Tom Swift and the Silver Space Balloon or A Father's Lament

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I’ve purposely avoided watching much more about the Balloon Boy, Falcon Heene, simply because the story is so ludicrous on its face. When you boil it down, you have an odd family who built what amounts to a weather balloon in their back yard and then believed – and convinced the rest of the world – that their son flew off in said balloon, over the green vales of Denver, and risked mortal harm. It was Baby Jessica in near-space, a Thursday afternoon knuckle-ball that reminded me of watching Sully land a plane in the Hudson just a few months ago

So when I heard that the kid was hiding in the attic the whole time I felt a vague sense of disappointment, which I know is wrong. He really didn’t have the adventure of a lifetime. He just got scared of his dad. Then I thought a bit about what this whole thing meant to me as a gadget nerd and as a father.

The nerd in me saw something amazing: a father was cool enough – and foolhardy enough – to show his sons how to build a lighter-than-air craft in his back yard. He trusted his six-year-old to think it was dangerous enough not to climb inside the balloon, a misplaced trust to be sure, and then his balloon was strong enough to survive a two hour trek through the air. I imagined the kid inside being scared at first and then going with the flow, realizing his father’s handiwork would support him. When he wasn’t inside it was a sense of relief and disappointment.

Then the father in me had to rethink this whole fiasco. Disappointment? Really? Would I want my boy flying at 10,000 feet in jetliner airspace, alone and cold? Heck, would I even build a weather balloon? Who has the time with school and work and shopping? There’s so much other stuff to do like watch the Daily Show. Why go nuts when you can stay sane? Kids don’t need to be flying around in weather balloons. Heck, he shouldn’t be even riding his bike unsupervised. This is America. There are perverts, rapists, and serial killers everywhere. There’s even Swine Flu! And terrorists!

I fear as parents that we’re all stuck in some high-energy loop of fear and longing. When I was a kid my dad let me make bombs (I was never allowed to pack the bombs so I put them in tissue paper which made for a considerably less exciting boom) and shoot off Estes rockets. We shot BB guns. We rode to the park on the hills above my grandma’s house. It was a nice childhood.

Today, kids are given phones with built-in GPS trackers, a sort of stay-at-home prisoner system for wee ones. They can’t walk to school. They are coddled even into adulthood. Maybe I’ll be the same way. Maybe I’ll make sure Kasper and Milla never get close to adventure. Maybe it will be better that way. After all, I’m not Liam Neeson. I can’t stab some guy’s knees with knitting needles.

But then I look at it from the wonder and awe camp. This kid, fameball family or no, will have great stories to tell. His parents weren’t afraid to drop the science on him and create an environment where scary is not synonymous with new. I can only imagine that this was all a messy accident and not a ploy to get back onto Wife Swap. I can only imagine that this kid is going to have a lot of fun growing up in that crazy family and I hope my kids will feel the same way in mine.

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