niagara-falls-tightrope

Is tight rope walker Nick Wallenda hiding behind ABC’s skirts?

This Niagara Falls author challenges tight rope walker to do the right thing.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that Nick Wallenda was asked if he would consider being tethered to the tight rope and his response was that he would never employ that kind of safety precaution. To his credit he never has in the past. The reason is crystal clear and it is because (excuse the pun) he lives or dies by playing the death card. First of all, he comes from a family of performers with a tragic history. Bad for them good for him, because he uses that reputation to his advantage. It establishes his vulnerability and puts the thought in the head of the observers that perhaps there is a curse or a jinx on this family.

In 1962 there was an accident in which the family was performing a 7 man pyramid in Detroit when one of them stumbled. Three men fell off the wire and two were killed and one permanently injured. Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the family was on that wire and survived. In Puerto Rico, at the age of 78, Karl fell to his death. Many web surfers watch that episode repeatedly on the internet, judging by the number of hits it recieves on Youtube. It is a sequence of events that is stamped indelibly on the mind of the viewer. Few of us can erase the picture of the wobbling wire– the attempts to steady it– the crouching down in a futile attempt to grab hold of the wire–the awkward position of the balancing pole– it appears it may have gotten in the way and facilitated the tumble off the wire.

Nik Wallenda is Karl’s great grandson and comes from that legacy. It is that heritage that enhances the danger he faces every time he gets on a wire. People think to themselves “ Maybe today is the day the family curse gets him”. He also knows that it is imperative that he exploit the risk factor because– while there is no denial that walking the high wire is a potentially fatal proposition– the physical act itself is almost mind-numbingly boring to watch.. Watching somebody place 1 foot in front of the other while carrying a balancing pole is not visually thrilling. Nothing to see here—move along folks. Although it requires an inordinate amount of skill–most people couldn’t stay on a wire for two steps—most people recognize the expertise needed and most seem to have an appreciation of the difficulties involved but it is the risk of death that compels them to watch. Take that away and much of the interest goes with it. That speaks to the motive of the audience and unfortunately this is an indictment on our society that they are not there to see a successful conclusion but they want to be there in case he falls. And Nik Wallenda– in particular his family history and Niagara Falls and its history increase the possibility of that happening. Attaching a tether eliminates those possibilities and with it any compelling reason to watch.

Oh sure, there will still be the backdrop of Niagara Falls and the history of the event and the initial curiosity will get many people to tune in but less people will make the trek to see it live and I believe people watching on TV get bored quickly. If the practice sessions in the parking lot of the Niagara Falls Senaca Casino are any barometer–curiosity was the main motivation. Interest was poor at best. There were sparse crowds and the audience attention waned quickly. Why so? The wire was not very far off the ground and there was no imminent danger however many of the people that showed up and displayed little interest in this event said that they would definitely watch on June 15. The reason they gave was that that’s when it counts–translated that’s when his life will be on line.

Attaching the tether is a huge mistake and will drastically alter the complexion of this event. Aside from the elimination of the risk factor, the other question that needs to be asked is can this be considered a true tight rope crossing if you are tethered to the wire? It certainly cannot be regarded in the same measure as a Blondin who carried people across the wire or a Senor Farini, neither of whom had any safety measures in place.

It’s kind of like if someone climbs Mount Everest and doesn’t complete the journey back or is picked up by a helicopter at the top–Is that considered a true conquest of the mountain? There is actually some debate going on right now whether another climber George Mallory may have summited before Sir Edmund Hillary. Hillary maintains he was the first climber to get back down alive and should get the credit regardless.

Where is the challenge in all of this– the conquering of the elements–the summoning up of the requisite concentration(in fact one of the reasons that Karl Wallenda never used safety nets was that he felt that it led to a lack of concentration)– the overcoming of the fear. It takes an extraordinary person of skill and daring to accomplish such a feat and that is what Niagara generally requires of its daredevils. A tether not only diminishes the exceptionality of the performer but also of the venue. If you offer others the safety of the tether, stunters of ordinary ilk would crawl out of the woodwork to give it a try. What’s there to lose–nothing. There was a time when a barge was stuck in the upper rapids above the Falls with two men inside(by the way that barge is still there today) and a rope was strung out to it and the men shimmied along the rope to safety. Should they be considered tight ropists as well? Their lives were probably more at risk than Wallenda’s will be.

Why would Wallenda agree to the tether. Some say he’s more interested in the payday that is being attached to the walk–hard to believe that if he refused ABC would pull the plug on this event. He could also claim that logistically the tether would be difficult to maneuver around the stabilizing guywires. Others say that he might have gotten cold feet. He might have begun to sense the exceptionalism of Niagara. I have been saying this from the beginning. That there is a presence here unlike anywhere else and it has to be factored in.. Maybe Wallenda is beginning to get a sense of the same vibration. Maybe it has put some doubt in his mind and dented his confidence. Maybe the condition set down by ABC was genuine however the other possibility is that maybe it was fabricated– either way it has offered an excuse for Wallenda to take the safer route. It offered him a chance to duck under the apron strings. After all, he does have a wife and three children. It is reported that he also has plans to cash in on future exhibitions here at the falls but you can’t do that if you are dead. Regardless, this decision is going to have serious repercussions, the credibility of the performance and audience investment.

Had I been in his shoes I would’ve done it another way. This is the alternative that his manager Winston Simone should have proposed. It would have been the Niagara Falls version of the Snake River Canyon jump or fiasco as some people referred to it. On the surface many people probably still swear by the authenticity of Evel Knievel’s jump over the Snake River. But there are many others, who after examining the stunt a little more closely have determined that Evel Knievel probably never intended to make a successful jump. It was a staged failure to create the illusion of tragedy. I referred to it as a control or planned failure because it was accomplished with a minimal amount of risk to the daredevil(here I use the term loosely.)

Evel Knievel was probably more at risk for injury if his vehicle landed on the other side of the canyon–due to the height and the velocity it would have been traveling. We’ve seen enough slow-motion video of Evel tumbling over the handlebars of his motorcycle after jumping a row of cars and watching all the damage that was done to his body as he caterwauled across the pavement of a parking lot. I maintain that Evel Knievel never intended to be in a vehicle upon impact at Snake River. Instead he was going to be floating gently down to the confines of the canyon and that was the plan from the outset. There was only one element of danger in this whole scenario and that was that the parachute open and I’m sure it would have had all kinds of redundancy and backups in place to ensure that that happened. The danger was very minimal in this contrived failure– less than it would have been with a successful crossing. However it was a visually spectacular failure with the inclusion of heightened danger. It was a cleverly crafted hoax but one that left an observer feeling like he got something for his money.

However, the event was tainted and it impacted the respectability of the rest of Evel’s career.

If Wallenda is going to go in this direction he should at least follow the example of this script, if he wants to manufacture some excitement. First of all, get rid of the tether–the danger has to be perceived as real. After you’ve got their attention –and money– then they can judge whether it was really dangerous. Parachuting from this height would probably not work as the chute would not have sufficient time to deploy. It might break his fall enough to prevent death but serious injury would not be eliminated. Wallenda should go out on the wire and do some stunts for the entertainment value–ride a bike, lay down on the wire, whatever. At some point he could begin to mimic the wire wobble of his great grandfather. Even Nik Wallenda has stated that he has been trained to grab the wire if he encountered any difficulty. (I wonder if this was an effort to appease the network and make it seem like there was a measure of safety in place.)

In any event he should go into his great grandfather’s prefall crouch-drop the balancing pole into the gorge for dramatic effect and grab the wire. Suspended from the wire, the audience would be transfixed. At this point the crowd would be screaming. A helicopter could be deployed in a few minutes and effect a rescue–a rope ladder would be a nice touch and the visual imagery evoked from this orchestration would be priceless with a relatively minimal amount of risk. Anyway this is hypothetical meandering and speculation.

The fact is that Wallenda has stated that it has been a lifelong dream to walk Niagara and inherent in that proposition is the challenge– the challenge to the unique nature of the venue–and the powers that reside here– the challenge to the venture of life or death– the challenge to himself, his skill, his internal constitution, his pride and his courage. And the responsibility to the audience to perform in a realistic manner under authentic circumstances. And nowhere was there any mention of a tether in all of this.

A tether is demeaning to the man and to the reputation of this man’s family. A tether is a desecration to the history and tradition of Niagara and to the men and women who have gone before and risked it all. A tether is a slap in the face of to the tight rope walker profession.

A tether is tantamount to fraud.

I appeal to Nik Wallenda’s sense of pride and integrity to do the right thing. To stand up for what you believe in– what you know in your heart is the right thing to do. Don’t let a television network dictate how you conduct your performance on the wire. The wire is your domain. I implore you to do the right way or don’t do it at all.

Predictions.

I predict that at least five tragic incidents will take place in circumstances related to the Falls. One person went over the falls on the weekend of May 11/12 when Wallenda was just beginning his practice exhibitions and is presumed dead. Another person went over the Falls on the 21st and was critically injured. I predict that there will be a major incident weekend of the walk on June 15 to 17. I predict the live audience will be lower than the expectations of 150,000 people. The time of the event is not during a vacation and students will still be in school-it is on a week day and this will also affect attendance. If Wallenda does tether himself to the wire this will further lower attendance–people will not want to make the trek. I predict the televised broadcast ratings will also be impacted by the tether– initial curiosity will make the numbers of viewers high but this will drop off quickly. I predict that wearing the tether will severely damage his career after this event. Evel Knievel’s reputation was forever tarnished after Snake River Canyon. Wallenda’s name recognition will increase but people will not pay to see this type of stunt in the future and the popularity of that kind of performance will decrease.

Will Wallenda compromise his principles for financial gain? Will money win out as it usually does over pride and integrity?

Will Wallenda relent and refuse the tether and face the challenge of Niagara head on? If he does the latter and becomes a daredevil in the true sense of the meaning he will come face to face with the quintessence of Niagara and the ghosts of his predecessors will tell him that that encounter does not bode well for one’s future.

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