The Helium Balloon Massacre of 1979
Sister Swaboda is angry again. She gets angry a lot lately. One time when Tommy was supposed to be in bed asleep, he heard his mom talking to his dad about how Sister Swaboda might not be playing with a full deck anymore. His dad said it’s probably fine. This time Sister Swaboda is mad at Eric for ruining his three by five index card. Now she has to do extra work and fill out another one for him.
Jeff’s mom says the weather looks pretty bad outside. Miss Nita says maybe they should wait to do the balloon launch another day. Tommy is afraid they’re going to ruin it, but Sister Swaboda says the balloon launch is still on. Tommy likes her better now because she isn’t afraid of the rain like the other grownups.
Eric is trying to stand on his yellow balloon while Sister Swaboda fills out his new index card. His balloon pops, and Tommy laughs and laughs. Sister Swaboda rips up Eric’s half filled out an index card and says that he doesn’t get to participate in the balloon launch now. He cries. She drags him back to the classroom by his ear and tells him to put his head down on his desk and not to move until she comes back.
Everybody else puts on their coats and lines up at the front door. Sister Swaboda tries to open the door, but the wind is blowing against it. Miss Nita has to help her push it open, and the class walks outside. It’s raining pretty hard, and the wind sounds crazy. It sounds like it’s screaming. Karen stays very close to Tommy, and she tells him she’s scared. He tells her this is fun and she shouldn’t be scared. Some kids can’t hold onto their balloons anymore because the wind is too strong. Sister Swaboda yells that everybody should let go of their balloons right now. Tommy and Karen look at each other and smile. They let their balloons go. Hers is green, like her eyes. Tommy’s is red, like a fire truck.
For a second all of the balloons are really close together, but the wind scatters them apart. The rain sounds like it’s sizzling, like bacon in the frying pan. Tommy sees that the balloons want to fly away, but the rain is holding them down. None of them can get very high off the ground. The rain makes the balloons fall into the big field behind the school where the older boys play baseball. The wind pushes the balloons across the muddy field into an old rusty fence. A lot of them pop, and the rest start to shrivel up. None of them will go anywhere now. Not to the Moon – not even to Pennsylvania.
Sister Swaboda yells for everyone to go back inside. Tommy hangs his coat on the rack in the hall. The rain soaked through to his shirt. Karen rings out her pigtails and her teeth chatter.
“Are you cold?” Tommy says.
“A little. Are you?” Karen says.
They walk into the dark classroom. Stupid head Eric is asleep. He’s the only one who didn’t get rained on. Pee Pee head Eric doesn’t even wake up. Miss Nita flips on the light switch, but nothing happens. Sister Swaboda says the electricity must be out. The radiators start to clank, and Tommy’s glad they don’t need electricity.
Miss Nita says it’s okay if they want to put their heads down until their moms come to pick them up. Tommy puts his left ear down on the desk, and Karen puts her right ear down so they can see each other. Usually, they’d make funny faces to see if one of them would laugh, but this time they just look at each other. Even in the dark classroom, Karen’s eyes are very bright.
It’s quiet except for the radiators. Tommy realizes he will never marry Karen, he’ll never go to the Moon, and God never watches him. He doesn’t know how he knows, but he knows these things are true.