Seeing The World For What It Is (From 16,000 ft.)

In the Disney-verse, Karl Fredricksen tied thousands of bright balloons to his home and journeyed to South America in search of adventure in Pixar’s 2009 summer blockbuster Up. In our universe, Larry Walters tied weather balloons to his lawn chair and attempted to travel to the Mojave Desert from his girlfriend’s home in Orange County, California. I stumbled across this gem of a story through Jon Bois’s video podcast series Pretty Good. Bois creatively shares the absurdity and hilarity of what Larry tries to accomplish on his, er, aircraft Inspiration I.

The story goes that Larry Walters, ever since he was little, dreamed of ascending into the blue bird sky by way of weather balloons. And in 1982, with 42 weather balloons strapped to a lawn chair, he did it. Larry rose into the sky with a camera, a BB gun to pop the balloons for his descent, and walkie-talkies to keep in touch with ground control (his girlfriend). His sustenance for the journey consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a 2-liter of Coke. Not surprisingly, things didn’t go as planned. First, he went way too high. Larry hoped to coast at around 7,000 feet but soared to 9,000 feet higher than he had planned. At 16,000 feet, Larry began to shoot his weather balloons but then accidentally dropped his BB gun. When a Delta Airline flight crew saw him floating along near their highly regulated travel route, they were speechless. They didn’t know what to do or how to radio in that there appeared to be a cold, sunburned man occupying a lawn chair in federally regulated airspace. After a hectic, hilarious, and quite dangerous adventure, Larry descended. He had fortunately popped enough balloons before dropping his pistol that he was able to coast to the ground unharmed. He had only meandered three miles.

Despite Larry’s drastic underestimation of how far he could travel in his contraption, the epic trip went about as well as it could have gone. However, there was a point in time where Larry, sitting way too high in the sky, was heard over a radio transmission shouting mayday. The thought of a grown man in a lawn chair suspended by weather balloons 16,000 feet above the earth (by his own doing) yelling mayday makes me laugh. But, I’d be fooling myself if I thought the plans of greatness I conjure for myself pan out any better. Whether 16,000 feet above earth or firmly planted on the ground, when left to our own devices we are utterly hopeless.

Larry’s ascent in his lawn chair vessel is a silly story about a man who wanted to fulfill his crazy dream. What is not so silly, in fact what is utterly tragic, is that 11 years after the historic trip, Larry took his own life. The story as told on the video podcast Pretty Good attempts to close the story up on a positive note after sharing such sobering news:

That day in the lawn chair, he never even used his camera. He said he was so amazed with what he saw that he forgot to take a single picture… Larry is surely one of the only human beings ever to sit in a chair, sip a drink, and enjoy this view. Not behind a window safe from the elements but through the naked eye. If the clouds got out of the way and he looked towards the ocean, he could have seen just barely the curvature in the earth. We read it in books and take people’s word for it. He could’ve sat up there and seen it. He may have seen the world for what it is. That’s so literal I know. But to me, it counts.

I don’t know Larry or whether his cries of mayday continued after his epic flight, but his story is a reminder that no matter the wonders we have seen or goals we have accomplished we are, at the core, in desperate need of help. We need saving from what we construct for ourselves that fail to give us true safety and worth, no matter how grand or petty they may be. And we need rescue from the darkest places of our hearts that lead us to (falsely) regard ourselves irredeemable or abandoned.

It is to be said then that our only hope in this restless world must come from outside of ourselves. The good news is that our comfort is found and our plea of help is answered by the God who not only sees the curvature of the earth but created it. The Triune God who not only looks at the earth but is intimately involved with all its elements. Who sees the world for what it truly is: broken, sinful, and in need of redemption. And loves it into what we trust it will one day be. He hears our plea for help from our lawn chair in federal airspace, from our loneliness and brokenness, and from the dungeons we are born into and construct for ourselves. He knows our dire predicament and has sent our rescuer in Jesus Christ, the suffering servant, who has taken it all if we would only give it to him.

This is what God the Lord says—

the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,

   who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,

   who gives breath to its people,

   and life to those who walk on it:

“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;

   I will take hold of your hand.

I will keep you and will make you

   to be a covenant for the people

   and a light for the Gentiles,

to open eyes that are blind,

   to free captives from prison

   and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

– Isaiah 42:5-7


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