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 we had released, pointing to the sky and calling out to our friends a play-by-play as each balloon 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. Attached to each: a post card with the school’s address on one side, and on the other, an explanation and instructions and the name of the student who let it go. 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, over to the Indiana counties to the east of us, sometimes into Ohio. An occasional rogue would catch some northerly current and sail up to Saulte Ste. Marie, Michigan, or be wafted by the west wind and find its way to Wheeling, West Virginia. Sometimes a card came back from Ontario in Canada — how exciting; a balloon made it across the Great Lakes!

The map filled with markers as the pattern emerged. 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.

I always hoped my balloon would go the farthest, and was always excited when one of my cards came back — and a little disappointed when my balloons inevitably landed in non-exotic locales such as nearby Elkhart. Most of our balloons landed within fifty miles of the school, actually, but that never diminished our overall excitement. Getting our balloons, letting them go, watching pins appear on the map, seeing which student’s balloon had gone the farthest — every bit of it captured our collective attention and imagination.

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 silent seconds of film from a Balloon Day in about 1977. A neighbor with an 8mm movie camera came to school to watch her daughter Sally release her balloons. That’s Sally as the film begins, holding a red balloon in one hand and an orange one in the other.

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

First shared in October, 2012. Robyn and Sally were friends from Rabbit Hill, a fine place to grow up. Read about it!

Last updated on 17 February 2020 by Jim Grey

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12 thoughts on “Balloon Day

  1. “or be wafted by the west wind and find its way to Wheeling, West Virginia”

    Awesomely adroit alteration, amigo LOL :D

    Can you remember what’s the furthest your school ever got a reply from? Did anything ever cross the ocean? I suppose it’s possible if it caught the jet stream but even if found, as soon as the card was outside the US, someone else would be investing the stamp. :) Oh, and I guess they’d also have to be able to read English. :D

    James Monroe… I’m trying to remember what he did. Other than the eponymous doctrine, I’m drawing a blank. Was he from Indiana? WAS there an Indiana when he was president? :)

    • My memory is that the farthest card came from somewhere in southern Ontario. We got one from there most years. And old James Monroe had nothing to do with Indiana at any time; it was just common to name schools after Presidents. We had Madison and Jefferson and a few others in South Bend.

  2. So glad Mom decided to put that movie camera (about the size of a shoe box) in her bag as she headed to school that day! Wonderful memories. So glad I was able to contribute in some small way. Hugs to you.

  3. Nancy ( Roe ) Stewart says:

    That was fun seeing that and remembering balloon day at Monroe. i have photos but had never seen a movie before. Thanks to you and Robyn for the memories.

  4. Years ago I used to find a few of these out in our fields most years. I remember a lot of them came from the St. Louis area. I think they stopped doing it because they found that the balloons were harmful to wildlife in some way.

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