After a 17-month stint in Phoenix, Ariz., spent training to work on diesel engines, Medford native Garry Smith came back home ready to embark on a new career — one that would find him all over the Rogue Valley but never under the hood of a car or truck.

After a 17-month stint in Phoenix, Ariz., spent training to work on diesel engines, Medford native Garry Smith came back home ready to embark on a new career — one that would find him all over the Rogue Valley but never under the hood of a car or truck.

The closest he gets these days to automobile repair, in fact, is creating colorful likenesses of miniature of cars and motorcycles from colored balloons for smiling, impatient children.

Vehicles aside, he faces a steady demand for monkeys in grass skirts, giant flowers, life-size stick ponies and SpongeBob SquarePants replicas.

Medford's "balloon man," the local native says he was always fascinated by balloon artists as a child.

"I always wanted to know how they could do that without the balloons popping," Smith says now. "Then I had a chance to do it so I just ran with it."

With his trip to Phoenix focused on learning mechanics, training for balloon twisting, Smith notes, was merely a quick way to make some money when he wound up with an instructor who sidelined as a balloon artist.

"I said 'I need a job, would you show me?' " Smith recalls. "It was quite a stretch from working on automobiles, but it looked like fun."

A two-hour lesson under his belt, the know-how to create more than a half dozen animals and a book teaching 30 more, Smith spent his evenings working for tips. After graduating from "mechanics school," Smith returned to Medford to put his schooling to use.

"I worked on cars for about 10 months, but the balloons were just a better gig and they just took over," Smith said.

Beginning with the now-defunct Chevy's restaurant, he eventually wound up spending five nights per week between Red Robin and Hometown Buffet in Medford and booking gigs at birthday parties, bachelor parties and family reunions.

An unexpected request, he added adult parties to his repertoire though will refuse such a gig if kids are present.

"I've walked out on parties where they had kids there. I will not do under 21," he said. "Yeah, the balloon man can make that, but not with kids there."

With his gigs increasing almost monthly, Smith has created more than 300 characters over the years, many of which are his own design.

To make his job easier, he found tools, including a special air pump and an online community of balloon artists who give pointers on characters to make and events to attend.

He crafted his own uniform — a vest with pouches to accommodate the 4,000 balloons he uses every four to six weeks — and shudders at the notion that a balloon man should dress in disguise.

"People ask me if I dress up like a clown and I say, 'No!' I don't think anybody who has to paint their face white and hide behind the paint should perform," he says.

"Clowns are scary to little kids — and I don't like clowns either!"

Asked if he's ever been stumped, despite an armory of designs he can make within seconds, Smith can only think of a time or two.

"They always try to stump me — and I get stumped every once in awhile. I guess the weirdest thing I've been asked to make was a little kid wanted a bean," he said with a laugh. "So I took a brown balloon, gave it an ear twist and it looked kind of like a lima bean. He loved it."

Down sides of the job, aside from nights during which he has to make dozens of the same monkey in the same grass skirt, he jokes, include the occasional restaurant patron who is "absolutely terrified of balloons" ... and the sore arms that come with the job.

"I had carpal tunnel last year, but I had surgery and I'm good. That was nothing compared to the monkey in the grass skirt with the banana "¦ I'll make one and then it's like I have to make 15 to 20 of them," he said. "It's like, 'People, I can make something else! Let's try something else!'

"It used to be SpongeBob, everybody wanted SpongeBob, so I'd make 20 or 30 in a night. "¦ Now it's the monkey in the grass skirt!"

His personal favorite? "Tigger riding a purple and gold motorcycle." And the smiles he brings to children are his biggest perk.

"What's really fun is I can go to any store in the Rogue Valley and somebody will know who I am," he says with a laugh. "My advertisement has only been word of mouth, and people seeing me in the restaurants. I'm not even in the phone book as 'the balloon guy' but I can't go anywhere and someone not say, 'Hey mom or dad, there's the balloon man!' "

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.