Well, how stupid were we?
Makes the cheeks burn just thinking about it.
There we were Oct. 15, millions of us huddled around TVs, radios and the Internet, breathlessly tracking that goofy balloon’s trek across the Colorado skies because we feared a little boy had hitched a ride.
Minds raced: Would he live? Would he die? What if he hit electrical wires?
What if his oxygen ran out? I mean, c’mon, how much helium can one child breathe, for God’s sake?
“This is just awful,” said one of my male colleagues — a father of three — as we stared at the television screens in the newsroom and watched what we thought was 6- year-old Falcon Heene’s uncontrolled hurtle through the heavens. “It’s horrible to watch, but you can’t pull yourself away.”
Turns out that’s probably exactly what his parents had planned. A Colorado sheriff later announced that the boy’s parents face criminal charges for launching one heckuva hoax.
Richard and Mayumi Heene “put on a very good show for us, and we bought it,” Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said at a news conference Sunday. “We have evidence at this point to indicate that this was a publicity stunt, done with the hope of marketing themselves for a reality show at some point in the future.”
Just fries ya, doesn’t it?
All that misspent worrying for a boy hiding in the attic. All that sympathy pouring out for parents we’d later learn appeared on ABC’s “Wife Swap.” All those wasted prayers that could have been used for the homeless or the uninsured, if we only cared.
See how quickly empathy morphs into sarcasm?
Snark is the national pastime, and boy did it flow after poor Falcon was discovered hiding in his parents’ garage and then vomited when pressed for answers during television interviews. At one point, when asked why he had hidden, he turned to his father and said, “You said we did this for the show.”
Almost immediately, self-righteous pundits pounced, accusing Americans of caring more about a boy on a mythical flight of fancy than about the millions of at-risk children suffering on the ground.
Not to be outdone, some aviation experts quickly scolded us, too, insisting that only a fool would think that a flimsy piece of flypaper could lug a 37-pound child through the air.
Well, call me Empress Foolhardy, because I don’t know flying from horseshoes. When I saw that round inflated thing bobbing thousands of feet over planet Earth, my only thought was for the little boy who might be hiding in that thingamajig underneath it.
And you know what? I’m glad.
I’m glad that my default button wasn’t set to scoff. I’m relieved to know that when I heard a child might be in danger, my first and prolonged response was to think, “Dear God, please no.”
And as angry as I am at those parents and their willingness to use their children over and over to get attention for their miserable selves, I’m still happy to know that countless thousands of Americans joined me in letting their hearts overrule their intellects. In a good way.
Do I long for the same national outpouring of concern for the millions of children who are neglected and beaten? Of course. Does the collective anguish over Falcon Heene’s phony flight illustrate just how screwed up we are? Only if you think one sentiment precludes the other, and I don’t.
Less than 24 hours after it was clear that Falcon was safe and his parents were in a whole lot of trouble, a photo illustration began circulating on the Web.
In the image, worried people on the ground stare at the hovering balloon. The caption reads:
“Everyone will remember where they were on the day that all of America stopped working and watched an empty balloon. 10/15/ 09. Never forget.”
I’ll admit it : I laughed. Felt good, too.
Like millions of others, I was duped into praying for a little boy who was never in danger.
May we all be so gullible every once in a while.