Education

Southern Elementary School balloon finds its way home — 23 years later

The original note and the remains of the balloon, one of many launched Sept. 27, 1988, at Southern Elementary, were placed beside the yearbook photo of Mike Rubeling, sender of that particular balloon. A note from the finder, received last month, is under Mike's photo.
The original note and the remains of the balloon, one of many launched Sept. 27, 1988, at Southern Elementary, were placed beside the yearbook photo of Mike Rubeling, sender of that particular balloon. A note from the finder, received last month, is under Mike's photo. ©2011

Students at Lexington's Southern Elementary School celebrated Kentucky Kids Day on Sept. 27, 1988, by releasing hundreds of brightly colored helium-filled balloons into the sky.

Carried away on the wind, each balloon had a piece of ribbon and a small card, laminated in plastic, asking anyone who found the card to mail it back to Southern.

A few cards were returned from nearby locations during the next few weeks. But then they stopped.

Months passed. The kids grew up and left Southern for middle school, then high school and college and careers. Twenty-three years went by, and the 1988 balloon launch was largely forgotten. But then ... .

On Nov. 29, school secretary Karen Davis was going through the morning mail when she noticed a plain white envelope with no return address. Curious, she opened it, and a piece of purple ribbon peaked out.

"I knew what it was right away," said Davis, one of five staffers still at Southern who were at the original balloon launch. "I thought, 'Oh my goodness, it's from the balloons that we sent off."

It was. Inside the envelope was one of the cards the kids sent aloft in 1988, along with an unsigned, handwritten note stating, "I found this while hunting grouse in Clay County in southeastern Kentucky."

Southern has been buzzing about the news ever since, says assistant principal Nancy Catlett Smith, another staffer who was at the 1988 launch.

"To have it reappear after so long is really amazing," Smith said. "I mean, it's been 23 years."

But, sometimes the past isn't as far away as we think.

After the card reappeared, Smith did some detective work. Based on the color of the ribbon (the original balloons were color-coded by grade), a code number and the name "Mike" scrawled on the card, she was able to identify the student who released that balloon: Mike Rubeling, a kindergartner at Southern in 1988.

Soon after that, Smith mentioned the story to a friend, who informed Smith that her daughter knew Rubeling and communicated with him on Facebook. They sent a message to Rubeling, and a few days later he sent one back to Smith.

Turns out maybe there was something prophetic in that balloon launch 23 years ago.

Today, Mike Rubeling is Air Force Capt. Michael Rubeling, 28, an instructor-pilot who flies the C-17 Globemaster, one of the military's largest transport planes. Rubeling, whose parents, Richard and Barbara Rubeling, still live in Lexington, is on deployment in the Middle East. He said he was shocked to learn that his balloon had been found after so long.

"I fondly remember the balloon launch at Southern back in kindergarten," he said in a email to the Herald-Leader last week. "Releasing the balloon, I anxiously wondered where it would end up. ... There was the excited hope that someone in some faraway land would soon find the balloon and contact me."

The 1988 balloon launch was the last one at Southern. Smith, who was a classroom teacher back then, said the school stopped doing launches because of environmental concerns.

But some mysteries in the story still remain.

How did that laminated card survive out in the weather in Clay County for 23 years? Or is it possible that someone found it years ago, put it away intending to mail it back, then forgot about it until recently?

Who found the card? With no signature or return address, there's no way to know unless the person comes forward.

Smith is keeping the original card, which she wants to frame and send to Rubeling as a keepsake of his school days.

In his email, Rubeling said he occasionally notices kids releasing balloons, which evokes his own childhood memories.

"That the tag survived 23 years of weather and deterioration and someone still happened upon it is astounding," he said. "It's a testament that those innocent childhood hopes and dreams do come true."

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