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Let your dreams take flight

Balloons

My parents were always self-employed, so I grew up in an entrepreneurial environment. To me, working for a corporation meant one thing—conformity. So when I took a job in corporate communications for a large association, I tacked two things to my cubicle wall as a reminder to stay true to myself: One was a photograph of 1950s film star James Dean, the iconic embodiment of the nonconformist. The other was the true story of Larry Walters from Robert Fulghum’s book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

Larry Walters wasn’t a famous movie star like Dean. He was just a 33-year-old truck driver living in San Pedro, Calif., and if not for Fulghum, I’d never have known his name. But I stuck Larry’s story on my wall because he was a dreamer and one day he did something wild, wonderful, and totally insane. His story has been inspiring dreamers ever since.  

Going up

Larry had always dreamed of flying. So on a sunny July day back in 1982, he equipped himself with a parachute, a 2-liter bottle of Coke, a BB gun, and a CB radio. Then he tied 42 helium-filled surplus weather balloons to his favorite lawn chair—and went sailing away.

How high did Larry fly? At least 16,000 feet, according to the pilots who radioed the control tower about the guy they spotted floating in the approach corridor to Los Angeles International. Can you imagine trying to land your jet at LAX and seeing Larry Walters floating by, sitting in his lawn chair, cradling his BB gun, and drinking his Coke?

Coming down

After a while, Larry used the gun to pop some of the balloons and gently drift back to the ground. He landed in Long Beach about eight miles from where he started. The Federal Aviation Authority fined him $1,500 for flying in a reckless manner and failing to maintain radio contact with air traffic control. Larry said it was worth it because he’d fulfilled his lifelong dream. When he was asked why he’d done something so wild and wonderful and totally insane, he simply said, “You can’t just sit there.”

Keeping on

A year and a half after Larry’s flight, 24-year-old Kevin Walsh popped up on the radar screens at Boston’s Logan Airport. He’d strapped himself to 57 balloons and had flown around for 45 minutes before cutting himself loose and parachuting down. “Most people would call him crazy,” Walsh said of Larry. “But he was my inspiration.”

In 2007, 47-year-old gas-station owner Kent Couch tried to fly a lawn chair similar to Larry’s from Oregon to Idaho using 105 balloons. He didn’t make Idaho but landed safely in a farmer’s field 193 miles from home.

Larry’s adventure even inspired a stage musical, “The Flight of the Lawnchair Man” that’s played several major American cities over the last few years. And he probably served as part of the inspiration for the 2009 Disney/Pixar movie Up, about an old man who ties thousands of balloons to his house and takes to the skies.

Larry Walters didn’t get to see how his crazy dream would continue to fire the imaginations of so many others more than 25 years after his lawn chair came back to earth. He took his life 11 years after that whimsical flight—an especially sad loss because the world can’t afford to say good-bye to its dreamers.

But when I feel like giving up on my dreams, I think about Larry Walters and the lawn chair and that wild, wonderful, totally insane ride. And I remind myself: You can’t just sit there.

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I'm Deborah, survivor of everything from multiple cancer battles to major business setbacks. Join my search for ways to move the mountains, big & small, that block your path to success.
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