Last June, Nik Wallenda walked across Niagara Falls on a cable, just as he did last week in a stunning act a quarter mile above the Little Colorado River.
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For the Niagara stunt, he wore a red and black tracksuit and moccasins hand-sewn especially for wire-walking. He carried a long balancing pole. Against his wishes, he was tethered to the cable via a safety wire. As he did during his nationally televised feat last week, he spent his entire walk praising God in a state of exultation. Here's Wallenda describing the Niagara Falls walk in his strange, immersive new autobiography, "Balance: A Story of Faith, Family, and a Life on the Line":
The cable bends. The cable sways. The cable curves up and the cable curves down. The wind blows and the mist covers my eyes. Sheets of rain wash over me. But through it all, I'm smiling, my heart is laughing, my heart is singing, my heart is light with the certain knowledge that I serve a righteous God. My heart has never been happier.
Hundreds of autobiographies are published each year by even the mildly famous. All too often, they fail to capture any essence of the person. They seem to have been written quickly by conference call by a team of publicists. They have no heart, no personality, no voice.
Wallenda's book is a refreshing exception. It's delightfully and profoundly strange. It's infused with Wallenda's religious, sunny, can-do personality. It recounts Wallenda's amazing circus family history, which has been marked by spectacular feats and horrific tragedies. It describes how Wallenda came to walk across Niagara Falls, a challenge that came to him in a bizarre dream as a young child: "Walk over the falls."
I turn around and see the man who has spoken these words. He is dressed in the billowy white shirt and satin trousers outfit of a circus performer. His face is friendly. His voice is not stern, not frightening, but simply clear. He speaks in a tone that is matter-of-fact, repeating the words for a second time — "Walk over the falls."
The man in the dream is Wallenda's great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, a famous wire-walker from a long line of acrobats and aerialists that trace circus roots back to 18th century Europe. Karl Wallenda was the mastermind behind the family wire-walking troupe, The Flying Wallendas, which toured the world performing feats like its signature seven-person high-wire pyramid.
For most, the world of the circus is a mystery. How do they do it? Who becomes a circus performer? Why do they risk their lives to do these feats? Is it scary? Is it fun? Is it profitable? What are circus performers like? Do people ever die performing their acts? Are these feats actually mostly illusions? The book offers surprising answers to many of these questions.
Here's Wallenda on the role of the clown in the circus:
The clown aspires to be in the show and will do anything, including falling on his face, to gain acceptance. The clown may act a little sad because others — in their form-fitting costumes and fancy plumage — are more glamorous and perhaps earn more respect. But the clown transforms sadness into joy by not taking himself too seriously. The clown creates joy by making fun of his aspirations. The clown elicits your love.
Wallenda defines the motivations behind circus acts, which are meant to entertain and really, nothing more. They are supposed to be fun, period. Wallenda's father, also a circus performer, sums it up: "Everyone's looking for a little escape, Nik, everyone's looking to be amazed. It's our job to amaze them."
In the pursuit of entertaining their audience, circus performers take huge risks. The Wallendas cross the high-wire without nets, without safety harnesses, a fatal distance above the hard circus floor.
In 1962, at the State Fair Coliseum in Detroit, disaster struck as The Flying Wallendas, including Karl, were performing their seven-person pyramid — a woman standing on a chair atop a pole held by two walkers, themselves standing on poles held by four walkers on the high-wire.
Wallenda's grandmother Jenny, who watched it happen, recounts the tragedy:
It was the most horrible moment of my life. Dieter (her cousin), Dick (her husband) and Mario (her brother) were the first to fall. Daddy and Herman (her uncle) tumbled from the second tier but held onto the wire. Miraculously, Daddy grabbed Jana (her cousin) as she fell and held her hand until an emergency crew had time to run in with a net.
Her husband died, as did Dieter. Mario wound up paralyzed. Karl Wallenda suffered a cracked pelvis and other injuries, and he died in 1978 after falling during a performance in Puerto Rico. Yet on his heavily promoted walk last week across a gorge near the Grand Canyon, Nik Wallenda wore no safety wire. A fall would have killed him.
Before the feat, he held a cheery attitude about that possibility, as he shared in his book. "I'm not looking at death," he writes. "I'm not thinking of death. It's not challenging a negative. It's asserting a positive. When I'm in the middle of a walk or on the wheel, my heart is in a whole different place. I see it as physical poetry.... When I do these feats, my spirit soars."
In a world drowning in news about dark, complex, seemingly intractable issues — wars, privacy leaks, terrorism, global warming, the economy — this feels refreshingly simple. In 1974, French tightrope walker Philippe Petit spent an hour walking and dancing on a wire strung between the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in New York City. Like today, 1974 was a time of unease, and Petit's performance captured the imaginations of the many who watched. There was no deep meaning to his act. It was about astonishment and delight.
Sometimes, that is what we need, and that's what Wallenda offers us in his charming autobiography. Just a breath of astonishment and delight.
Trine Tsouderos contributes frequently to Printers Row Journal.
"Balance: A Story of Faith, Family, and Life on the Line"
By Nik Wallenda with David Ritz, FaithWords, 224 pages, $22Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun