The Wallendas are a multi-generational circus family often referred to as “The Flying Wallendas.” The family’s American circus history began in 1928 when Karl Wallenda and his troupe of high-wire artists arrived in the United States to perform with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Circus owner John Ringling first saw the act while they were performing in Cuba.
In 1983, Karl fell 100 feet to his death performing a wire act in Puerto Rico. Rick is the son of the late Karl, and Nik is Karl’s grandson. Nothing has ever kept any of these guys down on the ground. Even today this is true despite numerous accidents over the years, including one in 2017 when, during a rehearsal, there was a collapse of Nik’s eight-person pyramid, which resulted in multiple injuries.
Over the years, family members have performed all over the world. The acts continue today. Just last week, in June, Nik and his sister Lijana, who had a near-fatal accident in 2017, when she broke nearly every bone in her face, safely crossed Times Square on a high wire strung between two skyscrapers 25 stories above the pavement. They were wearing tethered safety harnesses, required by the city in case they fell. The performances are so breathtaking that, even after the conclusion of their most recent act, as I watched a video of the performance, I could not help but hold my breath. Finally, I exhaled, but just as I relaxed, the announcer informed the viewing public that the Wallendas’ next plan is to cross over an active volcano. Are these people crazy?
Not one to take any chances with fire or flame, I make sure to take three steps back when I light candles on Friday night. High places are also not my thing. I can’t even look down when I’m riding on a down escalator. And as for placing one foot in front of another to walk on a wire, I don’t even put one foot in front of the other to walk on a curb. If I should happen to park my car too close to a curb and then open the car door and discover that the sidewalk is blocked so that walking on the curb is my only option, I’m in trouble. My solution to this problem is to get out of the car and then place one hand over the other on the car until I get to an open place on the sidewalk. Basically, I hold on to the car for dear life. Clearly, balance is not my strong suit. I no longer even trust myself to walk on grass, since it’s too lumpy and bumpy to suit me. My walking these days is done only on a flat surface, such as cement. It’s terra firma or nothing!
Thank goodness my last name is not Wallenda. But the current head of this family has a philosophy, as well as an explanation, for the extraordinary performances that he and the other members of the clan give. In a recent interview he said it this way: one must learn to conquer one’s fears. This is true and is part of the reason that a parent will encourage a child to get back on his bike after falling. But bike-riding is a far cry from walking on a high wire above Times Square or balancing above a live volcano.
Psychiatry is not my specialty and I don’t profess to know much about it. Nevertheless, I feel comfortable suggesting that the Wallendas could use some serious psychiatric help. It’s just a layman’s opinion, of course, but a shrink would have a field day with these people. On the other hand, a psychiatrist might have the same field day with somebody like me, who fears flames and heights. That’s just the way it is.
Hannah Berman lives in Woodmere and gives private small-group lessons in mah-jongg and canasta. She can be reached at Savtahannah@aol.com or 516-295-4435. Read more of Hannah Berman’s articles on 5TJT.com.