Saturday, April 27, 2013

My God, my God: the falling Wallendas

I don't know what it is about me. Just me? Look at reality TV. We all have this instinctive inner urge to ogle, to goggle. Other people's disasters fascinate us.

I was tempted to (but didn't) post a horrific 15-second YouTube clip of the patriarch of the Wallenda family attempting to walk a wire stretched between two high-rise buildings. He lost his balance, slipped, fell and hit the pavement. But even that isn't the worst part. Two guys are just standing around talking. Obviously they saw what happened - wouldn't the whole world be watching this incredible stunt? - and it doesn't even occur to them to try to help.  In the next second, twenty people run frantically toward the now-expired body. But what was up with those two guys?

Just looking at a picture like this makes me queasy.

How could anybody find it enjoyable to watch this? For that matter, why did people used to (and still do, I hear) attend executions of death-row criminals? Why do we go to movies that scare the bejesus out of us, even pay good money for it?

Here are the Wallendas walking the wire at Detroit's Shrine Circus in 1962. They always worked without a net. Nets were for amateurs and sissies.  I never attended the Shrine Circus (I hated that smell of animal dung and the sweaty frightening clowns), but I could have. I lived close enough to Detroit that when the ground rumbled, our teacups began to rattle. In this photo, it's obvious already that things are going perilously wrong. The quivering symmetry of the first shot is coming undone.

What happened? Post-disaster, one of the Wallendas claimed it was the man at the top of the pyramid. Quite simply, he lost his grip. With all that weight on both sides, a deviation of a fraction of a centimeter meant doom. It must have happened that night.

Obviously a few reporters were there, smoking cigarettes, taking swigs from hip flasks as they covered the most boring public event of the year. But suddenly, the cameras couldn't snap fast enough.

An interjection. There's something funny about these two pictures. That banner behind the woman was supposed to be horizontal. Here it's wildly askew. Someone tilted their camera, obviously, to make the shot look more dramatic. Here (below) is the same shot, rotated to normal: obviously the woman wasn't careening down at an angle, but being carefully lowered on a wire. The position of her hands makes that obvious. Like anyone who parachutes, an aerialist would be prepared for an eventual/inevitable fall, and certainly would NOT fall feet-first!
The more I look at this, the more I see the essential phoniness and dishonesty of the press. If the woman were actually falling, she would not be looking down at the ground at this angle. The corrected shot is almost like another picture. Her legs are relaxed and dangling, whereas her arms are flexed as she holds on. For shame, Detroit News.

Call this the Day of the Jackal. The carnage was laid out for everyone to see. The Detroit News went on and on about it, pages and pages. Were there video clips? I think so, but not on YouTube. I've seen a couple seconds of it on documentaries about the Wallendas. It's horrendous.

This catastrophe put Detroit on the map and was the biggest thing to happen to the entertainment industry since Milky's Party Time.

But think of the audience.

Think of the sickening screams, the horror, the disbelief. the bizarre part of the mind that insists, "Oh, it's all part of the act" (like people today, caught in terrorist attacks, who without fail say afterwards, "I thought I was in a movie").

And the children. It wasn't common then to explain anything to them. (Still isn't, if you ask me.)  If we didn't talk about it, it just went away. Imagine the racing heart and overwhelming dread, that little spot of horror deep inside, never healed, just crouching there, while the adult wonders why he has heart disease, why he's so afraid of  heights.

Couldn't that buried trauma, like a tiny earthquake vibration gradually growing stronger and stronger, eventually crumble the core of a human being? Couldn't it? We call it "psychosomatic illness". I call it the human sickness, the thing that might just finish us after all.

  Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!


  1. I remember when it happened. And yet, the public disaster that made a bigger and longer-lasting impression on me happened before I was born. It was Floyd Collins's bizarre death trapped for a week in a cave. My dad told me about it. I still have claustrophobic dreams where I'm trying to escape from a cave by squeezing thru an impossible crack... (probly symbolic of my writing ambitions)

  2. Is that the crack you were sniffing? (Sorry, I'm a sadist.) I'm just glad I wasn't there. With my morbid imagination, I doubt if I ever would have forgotten it.

  3. You're mixing your metaphors. Or am I? Gadzooks.

  4. A metaphor is a cocktail consisting of envy, depression and bile. Specifially served to writers. Shaken, not stirred.