I remember being 11 years old and seeing Karl Wallenda fall to his death from a tightrope. A gust of wind threw him off balance. I remember that he tipped sideways, attempted to right himself and slipped, dropping the pole he carried and reaching to try and grasp the tightrope with his free hand. He missed. I don’t know if the broadcast was live, or if I was watching news coverage of it after the fact. Horrifying as the event was, I remember thinking how brave, and maybe a little crazy you’d have to be to do something like that without a net.
But that’s the way seven generations of Wallenda’s have always done it.
If ABC television has its’ way, the long tradition of Wallenda’s walking without a “net” will be broken on the evening of June 15th when Nik Wallenda (great grandson of Karl) attempts to walk over Niagara Falls on a two inch steel cable.
The network is insisting he wear a safety harness so that the programming will be family friendly. As quoted in the NY Times yesterday, ABC spokesman Jeffrey W. Schneider said “We are going to take every precaution to make this an exciting and thrilling event that families can feel very comfortable watching with their kids.” Translation: There will be no real danger.
Nik Wallenda, his wife Erendira and their attorneys are fighting ABC on the decision. Said Erendira in the same article, “If we fall, we die.”
You may think a discourse on Nik Wallenda walking Niagara Falls, with or without a wire, is off topic for my blog. I beg to differ. Seeing Nik’s great grandfather fall to his death when I was 11 years old was quite a learning experience. Yes, it was shocking. The fact that I still remember it so well is testament to that fact. Am I scarred for life because of it? No. It did teach me something real about risk and danger, and possibly even informed me a bit about what I would and would not choose to do in my own life. (For instance, there is no way in hell you’d ever get me on a wire at any height over just a few feet without a net.) Watching someone fall and knowing they died as a result is something you don’t forget, but it wasn’t the same as watching a car wreck or murder. This is what the Wallenda’s do, and they know the risks. I’m not suggesting everyone should have their kids watch. That choice should be left up to each family, but ABC should give us that choice.
Why do we think children should be shielded from every danger? Especially when, in this case, the Wallenda’s do this willingly. It is their craft. You might think they are insane, and maybe they are, just a little. And maybe I’m crazy, but I believe it’s ok to let kids know that these people train their entire lives in order to be able to do this, and that their chosen profession is a dangerous one. I think it ok to talk to kids about what might happen, even though we all hope that it doesn’t. It seems to me that children who are taught that there is never any real danger – that there is always a harness – might be in for a rude awakening one day.
Of course, apart from all that, this decision by ABC is more than a little hypocritical. Do they assume that children are never watching NASCAR when a fatal accident occurs? Or a deadly downhill skiing accident televised for all to see? Or a horse race where a jockey falls and is killed, or the horse dies at the end? Why is tightrope walking different? (In my head right now I can hear the ABC people saying ‘because it’s a circus act and in a circus no one is supposed to die…)
Maybe I’m insensitive to the gentle natures of children. I want to see Nik Wallenda walk the Falls and succeed the way his family has always done it; without a net or a harness.
Our family will be watching.