March 7, 2021

Believing Anything's Possible

One of Dad's great Christmas presents turned into an entertaining story with a surprise ending 45 years later.

A Christmas Present: 2 Great Stories 45 Years Apart

On Christmas morning when I was 13, I opened a dozen Christmas presents that were all either bags of latex balloons, or balls of string. Dad knew from the expression on my face it was time. He handed me a badly wrapped final present. It was poorly wrapped because it was an odd shape, and heavy. As I held it in my hands and tore the paper off, it looked like a hose faucet on one end and the other end was longer and black rubber. It also had a long ribbon attached which Dad exhorted me to follow. It led into the dining room and then out the patio door. On one side of the patio, the ribbon ended at the top of what looked like a torpedo standing on end. 

"Do you know what that is," he asked? Suddenly it all came together, that's the kind of tank the guy at the county fair had who sold us the helium balloons! Dad helped me screw the "present" into the top of the tank. It was the valve the guy at the fair used to inflate the balloons. Dad had rented a tank of helium. It, and the balloons were mine to play with until the helium ran out.

But Dad, in his way, made everything extra fun. He suggested, "What you could do is tie a note on a balloon and release it." An airborne message in a bottle! He said, "If you write on the note, 'If found please return to Chuck Knerr and our address, someone might find one and mail it back." He told me how they'd be carried on the wind to wherever it blows. 

Well that fired up my imagination and I started cranking out hand scrawled notes, inflating balloons and hanging them from the balloons with string. As they sailed up and away into the blue Southern California sky I had visions of them traveling across the country. But if something is fun, it's more fun with friends, so I enlisted my friend, Scott Freeman, who lived across the street to help me double our output. Since it became a little dull just tying a string and a note to a balloon. We started cutting down paper Dixie cups, poked four holes in the rim and tied a harness of strings so it looked like the basket of a hot air balloon. Of course we taped a note inside. In 3 weeks, we were out of balloons and helium.

And so far, none of our notes had been mailed back to us. Still, it was a fun project! But...  about a month later, Scott got a letter in the mail. It was postmarked, "Kettering, Ohio"! A man said he found our balloon and knew we'd want to know, so he's returning it and the note. Inside was a deflated red balloon and Scott's note. Kettering, Ohio? We ran in my house and went to the shelf of World Book Encyclopedias (to find that Kettering was almost 2,000 miles away, it had crossed over half the country! 

We took the note to school and showed it all around. It was a big deal, we were thrilled! The local paper even interviewed Scott and I and put a picture of us in the paper, sitting on the curb in front of my house, reading the letter. The paper even interviewed a meteorologist from CalTech to explain how it was possible! We were small town famous. 

And that would be the end of a nice story, if it weren't for a message I received in 2014 from a Mrs. Tompkins, thanks to Facebook: 

If you are that Chuck Knerr who sent up a balloon with a dixie cup attached along with your friend Scott Freeman,  You would have received a letter saying the balloon had been found in Kettering, Ohio.  My husband sent that letter.  If you are that Chuck Knerr and would like to know how that balloon actually reached Ohio I would be happy to tell you.​

Naturally, I wrote right back!

​It's very nice to hear from you. Yes, I'm that Chuck Knerr. I remember it well. It was a big thrill to get your husband's response. My Dad had given me a big tank of helium for Christmas and hundreds of balloons. He thought it would keep us occupied, which it certainly did. We released a lot of balloons, but yours was the only one we heard from. That was probably due to the Sierra Madre Mountains and the huge Mojave desert beyond. I imagine that's where the rest of them came down.​


Well my husband passed away several years ago so I guess I can tell you the real story.  When I was going through boxes I ran across a newspaper article from a Dayton newspaper. We had been living in a house that my father built in Temple City but my husband was working for Northrop at the time and we were in Ohio for a few years.  He frequently flew out to California on business and he would check on our house that was rented out at the time.   I remember seeing it in the paper and I mentioned it to my husband and he started laughing.  He actually found the balloon in Temple City but it did fly clear to Ohio.  The only problem was that it was on an airplane.  I thought that it was terrible that he let you think it had flown on its own but he just thought that two little boys would be thrilled.  When I found the article I did a search and found you on Facebook​.​


WHAT A GREAT STORY! I'm so glad to learn about it. Your husband sounds like a wonderful man. My Dad would have LOVED to hear it, unfortunately he passed 6 years ago. I think the two of them would have gotten along well. Let me reassure you that it was a wonderful thing he did and he was quite right; there were two very thrilled little boys! And now the rest of my family will have another thrill hearing your story...God Bless You!

I like to imagine that Mr. Tompkins was a man like my father. Dad knew that if he told me I could do something, it was not only possible, his words made it even more likely that I could. He was always encouraging me to do, to try.  ​What Mr. Tompkins gave Scott and I was the experience that we had accomplished something incredible. That was the same year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. And Scott and Chuck had sent a note in a Dixie cup on a helium balloon to Kettering Ohio.