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Balloon Messages from Long Ago

>> Friday, December 4, 2009

I ran across this in the news.  Quick summary:

"On Saturday, thousands of people nationwide will search the skies in a high-tech scavenger hunt designed to test how far-flung groups can use the Internet and technology to work together.  The DARPA Network Challenge calls on groups to pinpoint the locations of 10 red weather balloons scattered around the country -- with a $40,000 prize going to the first team to find them all."

Fascinating concept.  I wonder how long it will take for a team to find them all?

Thinking of hunting for balloons makes me think of two things:  1)  "Balloon Boy" and his family - the crazy people who wanted a reality tv show and whose pretend hunt for their six-year-old son dominated recent headlines and wasted tax dollars (is there a way to scour that out of my memory?  I could use that space for something worthwhile); and 2) my childhood balloon correspondence.

A fact of childhood is that kids wind up getting helium balloons at parties and restaurants and all sorts of places.  Rather than just letting them grow wrinkly and lose floatation in the house, my Dad came up with a better purpose:  balloon mail.  Dad would have my sister and me write little notes, encase them in some kind of plastic (usually little plastic baggies) and seal them with the balloon string or twist tie.  We'd trim off all the excess everything - paper, plastic and string - to make it as light as possible.  Then we would release them from the back deck of the house, watch them float into the sky, and usually forget about them.  It was quite magical watching them float off into the blue (or gray - this is Syracuse, after all) wondering just what they would see and who they would meet on their journey.

We did this fairly regularly over the years.  One year for Christmas I remember the appearance of a helium tank in the living room, and a big bag of assorted balloons.  That year we peppered our area of the Country with balloon notes.

Most of those balloons drifted off into the great Never Never Land of nowhere.  Who knows where they wound up?  Now I cringe slightly thinking about the litter and potential for critters choking on rubber balloons, but I try not to dwell on it.  People didn't worry so much about such things back then.

There is no denying that it was wicked cool to get an occasional response.  And get responses we did, as you can see.  (Click on the letters to enlarge them to a more readable size.)  Each balloon turned out to have its own story: one traveled as far as Ohio, one got discovered by an ice fisherman, another in a cow pasture.  I love to wonder about the kind people who sat down and wrote the responses. 

I am a packrat when it comes to manuscripts, letters and other sentimental documents.  I have a huge rubbermaid bin in the attic full of correspondence from all bits of my life.  I lament the lost art of correspondence (the real kind, involving pen, paper and stamps).  A rummage this evening through the bin uncovered letters I wrote to my parents when I was in summer camp, letters I wrote home when I was studying abroad in high school and college, my and my sister's balloon correspondence, and even a brief exchange that was carried on between the hotel maid and my favorite stuffed dog, Le Mutt, when my family took a trip to Toronto when I was probably about 8. 

Le Mutt, you see, also sent some of the balloon letters that got responses.  He was - and in fact still is - quite literary. 

My beloved Le Mutt, his brother Mutt Jr., and their sister Fifi La Femme all still reside with us, although they no longer send out balloon notes.


Ellen Rathbone December 5, 2009 at 10:27 AM  

Ain't it great to dig up letters from the past? My folks have been clearing out my stuff from their home for years, bringing boxes to me each time they visit. This year several boxes of letters were in the mix. I saved every letter I ever received (relatives, penpals, high school, college and camp friends...). I went through them this summer, and shredded most of them - mulch for the garden. Part of me was torn doing it - for many were memories and connections with people who are no longer with us (grandparents and great-grandparents), but I really had no place to store them (my house is small and already cluttered), and after I'm gone, they'll hold no meaning for anyone else. I saved a few, but most are now part of the earth.

Sneaksleep December 6, 2009 at 11:06 AM  

OMG, I can't believe I've known you for 20 years and never heard about the balloon messages! That's so cool!

Nique Eagen July 23, 2014 at 3:22 PM  

Oh my gosh! Le Mutt was my favorite childhood toy!!! I still have him after all of these years :) You made me smile!

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