45 Luft Balloons

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.

Fort Worth native E. R. Bills is the author of Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional & Nefarious and Tell-Tale Texas: Investigations in Infamous History. Read other articles by E.R..

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Bruce DD Mac Rae said on July 25th, 2008 at 8:01am #

    FREEDOM—isn’t that what we are all about!!

    There is every difference between the wise and the unwise: the unwise wonder at what is unusual, the wise wonders at the usual.

  2. Maxwell Black said on July 25th, 2008 at 10:32am #

    I turned 34 this year and this subject has been weighing on my mind big time. Great article Mr. Bills, DV is on a roll this week. You should go smash a Starbucks window tonight for old times sake. They’ll never see you coming!

    On another note your dad’s friend got that old adage wrong. It goes, “if you’re not a liberal at 18 you’ve got no heart. If you’re not a conservative by age 30 you have no mind.”

    Next time respond, “if you’re not a liberal at 18 you’ve got no heart. If you’re not a Leftist by 30 you have no SPINE.”


  3. Lynn said on July 25th, 2008 at 11:44am #

    If you’re not a leftist at any age you’re not paying attention.

  4. Maxwell Black said on July 25th, 2008 at 12:04pm #

    High-five Lynn!

  5. Hue Longer said on July 25th, 2008 at 11:34pm #

    off subject here, E.Bills

    I remember that balloon guy…didn’t he go up in swim shorts and suntan oil, expecting to enjoy the weather and get a tan? I think he cut the trip short because he was freezing.

    That liberal vs con debate is funny in that just because one participates in the conservative acquisition of resources and wears a tie, it doesn’t mean that they have to fundamentally believe in the grand scheme of what they’re participating in. truth is truth and doesn’t change because a former liberal needs to feel good about themselves by justifying their grab.

  6. Jeff Bartlett said on July 27th, 2008 at 10:24pm #

    I couldn’t agree more.

    At an age when I am still young and ambitious, I have witnessed my parent’s changing and often wondered what ever happened to their ideals or ideas. Just like anyone who is aging, thought tend to go towards retirement, pensions and the many ways to enjoy the indulgences. In the past, it was all about greater good, throwing caution to the wind and flippin’the bird at the MAN.

    I sure hope the trend does not continue into my generation.