I Went To Florida To Watch Seniors Live Their Dreams & It Was A Bizarrely Educational Experience
It’s an unseasonably warm November evening in New York, and somehow, I’ve found myself crammed into the last row of a tiny plane. I’m on my very first press trip for an assignment I know very little about. It's all-expenses-paid, which so far has included my ride to the airport, my flight, and an astoundingly full(!) can of soda from the drink cart. My destination is Florida, a place 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy once called “America’s Australia" — owing to the large number of retirees, year-round beach weather, and rampant crime — which feels appropriately weird.
That morning, I had received a one-line email from my editor: “If you're feeling spontaneous, there's a free trip to Florida to be had if you want to go and cover... tomorrow. I’m serious.”
Other than the fact that the experience would be funded by Canon for their "Rebel With A Cause" campaign, details were vague. I weighed my pervasive anxiety of the unknown against my appetite for absurd spectacles and ultimately decided, "Why not?" As I see it, being the most reckless worrywart ever will either lead to an interesting life or being murdered in a way that I definitely could’ve prevented!
Luckily, I know a few basic facts. I’ll be working with seniors, which is fantastic news. Elderly people and I have a lot in common, since we enjoy black-and-white films, going off on dreamy tangents, and not standing. I also know that Nik Wallenda will be helping them achieve their bucket-list dreams, and that the escapades will be recorded by a full-service film crew. Google tells me that Wallenda is a high wire-walking celebrity acrobat, but I'm sincerely hoping to stay earthbound this weekend.
Most importantly, this trip will be taking me to the beach, to which I say, "Bring it on!"
Me, after yelling "bring it on!" at the ocean.
The Sarasota Friendship Center, our first location for the day, is sandwiched between a P.F. Chang’s and a Ford dealership on the side of a highway. A swarm of urban twenty-somethings, all ironic T-shirts and beards, make up the film crew. Tawny men in bowling shirts and women in pastel pedal-pushers view them with a mix of suspicion and curiosity. Others are jitterbugging to a jazzy version of “Memory” from Cats, which another bowling shirt-clad man is performing on a baby-grand piano.
Nik Wallenda, our resident daredevil, is a buff man in his mid-30s with blonde hair and a “regular beach-goer” complexion. I watch him have a pleasant conversation with a 93-year-old woman named Doris, who looks every part of her name. Since he's a Sarasota native and local celebrity, passerby stop to stare and ask if it's really him.
Nik Wallenda, dressed to impress.
When he’s not hanging out at retirement communities, Wallenda can be found walking a tightrope over nauseatingly high altitudes without a safety net. He is a seventh-generation descendant of the circus troupe “The Flying Wallendas," and his family has been in the flying trapeze business since the late 1800s. He is perhaps most famous for walking over the Grand Canyon in 2013 and Niagara Falls in 2012.
“I believe that I could teach you — and I truly believe this — to walk the wire,” he tells me with a sense of assurance. As you'd guess of a nine-time Guinness World Record holder, Wallenda speaks in superlatives. Whether he's talking about his childhood ("I started walking the wire at 18 months old"), or the nearby beach ("voted best beach in the U.S. six times"), he isn't afraid of a little hyperbole. (To his credit, Wallenda's local Siesta Beach won two titles for Best Beach in America, in 2011 and 2015, and two titles related to its pristine sand, in 1987 and 2004.)
In my mind, I begin compiling a list of excuses to use if he gives me the "opportunity" to walk the wire (nausea, "I just had a big meal," spontaneous, full-body numbness). I must be showing visible panic because he quickly says: “You’re probably thinking, ‘yeah, right.’ But it’s all about controlling negative thoughts. We have powerful minds.”
Wallenda, using the power of his mind to walk over Niagara Falls.
This whole “mind over matter” thing seems to come naturally to some people — people who run marathons and do juice cleanses. As an indoor kid who loves libraries and air conditioning, I do not belong in that category. Even if I had a bucket list (which I don’t), tightrope walking over literally anything would not be on it. I would die.
Luckily, we move on from the prospect of me walking the wire and start talking about pop music. He recently brought his daughter to a sold-out Taylor Swift concert and found himself marveling at the pop star's composure in front of a crowd of 65,000. “My daughter is a huge Taylor Swift fan,” he says. “I found myself asking, could I ever do something like that?” He then remembered that he did two walks for an audience of 130,000. “I didn’t even realize that I was setting limits on myself," he concludes. "We can accomplish anything. It’s really about our willpower and our minds getting us there.”
Even daredevils compare themselves to Taylor Swift. I guess we’re all human.
Our second location of the day is an airplane hangar. There are two World War II-style planes marked “Kissimee, Florida” before us. The director yells “Action!” and in walks Channing Chapman, a rosy-cheeked man dressed in an army-green boiler suit and tinted glasses. In addition to having the best name ever, he's an 88-year-old former veteran. He goes by “Chan,” and the film crew is directing him to slowly zip up his boiler suit in a way that says: “Let’s do this.” This results in him zipping and unzipping his suit multiple times over the course of five minutes as the crew repeatedly yells, “One more time, Chan!” Welcome to Hollywood.
“I’ve never acted before,” he remarks in a soft voice that you need to lean in to hear. He’s delicate but sweet, with the air of a Rockwellian grandpa telling you fireside stories.
The main reason he’s here today is to fulfill a deferred dream. Nearly 60 years after he joined the WWII war effort, he’ll finally get the chance to fly in an open cockpit plane. As is the case with many lofty goals, Channing’s dream has its seeds in his childhood.
“We'd watch all the fighter pilots chasing each other around the sky in movies,” he says. He enlisted, hoping to fulfill his childhood dream of flight. But when he showed up for duty, there were no more spots in the Air Corps. Instead, he was placed in the infantry, and his dream of flight was shot down before it got a chance to alight.
Channing Chapman, feeling so fly like a G6.
“This is the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition,” he says with his arms spread wide for emphasis. With that in mind, he doesn’t seem nervous. More than anything, he’s in touch with that kid who wanted more than anything to ride the iron bird. If he could talk to his childhood self, watching the picture shows and wondering if he’d ever kiss the sky, he’d tell him, “You can live your dreams.” He may not be an actor, but he’s clearly a natural with media.
When the 15-minute break is up, four people — two in front, and two in back — hoist Channing into the front pod of the plane. It zooms forward, and what was a moment ago a the full-size jet becomes a toy, then a little dot on the horizon.
Maybe that’s the use of having a bucket list. It affords someone the excuse to turn off autopilot — to be curious, to do something that reawakens their awe of the world and become kids again. For a moment, it feels like I’ve discovered an alternate dimension in this state that I’ve long considered the closest Earthly approximation of purgatory. But for every weird headline that comes out of Florida, there’s a sweet, genuine person making their dreams come true.
Kathryn Barnes, who has a need for speed.
Kathryn Barnes, the next participant, is also dressed for battle. She’s wearing the uniform of championship racers — a black-and-white, flame-retardant jumpsuit — and striking poses with aplomb. She waves her arms towards the Daytona Racetrack and asks, “Have you ever seen anything like this?! There truly is no place on Earth like Daytona Beach.” A lot of spring breakers in 1996 would probably agree with her, but I’m digging her enthusiasm.
Barnes resembles a healthier version of Dorothy from The Golden Girls, with a platinum bowl cut and wire-rimmed glasses. She has the energy of a hummingbird and knows her angles. “I’m gonna go 115 miles an hour!” she laughs, thrusting out her hip, as we, her admirers, snap away on our cameras and yell “WORK!”
“I really have had an exciting life,” she says. She grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania and escaped her small-town life in a very ‘50s way: by becoming a stewardess. In 1959, she packed up her Plymouth sedan with her TV, some shoes, and her daughter, then high-tailed it to Florida. According to her LinkedIn page, she was a model for years. (Her gigs included the Home Shopping Network and an ad for a stair chair.) Today, she’s 84 with two hip replacements and a boyfriend she met on Match.com, which means that her dating life is going better than mine. “The secret is keeping your energy up,” she says. “ I always keep my energy up.”
In a few minutes, she’ll crawl through the window of a stock car and take a spin around this star-making loop. Before the death of her husband, she took regular trips to the Daytona to watch the races. Some of her dearest memories were made here, but being a spectator never really suited her. “I was never content to just watch,” she says. “I always wanted to be out there. But I know that [my husband] is watching me. Sending me pennies from heaven.”
Her husband passed away nearly 15 years ago, after a drawn-out battle with Alzheimer’s. Caregiving duties were left up to Kathryn, who decided to keep him at home.
“It hasn’t been easy, there have been a lot of tears,” she says. But back in the present, she’s tranquil. Her coolness sharply contrasts with the revving of engines around her. “I’m not nervous. I’m excited. I can’t wait to get out there,” she says.
Kathryn gives one last wave before being lowered into the car and takes off. Her car blazes around the track’s precarious 45-degree bends and becomes a streak of red. After a few spins, Kathryn gets out of the car, laughing with the exhilaration of someone who’s been waiting her turn for years. “I’m just getting started,” she says later. “Maybe Nik will teach me to walk the tightrope next.” First times have a way of making you feel like that. After watching her, I even feel like I can do anything.
Then, I thought back to the advice of Nik Wallenda. Even for a cynic like me, his words aren’t without value.
We're not so different after all, Nik Wallenda.
Climactic events like this — first times, goals achieved accidentally or on purpose — make us feel capable. We structure the tales of our lives around them. They give us a break from the everyday malaise and afford us a chance to feel like we’re actively living. Trying something new, whether it’s going on your first modest press trip or flying a plane, is something anyone can benefit from. At the very least, you walk away with a good story.
Images: Chip Litherland/ Associated Press (3) ; Getty Images; CanonUSA / YouTube (2); Arielle Dachille / Bustle (6)