Wallenda legacy continues

I can breathe again. I can stop holding my breath. He made it across. I’m talking, of course, about Nik Wallenda and his amazing walk across the Grand Canyon Sunday evening.

I was one of the more than 13 million viewers who sat spell-bound as Wallenda inched his way across a 2-inch wide, 1,400-foot long cable suspended above the Grand Canyon.

“The King of the High Wire” performed the feat without a net, continuing a family tradition that goes back seven generations. His great grandfather, Karl Wallenda, toured Europe with the family act, before coming to America. The Great Wallendas toured with the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus during the 1930s and 1940s. Karl left the Greatest Show on Earth in 1947 to form his own circus and later thrilled audiences with his legendary “skywalks” between buildings and over various athletic stadiums.

In 1969, I was a brand new reporter in the newsroom at the Grafton Sentinel. One day I got a call from a friend who worked in the registration office at Grafton City Park. She told me there was a famous circus performer camping in the park. At the time, I had no idea who the Great Wallendas were. I’d seen a few high-wire acts in the traveling circuses that came to the Grafton area, performing their daring feats 25 or so feet above the ring, with a safety net suspended below. It was from this position of blissful ignorance that I thanked my friend for the information, promising to look into it. I promptly forgot about it. Covering the local “cop shop” as well as meetings of the county commission were the big news stories that week. I had Friday, July 4th, off. Saturday morning, my friend called me again wanting to know if I was going to do a story on the circus star staying at the park. I tried to talk my way out of it, saying I didn’t want to intrude on their vacation but she was already ahead of me. She had gotten their permission to call me and for me to interview them.

More as an excuse to get out of the office early, I agreed to stop by the park later that morning. I figured I’d at least get a photograph of someone semi-famous enjoying the holiday weekend in our little city park, and I’d get out of an unair-conditioned office on a hot July day.

When I got to the park, I stopped at the office to let my friend know I was there and to get her to make the introductions. As we walked across the park, she gave me a little background, telling me the Wallendas had been featured performers with the Ringling Circus for about 20 years and performed without a net or other safety device.

I’m not sure what I expected to find at their campsite. What I found was a man in his 60s wearing Bermuda shorts, an unbuttoned sport shirt and flip-flops. With him was his wife, Helen. During the introduction, Karl explained they were taking a break from performing. They were spending their summer traveling around the country, stopping for a few days in many of the small towns they encountered along the way.

They were relaxing and unwinding and avoiding big cities and crowded areas.

Over the next two hours, we talked about his career. He had been performing since the he was a small child. He told me about his first “big-time job” when he was a teenager. He would perform a handstand on the feet of another performer who was lying down on the high wire. After learning the skills needed for wire-walking, he started his own act. Together with a brother, another performer and his future wife, they performed a four-person, three-level pyramid. I asked him about performing without a safety net. He explained that when they first came to the U.S., they planned to use a net, but it got lost on the way to Madison Square Garden. John Ringling wanted to cancel the performance but Karl insisted that the show go on. In their first-ever appearance in this country, The Greatest Show on Earth’s performance was brought to a standstill when the audience rewarded the Wallendas with a 15-minute standing ovation.

During most of our conversation, Karl’s eyes twinkled, and a smile was on his face as he told of his long career. Two stories changed that. In 1944, a fire started in the bleachers during a performance in Hartford, Conn. The Wallendas were on the wire when it started and slid down ropes to escape to safety. More than 150 people perished in the fire.

Tears came to his eyes as he told me about performing their signature stunt, the seven-person, three-level, chair pyramid. While performing in Detroit in 1962, the front man on the bottom slipped and the pyramid collapsed. Three men fell to the ground, Karl fell from the second level to the wire and the girl in the chair at the top fell on top of him. He held on to the wire and to her while the ground crew scrambled to get a safety net in place. Karl said that his dreams are still haunted by that accident. Two of the men who fell died and Karl’s son was paralyzed from the waist down. Despite suffering injuries himself, the group performed again the following night. “The show must go on, and I owed it to the men who died to perform in their honor,” was his comment. The seven-person pyramid was only performed twice after that. Once, the year after the accident and a decade later for the movie “The Great Wallendas,” that time recreated by his grandchildren.

When I asked him what was next, he explained that at the end of the summer, he would go back to work preparing for and promoting a skywalk across a gorge in Georgia. More than 30,000 people watched as Karl, 700 feet in the air, did two handstands during a 1,200-foot walk across the Tallulah Falls Gorge. He was 65 years old at the time.

I asked him if he ever had second thoughts about some of his walks. He said he was never afraid of the walk itself. He said the only thing that worried him was the preparation. He explained that he knew he had the skill and ability to walk the wire, but he always worried about the preparation. He said he often checked, double-checked and often triple-checked the setup. When I asked him why he did it, Karl just smiled and gave his signature answer, “Life is being on the wire, everything else is just waiting.”

Karl fell to his death in 1978 at the age of 73 during a skywalk between two buildings in Puerto Rico. Originally blamed on unexpected wind gusts, it was later found that the cause was in the rigging of the guy ropes for the wire. Nik Wallenda, and his mother, Karl’s granddaughter, completed that walk years later as a tribute to the patriarch of the Wallenda family.

Looking back, I’m so glad I spent some time with Karl on that Saturday in July 1969. I got a glimpse into the life of a man who loved his work, was happy sitting under an oak tree in a little-known park in small town Grafton. Karl loved flying on the high wire, but he enjoyed having some downtime, too.

– Lynn Setler is a customer service representative in the circulation department at The Inter-Mountain. He can be reach at 304-636-2121 or via email at lselter@theintermountain.com