January 12, 2020

FTV: Bottles and Balloons


     Early Sunday afternoon, several hours before the start of Super Bowl LIII, my wife and I were running a few errands after church.  As we crossed the Parker Avenue / Greenland Road intersection on the way to downtown Ontonagon, an object moving on the side street to our right caught our eye.  To me, lt looked like an old fashioned balloon, the kind with bright, swirly colors but my wife insisted that it was a similarly colored children’s play ball. We slowed down and watched as it crossed Greenland Road in front of us.  Where it came from I can’t say, but I do remember thinking, “Well, it is headed south, maybe it is looking for a warmer climate.” Having just experienced a brutal three day cold snap, the temperatures had rebounded fifty degrees and we were now experiencing a light drizzle instead of snow.  Seeing this runaway balloon was a bit strange but, considering how bland some of the Super Bowl games have been, who would have thought that this could have been the best entertainment of the day.

     The previous day, I had been sorting through several boxes of leftover stuff that got stashed in the WOAS-FM radio station when I retired in June of 2018.  Michigan’s somewhat bizarre policy dictates that retiring teachers must make a ‘thirty day bonafide break in service’ upon retirement and not re-enter one’s former workplace for thirty days.  As my ‘evacuate the premises’ deadline approached, I had no choice but to hastily box up the last few things from my old room to be out by June 30. With forty plus years on the job and several months spent housecleaning, it isn’t like I waited until the last minute to pack up.  It made sense that there would be more time to scan the contents of these remaining boxes in August once my thirty day exile was over. That proved to be an overly optimistic game plan and I am still chipping away at this pile early in 2020. One box contained a host of articles snipped at various points of my career and one, a blue Xerox copy of an article Jan Tucker had written for the Globe back in the 1980s, caught my eye.  It was about a bottle that former Ontonagon Area Schools math teacher and principal Tom Hartzell had found on a Lake Superior beach.

     I was familiar with the story because Tom had shared it with me after some of my students made their own beach find, but more on that in a moment.  The bottle Tom had found contained a note asking the finder to contact the person who had put the message in the bottle. The note had been damaged so it took a little detective work to find the person who wrote it.  When Tom finally made contact, he found the twelve year old boy who had written the message was now a young man of twenty one. He told Hartzell that he had tossed it off a Great Lakes freighter when he was on an uplake run to Silver Bay, Minnesota.  His father was the captain and the young man was as surprised as Tom that it took almost a decade for the bottle to be recovered and the note returned.

     Tom was tickled to hear the story because a) he was a sailor and b) one of his favorite books was Paddle to the Sea, the story of a Native American boy who carves a wooden figure of a canoe and paddler before setting him in the snow near a frozen stream.  The book chronicles the adventures of Paddle as he is carried away by the spring snow melt into Lake Superior and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean.  My pwn kids liked Paddle to the Sea and I enjoyed reading it to my classes the one year I was asked to do the elementary reading special.  When we finished the book, I printed up postcards with a lithograph of Paddle on one side and had the kids in my reading classes address it to themselves.  After school got out that summer, I stamped them so each postcard had its own Paddle adventure courtesy of the United States Postal Service.

     As for the student’s find that prompted Tom to share his bottle story with me, it involved a balloon and not a bottle.  Some kids brought in a balloon that they had found partially buried on the beach near Ontonagon. It was printed with the logo and name of a credit union in Spokane, Washington.  Once I was able to track down a phone number, I cold called the credit union and asked, “Have you had a recent balloon launch for some event?” The woman on the other end responded that, yes, they had opened a new branch recently and as part of the grand opening, they had given away helium balloons.  There was a long silence on her end when I told her that we had found one in Lake Superior hundreds of miles from where it was released. When I offered to send it to her, she got very excited and asked permission to tell the story in their company newsletter.

     Finding a piece of flotsam like a balloon on a beach wouldn’t normally induce one to bring it to school for show and tell.  In this case, my students thought it would be neat to share because they had recently taken part in their own balloon launch in my class.  Beginning in the mid-1980s, we made a big deal of celebrating National Science Week. The event was held in April and one of the nationwide projects used to promote it was a helium balloon launch.  Participating schools would be sent balloons and 3 X 5 inch cards that would be filled out and attached to the balloon with string. All we had to do was purchase a large cylinder of helium from a welding supply store and ask them to send along the special balloon filling valve attachment.  A group of my JH student council members would help inflate the balloons, deliver them to each classroom, and when the appointed time arrived, help herd everyone outside. A simple countdown from ten was conducted and the balloons were all released at once. It was an impressive site to see this whole flotilla of balloons catch the prevailing wind and sail off.  If one of the cards was found, it included instructions to mail it back so we could report it to the office that coordinated National Science Week. The idea was to use the data collected to illustrate lessons on weather and wind patterns.

     Over the years, we had a half dozen or so of the balloon cards returned.  When one considers how much wild country there is surrounding Ontonagon County and that the prevailing winds were going to take the balloons across areas of low population density no matter which way the wind was blowing, that isn’t a surprise.  The farthest return came to us from Traverse City where, as you may have guessed, someone had found one of our balloon cards attached to a deflated balloon on a Lake Michigan beach. At the time we got the card back from Traverse City, I shared Tom’s bottle story and the Spokane balloon story with the classes who had launched balloons that year.

     While we did the balloon launches over several years, the program was eventually dropped over concerns about littering the landscape with discarded balloons.  Whenever we launched balloons with a westerly wind, I told my dad and brother to be on the watch if they were at our camp on Huron Bay. Had the balloons tracked straight west, they would have gone right over Keweenaw Bay and Huron Bay, but they never saw any go by nor did they ever find any in the hills around the bay.  An effort was made to use biodegradable latex for the balloons, but in the end, the people running the Science Week program decided to discontinue the program in light of these environmental concerns. I have many photos in my albums showing the kids getting pumped up about science during the balloon launches we held in Ontonagon, Mass City, and Rockland, but in the end, the negative publicity over the litter issue outweighed the good science that had originally spawned the idea.  It always amazes me watching big events like the Superbowl where they will launch thousands of balloons with no such concerns. I also note that many events are now celebrated by launching those mini-hot air balloons that rise when a candle suspended below the paper bag heats and expands the air within. We even found one of those in the woods west of the Ontonagon Area School building a couple of years ago. Hopefully these events are planned with some thought as to the droughtiness of the surrounding landscape even though these hot air balloons are touted to not pose any kind of fire hazard.  This isn’t an irrational concern considering the social media posts out there showing gender reveal party stunts involving fireworks that have spawned huge forest fires in more recent times.

     The idea of looking for balloons around Huron Bay reminded my brother about his own message in a bottle adventure.  We built the original camp at the mouth of the Silver River in 1958 and spent many weekends and every bit of my dad’s summer vacation there.  Ron was a gung ho fisherman and a wannabe sailor. Retirees Jerry and his wife Dorothy lived in the place next to ours and when he found out Ron was interested in sailing, he volunteered to give him some sails he had in his garage.  It turned out that Jerry used to work at the Detroit Yacht club and had some extra sheets stowed away. Ron rigged a cedar pole mast and boom on at least two of our wooden rowboats and proceeded to teach himself how to sail. It was a little tricky without an extendable keel on the boats, but he spent many hours gliding (and sometimes sliding sideways) back and forth in Huron Bay.  Once when I was drafted to be the crew on one such expedition, I remember Ron setting a message in a bottle free. We were far enough out in the bay that he hoped it would reach Lake Superior proper where Huron Bay opens to the big lake near the Huron Islands. He got really excited when it was returned some months later. It didn’t quite make it out into the big lake. The person who returned it found it washed up on their property near Skanee, a grand some total of six or seven miles from where he had cast it into the water.

     So what of the wandering balloon that my wife and I encountered on Super Bowl LIII Sunday in 2019?  The last time we saw it, it was crossing Greenland Road near the Methodist Church in a southward direction.  In the late afternoon, I decided to take a walk from our house near the golf course down Pebble Beach Drive and then west along Parker Avenue before the big game started.  As I neared the west end of Pebble Beach Drive, I saw a small round object cross that street’s intersection with Greenbriar Way. The object was traveling in a slow bounding motion from north to south.   I picked up my pace enough to catch it before it crossed Parker Avenue. By now, you have probably guessed why I stood there and stared at it for a few minutes: it appeared to be the same balloon we had seen hours earlier.  Explicatively, it had somehow managed to travel up wind and then across the wind direction nearly a mile from our first encounter and was now bounding down a different street in the same direction we had seen one just like it traveling hours earlier.  

     After I showed it to my wife (and had my momentary triumph in proving that it had been a balloon and not a children’s play ball), we wondered if it was stalking us (don’t even get me started on the posters used to advertise the newest version of Stephen King’s book It).  Oh, there is probably a rational explanation for this wind defying balloon travelling vast distances along the village streets with no regard to that day’s prevailing winds.  The simplest theory would be that there had been more than one of these balloons that escaped someone’s birthday or Super Bowl party at the same time. If this was the case, it would still require a new theory as to the time lag and distance between the two sightings.  As I alluded to earlier, this little mystery made Super Bowl LIII Sunday a bit more interesting than it would have been considering what a lack luster ‘big game’ it turned out to be.

Top Piece Video:  Is there a better balloon song you can think of?  The old school me prefers The Fifth Dimension to Nina’s ode to red balloons!