Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Flying Wallendas, Niagara Falls, and me

I can't watch this, but can't take my eyes off it either. Know the feeling? Even though I KNOW they got through it safely.

This time.

Those Wallendas. They never quit. We know this cuzzadafact that that Wallenda guy, that Nik Wallenda I mean, is going to do it again, going to walk over Niagara Falls on a wire, or at least try to, just to prove he's a Wallenda and that Wallenda-style risks are still alive and well in 2012.

Or not?

I can't find video of the Wallendas' tragic seven-person-pyramid crash at the Detroit Shrine Circus in 1962, but I did find a photo that gives me the old-fashioned willies.

In this photo, one of the most disturbing I have ever seen, Wallendas are crashing to the ground because they always work without a net.  Two people died right before everyone's eyes while the crowd gasped, murmured and groaned. To the Wallendas, dying seems to be an occupational hazard.

Niagara Falls stunts are almost old hat, but we haven't heard of one for quite a while now. To me, Niagara Falls wasn't a tourist destination but just a place my parents dragged me to once or twice a year to visit my cousins, because my Dad's sister (Aunt Mae) lived there. About all I can remember of those early visits is the Maid of the Mist, a big ungainly boat that turns around once, and going in behind the falls to watch the polluted water rushing down.

Niagara Falls was like a giant flush toilet: it stank, a smell sort of like rotten orange peels mixed with diesel fuel and dirty feet. I remember that smell even more vividly than the tacky, slightly smutty souvenirs they sold in the stores on Lundy's Lane.

All this got pretty much packed into the back of my brain, because those memories weren't any more pleasant than most of my childhood recollections (though, curiously, a couple of my siblings insist that I really was happy, my father wasn't like that at all and nothing ever went wrong). Then during our recent trip to Ontario to take part in my mother-in-law's memorial, my husband's brother suggested we drive to Niagara Falls for the afternoon.

NIAGARA FALLS? Wasn't that zillions of miles away? Didn't I have to be car-sick for hours in the back seat of a stifling car to get there? Didn't I have to hear my Dad sniffling up nasal spray and clearing his throat for seventeen hours?

Apparently not.

When Al mentioned Lundy's Lane, a whole sluice of memory was released, smelling about as good as the falls. My Dad getting drunk and bellowing on and on about growing up in Niagara Falls, which his transplanted-Cockney family nicknamed Niffles. The way he always got beat up for being a "chirper" and the way he studied boxing and bested all of them, and the old Italian guy who endlessly sang the same song, and the World War I songs and English music hall ditties that got branded into my brain because I heard them seventeen thousand times. Because I was the youngest child by thirteen years, and because everyone else had left, I was his only remaining audience. When not assuring me he wished I had never been born, he regaled me with the same boring bullshit over, and over, and over again.

We were a sort of family wax museum, all our sins seamlessly sealed over in a way that was remarkably lifelike, so Niagara Falls was a natural location because nothing ever changes there either. Parallel to this great roaring natural wonder, everything was transparently fake. These trips were treats, mind, and we looked forward to them. We had to. It was our cousins, and you had to like visiting your cousins or there was just something wrong with you.

So how does all this connect to Wallendas flying through the air? Niffles still seems to attract a sleazy kind of curiosity even after all these decades. We want to watch Nik Wallenda go up there and attempt this suicidal stunt because, in an awful sort of way, we want to see him fail.  It feeds the worst in us, the rubbernecking curiosity that causes people to stare at car accidents. We feel ashamed of ourselves, but not enough to stop looking. But we also feel, deep down, that it serves him right if he falls because trying stuff like that, taking risks like that, is downright indecent. It seems to be pulling bad luck and curses right down on your own head.

The family patriarch Karl Wallenda died in the most naked, public manner possible as he tried to walk a wire stretched between two highrise buildings in Puerto Rico. He simply fell. Video exists, but I can't post it here. I did watch it, and it sickened me the way he fought the wind at midpoint, swayed perilously, tried desperately to balance himself (you knew what was coming just before it happened), then - let go.

Exactly one day after our visit to Niagara Falls, we heard a startling news story: on a beautiful sunny day, in front of hundreds of tourists, a man climbed up on a railing high over the top of the Horseshoe Falls, and jumped. Had we gone there only a day later, we would have seen it.

Bizarrely, the man went over the falls and survived, and even pulled himself out of the water on his own. Rescuers bore him away to the hospital, but he survived with relatively minor injuries.

Suicides, stunts, plastic ornaments, waxworks, all that water roaring down. How did I feel after all those decades? Did I have any epiphanies as I stood at the rail and reflected on my memories from the past fifty years?

There was something different, but at first I couldn't tell what it was. Then it hit my limbic system: that smell! It was gone. No more rotten fruit and stinking underwear.

The spray that atomized from the roaring falls, casting eerie suspended rainbows into the sunshine and saturating the front of my jacket, smelled pristine and fresh as a stream in the Garden of Eden.


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