The New York Times
The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair: And Other Excursions and Observationsby George Plimpton
George Plimpton needed no encouragement. If there was a sport to play, a party to throw, a celebrity to amaze, a fireworks display to ignite, Plimpton was front and center hurling the pitch, popping the corks, lighting the fuse. And then, of course, writing about it with incomparable zest and style. His books made him a legend. The Paris Review, the magazine he/i>… See more details below
George Plimpton needed no encouragement. If there was a sport to play, a party to throw, a celebrity to amaze, a fireworks display to ignite, Plimpton was front and center hurling the pitch, popping the corks, lighting the fuse. And then, of course, writing about it with incomparable zest and style. His books made him a legend. The Paris Review, the magazine he founded and edited, won him a throne in literary heaven. Somehow, in the midst of his self-generated cyclones, Plimpton managed to toss off dazzling essays, profiles, and New Yorker "Talk of the Town" pieces. This delightful volume collects the very best of Plimpton's inspired brief "excursions."
Whether he was escorting Hunter Thompson to the Fear and Loathing movie premiere in New York or tracking down the California man who launched himself into the upper atmosphere with nothing but a lawn chair and a bunch of weather balloons, Plimpton had a rare knack for finding stories where no one else thought to look. Who but Plimpton would turn up in Las Vegas, notebook in hand, for the annual porn movie awards gala?
Among the many gems collected here are accounts of helping Jackie Kennedy plan an unforgettable children's birthday party, the time he improvised his way through amateur night at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater, and how he managed to get himself kicked out of Exeter just weeks before graduation.
The grand master of what he called "participatory journalism," George Plimpton followed his bent and his genius down the most unbelievable rabbit holes-but he always came up smiling. This exemplary, utterly captivating volume is a fitting tribute to one of the great literary lives of our time.
The New York Times
- Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair
The backyard was much smaller than I remembered--barely ten yards by thirty. The birdbath, stark white on its pedestal, was still there, under a pine tree, just as it had been during my last visit, more than ten years before. Beyond the roofs of the neighboring houses I could see the distant gaunt cranes of the Long Beach naval facility, now idle.
"Mrs. Van Deusen, wasn't there a strawberry patch over here?" I called out.
I winced. Margaret Van Deusen has been blind since last August--first in one eye, then in the other. Her daughter, Carol, was leading her down the steps of the back porch, guiding her step by step. Mrs. Van Deusen was worried about her cat, Precious, who had fled into the innards of a stand-up organ upon my arrival: "Where's Precious? She didn't get out, did she?"
Carol calmed her fears, and my question about the strawberry patch hung in the air. Both women wore T-shirts with cat motifs on the front; Mrs. Van Deusen's had a cat head on hers, with ruby eyes and a leather tongue.
We had lunch in a fast food restaurant in San Pedro, a couple of miles down the hill. Mrs. Van Deusen ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and french fries. "I can't believe Larry's flight happened out of such a small space," I said.
Mrs. Van Deusen stirred. "Two weeks before, Larry came to me and said he was going to take off from my backyard. I said no way. Illegal. I didn't want to be stuck with a big fine. So the idea was he was going to take off from the desert. He couldn't get all his equipment out there, so he pulls a sneaker on me. He turns up at the house and says, ‘Tomorrow I'm going to take off from yourbackyard.' "
"I was terrified, but I wanted to be with him," said Carol, who was Larry's girlfriend at the time.
"And sit on his lap?" I asked incredulously.
Two chairs, side by side," Carol said. "But it meant more equipment than we had. I know one thing--that if I'd gone up with him we would have come down sooner."
"What happened to the chair?" I asked.
Carol talked in a rush of words. "He gave it away to some kid on the street where he landed, about ten miles from here. That chair should be in the Smithsonian. Larry always felt just terrible about that."
"And the balloons?"
"You remember, Mom? The firemen tied some of the balloons to the end of their truck, and they went off with these things waving in the air as if they were coming from a birthday party."
"Where are my fries?"
"They're in front of you, Mom," Carol said. She guided her mother's hand to the sticks of french fries in a cardboard container.
Mrs. Van Deusen said, "Larry knocked some prominent person off the front page of the L.A. Times, didn't he, Carol? Who was the prominent person he knocked off?"
Carol shook her head. "I don't know. But that Times cartoonist Paul Conrad did one of Ronald Reagan in a lawn chair, with some sort of caption like ‘Another nut from California.' Larry's mother was upset by this and wrote a letter to the Times. You know how mothers are."
I asked Mrs. Van Deusen, "What do you remember best about the flight?"
She paused, and then said she remembered hearing afterward about her five-year-old granddaughter, Julie Pine, standing in her front yard in Long Beach and waving gaily as Larry took off. "Yes. She kept waving until Larry and his chair were barely a dot in the sky."
It was in all the papers at the time--how on Friday, July 2, 1982, a young man named Larry Walters, who had served as an Army cook in Vietnam, had settled himself into a Sears, Roebuck lawn chair to which were attached four clusters of helium-filled weather balloons, forty-two of them in all. His intent was to drift northeast in the prevailing winds over the San Gabriel Mountains to the Mojave Desert. With him he carried an air pistol, with which to pop the balloons and thus regulate his altitude. It was an ingenious solution, but in a gust of wind, three miles up, the chair tipped, horrifyingly, and the gun fell out of his lap to the ground, far below. Larry, in his chair, coasted to a height of sixteen thousand five hundred feet. He was spotted by Delta and TWA pilots taking off from Los Angeles Airport. One of them was reported to have radioed to the traffic controllers, "This is TWA 231, level at sixteen thousand feet. We have a man in a chair attached to balloons in our ten o'clock position, range five miles." Subsequently, I read that Walters had been fined fifteen hundred dollars by the Federal Aviation Administration for flying an "un-airworthy airworthy machine."
Some time later, my curiosity got the better of me, and I arranged to meet Larry Walters, in the hope of writing a story about him. "I was always fascinated by balloons," Larry began. "When I was about eight or nine, I was taken to Disneyland. The first thing when we walked in, there was a lady holding what seemed like a zillion Mickey Mouse balloons, and I went, ‘Wow!' I know that's when the idea developed. I mean, you get enough of those and they're going to lift you up! Then, when I was about thirteen, I saw a weather balloon in an Army-Navy surplus store, and I realized that was the way to go--that I had to get some of those big suckers. All this time, I was experimenting with hydrogen gas, making my own hydrogen generators and inflating little balloons."
"What did you do with the balloons?" I asked.
"I sent them up with notes I'd written attached. None of them ever came back. At Hollywood High School, I did a science project on ‘Hydrogen and Balloons.' I got a D on it."
"How did your family react to all this?"
"My mother worried a lot. Especially when I was making rocket fuel, and it was always blowing up on me or catching fire. It's a good thing I never really got into rocketry, or I'd have probably shot myself off somewhere."
"Did you ever think of just going up in a small airplane--a glider, maybe--or doing a parachute jump to--"
"AboluteIy not. I mean no, no, no. It had to be something I put together myself. I thought about it all through Vietnam."
"What about the chair?"
"It was an ordinary lawn chair--waffle-iron webbing in the seat, tubular aluminum armrests. Darn sturdy little chair! Cost me a hundred and nine dollars. In fact, afterward my mother went out and bought two of them. They were on sale."
I asked what Carol had thought of his flight plans.
"I was honest with her. When I met her, in 1972, I told her, ‘Carol, I have this dream about flight,' and this and that, and she said, ‘No, no, no, you don't need to do that.' So I put it on the back burner. Then, ten years later, I got a revelation: ‘It's now or never, got to do it.' It was at the Holiday Inn in Victorville, which is on the way from San Bernardino to Las Vegas. We were having Cokes and hamburgers. I'm a McDonald's man: hamburgers, french fries, and Coca-Cola, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner--that's it! Anyway, I pulled out a quarter and began to draw the balloons on the place mats."
"What about Carol?"
"She knew then that I was committed. She said, ‘Well, it's best you do it and get it out of your system.' "
A few months before the flight, Larry drove up to the Elsinore Flight School, in Perris, California. He had agreed, at Carol's insistence, to wear a parachute, and after a single jump he bought one for nine hundred dollars.
"Didn't that parachute jump satisfy your urge to fly on your own?" I asked.
"Oh, no, no, no, no, no!" he said.
Other essentials were purchased: a two-way radio; an altimeter; a hand compass; a flashlight; extra batteries; a medical kit; a pocketknife; eight plastic bottles of water to be placed on the sides of the chair, for ballast; a package of beef jerky; a road map of California; a camera; two liters of Coca-Cola; and a BB gun, for popping the balloons.
"The air pistol was an inspired idea," I said. "Did you ever think that if you popped one, the balloon next to it would pop, too?"
"We did all these tests. I wasn't even sure a BB shot would work, because the weather balloon's rubber is fairly thick. But you can pop it with a pin."
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