THE FREE LIFE by Anthony Smith (Pushcart: $28; 319 pp.) "You just inflate this big balloon and off you go"--Rod Anderson. "We'll just play it by ear"--Pam Anderson. "Got to go now"--Malcolm Brighton. "They're sure in a hurry to die, aren't they?"--anonymous film producer, Sept. 20, 1970: The Andersons--she 28, he 32, Americans--and Brighton--32, English--lift off into a beneficent blue sky from a field in Springs, Long Island. Above them, a magnificent, seven-story balloon. Below, an adoring crowd, whooping and waving. Ahead, Europe. They are never seen again. Author Anthony Smith, veteran British balloonist and Brighton's mentor, is of two persuasions in this measured but vivid account of the fatal flight. On the one hand, "right from the start it was a venture that would lead inexorably to death." On the other, he must admit a certain nobility to the venture: "There has to be a readiness to accept unknowns." The Andersons were rank novices. Thanks to Smith's thoughtful, sympathetic prose (judiciously enhanced with balloon lore), we get to know the adventurers, their struggles and their hopes and their exuberance. We mourn their loss but we share the sentiments of a memorial-service pastor: "The world needs a quota of folly."

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