December 23, 2009: Kids Say the Darnedest Things

Reality television reached new heights in October of 2009, as viewers around the world were tethered to their sets by the saga of the “Balloon Boy.” It started shortly before noon when Richard Heene, a Fort Collins, Colorado, handyman, dabbling scientist and father of three boys, called the Federal Aviation Administration to report that a large balloon that had been tied in his family’s backyard  had gotten loose and taken flight. Heene was certain his six-year-old son Falcon had crawled aboard the craft before its takeoff. Heene also phoned a local TV station, requesting a helicopter to track the balloon, and his wife Mayumi called 911.

The homemade dirigible was soon being pursued by two Colorado National Guard helicopters and by search-and-rescue personnel, as well as reporters, on the ground. A runway at Denver International Airport was shut down as the balloon traveled into its flight path. The runaway blimp finally touched down in a Colorado field after a joyride of some 50 miles. Rescue officials quickly discovered the balloon was empty, prompting fears that poor little Falcon Heene had plummeted from on high during the flight. A ground search was initiated. But later that afternoon, Richard Heene made an oops! statement that the boy had been found safe at home, where he supposedly had been hiding.

Conspiracy theorists came out of the woodwork all afternoon and into the evening, voicing their suspicions that the entire incident had hoax written all over it. Then dear little blabbermouth Falcon Heene told his parents during a live interview on CNN: “You guys said we did this for the show.”

In November, Richard Heene pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public official to initiate a search-and-rescue mission which in turn would attract media attention, frowned on in Colorado; Mayumi Heene pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of making a false report. Falcon Heene pleaded guilty to being a sniveling six-year-old dupe (permissible under Colorado law). They confessed that they staged the incident in an attempt to get their own reality TV show, having gotten the entertainment bug when previously appearing on a program, called “Wife Swap.”

On December 23, 2009, the Heenes were sentenced to perform community service not involving flying objects, and ordered to pay $36,000 in restitution for the search effort. Falcon, it is rumored, will have his own reality TV show, “Throw In Your Parents.”




October 16, 1869: One More Giant for Mankind

In 1869, George Hull, a New York tobacconist, and his cousin, William Newell, a farmer, hired two men to dig a well on Newell’s farm. As theycardiff_ were digging, one of the men suddenly shouted: “I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!” ‘I declare’ is a tad short of ‘Eureka!’ but it got the point across; what the two men had discovered was, according to Hull, a perfectly preserved ten-foot-plus petrified giant.

Noting the incredible scientific implications of this discovery, Hull and Newell immediately did the scientific thing. They set up a tent over the giant and charged 25 cents for people who wanted to see it. Two days later, thanks to public demand, the price doubled to 50 cents. And the crowds doubled along with the price. Everyone wanted to see the amazing, colossal Cardiff Giant, as the stony corpse had come to be called.

Archaeological scholars stood at the back of the throngs shouting “fake, fake” but folks ignored them (folks generally ignore archaeologists). And they ignored the geologists who said there was no earthly reason to dig a well in the exact spot the giant had been found. A Yale palaeontologist, getting really worked up, called it “a most decided humbug.” Some Christian fundamentalists and preachers, came to the giant’s defense, however, citing some positive reviews in Genesis.  And we all know there were some mighty big people in the Bible.

Eventually, Hull sold his part-interest for $23,000 (close to half a million today) to a syndicate in Syracuse, New York, for exhibition. The giant continued to draw amazing crowds, so much so that P. T. Barnum offered $50,000 for the giant. When the syndicate turned him down, he hired an unscrupulous sculptor to create a plaster replica. Barnum put his giant on display in New York, claiming that his was the true giant, and that the Cardiff Giant was an impostor.

Then in December, Hull confessed to the press that he had faked the Cardiff Giant (he already had his $23,000). It had been carved out of a block of gypsum then treated with stains and acids to make the giant appear to be old and weathered.  (It had been whacked with steel knitting needles embedded in a board to simulate pores.) And the following February, both giants were declared fakes in court.

Epilogue: An Iowa publisher later bought the Cardiff Giant to use as a conversation piece in his basement rumpus room. In 1947 he sold it to the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where it is still on display.