What Did Larry Walters See?


There’s this phenomenon that occurs among a lot of astronauts who see the earth from space. So enamored with the earth’s beauty, fragility, and isolation, they come down from the vast expanses of the universe and declare that we should all exist as one. Yes, the problems that divide us are complex and cannot afford to be dismissed or handled without care, but the earth is just too precious to allow ourselves to live divided.

I wonder what Larry Walters saw. He didn’t make it out to space, but he did make it up to 16,000 feet. Over 3 miles up.

He didn’t go up in a spaceship or plane. He went up in a Sears lawn chair with about 45 weather balloons strapped on. He also had a bunch of jugs of water to stabilize himself, a BB gun to pop the weather balloons, and a can of soda (to drink, obviously).

He also brought a 35mm camera. But once you go up 16,000 feet, you don’t really feel the need to take pictures. You just look. You can see entire cities. You can see the clouds beneath you. You can see the curvature of the earth. Subconsciously, maybe Larry wanted to keep the sight to himself. He didn’t take any pictures.

But I’m not curious about what Larry saw from 16,000 feet. I’m curious about what Larry saw in himself. 

When he was 13, Larry walked into a military surplus store, saw some weather balloons, and decided he was going to fly. He couldn’t join the Air Force, though, because his eyesight wasn’t good enough. Obviously, the next best option was to fly in a lawn chair.

Larry walked into that military surplus store in 1962. He flew in 1982. For twenty years, the idea had been festering in his brain. He remained committed. He was motivated to do anything, and I guess this is what he had to do. 

A reporter asked Larry why he had done it. He replied, “A man can’t just sit around.”

That’s all I’ve been doing. I don’t even have an excuse. Larry had his dream at 13, while I’ve been meaninglessly slaving away at school and other things not nearly as exciting as flying 16,000 feet up in a lawn chair. But maybe not all of us can be Larry, and maybe not all of us should. Maybe even Larry shouldn’t have.

Larry’s fame didn’t last for long. There were visits to the Tonight Show and Timex advertisements, but he eventually broke up with his girlfriend Carol, who had helped him during his flight. When he was 44, in 1993, Larry Walters shot himself through the heart. He didn’t leave a note.

Whatever I’m going to be in life, I want to be like Larry. I want to do something crazy and unimaginable, or something ambitious and inspiring, or even something which just makes people happy. To me, the idea of flying 16,000 feet in a lawn chair is both crazy and ambitious, but, most importantly, it makes me happy.

Whether Larry knew it or not, sometimes seeing other people being happy is enough to inspire you. Larry and his lawn chair did not change the world, or even investigate it, but they saw it. And I hope I can see things too. I don’t have to be remembered for generations after my death, but I should be able to remember my own life and smile. I don’t know how I’ll get to that happiness, but the end could come at any time, so I need to figure it out quickly. I don’t know if it’s going to be something as simple as a loving family, or something as silly as a flying Sears lawn chair. Whatever it is, I’ll find it. For Larry.