There were several ancillary matters of interest surrounding Balloonfest, a fundraising event sponsored by the United Way in Cleveland, Ohio on September 27, 1986. During the main event, one and a half million balloons were released into the air from a central containment structure that measured the size of a city block. Netting was anchored to the structure to contain the balloons, which themselves were of varying color, but roughly uniform size.
At just before 2 pm on the 27th, the mesh was removed, and the helium-filled balloons rose into the Cleveland sky. The intent was for them to rise until the helium naturally diffused through the latex, deflating the balloons so that they would, much smaller in size, descend back to the ground. However, on that day, a cold front spilled over Lake Erie, and the full balloons were dragged downwards by the weather system.
In terms of the release itself, there is ample documentation. There are images and video of the event, balloons spilling into the sky like they were a living organism. Almost like something that had been born.
Stacey Palmer worked on a horse farm in Port Alma, a Canadian subdivision on Lake Erie. She had an unremarkable upbringing. Good parents, decent performance through the first two years of high school, and no history of mental issues or conditions. On the horse farm, she rode the animals in order to exercise them for the owners.
On September 27th, 1986, Stacey rode a large brown animal named Cadence, when a black balloon descended from the sky. A moment later, more balloons fell, wrinkled but still inflated, falling under the weight of the cold front that had entered the lake from the west. The horses panicked, racing within the fence line until two smashed into each other. A third made to jump the fence and crashed into wood instead, toppling to the ground on the other side. Meanwhile, balloons fell.
If Stacey had looked back across the Lake, which she surely would have done, she would have seen tens of thousands of balloons coming her way, silent and shuddering as the helium within demanded that they rise, while the cold front said otherwise.
As the horses rampaged within the fence line, Stacey and Cadence raced to the gate and jumped over it. Much as it would be supposed that Stacey would have stopped to try and help the other horses, Cadence had always been regarded as a tempestuous animal. There are drivers along County Road 14 who can attest to seeing Stacey and Cadence racing north along the road, dodging around cars as, behind them, balloons pursued.
Howie Jones was a municipal employee tasked with general laborer duties. On September 27, he was one of the people responsible for pulling the ropes to remove the netting around the balloons, releasing them to the sky.
Howie’s supervisor later reported that Howie had objected to releasing the balloons, insisting that it was a mistake. Subsequent reports from the supervisor indicated that he believed Howie to have known about the cold front coming eastwards over the Lake, but there is no indication that Howie had any interest in, or knowledge of, meteorology.
Other reports paint a different picture. After the balloons were released, Howie Jones was seen running after them, jumping into the air as though to catch them. He was screaming. Witnesses reported that he ran down a road towards the Lake, yelling as he went.
When his supervisor finally caught him, Howie Jones had two feet in the water. The balloons were still rising over the Lake, pulling northwards from Cleveland. The supervisor told Howie that there was an emergency, and that he had to report to the docks to take a boat out.
Howie’s response is recorded by the supervisor. He looked at the older man with great sincerity, and pointed at the sky. “You don’t understand. You think they’re balloons, but they’re not. They’re not.”
On County Road 8, there is a town called Merlin. In 1986, its population was about 500 people. The most famous export from Merlin, Ontario is a country music singer.
Stacey Palmer, having ridden east after the initial dash north, entered the town around 5:30 pm. Cadence was sweating, having dodged traffic on the headlong flight. The sky was, at that point, clear of balloons.
Across from the Merlin United Church is a green space with two baseball diamonds, bordered by a row of houses with their lawns merging into the green fields. The horse found its way to the park, where Stacey Palmer finally bade it slow down. There are two photographs of this, grainy images of Stacey and Cadence riding north across the field, both tired and wild-eyed.
On the spot between the infield dirt of the two baseball diamonds, a series of Merlin residents were arranged in five rows of twenty people. Fully a fifth of the town’s inhabitants were out in the park, all wearing grey track pants and sweatshirts. Some wore colorful headbands, but otherwise, there was little to distinguish these people from each other. As they stood in their rows, they repeated a set of motions that they had been practicing for years. First, they would put their right arm to the side. Then their left arm forward. One foot would rise from the ground, and they would turn their head to the south. Finally, both arms would rise to the sky, and they would wave as though at something beyond the clouds.
What Stacey would have thought of this repeated motion is difficult to say. All that is recorded is that the horse finally came to a stop, as she watched the proceedings. Right arm to the side. Left arm forward. One foot in the air. Head to the south, and arms rising to the sky.
By 6:30 pm, the first balloon entered Merlin’s airspace. It was blue, and descended towards the sports field. It was followed by a red, and a yellow. There is photographic evidence of this progression, the balloons descending towards the grey-clad people on the baseball fields of Merlin. It wasn’t until the first balloon approached, however, that the people reacted. The rows suddenly parted and became a grand circle, into which that blue balloon descended. As it did, the people fluttered their hands through the air. A few were smiling. Others were very serious. As each balloon touched the ground, to a person, the people fluttered their hands.
Howie Jones was assigned a motorboat and told to go out on the Lake to look for two missing fishermen. Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer had gone missing the day before the balloon release, and the Coast Guard had been called in to supervise a search. Extra hands from Balloonfest had been seconded to help them.
Howie had a radio through which to communicate with his supervisor. He reported in regularly, as he chased the waft of balloons north across the Lake, towards Canada.
In time, the cold front swept in from the west, and the helium balloons began to descend. Howie made a report of this to his supervisor, describing how the balloons were shuddering as they tumbled, as though they knew that it was against their nature to fall like this. Many of the balloons landed on the Lake. Only a few that had managed to rise high enough to avoid the cold front cut their way further northwards.
Howie took several photographs of the Lake of balloons. They are easily found. In the black and white photos, it appears, to the untrained eye, that these balloons are heads, bobbing back and forth with the wind. The balloons rapidly made the search for the missing fishermen impossible.
The supervisor reported that Howie was crying for much of the search. He reiterated that the balloons were alive. “They came here to be with us,” he was reported to have said. “They just wanted to see what we were like. To be amongst us. To understand what we were like. But we packaged them up and sent them into the sky like they were nothing. And look what’s happening. Just look what’s happening.”
“What is happening, Howie?” asked the supervisor.
“The fishermen? Do you see the fishermen drowning?” the supervisor had demanded.
There had been a pause on the radio. “No.”
Another pause, as more balloons descended on the Lake, little bobbing heads like people synchronized in a uniform movement that they all seemed to know and acknowledge at exactly the same time, to the same rhythm.
Stacey Palmer and Cadence must have headed north on County Road 7 from Merlin, determined to get away from the balloons. They must have intercepted Regional Road 2 at some point, and headed west, bringing them in proximity to Highway 401. Eventually, they reached Tilbury, a community of roughly 3,500 people.
By then, it had been ten o’clock at night, and Tilbury had been turning in for the evening. A few people had probably gathered around their television sets, and learned about what had happened across the Lake in Cleveland that day, a new World Record for the launching of balloons. One million five hundred thousand balloons filled with helium and launched from a great netting that covered an entire City block. A proud moment in the history of Cleveland, Ohio, a city previously known as the mistake along the lake.
Those residents of Tilbury, if they had stayed at their television sets, would have seen images of the balloons settling over the Lake. Boats streaked across the water, looking for Raymond Broderick and Bernard Sulzer, the lost fishermen.
No one had spoken to Stacey Palmer as she rode through Tilbury. A few people had seen her, on tired Cadence, but no one had reached out to ask what she was doing there. She had simply ridden until she’d reached a pharmacy on the west side of town. There, she’d found a phone booth, and had finally dismounted from Cadence, tying the horse to a bike rack. This was recorded by the pharmacy employees, who were obligated to remain at work until midnight.
As she dismounted, a solitary black balloon had descended on the parking lot. It was not accompanied by others. How it had managed to come so far from Cleveland and to stay aloft against the cold front, is difficult to determine. But it had landed next to Stacey. The pharmacy employees indicated that Stacey had conversed with the balloon, holding it at arm’s length, and then taken it into the phone booth with her.
That night, Stacey’s friend Anita Sood had received a phone call from Stacey.
“Where are you?” Anita had said.
“Everyone is looking for you! Did you hear what happened in Cleveland today?”
“What happened in Cleveland today?”
Anita had filled her in.
“I have one of the balloons,” Stacey had told her friend.
“In Tilbury? That seems pretty impossible.”
But Stacey had insisted. The pharmacy workers had observed the animated conversation from the store, watching the girl clasp the balloon in one hand, the phone in the other.
“There’s another thing,” Stacey had said to her friend. By Anita’s accounts, Stacey had been sobbing. “Please don’t think I’m crazy. But the balloon is talking to me.”
“It’s talking! There’s something in it.”
“No!” Stacey had declared. “It keeps telling me to save it. That I should take it back to the others. But I don’t know what the others are! It sounds so upset. It just sounds so sad.”
Anita had become alarmed, and called for her parents. They had run down the street to Stacey’s parents’ house to tell them that they had heard from their daughter. By the time Stacey’s parents had reached the house, however, Stacey had hung up.
“She’s gone,” Anita had said, cross-legged on her bed. “She said that she was going to try and save it. That she had to try.”
Stacey Palmer had never been seen again. Cadence, the horse, had been located in the parking lot, but of Stacey not a sign. Nor was there any trace of the balloon.
No other balloons had travelled as far as Tilbury, leading the authorities to wonder if the balloon had come from Cleveland at all.
When Howie Jones had returned to the dock, his supervisor had informed him that the bodies of the two fishermen had washed ashore. The balloons upon the Lake had indeed greatly complicated the search.
Howie Jones had quit his job. The next time anyone had seen him, he’d been in a park near the Carter Street bridge, next to a tennis court that looked on the Cuyahoga River. It had been more than fifteen years since the Cuyahoga had last caught fire, and now the adjacent green spaces were clean and welcoming.
Howie Jones had stood in the park next to the tennis court, in view of the bridge and the river. He was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, even though September was cold. There, on the grass, he had put his right arm to the side. Then his left arm forward. One foot had risen from the ground, and as he kept that awkward pose, he turned his head to the side. For long minutes, he’d remained in that pose. Then he’d lifted his arms to the sky, and started to wave.
The first time Howie Jones had done this next to the Cuyahoga, it had been September 30th. There were no longer any balloons in the sky. Occasionally, a balloon was found lodged against a building, or snuggled under an overhang, as though trying to hide. When the helium had finally seeped through the latex, they had simply descended to the ground, where people walked on them or cars had ground them into the asphalt.
For the first week of October, Howie Jones did the same thing. One arm, then the other. One foot. A head turning. Arms waving at the air. People reported that he slept at night, on the same spot, but not for very long. When the mornings dawned in October, Howie Jones performed on the grass. After a while, people began to leave him food and water, concerned that he might damage himself. The police had been called. An ambulance had been sent. But no one could say that Howie Jones was breaking any law or rule. He seemed relatively healthy, other than his proclivity to stand in shorts and t-shirt in the cold of a Cleveland fall.
By November 5th, 1986, the last of the balloons had been cleaned up. The mounds of latex had been transported by truck to a local incinerator. There, they had been mixed with garbage and delivered into the flame. Once again, the balloons rose, this time with the plumes from the great stack that emitted them into the sky, a shower of smoke that eventually diluted in the air and become invisible as it travelled with the wind.
It was on the same day, November 5th, 1986, that Howie Jones disappeared from the park. Just as the afternoon was setting, and people were playing tennis in the adjacent court or driving along Carter Street, Howie Jones had simply vanished. There are no photographs of him on that day, but there are testimonials indicating that he was there one moment, gone the next. Many speculated that he had jumped into the Cuyahoga, and ridden the current out into Lake Erie, some kind of fitting end to his mystery. His body was never recovered.
On the whole, the United Way spent half a million dollars on Balloonfest ’86. Given the cost of cleaning up the balloons, and then diverting them to the incinerator for destruction, as well as the damages associated with attending to the lawsuits placed by the families of the missing fishermen, the event was a net loss for the charity. To this day, it is considered a disaster.
Other than Stacey Palmer and Howie Jones, no other person indicated that there was anything strange about the balloons. They had been purchased wholesale, and filled using compressed tanks of helium. Once inflated, they had been released into the netting anchored by that large steel structure in downtown Cleveland. There, they had congregated, rubbing against each other as they struggled to rise. Hundreds and then thousands of balloons; soon, tens of thousands of balloons touching each other, swaying together as the netting pulsed with the wind. When they had finally been released, it had looked like an eruption of some kind. An expulsion. Some had called it a birth.