Saturday, July 30, 2011

Up, Up and Await

We were talking about George Plimpton the other day, and of the sort of things he did, and here's a time when he played a more traditional role in journalism and wrote about someone else doing something, as opposed to the sort of participatory journalism he more or less created.  Plimpton was the man who pitched to major leaguers and quarterbacked an NFL team and rode with firefighters and had all these adventures we would all like to have, and then wrote about them.

But in 1998, George wrote about this fellow Larry Walters, who, in 1982, attached forty two helium-filled weather balloons to one Sears Roebuck folding lawn chair and lifted off into the skies above Southern California.  Before you go to thinking that this idea seemed sort of 1/2-baked, Larry would have wanted you to know that it was, in fact, completely baked.  Or, he was.  Anyway, he planned to regulate his altitude by bursting the balloons one at a time by shooting them with a bb gun. And that would have worked, most clearly, except that a gust of wind tilted the chair and the gun plummeted earthward, leaving Larry aloft with plenty of extra bb's and nothing to shoot them with.

Imagine being the pilot of the TWA plane who saw this fellow and his chair flying over SoCal.  Imagine being the air traffic controller who got the radio message from the TWA jet, "We have a man in a chair attached to balloons in our ten o'clock position, range five miles."  Imagine that happening today; people would immediately suspect terrorism was afoot.  Or afloat.

Larry Walters was a former Army cook who never quite got ahold of the handle. He quit his job after the flight (he landed in some wires above the house of a startled off-duty pilot) and worked for a time as a motivational speaker, apparently speaking to groups who wanted to be motivated to foolhardiness. There was a play about his adventure, called "The Man In The Flying Lawn Chair" but this last burst of fame was posthumous; he committed suicide in the San Gabriel mountains in 1993 and the play was produced nine years after that.

Today, of course, he would have his own reality show and be a featured guest on sixteen different talk shows, and Sean Hannity would holler about how unfair it was that he was investigated and fined for his goofy flight, and his tell-all book "Beyond Earthly Bonds" would sell tons of copies and bump Bill O'Reilly's "Let Me Tell You The Truth Or Else" from the New York Times best seller list.  

Timing is everything.

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