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.


SDaniels Oct. 18, 2009 @ 2:29 a.m.

"knowing he would be grounded for a couple of years..."

[AUDIBLE GROAN] Bah dum-dump. Wahh wahh wahhnnnhhh. :)

refried, your suspicions about the father ARE very well grounded--apparently, this family had a reality show! Media whores!

"He went up to the Angeles National Forest and put a bullet in his heart. He was forty-four."

I'm so sorry to hear this about Larry Walters, and wonder what drove him to such an act. I do remember the original story, and was intrigued and amazed by the photos of him sitting calmly in a lawn chair 10k feet in the air. I agree--a man can't just sit around :)


David Dodd Oct. 18, 2009 @ 2:34 a.m.

When I was a boy, we lived near railroad tracks. The Southern Pacific and the Union Pacific. I used to lay in bed and wonder, listening to those trains at night. I though that perhaps I would jump into a box car and ride all of the way to New Orleans. I knew that eventually, if I ever did it, I would be caught.

And then grounded, and worse. But I always figured that it would be worth it if I ever had the chance.


SDaniels Oct. 18, 2009 @ 3:28 a.m.

"Bobby thumbed a diesel down, just before it rained, and rode us all the way to New Orleans..." Janis Joplin

Yes, riding the rails with bundle and stick isn't just a boy's dream of adventure. I used to watch those old Swedish Pippi Longstocking films, and dream of taking off in any number of ways, like fastening a bunch of balloons to the bedposts, and air-sailing in bed to India! Sure, we'd have been caught, but what a time we might have had! :)


lovetowrite Oct. 18, 2009 @ 8:49 a.m.

I have to admit, I've been fascinated by the whole balloon boy story ever since it came out.

I sensed it was a hoax from the very first interview with the entire family...the dad comes across as a very unstable man, if you ask me.

I remember that Larry Walters story too. I didn't know the details, though. Poor guy.


antigeekess Oct. 18, 2009 @ 11:15 a.m.

Another great piece, gringo.

I remember the Larry Walters story as well, and was a HUGE fan! I thought it was just the greatest thing I'd ever heard of.


I had no idea how he met his end. How very sad. It's too bad Larry didn't hook up with the imitators he inspired. He would have been a god to these folks.



nan shartel Oct. 18, 2009 @ 11:24 a.m.

big problem with adults who think kids don't have big innocent mouths when not so innocent activities are being planned and carried out

uh oh!!!


David Dodd Oct. 18, 2009 @ 5:01 p.m.

SD: I still think about what might have been. I have no idea where those trains ended up, but I admit I always dreamed of jumping on one. Just to see.


David Dodd Oct. 18, 2009 @ 5:03 p.m.

AG: Thanks! I'm not sure about exactly how they're going to get felony charges to stick, though. My guess is they'll plea it down to misdemeanor fines, but I guess we'll see.


David Dodd Oct. 18, 2009 @ 5:05 p.m.

lovestowrite: It hooked me, too, but like yourself, when they interviewed the family I knew it was over. The dad was way over the top, and the kid showed no sign of having done anything wrong.


David Dodd Oct. 18, 2009 @ 5:07 p.m.

nan: The kids really do tell the story, don't they? I kept watching that young man, thinking how awful it was that dad had him lie like that. When it came down to it, the kid had to tell the truth.


Visduh Oct. 18, 2009 @ 5:14 p.m.

That live coverage was something. But, the whole scenario was just so improbable that I was really wondering WHAT was going on. So, when they found the airship empty, I wasn't surprised. In fact, if the kid actually was in it, then I'd have been surprised.


David Dodd Oct. 18, 2009 @ 5:22 p.m.

I don't get any of the U.S. news stations here, so I had to watch it online. I think I wanted the kid to be inside of that thing so much that I ignored my inner voice telling me he probably wasn't in there. I did some calculations in my head and decided that, assuming the compartment was strong enough, it could hold about 50 pounds and gain that sort of altitude and maintain it for a while. But once it began to lose helium and wasn't decending nearly as fast as it probably would have with a fifty-pound payload, I sort of figured it was empty.

It's sad, really, because that kid would have had one hell of a story to tell.


antigeekess Oct. 18, 2009 @ 5:25 p.m.

Well, the fact that the poor little guy threw up 2 different times during interviews should have told us something wasn't going down well. All the lying was literally making him sick.

And that dad? Worst actor I've ever seen. Just not even close to believable.


SDaniels Oct. 18, 2009 @ 6:29 p.m.

re: #14: SAD! The kids all looked uncomfortable to me. When "Falcon" made the comment about "You said it was for a show," the look on the dad's face was priceless--suddenly tightlipped and slightly shaking his head, as if to say "Shuddup, kid!"

So the family was on "Wife Swap," and apparently dad liked it so much that he cooked up this scheme for more attention--maybe a show of their own? I love that he and his wife actually met in acting class! He claims to be an amateur scientist, and has only high school education. What a dips***! I feel sorry for the kids, and glad to hear social services are looking into the fitness of the home.


SDaniels Oct. 20, 2009 @ 12:16 a.m.

A little Emily Dickinson, for perspective and for your disappointment in the whole balloon fiasco:

YOU ’VE seen balloons set, haven’t you?
So stately they ascend
It is as swans discarded you
For duties diamond.

Their liquid feet go softly out
Upon a sea of blond;
They spurn the air as’t were to mean
For creatures so renowned.

Their ribbons just beyond the eye,
They struggle some for breath,
And yet the crowd applauds below;
They would not encore death.

The gilded creature strains and spins,
Trips frantic in a tree,
Tears open her imperial veins
And tumbles in the sea.

The crowd retire with an oath
The dust in streets goes down,
And clerks in counting-rooms observe,
“’T was only a balloon.”


David Dodd Oct. 20, 2009 @ 12:22 a.m.

And maybe even more related, that short French film that - I swear to God - I had to watch every effing year from 1st through sixth grade at least annually, "The Red Balloon". It was that, and "The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", every year! Between those films and having to dive underneath our desks for "Atomic Bomb Drills", it's no wonder that I'm so unstable!


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