When Larry Walters was a child, he dreamed of flying. Like so many of us, his childhood aspirations initially eluded him. He wanted to join the Air Force, but his vision wasn’t good enough. He became a truck driver instead, and his early dreams of flight were deferred until he decided to improvise.
He and his girlfriend bought helium tanks and forty-five weather balloons. They attached the balloons to a patio chair and filled them with helium. He packed a CB radio, sandwiches, drinks, a camera, a parachute and a pellet gun (which he intended to use to lower himself by shooting the balloons one-by-one). He expected to ascend to 100 feet and fly a little piece of the sky before coming down.
When Walters launched his lawn chair on July 2, 1982, the makeshift craft wildly exceeded expectations. Within seconds he was a UFO hovering at height of 16,000 feet. From his home in San Pedro, California he drifted several miles into controlled airspace near Long Beach Airport. He used his CB to alert air traffic controllers.
After forty-five minutes aloft, Walters began shooting the balloons and descending slowly. Near the ground, his dangling balloon cables got caught in a power line and caused a 20-minute blackout in the area. When he touched down, he was immediately arrested by Long Beach police officers and a regional FAA Safety Inspector was reported to have said “We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charge will be filed.”
When a reporter asked Walters why he did it, he said “A man can’t just sit around.”
Whenever I feel aggrieved by “standard operating procedures” or the typical pencil-neck rigamarole, I fondly recall Walters’ feat.
Was it prudent or practical? Definitely not.
Was it ill-advised? Perhaps.
But that’s the genius of it.
I’m tired of being consistent and reliable. I’m sick of being steady, solid and stable—i.e., predictable, sedimentary and dull. Half the time I don’t recognize myself. I’m hardly sentient. I travel hither and thither vaguely aware and vaguely interested, like a doomed automaton, and I know it wasn’t always so.
What kind of life is it that we’ve built for ourselves that metaphysical inaction maintains a prominent role in our daily go of it? Is a culture that virtually commands we surrender to conformity, conservatism and cowering worth preserving? What happened to us?
Our better-adjusted friends and relatives will dismissively say we just “grew” up. But is that what it’s really all about?
Over the last couple of decades, one of my dad’s friends has repeatedly imparted an adage regarding this issue. He says if you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart; but if you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you have no brains.
I resent it every time I hear it. He states it like an unapproachable truism. I think it’s a ridiculous cop-out.
If I’m not officially old, I’m on the cusp of being old and it seems to me that middle age and Golden-Year conservatism is not the product of brain presence (or prowess). No offense, but I think it’s the result of stagnation, habit-clinging and general disengagement.
Obviously, most young people have more energy, resilience and gumption than we thirty- and forty-somethings. But that’s no excuse. They’re less informed and less experienced. We don’t abandon progressive movements and liberal principles because conservative ideology makes more sense to us. Our better angels simply run out of steam.
We give up on youth and youthful visions because we become complacent and lazy. We’re bought off through our own indulgences and brought down by our own resignation. Then, instead of being critical of ourselves, we become critics of who we were, attempting to rationalize and justify what we’ve become.
Larry Walters didn’t give up so easy. Instead of sitting around and settling in for the long, cozy mediocrity that awaits most of us, he reached for something radical and way-out. This is what’s missing from the American Dream today. Even if we secure the means or possess the wherewithal to do something special or heroic or inspiring, we almost invariably fritter it away on paths or projects of less resistance and more traditional scale.
Electing a black man to the highest political office in the galaxy is a fine start, but we all have a long way to go. And it doesn’t take much to put us on the right track. It’s simply a matter of building something or planting something or stepping forward or refusing to step back or speaking out or taking a chance.
Where we’re at isn’t all there is; it’s just what we’ve brought ourselves to. It could change overnight if we improvised and stopped sitting around.