Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Setting off balloons

As N and I came back from coffee on Saturday, I looked up into the deceivingly blue sky. It was beautiful, but frigid and he rushed toward the building. He opened the door and turned to see what I was doing. There was a balloon, floating high above the neighborhood with something attached to the end. The sight transported me right back to elementary school and I told him....

I grew up during the Cold War and the Cold War was one of the most deluded eras in our history (if you ask me). If was a time when hiding under a wobbly elementary school desk, or crouching next to a locker could save you from a nuclear (that's nucular for you Dubya) bomb. It was a time when earrings determined sexual preference and Michael Jackson was still a black man. It was a also a time when you could make life long friends through rubber.

I lived in Ohio between the ages of 5-8, and it was just at the beginning of the big outreach to re-humanize Russians after years of the opposite. Programs to connect American children with Russian children bloomed like daffodils in May. Talk shows featured kids who had met their Cold War counterparts and come home with the astonishing realization that they were kids...just like us. In my 7 year old mind, the message was always, "If the kids can do it, why can't you Mr. Reagan?"

My small school did not have any of these glorious groups of privileged world-traveling children, but felt that it had to do its part to warm the cold. One day, my teacher handed out small postcards to us and instructed us to write a short letter to a Russian kid on it. I was stumped. Always a little too shy, I wasn't really sure what to say to a stranger, even in postcard form. I stared at my postcard for a long time until it was clear that everyone else had finished. Hastily, I finally wrote something along the lines of "Hi Russian kid. Come visit Zanesville, OH sometime. It's nice here. We can have Doritos when you come." A truly peaceful outreach.

I shielded my postcard from the view of the other kids as the teacher marched us outside. Thinking that we would be walking to the post office, I was confused to see the line of students streaming toward the field (next to the cemetery with the creepy tree that I was sure was going to grab me and bury me a alive, by the way). We were greeted with the site of a gatillion helium balloons. Our teacher explained that we were going to tie our postcards to the balloons and set them off into the air. They would sail all the way across the ocean and land in the hands of children playing in the Russian countryside. (It may come as no shock to you that I have no memory of a science teacher in this school.) They would see how kind and fun we were, write back and we would all become fast friends.

The class was aglow with anticipation and excitement. We were the great balloon ambassadors, embarking on our mission on peace. We all received our balloons and secured our postcards and waited for the whistle to launch them. As the teacher blew the whistle, we all let go, filling the sky with bouncing colors as far was we could see. The teacher let us gaze at the balloons until they were out of sight. One by one, they passed from our line of vision right over the Atlantic and Europe to their final lofty Russian destination.

We waited for weeks for our return letters, but never received even one. After a while they were forgotten under the weight of spelling tests and three digit sums.

I heard, later, that setting off balloons was now frowned upon, even illegal in certain places because of the danger is caused to the wildlife in the area. And I thought of my balloon. Had it fallen in a beavers dam and suffocated Mr. Beaver when he tried to water proof his kitchen with it? And if he lived, did he travel to Zanesville, OH for the Doritos? Or did my balloon reach its destination? A Russian kid, hopefully emigrated to the town over, who was looking for the Doritos? Or did my poor balloon lay in a swamp, emaciated and dangling from a cattail? It's message of peace smeared by the rain and mud. Or did it go across the ocean and become suspect as secret code. Doritos? What are these Doritos? Is it a new defense system? Star wars?

The Cold War was really the great delusional era, and sometimes I miss it...when all you needed to make peace was a balloon and maybe a bag of Doritos stashed in the pantry.


Anonymous roo said...

Doritoes-- crunch all you want; we'll make more (until the capitalist machine grinds to a halt and the revolution comes!)

8:42 AM  
Anonymous Nancy said...

Maybe the aliens intercepted the balloons before they made it to Russia.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Hill said...

What a sweet story!

I always wondered who sent that post card...

You mean it was meant for Russia and not FL??



10:38 AM  
Blogger Tink said...

"Had it fallen in a beavers dam and suffocated Mr. Beaver when he tried to water proof his kitchen with it?" LMAO. When I was little I was terrified to step in the grass because I thought I'd kill off colonies of ants without know it. I always pictured them to have Aztec Temples. I'm sure the Beaver appreciated the mail.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Mignon said...

Aaahhh, so that's where mad cow disease came from...

12:36 PM  
Anonymous TB said...

Oh my GOD. You just brought back a memory that had been wiped from my mind. We did this in the fourth grade! And I remember thinking all of those thoughts about where my balloon would end up. I don't remember what I wrote in it though. I wish I could.

I love that you offered Doritos :o) And growing up in Zanesville must have been a trip. It is like quintissential small town USA. (I live in Columbus)

Thanks for that little blast from the past. I never would have remembered that in a million years.

1:55 PM  
Anonymous V-Grrrl said...

I never thought I'd get nostalgic for the Cold War. Ah, yes, the good old days when the enemy had a face, a name, a location, and missiles we could watch and defend against. The War on Terror is flimsy by comparison.

8:12 AM  
Blogger V said...

Lol Roo....maybe Doritos are all communism needs to take hold! you think the jetstream shifted to NM?, I owe you Doritos. Sorry, I hope they aren't stale by now!

Awe Tink! Just think how many clay pots and simple tools you saved. I'm sure the ants were grateful.

Mignon...Do you know where YOUR balloon has been?

TB...welllll...Zanesville. I only lived there three years and remembered it was pretty good. Sadly marred when I learned on Jeopardy that Zanesville is where the KKK was founded. Never would've guessed. :(

Yeah V-Grrrl....and back when we were a little to scared to actually start a hot war.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Brooke said...

I too grew up in that time and remember movies about nuclear war scaring the crap out of me.

To think it all could have been solved through balloons...

9:10 AM  
Blogger Dawn said...

You could have called this post "99 LuftBalloons"

I had a "Disney esque " film in my mind 'The Travels of Beaver and his great hunt for the Promised Doritos"

Hey, big shout out to Stubensville and Martins Ferry ( my almost hometowns ) I was born in Wheeling WVA.

11:20 AM  
Blogger SO said...

We did this too!! But I have no memory of what I wrote on my card, I think I just put my HOME address on it! lol. (that would never happen now a days!). I do remember sending the balloons off, but I thought we were just trying to find pen pals, I have no memory of *why* we did it!!! I'm so bummed that I don't have a memory like you do of my childhood!

12:25 PM  

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