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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

To: Whitney Raymond -- Mrs. Alber's 2nd Grade Class, Farr West Elementary
From: Frank Thomas Croisdale -- Niagara Falls Reporter
Re: Miracles

Dear Whitney:

Do you believe in miracles?

Before you answer, let me tell you that many adults do not. Most of them did when they were your age, but life's trials and tribulations have a way of stealing the power of belief from even the heartiest of souls. It's probably not even fair of me to ask such a question of one as young as you, Whitney. After all, chances are you're still struggling with mastering the rules of spelling. Rules that teach you things like it's "i" before "e" except after "c," then confuse you with sufficiently weird exceptions like "sufficiently" and "weird."

But ask it I must, Whitney, because if there were any doubts in your mind that miracles do indeed exist, the events of last week most assuredly laid them to rest. Before I go any further, let's clarify right here and now, Whitney, that the reason that many adults no longer believe in miracles is because they look for them at the wrong times and in the wrong places. Many people only seek miracles when they're at the end of their rope. They only choose to believe when they've exhausted all other resources and only a miracle will save the day. Often, that is too late in the game to seek divine intervention. Still others think that a miracle can only happen in preordained spots, like in a church or synagogue. Of course, you and I know that type of thinking is nothing but a bunch of hogwash, don't we, Whitney? A simple purple balloon is all the proof we need that magic can and indeed does happen -- the type that can connect Farr West, Utah and Niagara Falls, N.Y. in a way previously unimaginable.

I'm sure that when you awoke on the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 30, it felt just like any other day to you, Whitney. Your dad, William Raymond, got you and your two sisters out of bed and ready for school. Your town of Farr West is approximately 31 miles from Salt Lake City. According to the last census, 701 families and a total of 2,178 people call Farr West home. Your school was founded in 1984 and has kindergarten through 6th grade classes. There are 480 kids who attend Farr West Elementary and you and your sisters are some of the newest, as your dad just bought a home in town. Your thoughts were probably preoccupied with Halloween and trick-or-treating, but you were about to set into motion a sequence of events that would prove sweeter than a thousand Halloween goodies.

That day, your school was celebrating "Red Ribbon" day. The kids at your school chose "The dream begins with me," as your "Red Ribbon" theme. It was decided that each Farr West Elementary student would set free a helium-filled balloon with an attached tag that read, "I pledge to be drug and violence free!" The balloon launch had originally been set for that Monday, but high winds caused it to be postponed. As it was, Whitney, your principal, Mrs. Cutler, silently worried that the rainy and cold weather on Wednesday would prevent the balloons from traveling very far. As it turned out, she needn't have worried at all.

Some kids tied their balloons together so that they could see them from the ground for a longer period of time before they disappeared into the gray horizon. You decided to launch your balloon solo, Whitney. You watched excitedly from the school courtyard as your purple balloon, decorated with a peace symbol, rose high into the crisp autumn air. Higher and higher it climbed, until it was but a small dot in the sky over Utah. Soon it disappeared from view completely, as had the other balloons launched by your classmates, and you headed back into school for another day spent conjugating verbs and tackling long division. The story may have come to an end there, but as we now know, this was a day for miracles.

I'll bet that you didn't know, Whitney, that your school has been setting balloons free for many years now.

According to Mrs. Cutler, the farthest away that one had ever been found was in Wyoming, which is just one state removed from Utah. That's a mere trip around the block compared to the journey your balloon took.

Did I mention that I have a dog, Whitney? Her name is Sydney and, as it turned out, she had a pretty important role to play in this miracle. Sydney is part Border Collie and part Grizzly Bear. Well, she might not actually be part bear, but she weights 87 pounds, so the half of her that's not Border Collie definitely came from something really big. Despite her size, Sydney has a heart full of love and there is nothing that she would rather do than to take me on my daily walk. The morning of Sunday, Nov. 3 was no different, as Sydney dragged me through the grass along the banks of Hyde Park Creek, which runs through the center of Niagara Falls.

Now it has never made much sense to Sydney to walk on the sidewalk of the park when there is so much more to see and smell in the grass at the water's edge. At her size, I don't generally argue with her, Whitney, though in this case I must admit that I agree with her wholeheartedly. Walking along the creek, we've seen Canadian geese make the most graceful water landings, we've watched snapping turtles wait patiently to scoop up an unsuspecting sunfish, we've seen muskrats leave a type of vapor-trail as they jet out into the creek and we've watched a hundred or more catfish bob at the top of the water at sunrise, almost as if to mock the fishermen who spend all day trying to hook them with all sorts of fancy, store-bought lures.

It was as we were walking along the creek's banks behind the city wading pool that Sydney spotted the remnants of your balloon. As she pulled me toward it, I decided that I should pick it up so that none of the geese would swallow it as a mid-morning snack.

I remembered that the aquarium here in Niagara Falls used to have an exhibit that showed all of the items swallowed by a dolphin. Among them was a balloon. When I saw that there was a tag on the balloon, I thought that it must be from Gaskill Middle School, which is adjacent to the creek.

As I read what was written on the tag, I was flabbergasted. Utah! This balloon had been released in Utah. Wow. When Sydney and I made it home, I told my wife that I had just taken a most fortuitous walk. I'd gotten my morning exercise and a great story for the newspaper all in one shot.

After I found the telephone number to your school, Whitney, and learned that the school is technically in the town of Ogden, Utah to boot, I called a Mr. Don Paul to ask him about the flight of your balloon. Mr. Paul is a meteorologist for the CBS affiliate in Buffalo, N.Y., which is just a fancy way of saying that he knows a whole lot about the weather.

When I told Mr. Paul where your balloon had come from, he couldn't believe it. He asked me more than once if it was an ordinary balloon. He said that the weather service regularly releases special balloons that are designed to travel hundreds of miles, but they are much thicker than regular balloons so that they can float at very high altitudes. Mr. Paul said that for a regular balloon to travel as far as yours did was extraordinary.

Speaking of miles, Whitney, I used a computer program to determine the number of miles between Farr West, Utah and Niagara Falls, N.Y. It turns out that there are 1,913 miles between your home and mine. If you were to make the trip by car, it would take you 30 hours and 21 minutes. Considering that most people only drive for eight hours per day when they go on a long trip, it would take them over three days of driving to make the same journey that your balloon made on its own.

And what a trip your balloon made, Whitney. Mr. Paul told me that the balloon must have caught the northern branch of the jet stream. If you could have gone along with it, Whitney, you would have seen the most beautiful of sights. You would have looked down on the Black Hills of South Dakota. You would have floated above the Mississippi River and the dairy lands of Wisconsin. You probably would have crossed the Great Lakes of Huron and Michigan and even traversed into Canada before swooping down into Western New York.

Most amazing, Whitney, is the fact that you would have steered that balloon to a landing just west of Hyde Park Creek, to probably the only place that a newspaper columnist's best friend would have found it on an early November morn.

In a few years, your teachers at school will talk about the word "symbolism," Whitney. If something is "symbolic," it means that it represents something which is usually greater than itself -- kind of like how the fireworks that we watch on the Fourth of July represent the battles of the Revolutionary War that allowed all Americans to live freely.

The balloon that you set free was symbolic, Whitney, and therein lies the miracle of Oct. 30. When you have a helium-filled balloon, you hold onto it tightly, much in the same way that parents hold onto their children. There comes a day when you have to let go of that string and let your balloon go free. There also comes a day when each parent must let their children go to find their own way in the world.

I don't know much about your dad, Whitney, but what I say to you next, I say with complete confidence. He's got a tight hold on three strings. One is connected to you and one to each of your sisters. He holds tightly to those stings, as do all parents to the strings attached to their kids, to protect you from everything bad in the world for as long as he can. At the top of the list of the things he wants to protect you from are drugs and violence.

A day will come, when you are older, when your dad will have to let go of that string. When he does, he can only hope that the lessons he has taught you and the warnings he has issued will keep you safe from the dangers of violence and drug abuse. He hopes that you will follow the example of your balloon and ride the currents of life to the greatest of heights.

There is much inspiration to be drawn from the flight of your balloon, Whitney, the type that can give birth to the kind of miracle that every parent dreams of.

Your Friend,
Frank Thomas Croisdale

Frank Thomas Croisdale has been a freelance writer for 17 years and is actively involved in the Niagara Falls tourism industry. He lives in Niagara Falls. He can be reached at NFReporter@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com November 12 2002