Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sometimes war is hell, and sometimes it’s a couple of guys in lawn chairs kept aloft by party balloons

An article that included the following elements is pretty hard to resist, that’s for sure:

  • Iraqi orphans
  • Care Bears
  • Red Ryder BB guns
  • Facebook data center
  • Adventurers
  • Gas station ownership
  • Convenience store ownership
  • The Rifleman
  • Lawn chairs
  • Party balloons

One person who found it especially hard to resist was my brother-in-law Rick, who sent along a link to an article he saw that touched on all of the above. I, in turn, found the story irresistible as well.

And here’s how the elements combine:

Fareed Lafta is an Iraqi adventurer, pilot and sky diver. Inspired since his 1980s childhood by the Care Bears “bears with special powers who lived in the clouds”, Lafta wanted to pay it forward and inspire Iraqi children who had been orphaned by terrorist attacks by showing them something or other emanating from the clouds.

Oregonian Kent Couch – he of the gas station and convenience store ownership (which, of course, comprise two great pillars of the American experience: the love affair with the automobile and 24/7 access to fatty, salty, sugary snack foods and Power Ball tickets) – was not without inspiration, either.

He’d been inspired by Larry Walters to take up lawn chair ballooning. For those for whom Larry Walters is no more a household name than Fareed Lafta or Kent Couch, Walters was a California truck driver who, in the early 1980’s, invented lawn chair ballooning, manned flight accomplished by tethering an aluminum lawn chair to helium-filled party balloons.

Lawn chair balloon flight, I’ll have you know, is far more than just a matter of up, up and away. Once you’re aloft, getting back to earth requires the judicious jettisoning of ballast and the judicious puncturing of balloons. Thus the Red Ryder BB gun.

Anyway, Lafta – the man with the plan – and Couch – the man with the know-how connected through the world.wide.web.

This October, the duo intends to not just inspire Iraqi orphans Care Bear-style, but to set an altitude record for aluminum chair ballooning. But before heading off to the war zone, where war is both hell and something that can be leavened by the Care Bears, they decided to send up a trial balloon, as it were.

They were attempting to fly from Couch’s gas station in Bend, Oregon, to Montana – a journey of 400 miles - when all hell broke loose.

…they were floating along peacefully at 14,000 feet when thunderstorms grabbed control of their homemade craft like a giant hand.

"It was so nice, so beautiful, so peaceful," for thee first three hours of the flight, said Iraqi adventurer Fareed Lafta, who joined lawn chair ballooning veteran Kent Couch in an attempt to fly from Couch's gas station in Bend, Ore., to Montana as a warm-up for a future flight over Iraq. "I remember I can hear the cow when they are moo, the dogs. Everything was so peaceful and so nice.

"Then we were in this thunderstorm."

At which point, Lafta and Couch forgot the peaceful pastoral, the cow when they are moo, and started focusing on survival.

Lafta suggested that they abandon ship and parachute to earth. Couch rejected the suggestion, which he came to regret as they went through an hour and a half of buffeting by the elements. Or stalling in mid-air, as they did for 20 minutes over the Facebook server farm in Prineville, Oregon.

Once they got buffeting again, and began looking for a place to land, those Red Ryder BB guns came in handy.

"We felt just like 'The Rifleman,'" a 1950s TV Western [Couch said]. "We were cocking and shooting, cocking and shooting, pretty darn fast."

It’s not clear whether Lafta got the allusion to The Rifleman, but, hey,  if they had the Care Bears in Iraq in the 1980’s, they may well have had 1950’s reruns. So Lafta may have grown up knowing all about Lucas and Mark McCain, Sherriff Micah Torrance, and that nice lady Millie who ran the general store. (So why didn’t Lucas ever marry her? Maybe if he had, Millie could have used one of her bolts of gingham or calico and whipped up a couple of replacement shirts for the McCains, who surely must have gotten sick of wearing that same old homespun shirt season after season.)

At last, Lafta and Couch managed to land in a hay field roughly 40 miles from Couch’s gas station.

Despite this abortive mission, the two are planning on keeping their Iraq rendezvous with destiny come October. Lafta is pretty enthusiastic about the upcoming mission.

“Why not?" said Lafta. "We have a lot of fun. And more experience that makes us safer in future."

Couch is less so:

"I made a commitment to Fareed and the orphans of Iraq," to fly again, Couch said. "Otherwise I'm on the ground for good. I think it's out of my system.

Perhaps he’s concerned for what might happen on the ground if things get messed up. Laftah at least knows the language and can go native. But what if they get separated? Does Couch know enough Arabic or Kurdish to explain the Care Bear inspiration, or why he’s armed with a Red Ryder BB gun? What if they run into actual terrorists, rather than a bunch of kids who’ve been orphaned by terrorists.

War, as Couch may find out, can be hell, even when it’s almost over.

And as for Couch’s original inspiration, Larry Walters? The father of lawn chair balloonery, ended up killing himself while still in his forties. Sometimes a great notion is just not enough. (Source: Wikipedia.)

Thanks to Ricky T for sending this article along.

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