Laura Dvorak 5:47 p.m., Dec. 6
On July 19th, 1984, page twenty-two in the San Diego Union-Tribune ran an Associated Press article about a balloonist named Larry Walters, a veteran of the Vietnam war, a story in which the Federal Aviation Administration had decided to charge Mr. Walters with four violations of FAA regulations. The fines were to total four thousand dollars. The charges were filed some two years and seventeen days after Walters successfully launched himself on a forty-five minute flight from San Pedro to Long Beach, reaching a maximum altitude of over fifteen thousand feet. Walters had previously procured forty-five weather balloons, filled them with helium, and using nylon rope he then tethered them to a lawn chair that he purchased at Sears for one hundred and ten dollars.
With a bottle of soda, a citizen’s band radio, an altimeter, a camera, and a pellet gun in his possession, and a parachute tied onto his back, Walters launched from San Pedro. Using gallon-sized plastic milk jugs filled with water and tied to the lawn chair to provide ballast, he rose much more quickly that he had calculated. Having planned to glide at perhaps a few thousand feet in altitude and, with the wind favorable at that height, Larry Walters had figured he would land somewhere in the Mojave Desert. Approaching sixteen thousand feet, witnessed by two incredulous transmissions from commercial jet pilots to nearby control towers at Los Angeles International and Long Beach Airports, Larry began to become dizzy from the thin air and decided to start shooting some of the balloons.
Larry Walters came down ten miles from where he began, tangled in high-power lines, saved from electrocution only by the nylon tether’s inability to provide electrical conduction. Fire and police units responded and cut power to much of Long Leach for twenty minutes while Larry found a way to climb out of the chair and onto a block wall, where he cut the chair from the tethers. Walters was taken into custody. Since he had no pilot’s license to suspend, it took the FAA over two years to finally charge Walters with violations.
That article in the Union Tribune was probably never read by most San Diego residents, as it happened to be the day after James Huberty killed twenty-one people and injured another nineteen at a McDonalds in San Ysidro, before being taken out by a police sharpshooter named Chuck Foster. There is also a famed balloon aviator named Chuck Foster, what a small world. The shooting rampage by Huberty, which was finally terminated by the police sniper named Chuck Foster lasted for over an hour, longer than the flight of Larry Walters over Los Angeles Harbor. The effect that the tragic event left on San Diego lasted for decades. It certainly made Larry Walters being charged by the FAA nothing more than a forgettable, if not entirely invisible piece of news.
I had forgotten all about Larry Walters until last Thursday.
On Thursday morning I was supposed to cross the border, at least such a crossing was in my plans. I woke up and made a pot of coffee and turned on my computer and the radio, and sat in my office. The routine is generally consistent, I first read and answer emails, and then I catch up on the publishing industry news sites. I then usually write for a while, before hitting the shower and running errands before cooking dinner. Or, like on Thursday, when the plan was to hit the shower and cross the border. But on Thursday, just before I was about to shut down the computer, I glanced at a headline.
“Six-year old boy thought to be inside of runaway balloon.”
The news story was incomplete, I found myself gathering information from a Fort Collins, Colorado newspaper, and then found a Network News web site that streamed live coverage. There it was! Like a cellophane flying saucer, the helicopter shadowed its flight, streaming on the internet, and I was mesmerized. Ostensibly, there was a six-year old boy riding in a small compartment underneath the twenty-foot diameter, helium-filled and saucer-shaped silver and non-dirigible craft. What could be more dramatic?
The thing spun slowly and rocked gently, but basically maintained its position, riding the wind for hours, until it became evident that it was losing altitude. Meanwhile, I searched other web sites and news sources, and even noticed that the story had trended dramatically on twitter, but I quickly kept returning to the live feed. While the craft was still in the air, the streaming newscast, which was commercial free, went back and forth to reporters at the home, reporters in the air, reporters tracking the jet stream, reporters that had interviewed the family at some point in history. It becomes ridiculously apparent very quickly that there are plenty of reporters.
When the craft started to come down, one thought occurred to me: If that kid isn’t inside of that compartment, there’s going to be hell to pay. I wanted him to be in there. I wanted to hear his story. I wanted him to climb out and pump his fist in the air, knowing he would be grounded for a couple of years and not caring because that ride was worth it. But that’s not what happened.
When the balloon, or what was left of it, finally touched the ground, a very professional rescue team quickly reigned it in and it became instantly obvious that the boy wasn’t inside. Then came the talking heads. They danced around what they made obvious by dancing around it. The boy must have fallen out. They interviewed a local authority, who said, “Obviously, now we are in recovery mode.”
Recovery mode? Obviously?
So now, my daughter comes home from school and it’s the afternoon and I know I’m not going over the border. I start thinking about dinner, and I take out some frozen stuff I had cooked a week before and set it out to unthaw, and I pop open another beer, and I keep watching to see what happens next. The talking heads were about to take their first commercial break in hours. The network cut to commercials, and the live feed remained with the talking heads, who were obviously clueless that some of us were watching the live feed.
There were two of them behind that desk, and this is what they did for two minutes: Not a lot. He straightened his tie and read notes. She, being an obvious alpha-female, first congratulated the weatherman for getting a five-minute gig upcoming on Larry King Live. She then asked if a live feed was going to be ready from the parent’s house, then made sure that her male talking head partner was going to “toss it to her”, and so on. She put on lipstick and blush. No one seemed to care much about the balloon-boy, as he was now being hailed all over the internet.
The sheriff held a news conference, live, and as he told the crowd of reporters right there in front of the house where the balloon was first launched all about what had happened, his beeper or cell phone went off. He ignored it, until a deputy came out and interrupted the presentation and you could hear her voice loudly behind the microphones. “We found him.” And when the sheriff turned back around, you knew that it was suddenly okay.
“Apparently he was hiding in the attic above the garage.”
Larry Walters had a nice little fling with fame after his stunt over the Los Angeles Harbor. But it didn’t last long, even though he had his fine reduced down to fifteen hundred dollars, which was ultimately paid for by donations from sympathetic fans. Ultimately, his girlfriend broke up with him after many, many years together, and although Walters seemingly tried to hold it together he finally lost it 1993. He went up to the Angeles National Forest and put a bullet in his heart. He was forty-four.
When asked, right after he was back on the ground, why he launched himself into the air, Larry Walters responded: “A man can’t just sit around.”
When the family of the young boy who was never in that balloon came out for a media interview last Thursday, I suspected something wasn’t right. What one reporter asked - the only reasonable question by the media gallery - was this: “When the balloon was launched and you suspected that your son might be in the balloon, who did you call first?”
“The FAA,” he said. “I just called who I knew would be able to track it.”
And that’s when I knew that I had been taken. No man calls the FAA when his son might be two miles above the Earth. And then, no man cheats his own son out of flying two miles above the Earth, either. I started to not like this guy, right then and there. If that boy had climbed out of the compartment underneath that balloon right after it had landed, no one would have questioned anything. But he cheated his own son out of something much bigger.
Meanwhile, I turned off the computer and headed for the shower. After all, a man can’t just sit around. Even in Baja.