Eccentric inventors were once the stuff of romantic comedy. Today they’re the object of derision, anger and possible six-year jail sentences. Does this say something about eccentrics? Or the rest of us?
Richard Heene, father of six-year-old Falcon, the famous Balloon Boy, has been called many things over the past week, the most charitable of which may be “candidate for world’s worst dad.” Yet in many ways he seems the spitting image of Dick Van Dyke’s endearing and fatherly Caractacus Potts character from the 1968 musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Both were crackpot inventors and dreamers. Both created bizarre flying machines. Both involved their families in madcap adventures. And both craved the attention of others: for Potts it was recognition of his inventing skill; for Heene, the siren call of reality television.
It’s true Potts is a fictional character while Heene is an actual father living in Fort Collins, Colo. The expectations of acceptable behaviour may differ between the real world and the fictional. Then again, the line between reality and fiction has become increasingly blurred when it comes to reality television.
Heene may have done lasting damage to his son and family by having them participate in his alleged lie, but he never put his son in any real danger. Remember, Falcon was hiding in the garage the entire time. So how do we explain the massive public scolding and official persecution?
The local sheriff’s department is recommending a wide range of charges against Heene, including conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and attempting to influence a public official. All are felonies, and some entail fines of up to $500,000 and six-year jail sentences. This is clearly judicial overkill. The influence charge, for instance, is intended to protect public servants from threats of violence or blackmail. Heene did nothing of the sort.
If anything, Heene may be guilty of giving a false report, which is a misdemeanour. He should be expected to cover the cost of the rescue effort. He deserves public opprobrium for involving his son in a massive falsehood, not a lengthy jail term.
Heene, boneheaded as he may be, was really just giving people what they want. His stunt with the balloon caught the world’s attention because it was imaginative, unique and tremendously visual. He did everything television audiences and producers demand these days in a successful media event. His crime is not his attempt to present falsehood as truth; reality television already does that on a daily basis with angry twentysomethings locked in glass houses, families swapping wives, beauty-pageant-style searches for true love—these are transparently phony attempts at reality. His real crime was that he did it too well. We were transfixed by his balloon caper, despite our collective better judgment, because it seemed too fantastic to be fake.
No one likes to be made the fool. Not the sheriff of Larimer County and not the rest of us either. But Heene’s punishment should fit his crime, not our anger at being duped.