In the warm and misty August morning, assistant balloon meister Jim Rodrigue of Lewiston calls instructions to the almost two dozen waiting pilots. 

It is the first morning launch of the 19th Annual Great Falls Balloon Festival, and Rodrigue is no stranger to the lofty world of hot air balloonists. His long history winds its way up his left leg in bright splashes of color against wispy blue clouds.

The first tattoo on Rodrigue’s leg in 2007 was of the first balloon he built, a giant red thing with protruding nose, ears and eyebrows. This balloon he named Dork.

“I traded a balloon ride for my first tattoo,” Rodrigue said with a slight trace of wistfulness. “The kid never claimed it because he moved out of town. If that kid ever came back, I would honor that ticket.”

From Dork, he added three other balloons that have special meaning to him.

Then came the Lewiston skyline, then the balloon in which he took his first flight, and then his cousin Andre Boucher’s balloon. In total, Rodrigue has 14 balloons and one powered parachute inked onto his leg.

“I tell kids don’t ever get a tattoo, then I pull up my pant leg,” Rodrigue pauses for dramatic effect. “Because you can never stop!”

Ironically, Rodrigue was himself completely against tattoos prior to 2006.

“I had an uncle that told me never to mar my body and I believed it.”

Then his brother, described by Rodrigue as a “collector of tattoos,” died in 2006.

“After he died, I took a different attitude. Then my wife went out and got one, and I said, ‘I’ll get one, too!'”

Out of all 14 balloons on his leg, the one balloon that has the most meaning is the one in which he took his first flight.

The year was 1997 and Rodrigue and his family had crewed for Bill Whidden, of Florida, during the Great Falls Balloon Festival. As a thank you, Whidden took the family up on the Monday morning following the event.

“He put my hands on the burner, and that was it.”

Rodrigue took to the air like a bird and piloted that first flight all the way to his home, only relinquishing the controls for the landing.

Steadily, he took lessons with his cousin in Derry, N.H., and with locals John Reeder and Dan Valcourt.

“My nickname around here is Mile High because I like to go up real high. It’s a different kind of flight up there.”

And on the first flight with Dork — the balloon he built — he took it up to 6,800 feet.

“Oh my God, I can’t even describe it,” Rodrigue said of the the first time flying something he constructed. “It was incredible. I can’t even explain it. Between being scared, and proud and wondering ‘what in the heck are you doing,’ it was wonderful. And that balloon flies wonderful.”

Now, when he isn’t working at Bath Iron Works, he’s teaching his daughter how to pilot balloons.

“She wants to become balloon meister some day,” Rodrigue said proudly. “Ballooning is amazing. I love it.”

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