Here at Breakfast with Pandora, we are in the business of calling attention to the power of stories. And this week we had a doozy.
Didn't you hear? my beloved asked me. About the boy in the balloon?
No, I didn't hear. I have been working hard this fall, and coming home exhausted. Some days I do not home in immediately on the latest micromyth to hit CNN and the other virtual rhapsodes we have going these days.
Most readers have probably heard about it too much: how a 36-pound 6-year old boy somehow found his way into the cargo area of a silvery, flying saucer-shaped hot-air balloon, and flew away.
After the authorities were alerted, TV cameras began filming the hypnotic flight of the balloon, and a nation waited, holding its breath, it turned out that the 6-year old had been hiding in the rafters of his home's garage all that time.
Oh, joy, we thought. The boy is safe. Then, just as quickly: could this have been a hoax, a publicity stunt?
It could have, especially after the 6-year old famously said during an interview that the reason he didn't come down from the rafters-- he'd gone there because his father yelled at him and he was scared-- was because "You guys said we did it for a story."
I was inclined to believe the child, because I only tried once to get one of my children to keep a secret when she was that age. That lasted for about 30 seconds. And there is no reason for a guileless 6-year old to make up the idea that the family manufactured the whole thing.
And now it turns out that the whole thing was indeed a hoax. The cargo bay of the balloon couldn't even have held the 36 pounds that the boy weighed.
I'm still interested, however, in the original narrative, the original fiction, that captivated the nation. What made it so thrilling? I'm sure there was something very thrilling about the idea of a child perhaps squashed to pulp if something went wrong and he fell out of the balloon, or if the balloon suddenly lost buoyancy and crashed to earth from a thousand feet up. That is the dark side of our fascination with stories.
On the other hand, we do like stories of rescue, victory, resurrection, and redemption. Those who are of a certain age and vintage might remember the story of the two-year old child who fell down a well and really did get rescued.
I will say, however, that the most fascinating part of the story for me was not whether the boy was in the balloon, but the balloon itself. The silvery, puffy material shimmered in the afternoon light. The camera focused on the center of the balloon as it swirled and rotated. It was an hypnotic motion. It seemed to fly so fast, over constantly changing terrain. To me, it was almost like we were, indeed, seeing a flying saucer.
Under what do we put this element of story-- the visual? Aristotle said that spectacle in tragic drama was the least important part of it. But this time, for me, it was right up there.