Walking the Wires

Nik and Delilah Wallenda

Like most people in at least Canada and the US, I watched with interest the lead-up to Nik Wallenda’s walk across Niagara Falls. Since the actual walk was scheduled for 11:00 pm, and I figured there would be a lot of preamble, I opted for bed and checking in the morning.

I don’t know if I would have been more enticed to watch had he not been dragging a rolling box connecting him securely to the almost two inch steel cable. His worst-case scenario was that he would fall off the wire and end up dangling about five feet below it until they managed to pull him off, perhaps with the aid of a helicopter. That would have been embarrassing, but not fatal to more than his pride.

The tether was apparently mandated by his main sponsor, the ABC Network. They indicated they didn’t want responsibility for any mishap.

I’ve been told that Wallenda kneeled once along the way, but other than that performed no unusual acts on the wire, and finished the walk in about half the expected time. Looking at the news reports the next morning, I had to feel it was a bit of a non-event. Skill was certainly there, but for a Wallenda a bit of routine work. Though I would doubt I could make more than ten feet down the wire, I might have been willing to give it a try myself (for significant compensation), knowing that at the worst I would fall off a few feet and dangle until rescue.

Ah, the old days of Falls Funambulists! They say the mid-1800’s were the pinnacle of daredevils at that venue (ignoring the loonies who liked to go over the falls in padded barrels and other wacky chambers). The Great Blondin was the most famous of the tightrope walkers, and his list of performances makes Wallenda pale badly. Somehow I don’t think Nik Wallenda will be known, at least not due to the Falls performance, as “The Great Wallenda”, a title more often heard in the plural about his ancestors.

Blondin crossed on hemp rope, not tightly stretched cable, rope that apparently sagged some sixty feet in the middle, making it a downhill trek at the start, and an uphill battle for the finish. In spite of this disadvantage, on his first attempt he lay on the rope in the middle for a “rest”, stood on one leg for a while, and after crossing a thousand feet (downhill and up) in about seventeen minutes, almost ran back to the starting shore as a second trip. On later crossings he walked blindfolded, backwards, carried his manager on his shoulders, walked on stilts, pushed a wheelbarrow, balanced on a chair that had only one leg on the rope, and at one point apparently took out a stove, cooked an omelette and lowered that to the Maid of the Mist below. Over two summers Blondin crossed fifteen times, each more daring than the last.

Compare that to poor Nik, forced to drag his tether behind while he carefully crossed on tightly stayed cable.

We seem obsessed with protecting people these days, even from dangers of their own making. Risk-takers are scorned as fools who put their lives in danger, despite their futile claims of living lives of great intensity. They should be like the rest of us, sitting in front of our televisions, sipping coffee. Idiots!

We protect our children from even the slightest possibility of danger. Certainly a noble idea, but it occasionally borders on the ridiculous. Schools have banned almost anything known to man that could possibly harm a child. Warnings at the doors of most schools these days make you stop and wonder if you are bringing any taboo substance with you that might suddenly result in a loud siren and a lockdown. Three Ontario elementary schools recently banned all balls– soccer, basketball, baseball, on their campus, as there was a possibility someone could get hit with one. Certainly could. I’ve taken a few soccer balls in the face in my time, a softball tip off a bat that swelled the side of my face and blackened an eye (at a Sunday School picnic no less!), and picked up half a dozen stitches in a cheek while playing soccer, but, low and behold, I did survive, and learned a few lessons. Don’t get me started on rafts, rooftops, trees, and bicycle ramps.

While children are certainly at a young enough age to be worthy of protection, our focus on this extends well into adult lives. Faced with fear of lawsuits, even the Santa Claus Parade becomes an event of possible injury, death, and destruction to the point of their being abandoned by many small towns. Foolhardy adults climb mountains, race snowmobiles up cliff faces, dive from aircraft, and do anything else they can think of to bring their lives to what they feel is an intensity that makes it worth living—but often break laws to take these chances.

There is something to be said for Quality as well as Quantity in life. We’re obsessed with Quantity. We avoid death, we fear death as probably our most primal fear, and we make every attempt, spend every cent to extend it as long as possible. The main purpose of our hospitals, our swelling health care budgets, is to prolong life, to fight off the inevitable.

At the same time as Nik Wallenda carefully crossed his wire, safely tethered lest he join that ranks of at least five Wallenda relatives who have fallen to their deaths, BC woman Gloria Taylor was receiving an exemption from laws preventing her from taking her own life. In a curious ruling, the BC Supreme Court ruled that laws forbidding someone from an assisted suicide were against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, since suicide was not illegal (hard to convict if successful), yet handicapped people lacked the ability to commit suicide like an able-bodied person might do. Their choices were limited; they were therefore suffering discrimination.

I suspect the federal government might move against this ruling via the Canadian Supreme Court, and the judge involved in BC has delayed the ruling for a year for the government to have a chance to appeal the case or invoke new laws. She did, however, grant an exemption from the law for Gloria Taylor for that year, making her at the moment the only woman in Canada who can legally have assisted suicide. Gloria suffers from ALS, and though she has no immediate plans to end her life, she knows she will gradually lose control of her body until she ends life as a mind trapped in a suffering and unresponsive body.

I’m not even sure that I’m in favour of assisted suicide, though I would certainly lean toward it in cases like ALS, where a body becomes so unresponsive that a victim cannot do the most simple of functions like clearing a throat for breathing or waving a lid over drying eyeballs. I’m aware that opening the gates can lead to a rats’ nest of abuse, as possible benefactors attempt to convince doctors of their parent’s wishes: “Daddy tole me that the next time he got the flu, he wanted to be put to sleep—ah swear it!”

I don’t know that I am making any unusual leap to tie the two stories together. It’s the matter of Quality over Quantity again. It’s the matter of being able to make your own choices in life. I have little doubt that Nik Wallenda, even given a notion that people judged his Niagara Falls feat to be just as exciting, just as valid, when dragging a tether, would choose to abandon that and cross with death waiting in the swirling mists below.

His great-grandfather, the legendary Karl Wallenda, fell to his death in 1978 at age 73, walking one hundred feet in the air between two hotel towers in San Juan. Nik and his mother Delilah honored Karl by completing the same walk together last year.

Ten stories in the air. Cement below. No net.

And no tethers.

4 thoughts on “Walking the Wires

  1. Freaks in a Sideshow — and those who watch…. What is more odd; that a ‘Freak’ would sell himself to a Sideshow manager for display OR that people would pay to see such a thing? I’ve never felt more ‘connected’ to my 2-bits than when thinking of ‘wasting’ that quarter — over what! I’d rather pitch it into a fountain for fun or charity.
    I think I’m a bit more sympathetic re reducing the frequency of blows to the head. No, I wouldn’t ban baseball, etc. but I’d look into further protection for athletes of all ages. Over the decades, we’ve come quite far in this respect but more is possible — and reasonable. Goalie masks, batting helmets, etc. have not diminished the game for me. We don’t yet fully respect the seriousness of blows to the head — especially repeated blows to the head. It’s not about black eyes. It’s about concussions. Think of poor Cassius Clay and the shell of a man that he has become ….. and WHY! Think of Eric Lindros, and another hockey player from your part of the country — Sid Crosby — and many others you’ve seen among NHL old-timers. Is it a matter of good luck or bad luck? I’d like to think that we humans don’t have to offer up our young to just luck.
    If you tell this story to a 20 year-old, he’d tell you he’d like to take his chances. That’s why leagues and sports authorities need to ensure we are enjoying competitive sports and not ‘blood’ sports.
    Yes, I’ve considered the argument that padding them up and ‘armouring’ them to the hilt could make them feel invincible and run into anything and everybody. The answer is not easy……

  2. Interesting piece, Francis. Well done as always. As we age /mature we realize we just aren’t going to solve it all into a one-size fits all hunger and violence free world.

  3. Good piece, Francis. We protect our children with helmets, car seats, etc. and have them under 24 hour surveillance but continue to feed them processed nonfood full of fat and sugar because we are too busy to plan decent meals and cook them.

  4. Interesting how writing about Nik Wallenda took you from his courageous?act to Quality versus Quantity and legally assisted suicide. Well done.

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