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Strange Truths

October 15, 2009

We have all heard the maxim: “Truth is always stranger than fiction.”  In this age of reality TV and instant access to news and entertainment of all sorts via the internet, one does not have to look too far to find affirmation of this observation.  Nevertheless, the images that played across our televisions and computer screens today of a homemade weather balloon floating across the Colorado plains north of Denver still had to strike most of us as pretty strange indeed.

As a helium-filled, gleaming silver envelope sailed along the winds thousands of feet above the ground, we were left to wonder what would happen to its supposed precious cargo: 6-year-old Falcon Heene.  According to the lad’s brother, the tyke was aboard when the craft became untethered from its mooring behind the family home near Fort Collins and took to the skies.

As the world looked on with a mixture of awe and angst, we learned a lot more than we wanted to know about the boy and his family.  Apparently, this was not their first brush with fame, having sought and found the limelight on a number of occasions, including an appearance as reality TV stars on a popular American series in which families swap spouses.  Mr. Heene, it seems, is also an amateur scientist, and he and his wife are well-known storm-chasers.

As they say, you can not make this stuff up.  Why not?  Well, for starters, life is a lot more complex and random than fiction.  The author of any work of fiction has time to work out how the story will end even before it begins.  This assures that all the pieces for a proper cliff-hanger are put in their proper places well before engaging the reader’s full and focused attention.

As the story unfolded this afternoon, the boy was nowhere to be found when the craft finally landed many miles from its launch site after almost three hours aloft.  A deputy sheriff following the craft snapped a picture of something dark and indistinct seemingly falling from beneath the balloon as it drifted.  Anyone drawing a line of reasoning between the two points — start and end — could not help incorporating this new information in a way that to the seemingly inescapable conclusion that something awful had happened.

As searchers scoured the flight path and pundits pondered the little boy’s fate, officials on the ground quite rightly looked at all the possibilities, including those the rest of use were prepared to overlook or had already dismissed in our rush to judgment.  “Had the boy ever been aboard the balloon?”, they had to ask.

In the end, all turned out for the best.  Young Falcon, apparently oblivious to both the irony of his name and the attention his actions had attracted, was revealed to have been hiding all along in a box in the attic above the garage of his family’s home.  Reunited with his father, mother, and brothers, the happy clan reveled in the media spotlight once again shining brightly upon their family apparently unaware and almost certainly unconcerned that they had more than used up their 15 minutes of fame.

Throughout the coverage of this ordeal, I was struck by both the similarities and differences between the images playing out today and the contrived reality of the shows in which the family had previously appeared.  Real reality is far messier, harder to predict, and more involved than its often portrayed.

Skeptics and critics will have wondered cynically as this drama played itself out before us whether it was simply another ploy to gain our sympathy and attention.  If it wasn’t, it might as well have been.

We’re all suckers for stories like this.  And I hope we always will be, no matter how the story ends.

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