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By LANE DeGREGORY
ST. PETERSBURG -- At first she thought it was a leaf. Or a string. Something thin and yellow, falling past her kitchen window. Nancy Hardin was doing dishes when it caught her eye. No, it wasn't falling, she decided. More like floating.
She dried her hands on her pants and stepped outside. Hardin lives in a first floor condominium off Roosevelt Boulevard in St. Petersburg. All the buildings are camel-colored stucco, with brown doors. Hardin has lived there five years.
She walked down two concrete steps and around the front of her building.
There, in a small patch of grass beneath her kitchen window, she saw a long yellow ribbon, tangled and frayed, one end still clinging to a piece of popped green balloon. The other was wrapped around a wrinkled piece of paper.
"I'm not real superstitious. I don't believe in signs or omens or such. But I just got the funniest feeling when I saw that," Hardin said. She's a glass artist who raised a son and four daughters mostly alone. She has 17 grandchildren and great-grandkids. She's seen a lot in her 64 years. But nothing like this.
"Oh, it just made my hair stand on end."
And that was before she read the note.
She spread it on her kitchen table, in a patch of midmorning sunlight. The paper was the kind you learn to write on in school, with faint blue lines running through it. The words were written in pencil, in the round, uncertain scrawl of a child.
"I miss you Dad," it started. The "i" in miss had been scratched out and corrected. "I bet you are plaing (sic) pool. Love Travis Christian."
When Hardin read it, she caught her breath. Tears pooled behind her gold-rimmed glasses. "It just got to me," she said.
"I mean, I just know this little fella has a broken heart, whoever he is."
A hard night
Who was this little boy? Where was his dad?
Whoever wrote the note must be old enough to know his letters, she figured. And young enough not to know how to spell. Or leave spaces between words.
"He's probably in school already," she said. "But I don't think this balloon was part of a school project. If he'd done it in school, the teacher would have included an address."
Hardin walked around the condo complex, showing neighbors the popped green balloon and the note. None of them knew anyone by that name. None of them even knew any little boys. All of them kept asking her: What do you think?
What's the real story wrapped up in that ribbon?
All that night, Hardin worried. She thought about her children, how, after her divorce, they had missed their father so much. She thought about her twin grandsons, whose dad had left when they were 3. Maybe this boy's parents were divorced, too, she thought. Maybe that's why he was missing his daddy.
The next morning, she called her daughter Susan.
"I want to know where this little boy is," Hardin said. "I want his daddy to know the impact his being gone is having on his son."
"Maybe his daddy isn't around," said Susan, 35.
"Of course he's not," Hardin answered. "Otherwise, this little boy wouldn't have to be writing him notes."
The phone line was silent for a while. When Susan spoke again, her voice was softer. "No, Mama," Susan said.
"Maybe this little boy's daddy is dead."
So Hardin called the St. Petersburg Times. Could someone help her? she asked.
"I saw this yellow thing falling past my kitchen window," she said. "At first I thought it was a leaf . . . "
Start at the end. That's what my friend Caryn Baird always says. She's a research librarian at the Times.
I told her about the yellow ribbon, the wrinkled note and the little boy. I told her I had no idea where the popped green balloon had come from.
"Balloons can fly far," she said.
We talked about how windy it had been the day before. How it had rained that night. How far the balloon might have flown.
Then Caryn started searching obituaries.
Ten minutes later, after six searches around the Tampa Bay area and three checks through public records, Caryn found a death notice for a man named CHRISTIAN, RICKY D., 49, of St. Petersburg. The man had died one year ago that week. "Born in Huntington Beach, W.Va., he came here in 1972 from Texas," the obituary said. "He was a heavy equipment operator and an Army veteran of the Vietnam War."
His survivors included his mother, Madeline. A daughter, Caitlin Christian.
And a son.
Don't let go
She stocked up on a few things her kids needed. Juice pouches and more bread for their lunches. Then she walked to the florist section and splurged. She bought a bouquet of orange gladiolas, just like the ones her ex-husband used to buy her. She bought two green balloons. She tied a purple ribbon around one, a yellow ribbon around the other.
This day was hard enough on her. She wanted to do something to make it easier for her kids.
That afternoon, she picked up her two children at Pasadena Fundamental Elementary: Caitlin, who is 10, and Travis, who is 6.
Instead of going home, they headed for Bay Pines National Cemetery. Kelly parked the car near the back of a long row of markers, got out and opened the trunk. She took out a beach blanket and spread it on the grass. She took out the flowers and laid them on her ex-husband's grave. Then she untied the balloons. She gave the purple ribbon to Caitlin, the yellow one to Travis. She told them not to let them go.
Travis Christian is in first grade. He's tall for his age, with broad shoulders and big feet. His hair is bleached almost white because he spends so much time outdoors. His blue eyes are in constant motion, searching for trees he hasn't climbed high enough, swing sets he wants to be upside down on. He likes racing Hot Wheels, building with Legos and chasing his calico cat, Patches, around the front porch.
Travis lives in Gulfport with his mom and big sister. He was 2 when his daddy moved out. He used to love spending Saturdays at his dad's house.
He and his daddy used to watch Florida State football games on TV together. They used to skip rocks in the pond behind his daddy's house. Travis couldn't throw the rocks very far, so his daddy made up this contest: Whose rock can make the biggest splash? Sometimes his daddy would let Travis win.
Travis' daddy was a tall, bearded man who drove heavy machinery, did maintenance work and loaded crates for Viking Yachts for a while. Often, he was unemployed. He'd gotten hurt on a job, lost his driver's license and didn't have a phone. He had "major problems with drugs and alcohol," Travis' mom said. He had kidney and liver damage. "But he never really told us how bad he was."
Travis' daddy lived in a mobile home in Pinellas Park, in a complex with a pond and a clubhouse. The pond was for skipping rocks. The clubhouse had a piano and an old pool table.
"Every time when I went to his house, he'd make me a peanut butter sandwich and we'd play pool," Travis said. "My daddy loved playing pool.
"I loved playing pool with him."
Travis' daddy was always promising that he'd take Travis fishing someday. He bought Travis a pole and everything. And he was always promising that he'd take Travis to a Devil Rays game.
On a foggy Friday last fall, on a day Travis had off from kindergarten, his mom drove him to his dad's mobile home. He was supposed to sleep over that night, spend Saturday with his dad. Maybe they'd finally get to go fishing, Travis thought. He was sure they'd shoot pool.
"But when we got up to the trailer, the door was wide open," Travis' mom said. "Ricky's wallet was lying there on the table. The lady across the street shouted, 'He's not there!' " Right then, Travis' mom said, she knew. His sister said she knew then, too.
But Travis didn't get it.
"Where's Daddy?" he kept asking his mom. "What's dead mean?"
Where balloons go
Now that he's a year older, the hospice worker said, Travis might understand more. He knows now that his daddy's not coming back. It might help him to visit his dad's grave.
So on a muggy Monday in early November, one year after Travis' daddy died, Kelly Christian sat her kids on the beach blanket at the cemetery. She brought out a library book the hospice worker had suggested: Where Do Balloons Go? by Jamie Lee Curtis. She showed her children the book's colorful cover, then started reading.
"Where do balloons go when you let them go free? It can happen by accident," she said. She tried to smile at her children. "It's happened to me."
Her voice cracked. But she had practiced this. She could get through it. "Where do they go, when they float far away? Do they ever catch cold and need somewhere to stay?"
Since his daddy died, Travis has gotten more angry, more withdrawn. He's quicker to run away from strangers, to play by himself, to brood. He doesn't want to be comforted. He keeps telling his mom not to cry.
"Sometimes I still talk to my daddy," he said. "I still tell him how I want to go play pool with him. But I don't know if he can hear me. "He never talks back."
Travis doesn't cheer the Seminoles in football anymore. His mom doesn't watch sports. He never gets to play pool.
He and his sister asked their mom to hang some old photos back on the living room walls. Their daddy smiles down holding a Thanksgiving Day drumstick, holding Christmas packages, holding both children in his arms. While Travis races his Hot Wheels around the rug, he looks up and sees his daddy watching.
"Where do balloons go? What's really up there?" his mom read on. "As far as I see, it's just sky and air."
About halfway through the book, Kelly told her children to get out their backpacks. She told them to pull a piece of notebook paper from their folders and get out a pencil. She told them to write their daddy a note. Anything they wanted to tell him.
She told them she would tie the notes onto their balloons and they would float up to heaven.
"Where do balloons go? It's a mystery, I know." She rolled their notes into tight scrolls. She wrapped the ribbons around and around them.
She turned the last page. "So just hold on tight till you have to . . . Let go!"
Tears were trickling down Caitlin's cheeks as she let the purple ribbon slip through her fingers.
Travis shoved his yellow ribbon into the air and smiled. "Daddy will be proud," he was thinking, watching the green balloon drift toward the clouds.
Just last week, in school, Travis' teacher had shown him how to write his last name.
Now his daddy would know, for sure, that the note was for him.
-- News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.
From the wire