Balloon boy: A set piece in five acts

Brian Dickerson

Remember when we had to wait months to see the made-for-TV movie?

No more! Now breaking news and dramatic license have merged in a single stew of live video, expert commentary and rank speculation.

What’s odd is how formulaic this new form has become – as predictable in its narrative arc as any dramatization “based on real events” (as TV producers used to say when they still acknowledged the distinction between real events and made-up ones).

Act I: The set-up

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a flying saucer! Or maybe the cover from someone’s gas grill.

No, wait – it’s a weather balloon! With a terrified 6-year-old on board!

Really? Do we know that?

Who cares? We’ve got live video!

Act II: The suspense builds

We’re still not sure what we’re watching – it looks a little bit like that plastic shopping bag flitting about in “American Beauty” – but we’re hypnotized.

Now the caption says, “BOY MAY BE TRAPPED ABOARD BALLOON,” so we’ll want to hear from experts on boys, experts on balloons and maybe someone who’s been confined in a small space.

A specialist in childhood trauma says this experience will likely haunt the balloon boy for the rest of his life, assuming he is actually aboard the balloon.

Expert No. 2, a veteran balloonist, says it’s virtually impossible that this is the case. No way a weather balloon like the one we’re watching could bear a 50-pound boy to its current altitude. Which means it’s time to go to reporters at the scene for …

Act III: The surprise twist

The balloon is drifting gently to the ground … easy … it’s down! And the boy is … nowhere to be found!

The only reasonable conclusion is he has tumbled out of the balloon en route. We’ll need experts in wide-area searches and someone who’s survived a big fall. Anyone got a number for Humpty-Dumpty? Meanwhile, let’s go to Denver, where our correspondent is … What?

Really? Inside a box?

Act IV: The happy ending

He’s alive! Little Falcon (What were the odds his real name would turn out to be even better than “Balloon Boy”?) has been hiding in his parents’ garage, the scamp!

Cue the cheering neighbors, the tearful parents! Just imagine their relief!

Imagine how relieved you would feel if you thought your child had been borne away by your weather balloon and … What’s that? You can’t imagine being that negligent?

Act V: The recriminations

This is my favorite part. Where to begin? How about with the enormous resources squandered on this totally unnecessary search?

Let’s start with the hourly salaries of everyone involved – sheriff’s deputies, air traffic controllers, military pilots, etc. (Would they all have stayed home Thursday if little Falcon had remained in plain view?)

Throw in the cost of helicopter fuel, delayed flights and the lost productivity of millions of workers who spent their afternoon glued to CNN, and we’re into the trillions of dollars. No wonder we can’t afford health care!

And what kind of parents let their kid play with a weather balloon? The same kind, it turns out, who make guest appearances on “Wife Swap.”

Do you suppose these nutballs just made the whole thing up? Let’s ask the boy, whose parents have thoughtfully made him available (yet again) to the press.

What do you say, Falcon? Was it all a hoax? What the . . . did you just barf? On camera?

Geez, son, how about a little self-control? This is live TV.

The above column was originally published Oct. 18 by the Detroit Free Press. Content was made available by MCTCampus.