He didn’t fight with anyone; he just spent more and more time walking by himself in the mountains. One day in the autumn of 1840, Jean went for a walk and did not return. His body was found on the flank of what is now called Espy Peak, looking very peaceful. It was, my grandfather said, as though he had imagined Thebes as a sort of balloon, which could only fly if it was sealed up, a sphere unto itself. And, my grandfather concluded this story, shaking his head darkly in the direction of the Regenzeits’ house, it seems possible to me that Jean was right.

© 2008-2014 Paul La Farge. All rights reserved.