Stranger Than Fiction: ‘Balloon Boy’ Controversy Sprung from Reality Show ‘Wife Swap’

Balloon Boy's unmanned balloon

You probably have heard the bizarre tale of “Balloon Boy” by now — a report of a missing kid, a runaway homemade helium-filled balloon, accusations (and now charges) of a hoax. But among the surfeit of reportage I came upon one nugget of information that really caught my interest: This was the twister-chasing family featured on Wife Swap.

Not only that, the parents of “Balloon Boy” claimed on the show to be descended from extraterrestrials — a revelation provided to patriarch Richard when he fell and hit his head on the tile at a fast food restaurant and was visited by a little green man who told him of his alien lineage. The balloon in question was shown in the family’s garage on the show and characterized as a flying saucer meant to be sent out in storms to search for UFOs.

Just when you thought reality programming couldn’t get any stranger.

But I must admit the ABC show is one of my favorite guilty television pleasures. Sure, the families of “Wife Swap” are no dancing celebrities or misanthropes left to fight each other on a desert isle, but they show us through their two-week social experiments that this country is indeed a land of great contrasts — of punk-rocking atheists and devout churchgoers, of fitness fanatics and competitive eaters, of UFO cultists and vegetarian psychics (we’ll get to that bizarre match-up a little later).

I sometimes watch mini-marathons of the show saved on my DVR from its reruns on the Lifetime network. For those who are sadly unfamiliar with the concept, this is how it works: Two families are chosen and swap wives/mothers for two weeks. During the first week, the new wives must follow the household rules. During the second week, they can change the rules and raise hell.

Now we aren’t talking about swapping one of your average nuclear families for another boring group of suburban dwellers. In “Wife Swap,” we have rabid non-believers trading places with strict Christians, neat freaks staying in the filth-ridden hovels, millionaires and dairy farmers living each others’ lives. My favorite, I think, was an episode in which a cosmopolitan, urbane family from San Francisco (into art, culture, fine dining and fashion) swapped places with a Midwest farm family preparing for the apocalypse. The farm family believes cleaning products to be evil and that dirt and bacteria are needed for a healthful lifestyle, so they not only eat raw meat, they eat rotten raw meat.

It’s almost as if the producers didn’t want these swaps to work out. And they rarely do. There’s generally plenty of screaming and scheming. But it’s thoroughly addicting television, I can assure you.

The Heene family — the tornado-chasing clan at the center of this new media storm — appeared on the show twice.

The first time, the adventure-seekers traded places with safety-conscious parents who didn’t allow their kids to be involved in any potentially harmful activities and practically swaddled them in elbow and knee pads just to leave the house. Contrast that with the possibility of a 6-year-old who could conceivably hop into the family’s homemade balloon and fly off. (Can you imagine that other mother gloating right now? “I just knew one day something like this would happen.”)

The more interesting appearance was the second, which came earlier in the year during a special 100th episode on which voters brought back two families to swap lives — the Heenes and a family made up of a bossy psychic who seems to speak with a fake accent, a passive, mulleted house-husband and two sensitive, performing teens who label themselves as acting-writing-singing hyphenates.

The Heenes prove to be even crazier than before with their alien backstory. Our psychic friend, Sheree Silver, from the other family immediately recognized their extraterrestrial energy (oddly enough, in her previous appearance on the show, she did a reading of her host family’s kids and found one of them to possess that same alien heritage). She insisted their swap would “help mankind.”

But here we are left with a convoluted tale: Falcon, the Heenes’ 6-year-old and from forever on “Balloon Boy,” was feared to have climbed aboard the homemade craft on Thursday and ascended to the sky like his bird-of-prey moniker. But after hours of media coverage he was found to be hiding in a cardboard box in the attic. When asked why he didn’t come out, Falcon responded on national TV that they were doing it for the show.

This led to accusations of a publicity stunt being behind the whole ordeal. The public is left to wonder: What show is he talking about? The news? A program designed around the family’s misadventures?

For our sake, I can only hope that Falcon was talking about a potential third appearance on “Wife Swap.” The local constabulary is convinced it was a hoax worthy of criminal charges.

But I should probably call psychic Sheree just to be sure.

Colin Powers is a Madison, Wisconsin-based editor and graphic designer. He has more than a dozen years of newspaper experience, including a stint as Life and Arts Editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before its demise in March.

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