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Friday, May 29, 2015

The Epic Flight of Lawn Chair Larry

About a week or so ago, I saw a blurb on television about "Lawn Chair Larry." This dude is not an urban legend or myth- this guy is an urban truth. Of all of the crazy shit I have witnessed in my life, I'm not sure anything can top the epic flight of "Lawn Chair" Larry Walters, age 33, on July 2, 1982.

I was midway through my last year in college and I had just started an internship with the local sheriff's office when I read a story in the newspaper about this guy. Having exited the chaos of the 70's, I considered Larry Walters to be just another lunatic from California. I was wrong.

The story of Lawn Chair Larry is one of the most outrageously funny stories of all time. Larry you see, had a dream. He wanted to fly. He had no pilots license, his eyesight was bad, and he didn't have the means or the money to accomplish his dream. So Lawn Chair Larry did the next best thing. He built his own flying machine and dubbed it the "Inspiration 1."

It was a lawn chair with 42-45 (depending on varying accounts) helium balloons attached to it.

Now just in case you think Larry Walters was a lone nutter, please remember this. Behind every good nutter is a woman who is equally as nuts. In this case it was Carol Van Deusen, Larry's girlfriend. Rather than trying to dissuade Larry with (I don't know, maybe) some safety concerns, Carol actually bought the balloons and helped Larry by forging a document which allowed Larry to obtain enough helium to fill all 45 balloons.

Having fully thought this through, Larry strapped on a parachute. He had some sandwiches and soda, a CB radio for communications, a camera, and a pellet gun to shoot the balloons with once he had decided to descend. He also tied a number of milk jugs filled with water to the chair for ballast. The entire contraption was tethered to Larry's jeep and launched from San Pedro, Ca.

Upon severing the tether that restrained the Inspiration 1, he lost his eyeglasses and rapidly ascended to a height of 15,000 feet. Larry then drifted into LAX airspace where he was seen by several pilots. Larry was in contact with people during his flight via CB radio.

Larry got cold up in the atmosphere and after about 45 minutes he started shooting weather balloons until such point that he dropped the gun overboard. He was then at the mercy of the trade winds and subsequently- a slow and uncontrolled descent into some power lines. Rather than be electrocuted, Larry was able to exit the Inspiration 1 and was immediately arrested by Long Beach Police for something. They didn't know what exactly. He was subsequently fined for the episode.

Larry lived his dream. Later, the Smithsonian asked Larry for his chair but alas, he had given it away. It is now displayed at the San Diego Air and Space Museum.
In a cruel, but not entirely unforeseeable event, Larry took his own life (1993)- 11 years later at the age of 44.

Some 33 years later, I still find Larry's story just as fascinating and funny as the day I first read about it. I guess Larry was put on this earth to live that one dream.

Click here to see the epic launch of the Inspiration 1.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Poker Room

Life has a perfect economy.

I watched Dick carefully as he walked into the room. He was hunched over and listing to the right. His glasses, always a little crooked, tilted down and to the left. His ball cap bill was straight and unfolded. His face was a little wrinkled but not too bad for a guy I figured to be in his early 80's. He gripped a cane in his right hand and he had a very tight hold on it. Just as soon as he sat down, he hunched over in his seat and peered around. I will always remember him looking over the top of his glasses. I wondered if his eyes were so bad that looking around the room just wasn't worth the effort anymore.

These are the kinds of things you wonder when you know you are next. On deck, I call it.

I first met Dick when I was 21. That was 33 years ago. I figured Dick was in his late 40's back then. He stood pretty tall, around 6' or so, and still had enough hair that wearing a ball cap wasn't part of his daily apparel. Dick often just kept to himself, playing far more hands than he should have. Once in awhile, he would have one of those divine days where he would get extraordinarily lucky- hitting every draw. I remember a few of those days. Dick could also lay into opponents that criticized his style of play at the poker table when he was having one of those good days. But mostly Dick was quiet and un remarkable. One of those guys who fills a seat in a poker game but rarely gets noticed.

Unless you played cards with him every weekend for 25 years.

I quit playing poker, more or less, about the same time I was getting divorced and being "retired." That was 8 years ago. On rare occasions, I still play a little. Mostly though, I have been beaten into submission by time and the cruel vagaries of luck. When it comes to cards, I just don't have that much luck.

I think Dick is one of those guys too.

The old guys remember our time in the poker room. We laugh and joke about the old days- the night we drank pussy drinks- a night which began when one of the guys at our table ordered a green grasshopper and we started teasing him. We all began ordering "pussy" drinks. I must have drank 30 drinks that night, green ones, pink ones, copper camels, white russians, sex on the beach, gawd did we get drunk- the entire table. We laughed until 6 am that morning drinking with our pinkies extended and talking like chicks. People talked about that game for years.

I remember the absolute worst beat I have ever delivered to another human being. He was a loudmouth and an arrogant guy, not unlike myself, although I must say Jim S. probably deserved the lifetime achievement award for ego. The hand, the beat, should have never been played. In fact, my hand- held by a rational human being using just a smidgen of sound judgment- would have been discarded. But big egos make for giant stories and this is one of those.

We were playing 10-20 limit Hold'em with a full table. Jim S. had raised, been re-raised by me, and subsequently took the last raise before the flop. There were five players in the hand and we had each invested 40 bucks before the flop. I had an A-10 suited. I was sitting chilly behind my loudmouth friend who came out firing just as soon as the flop showed up. The other players folded, leaving only Jim and I in the hand. The flop was K-9-9. I had nothing. Hoping he was bluffing, I raised him to find out. He raised me back. That's when I knew he had something. I don't know why- but I made a bad play. I called. The turn card was another 9. Now the board showed K-9-9-9. This time he checked. I began to think he had nothing so I bet 20- he check raised me and made it 40. I made another bad call just before the miracle happened. The 4th nine came on board. The board was K-9-9-9-9. He bet, I raised him and he was suddenly reduced to a caller and loser while simultaneously delivering the most ungodly howl of disgust and profanity I have ever heard in a poker room. It continued for the next 30 minutes.

In Texas Hold 'em, the best 5 cards play. In this case, no matter what he had- I had four 9's with an ace kicker or the best hand possible. When he rolled over pocket kings- I realized I had caught the only two cards I could possibly win with other than ace, ace.

And for just one moment, in the 33 years that I have been playing poker, I considered the possibility that there might be one guy on the planet more unlucky than I was. In fact, I have never seen Jim S. in the poker room since that time- although I have heard various rumors regarding his disappearance that had nothing to do with that hand..

There were plenty of bad moments in that room as well. Heart attacks and deaths at the table, cheaters, big losses, fist fights, a confrontation with my father once, thrown drinks, I even think poker played a large role in my divorce although at the time- I was in denial. Other couples played. My ex and I both played. Once the divorce was final- my ex never played again.

Last night, I recalled some of those memories with the old guys. We laughed a lot only because I skipped the re-telling of the bad stories. Nobody wants to hear those. I missed every draw for 10 hours straight but I did manage to win the biggest hand of the night with three 5's.

I kept glancing over at Dick from time to time. Broken down by life, hunched over and clutching his cane as he sat quiet- I couldn't help wondering if that's how it's gonna be for me. If that's how it is for all of us. Little caricatures of once mighty men. As I sat there- Dick who was seated across the room, glanced up, saw me, and smiled. I walked over, shook his hand, and told him it was good to see him. That might be the last time that I will ever have that chance.

Every once in awhile, somebody will remark to me what a waste of time all of those years in the poker room were. That of course is nonsense. No time is wasted, there is simply no such thing.

I spent thousands of hours in this room. Nearly a lifetime. I used to look at old people in the room and feel so detached from their reality- like that will never happen to me. Maybe I didn't want to think about it. I realize now, after spending thousands of hours with guys like Dick, that my time is coming. I wish that I had taken more time to get to know my opponents over the years.That's a shame. Not because I wasted so many years in the poker room- but because I failed to spend more time talking with these people for the countless hours I spent seated next to them at a table. People and their lives are infinitely more interesting than a deck of cards. Mostly, I think, I missed an opportunity. I could have nurtured so many friendships. Maybe I was there to learn that. Maybe I think, guys like Dick are there to help me with my old age apprenticeship.

In a poker game in New Orleans, I had a gal tell me about a book that changed my life.

In life's economy, nothing is wasted. People are living and learning- sharing knowledge, hope, and time in any number of venues like a poker room. I realize now that I spent those years in that room because I was supposed to be there. And when I learned what I came to learn, either via the soft way or the hard way, I moved on. I can't really quantify what I learned in that place. But if you insisted on having me answer the question, "Brian, what did you learn in that poker room?"

I might say, "I learned to be a better human being in that room."

Today, I am not sorry for one moment I spent in that room. Life offers a perfect economy and I am very grateful for the lessons I learned in that place and the people I met in there.

**Here's a link to an older piece I wrote along the same lines.