On daredevils’ flirtations with death

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

I watched Nik Wallenda cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope last year — impressive! And last week he walked 1,400 feet on a 2-inch cable stretched across the Little Colorado River Gorge, with 1,500 feet of nothing between him and the river below.
The feat was broadcast live by The Discovery Channel into 219 countries. A 10-second delay was built into the feed, presumably to provide the channel with time to cut away in case of a mishap.
And with high-wire walking — especially without a safety harness — an ugly mishap is always a distinct possibility, under the best conditions. In this case, the winds in the canyon were gusty, and a 1,400-foot cable, no matter how tightly stretched, tends to bounce and vacillate. Wallenda, a devout Christian, prayed aloud for most of the trip, saying repeatedly, “Thank you, Jesus.” At one dicey moment, he said, “Thank you for calming that cable, God.”
Wallenda, a member of a famous circus family, makes his living by risking his life. He’s a daredevil and an artist, but he’s also a meticulous technician who tempers the danger by rigorous preparation and training for each performance. No doubt, his audience appreciates the accomplishment of a feat that is difficult well beyond the capacities of ordinary human beings.
But let’s be honest: The spectacle is thrilling precisely because death is a possibility. No one would bother to broadcast or watch someone walking 1,400 feet along a cable strung 2 feet above the ground.
Which raises a couple of interesting questions: Wallenda is 34. He has an apparently devoted wife and three children, ages 15, 12 and 10. High-wire walking provides an excellent living for them, but one wonders if a man in his position should be performing any feats that have the adjective “death-defying” in front of them or that require Jesus to turn his attention from more productive activities to stabilize a vibrating, windblown cable in a gratuitous stunt that no prudent human being would undertake to begin with.
And, second, if Wallenda were to fall to his death — as did his great-grandfather, Karl, and several other members of his wire-walking family — does his audience bear any moral or ethical responsibility?
These questions are probably relevant to the case of Jane Wicker, as well. On June 22, Wicker, 44, was performing as a wing walker at an airshow in Dayton, Ohio. As she sat, untethered, on the left wing of an aircraft flying upside down close to the ground, her pilot lost control and the two of them crashed hard in a dramatic, fatal fireball. Wicker, the mother of two teenage boys, was planning a wedding for next year.
Some considerations: First, maybe human beings’ inclination toward risk and daring is what brought us down out of the trees in the first place and onto the African savannahs. It led us across oceans and to learn to fly. But risking one’s life for the amusement of others is in a different category entirely, especially once children and spouses are involved.
Second, the audience that enjoys watching others engage in risky behavior shouldn’t be shielded from its consequences. Some of the spectacular images of Wicker’s aircraft plowing into the ground were “altered to blur graphic content,” and Wallenda’s audience was protected by the 10-second delay. Unwillingness to face up to what happens when things go wrong borders on oblivious hypocrisy.
Third, Wallenda might say that his life wouldn’t be complete without high-wire walking. But he shouldn’t depend on the approval of Jesus to keep him safe. Jesus may have walked on water, but nothing is harder to imagine than Jesus walking a high-wire to titillate an audience. Nik, use a safety harness.
Finally, the adrenaline thrill must have been what originally attracted Wallenda and Wicker to such extraordinary risks. Still, at some point one realizes the biggest thrill of all is just being alive.

John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email: jcrisp@delmar.edu.