The Send Off tells of what happens when childhood hopes literally take to the air.
Today I’m proud of myself for talking my friend and fellow author, John Kingston, into guest posting a “Monday Memory.” John shares a childhood memory that still gnaws on the back of his brain from time to time. If you’re like me, John’s story will infect you—making you grab for the nearest laptop or pen to write down whatever memory episode that just came to mind.
There we stood, lined up along that broken slab of asphalt outside our school’s gymnasium. Third grade. That time when it began to dawn on me that there might actually be something awkward in the way I looked—freckled with a wavy mop of hair; brown corduroy pants and red pull-ring zipper shirt that was otherwise known as my “Tuesday” ensemble.
Earlier in the morning we had been given cards to fill out. It was to include our names, grade year, and the name and address of our school. “Make sure it’s readable,” the principal would admonish us, “so the person who receives it will know just where to send it.” She said this as if a return message was something that was guaranteed which stoked in me a feeling of great excitement and anticipation. It was to be my message in a bottle, after all. Some tangible record of my childhood dreams. But instead of watching it go out with the tide, I’d be casting it into the great blue dome of sky, attached to the string of a balloon. With our hearts still mired in the dredge of winter, the annual balloon release—chosen always on the first warm day of spring—was our way of arriving at the new season full of hope and promise. And so when the signal was given, they were released. Dozens of brightly colored orbs tearing skyward with fugitive determination. I watched as mine arced its rapid ascent, wishing it Godspeed as it shrank away and became just a faint orange dot in a floating blue sea.
In the days and weeks that followed, the letters began to trickle in. They read them over the school’s public address system each morning; letters from faceless recipients who would close an existential circuit and breathe wonder and imagination into the heart of the balloon’s sender. But it always seemed to be the same charmed group of kids whose balloons completed the sojourn, drifting long distances like a sailor at sea before touching gracefully down in some faraway magic place like Saginaw or Otisville. Others, like myself, sat cross-legged on the floor, hoping anxiously to hear our names. It was a stubborn hope that refused to fade away, right up until the close of the school year.
It remains a minor mystery in my life. The whereabouts of those balloons that I had sent aloft, each with some vague, playground-age wish for wellbeing. At times, I’d picture it deflated and shriveled in the corner of some shopping plaza parking lot up on Flint’s north end or hung up on the branches of a random tree overlooking Devil’s Lake. Most likely, it had made its way to some empty field where it sat inert, diffused of its helium lifeblood. A curiosity for crows. Through the filter of my experiences since that time, however, I’ve come to realize that the magic had been mostly in the journey itself. Watching my balloon float away into the morning, I couldn’t help but feel my heart soar right along with it. Its send-off had sparked my imagination and there’s a certain vestige of it all that remains with me to this day.
…Still, a letter would have been nice.
John Kingston is the author of The Portraits of Gods. He resides in the Midwest with his wife and two daughters.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments or kudos for John.