Stories Told

Balloon Day

The balloons filled the air, hundreds and hundreds of them squirming around each other in the wind. The sky turned red, yellow, blue, and green as they raced away. A cross current soon caught them, drawing them across the sky on their way to who knows where. Six hundred children gathered on the school’s back lawn jumping and whooping with excitement from the moment they opened their hands to send these balloons on their way. We all stood and watched them go, each of us excitedly trying to follow the balloons that had been in our hands, pointing to the sky and calling out to our friends a play-by-play as each balloon we watched made its way. We watched them go until the last one disappeared from view.

James Monroe School

This was an annual autumn event at my elementary school, at least while I was there in the 1970s. Each student would get some number of balloons – did we buy them? I can’t recall. To each was attached a post card with the school’s address on one side and an explanation and instructions – and the name of the student who let it go – on the other. As what goes up eventually comes down, we hoped people would find each spent balloon, write on the postcard where they found it, affix a stamp, and drop the card in the mail. We tracked every returned card on a huge map, watching how the balloons dispersed from South Bend. Typically, they flew north and east, up into Michigan or across into the Indiana counties to the east of us and sometimes into Ohio. Several cards would be returned from such far-flung places as Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. Every year, a few cards came back from Ontario in Canada, which was especially exciting – those balloons had flown across one of the Great Lakes! We tracked the number of miles each returned card had traveled, allowing many weeks to go by to be sure we had received as many cards as possible. The student whose balloon traveled the farthest received some sort of prize.

This event, and the weeks of following our balloons’ progress, captured our collective attention and imagination. I always hoped mine would go the farthest, and was always excited when one of my cards came back – and a little disappointed when my balloons flew only to decidedly non-exotic locales such as nearby Elkhart. But that never diminished my overall excitement at seeing where our balloons got off to. Most of them, actually, landed within fifty miles of the school. An occasional rogue would catch some northerly current and wind up in a place like Saulte Ste. Marie, Michigan, or be wafted by the west wind and find its way to Wheeling, West Virginia. The map would fill with markers as the pattern emerged.

That’s what it was all about, actually – studying wind currents, noticing dispersal patterns, considering the probability a card would actually be returned. It was a giant educational exercise that captivated the entire school.

Unbelievably, I have about thirty seconds of film from a Balloon Day. A neighbor had an 8 mm movie camera and came to the school to watch Sally, her middle daughter, release her balloons. That’s her holding a red balloon in one hand and an orange one in the other as the film begins. Given how old Sally looks, this film has to be from about 1977.

Many thanks to Robyn Weber, that neighbor’s oldest daughter, for sharing this film with me and granting me permission to share it.

Robyn and Sally were friends from Rabbit Hill, a fine place to grow up. Read about it!


10 thoughts on “Balloon Day

  1. THAT IS SO COOL!!!! How exciting is that?? Of course you couldn’t do that now because all the eco-centrics would scream that you’re polluting the air and the balloons might get swallowed by fish or birds and the cards won’t decompose in time and cause earthquakes or something.
    That is a great way to teach the science of weather and the wind currents. I would have done better in that subject if our teachers were more innovative like that.

    • It was cool. Very cool. The morning we set our balloons loose was always massively exciting. I don’t know how the teachers kept a clamp on all 600 of us.

  2. I remember finding some of these in our fields back in the 1980’s. I always sent something back telling the kid where the balloon was found. I remember the most far-away one came from western Missouri. This practice was stopped because of environmental problems. It appears that the string was more of a problem with wildlife than the balloon. Probably not many people knew that back when this was being done. Today I don’t think that most kids would want to do something that might harm an animal. Strange how with some people being “eco-centric” comes off sounding like a bad thing. I would like to know where they think we all would live once we destroy the only one we have.

    • What is considered morally OK shifts with time. Today, sending 600 of those balloons — string, latex, and paper — into the air seems like a whole lot of littering. Then, we didn’t even think about it, or if we did, we decided that the benefit outweighed that cost.

  3. Lone Primate says:

    Sheer magic. What are the odds you’d be able to get hold of film to back up the memory? It’s astounding. :) Funny, we’ve come so far that we all know people all over the world via the internet… but the idea of sending off a raft of balloons and waiting for word from strangers could still seem so exciting.

    • You have no idea how excited I was when Robyn sent me this footage. I thought that memory was lost in the mists of time.

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