I had a handful of other ideas for H and then out of the blue…floated Helium. Here is my helium story, and how it helped me fall in love with books and reading.
I grew up in the 1970s, back before helium balloons got their bad rap of having an ecological footprint the size of a Yeti’s. Back before the buzz words of “sustainable” and “renewable” resources, and realizing that helium could and will, in fact, run out someday. MRI machines, fiber optics, LCD screens – all of which require helium – were not part of our everyday lives back then. In fact, they were advances beyond most of our wildest imaginations.
But give a child a book, a balloon and a postcard…and the imagination soars limitless.
My elementary school library had a program called Book Balloons. At some point in the year (spring, if I recall correctly), the librarian would give each student a postcard for every book they read and wrote a short summary about. 1 book, 1 postcard. 5 books, 5 postcards, etc. I can’t remember what was printed on the postcard, but we were instructed to add our name, the title we read, and the school’s address on them.
The school library was already one of my favorite places to escape to – I can remember vividly the old clawfoot bathtub that sat in the reading room. It was painted orange and had huge frog-shaped pillows inside, and one lucky child (or two, if we were well-behaved) could perch inside and read. And when Book Balloons came along, it was my quest to amass as many as I possibly could. I lived in that library. I’m sure I made my way through the old reliable series and authors – Cleary and Blume were early favorites – year after year, always adding new titles to my reading repertoire.
The event culminated in the entire student body congregating on the hill behind the school, with each child’s postcard(s) tied to bright yellow balloons and in one joyous moment, releasing our balloons into the air.
Within a week, postcards would begin to arrive at the school. People would write on the back of the card, noting where they had found them, and send them back. The Librarian would staple the cards to a bulletin board so we could all admire how far our Book Balloons had sailed.
Some would come back tattered and muddy. I could only imagine where they were plucked from – fields and roads, trees and puddles. I wish I could remember how far some had traveled – geography escaped me then, and my memory escapes me now. I want to say I remember one year, we had a card come back many months after, with a Canadian postmark on it. We lived about 80 miles from the border, but to kids who couldn’t drive, this seemed very exotic!
Two more wishes: I wish I had kept my old postcards. It would be nice to look at them now, and to show them to my own child. To see my third grade handwriting, and what I had read that year. And to read what the stranger who found my card might have written back.
I also wish that a Book Balloon would find its way into my yard now. I would carefully dispose of the latex remnants so no birds would choke on them, recycle the string so no landfill would ever be burdened with it. I would take the postcard and read it carefully, and try to picture the child out there, somewhere, who had read a book, earned a postcard and a balloon to carry it. And I’d put a lot of thought into what I would write back to them. Perhaps encourage them to keep on reading, keep on dreaming, keep on soaring…even if helium balloons become outlawed and extinct some day.