Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Lost and now found

Whenever I find new sites that I like, I always register as Webfoot. People usually ask me why and I tell them a story about this project I created over 10 years ago called Operation Webfoot. The link is to a shell of what the site was originally, but it tells some of the story. The rest is here.

Operation Webfoot originated as an idea to help my 8th grade U.S. History students learn about geography and history in a unique way. I used stuffed animals which traveled around the United States, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Guam and Israel. Host families would take the stuffed animals to their local areas and report back to my school in Southern California. Students would use this information to publish a geographic travelogue for our stuffed "fuzzies."

Operation Webfoot started out from an idea I got from the National Geographic magazine. There was an article about a stuffed bear that had traveled all over the world just by being passed on by airline travelers. With this in mind, I found three stuffed animals to send on the airlines in the fall of 1995. We hoped that if people would send postcards to us, we would be able to track the animals as they traveled around the world. The biggest concern my students had was if we would get the animals back at the end of the year. The answer to that was no, but they thought it was cool they might have the possibility to meet up with one of our travelers on a trip of their own someday.

We decided to send the animals first with someone we knew, so we found parents who were going on business trips and the three animals took off. One went to Santa Cruz, California and was never heard from again. The second one went to Malaysia and then to India and we received postcards from Malaysia but we also never heard from that one either. The last animal racked up some serious frequent flyer mileage. He went to Boston, Massachusetts and back and then went to Las Vegas, Nevada and back. His third trip took him to Texas and then to Florida, North Carolina, Cleveland, Ohio and Newark, New Jersey. The school even got a telephone call from the airplane from a flight attendant while en route to Newark saying they had the animal and the most likely destination would be Denver, Colorado. After that we lost contact and the animal was never heard from again.

During the spring of that year, I heard about a similar project being done by the kindergarten teachers at Valle Vista School which is part of our school district. They were mailing the animals and tracking them via email. I took this one step farther and decided to create a webpage to track the animals. Our original webfeet were Huey, Louie and Dewey Duck (hence the name, Operation Webfoot).

Huey and Louie were mailed to Maryland and Canada while Dewey was picked up in person by a host family from Utah. All of the host families I contacted through parent bulletin boards on the Internet. The only requirement was they have email so we could be in contact with them at any time.

In October, we added Donald after a student got in contact with the White House about hosting an animal. After his stay in the White House, Donald became our international traveler. In November, Huey became lost for the first of many times and we decided to get a couple more webfeet so Michigan J. Frog and Kermit joined the troupe. The host families sent us a lot of great information and pictures. These pictures are just some of many that were sent to us either via snail mail or by email.

Near the end of the year Huey became lost in the mail permanently. It was a major disappointment not to be able to see all of the information and souvenirs he had accumulated over the course of the year but with email, we were still able to learn quite a bit about the areas of the country to which he had traveled. The picture at the top right shows Huey, with then Governor of South Carolina, David Beasley.

Kermit came back the week before school let out and the Monday of the last week of school, Michigan J. arrived. No other ducks made it home before school was let out for summer vacation. Donald arrived home on June 28 and was returned to the student who contacted the White House in the fall. Louie and Dewey never returned home to the disappointment of us all.

These setbacks did not stop us from continuing the project the following year. Michigan J. and Kermit were veterans at this and were ready to go again. The problem was to find another couple of stuffed animals to round out our collection of webfeet for the 97/98 school year. At the end of the school year, one of my students gave me another animal to add to my collection: a Miss Piggy. Even though she wasn't a "webfoot," we let her represent the project anyway. We decided to branch out and add other fuzzy creatures since Miss Piggy had already set a precedent by being a "non-webfoot." We added Gumby, Peggy Platypus, and later, Tweety Bird, who started his travels by flying to Belgium. Unfortunately, several problems happened again. Michigan J. Frog disappeared in Dallas, Texas but was replaced by a similar Michigan J. Frog given to me by a generous student. Gumby was lost in the mail and Tweety Bird disappeared in Mississippi. But the rest of the animals continued their journey and returned safely at the end of that school year. I worked with this project one more year, but because I wasn’t teaching history anymore, it was decided that the project would be shut down and the animals returned via mail to us at school.

Now comes the really interesting part. On Tuesday of this week, I walked into the faculty room at my school. It was a standard Tuesday, but I had a package, that was lumpy, in fact, it was lumpy and sort of felt like a stuffed animal. I was thinking to myself, "self, what company in Texas (that's where the postmark said it was from, as well as the return address) is sending me some sort of promotional stuffed animal?"

So I opened it up. It was a frog. The Warner Brothers cartoon Michigan J. Frog. But it was not just any frog. It was one of my original stuffed animals when I was doing Operation Webfoot over 10 years ago!!! Unfreakinbelievable.

Also inside were his National Park passport, which I purchased in 1997, and his journal. The first journal entry was written in a very nice script and signed by an email friend of mine and her husband. They took him and several others to Alaska on a cruise in August 1997. They then sent it to Lynn in Sacramento. Lynn was a freelance writer who took them to the California State Fair that year and then wrote an article about them in the Sacramento Bee and the Army Times. My email friends are quoted in the Army Times article.

Then, Michigan J. Frog went to Georgia - there's a stamp in his passport from Kennesaw National Historic Park. He then went to Maple Shade, New Jersey. The last journal entry is dated September 24th, 1997. As noted above, I remember him disappearing in Dallas, TX and that we replaced him with another Michigan J. Frog. This week, the original Michigan J. returned. This was a complete shock. There was no note, nothing to let us know what happened in the last ten years. At least the person left a return address, as I plan to write a thank you note to them and ask for some kind of story. As you can see from the picture, he’s now resting comfortably on my computer desk with some of the other original Operation Webfoot animals.

I told my two history classes about the project. They thought it was pretty cool, but were more interested to see the newspaper article from about 11 years ago that showed me with a mustache and beard. Supposedly, I look like Chuck Norris. As someone said, I started some of the first travel bugs, way before Groundspeak was even a company. I wonder if I could get some royalties from that? I’m now anxiously waiting and hoping that I get a response to my thank you letter, so I can fill in the 10 year gap in the history of Michigan J. Frog.

Profile for Webfoot

1 comment:

Steve Natoli said...

What a terrific way to inspire student interest in geography.