Alan Boyle and MSNBC
True, tragic tale for the Darwin files
True, tragic tale for the Darwin files.
April 1, 1997 - The Darwin Awards are the stuff that urban legends are made of. The awards are a collection of Internet jokes honoring people "who did the gene pool the biggest service by killing themselves in the most extraordinarily stupid way." For example, there's the tale of an Air Force sergeant who strapped a rocket engine on his 1967 Chevy Impala and lit it up, shooting him and his vehicle into a cliff 125 feet above the ground.
Most people agree that the airborne-Chevy story is fictional. But the tale surrounding the reported choice for the 1997 Darwin Award - "lawn-chair balloonist" Larry Walters - is different in several respects: First of all, it's true. Second, Walters survived his incredible adventure. And third, Walters' ultimate fate is no laughing matter.
The selection of Walters was heralded in a series of newsgroup postings. But in the wake of the reports, the self-appointed keeper of the Darwin Awards said Walters had to be disqualified because he survived his stunt. Nevertheless, the reports drew new attention to a 15-year-old story.
THE TRUE STORY
In 1982, Walters floated three miles above Southern California in a lawn chair rigged with 42 helium-filled weather balloons. Walters, then a 33-year-old North Hollywood truck driver, had no aviation experience but had always wanted to fly. Armed with a two-way radio, a parachute, a pellet gun and some jugs of water for ballast, he expected to rise gracefully into the sky from his girlfriend's back yard in San Pedro, Calif., then shoot the balloons down to make a gentle landing.
When the mooring was cut, however, Walters shot up into the sky unexpectedly, soon reaching the 16,000-foot level. He passed a few private planes on the way up and was spotted by baffled jetliner pilots. The dizzy balloonist managed to shoot out about 10 of the weather balloons before his gun fell overboard 90 minutes into the flight. His craft then drifted back toward Earth. The balloons eventually became entangled in power lines near Long Beach Airport, and Walters was able to hop down from the lawn chair - into the waiting arms of the law.
That's as far as the story goes in the Darwin Award announcement, which trumpets Walters as "one of the few Darwin winners to survive his award-winning accomplishment." But the saddest part of the story was yet to come.
Story of lawn-chair balloonist isn't just an urban legend
Walters had to pay $1,500 in a settlement with the Federal Aviation Administration, which accused him of flying in a reckless manner, operating too close to the airport and failing to maintain contact with the control tower.
He parlayed the stunt into a brief moment of fame, including late-night talk-show appearances and a Timex watch commercial. But fortune eluded him, and within months he had declared bankruptcy. Thus began a long string of disappointments. By 1993 he was working only sporadically as a security guard and did volunteer work for the U.S. Forest Service. And in October of that year he hiked into a remote canyon of the Angeles National Forest and shot himself in the heart.
The online retelling of Larry Walters' tale has sparked some incredulity and some scholarly commentary about urban legends, known in Internet parlance as ULs. One correspondent wrote that "this seems to be nearly a word-for-word replication of the UL version of the Lawnchair Balloonist." And indeed some of the details of the story have been distorted in the Darwin citation. For example, it claims erroneously that Walters was rescued by a hovering helicopter.
BEHIND THE DARWINS
The Darwin Awards have taken on the character of an urban legend in their own right. You'll find references to Darwin nominees in many collections of human misadventures, published in traditional news media as well as the Internet. Their origins are shrouded in the mists of time, with the first reports of the awards arising from universities around the country several years ago.Some people have tried to codify the awards and set up "official" Web sites for the Darwin Awards.
One of them, Jim Penberth, said that he would not consider Larry Walters for an award. "I'm not really considering it as a Darwin Award because he didn't kill himself, he walked away," Penberth said. "It's a stupid human trick. ... The fact that he could have contributed to the gene pool after he did the flight disqualifies that in and of itself."
Indeed, the stunt was eventually classified as the winner of the Stupid Human Travesties award in 1997.