My song today is ’99 Red Balloons’. This song by the West German NDW band Nena from their 1983 self-titled album. An English-language version with lyrics by Kevin McAlea was also released in 1984 after widespread success of the original song in Europe and Japan. The English version is not a direct translation of the German original and contains lyrics with a somewhat different meaning. In the US, the English-language version did not chart, while the German-language recording became Nena's only US hit.
While at a 1982 concert in West Berlin where the Rolling Stones were appearing, Nena's guitarist Carlo Karges noticed that balloons were being released. As he watched them move toward the horizon, he noticed them shifting and changing shapes, where they looked like strange spacecraft (referred to in the German lyrics as a ‘UFO’). He thought about what might happen if they floated over the Berlin Wall to the Soviet sector and if they might cause an international incident. The anti-war song finishes with the singer walking through the devastated ruins of the world and finding a balloon that signifies the world was once here.
Balloons have been used to signify so many things over the years. I imagine that the main function any balloon, has today is ‘celebration’ itself. Whether it be a child’s 5th birthday or their father or mother’s 50th, or some party ‘letting in New Year’.
For many years, balloons have been used in one manner or another for the purpose of carriage, and it was just over 200 years ago, on September 19, 1783, that the scientist Pilatre De Rozier and Francois Laurent, d’Arlandes launched the first hot air balloon called 'Aerostat Reveillon'.
This was a bag-like constructed aircraft called an envelope that was kept in the air with the aid of hot air. Designed to carry passengers, suspended beneath the ‘envelope’ was a large wicker basket called a ‘gondola’ or (in some cases) a ‘capsule’. The wicker basket contains the passengers and a source of open-flamed heat; a burner that heats up liquid propane. Once heated, the hot air inside the envelope bag becomes buoyant, since it has a lower density than the cooler air outside the envelope. As with all aircraft, hot-air balloons cannot fly beyond the atmosphere.
The first occupants of this strange aircraft were a sheep, a duck, and a rooster. The balloon stayed in the air for a grand total of 15 minutes before crashing back to the ground. The principle of balloon flight is simply one of hot air rising. All hot air rises, and by heating the air inside the balloon with a burner, it becomes lighter than the cooler air on the outside. This causes the balloon to float upwards as if it were in the water. Obviously, if the air starts to cool, the balloon begins to slowly descend. The envelope does not have to be sealed at the bottom, since the air inside the envelope is at about the same pressure as the surrounding air. In modern sport balloons, the envelope is generally made from nylon fabric, and the inlet of the balloon (closest to the burner flame) is made from a fire-resistant material such as Nomex. Such balloons were even used as aircraft of warfare such as Zeppelins, often used to bomb parts of Great Britain during the ‘Second World War’.
Balloons today will be used as colourful items of celebration. These decorative balls of fun are often tied to gates and other geographical landmarks, or flown to mark the significant reaching of some age, the attainment of some important achievement, or even the passing of one old year to a new year or the celebration and passing of someone’s life.
The best use I have seen a batch of balloons put to was when a class of school children each brought a different coloured balloon to school with them. At the appointed time on the morning in question, the class of twenty-eight pupils wrote the name of a classmate on their balloons before releasing them to fly into the sky at the appointed time. Their purpose was to say a final ‘goodbye’ to one of their classmates who had died just over one week earlier and who was being buried that morning at the local cemetery. At the precise time she was being buried that morning/noon, the teacher and the deceased girl’s tearful classmates remembered their seven-year-old classmate with a brigade of balloons making their way toward heaven, along with the spirit and soul of the deceased girl.
The use of releasing balloons into the sky has proved a very effective way of enabling young children to emotionally express and healthily deal with traumatic events. Almost any means of healthily expressing traumatic emotions can help a child. Keeping a memory box of a deceased mum or dad, and even writing letters of heartfelt sympathy, and then burning the message and burying the ash remains on the burial site can help.
So, the next time a loved one of yours has a significant joyful date in their life to mark that invites a celebratory atmosphere, forget the expensive present to buy them if you are a child, and instead, blow up a colourful balloon and sign it with the words, ‘Happy Birthday’, ‘Happy Anniversary’ or even ‘I love you’. You watch the happiness such a small gesture can bring to their big happy face!
Love and peace