SI Vault
Mark Kram
July 27, 1970
Old Karl Wallenda walked a wire 750 feet above a rocky Georgia gorge, with every step a giant leap for his kind of man
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
July 27, 1970

The Smell Of Death Was In The Air

Old Karl Wallenda walked a wire 750 feet above a rocky Georgia gorge, with every step a giant leap for his kind of man

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2

The crowd, there from all parts of the country and sensing tragedy, was visibly relieved that he survived. "You see, my friend," said brother Herman, "death has become good business for the Wallendas." Herman smiled ironically, and rightly so. The Wallendas have always been one of the great circus acts in the world, but even they never really made big money. The most they would make might be $2,500 a week, say, for one two-week stand, but there were seven of them in the act, their expenses were high and the playing dates quite uneven. Then came Detroit, and suddenly the name Wallenda took on a strange fascination. "I do not blame them, the people," says Herman. "It is what our lives have been all about. The smell of death, that is what we are about."

The memory of the accident trails Karl, the patriarch of the family, from day to day. He was and is the spirit of the family, a man admired and hated by many, yet always a man who commands genuine respect. He is a disciplined, mentally hard German with one of the great egos of the world, but not even his dedicated involvement with himself can chase the horror of Detroit. "I couldn't look down," he says. "There is a picture in my mind of the ring down there...and the boys. They are broken and still, and around them there are the balance poles and bars and the chair...just pieces. That picture is in my mind and I never lose it. If I look down once I know I will see it again...those boys. If I look I go mad. I don't look.

"We are about halfway through when I feel something is wrong," continues Karl. "Then I see that Dieter is not steady and I listen close. I hear that he is talking to himself. I know there is trouble. He is so close to the platform. Then I see there is something wrong with his pole. And then there is that voice, that cry—'Ich kann nicht mehr halten [I can't hold it any longer].' Then I see it drop. I know we are all going to go. I know this but I cannot believe it. Jana is at the top on the chair and she has no chance at all. I hit the wire hard and it feels as if it goes right through my crotch. Then Jana comes down on my back and she grabs me, and I hold on to her until I can drop her to safety. I went back up again two days later. You see, it has to be that way. If I go up I can concentrate on my work. Down here I see two people dead and one more almost dead."

Wallenda talked freely of death last week in the hills of Georgia, and it even startled the stone-hard hillsmen who admire iron in men. But, as one of them said, "Hit's the damned scariest thing I ever did see." The people and the region were a perfect backdrop for this event, which cost the promoters more than $60,000. The creation and construction of the wire alone cost $50,000, and Wallenda received $10,000. The admission was $5 per person. The money would go toward building an amphitheater where regional historical drama can be offered. The publicity, hopefully, would resurrect Tallulah as a summer resort. Whether any of this is ever realized, it still will always be remembered as an afternoon of strange charm.

Vaguely, it had the clamor of the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tenn., but a quality all its own and tableaus that stick in the mind: the old, old hill people looking emptily for hours out over the gorge and at the wire; the fine-looking women from downstate with their Zelda Fitzgerald faces or the plain Scotch-Irish faces, wearing big floppy hats and looking so deceptively fragile. And finally the hill talk: "the shine down here, hit ain't no more good anymore. Ya find anythink in it nowadays from Red Devil lye to parts of snakes and possums who get in the stuff at night." Or "Guvnor Maddox, you say. Why, we got the only real honest guvnor in this country. He don't steal a nickel. Why, Ole Lestah, he don't have sense enough ta steal nothin'."

The event belonged in these hills, and it really belonged to a time that is no more. But most of all it had the character—even though it was just a fragment—of the old circus that made a dream a reality suddenly one morning in an empty corner of a vacant lot. In Tallulah there was once again the smell of poster paste, the mysterious dancers from the Middle East who (curiously) chewed gum and looked at their nails and, if you could sneak on the lot after dark, there was that ghostly, scary sight of canvas in the moonlight. That was the way it felt in Tallulah Gorge, Ga., and only a technocrat would call it all frivolous and useless.

"Useless?" asks Karl Wallenda. "Why, it cannot ever be useless. To perform is to live, and everything else is waiting."

1 2