Night moused across the northern hills of Georgia, then quickly fell, and all that could be seen was the swirling dust in front of the headlights and a faraway flicker across an open field. The glimmer was the weak light of a tent meeting, a revival which, like the storied moonshine of the South, is believed to be in decline and quite inferior. It may be, but it hardly seemed so here in this tent, filled with frantic moths and wet, comatose faces nodding at a frail, agitated preacher whose hands whipped at unseen evil "out there on this Georgia night."
"God is swift!" cried the preacher. "Oh, yeahhh," the crowd agreed. "He is swift," he said again. "Oh, yeahhh. He is. He's got an extrawwwordinary sense, that's what He has. That man, who's gonna go walkin' tomorrow, that man...he knows how swift the Lord is. Pray, brothers and sisters, pray for that man that the Lord won't be so swift tomorrow."
The man, the recipient of the reverend's spiritual largess, was Karl Wallenda, age 65, the most gifted high-wire artist in history. What Karl Wallenda was going to do seemed to cry for prayers, or perhaps a parachute. He was going to walk across Tallulah Gorge, close to a thousand feet wide and 750 feet in depth. It would be, aside from madness, the second greatest walk of all time: the moon, the promoters conceded reluctantly after lengthy debate, deserved top billing.
"When he falls off," a photographer asked an engineer, "what's the best way to get down to the bottom?"
"The same way he went," said the engineer.
One could reach out and feel the quiver of bad vibrations in this speck of a town. Death, like a giant shadow, has always been near the lives of the Wallendas. First there was the accident in Detroit in 1962, which put two of them in graves and one in a wheelchair for life. Then, there was Yetta, who fell in Omaha and lay there with that worried look of the Wallendas lining her face even in death.
"My brother Karl is insane," said Herman Wallenda, looking out over the ominous gorge. "He does not need this...but the applause, ah, the applause.... It is his whole life...it is like a fine wine."
So, last Saturday afternoon, in front of 30,000 people and Governor Lester Maddox, who said that he, too, was praying real hard, Karl Wallenda took a walk in the 50th year of his career and made it look like a brisk evening constitutional. The sensitive life and wisdom in his size-seven feet carried him across the rock-studded gorge in 20 minutes and in 616 steps. For diversion he stood on his head twice. The striking aspect of it all, though, was not just spectacle. It was the portrait he presented, the towering physical strength and beautiful nerves under a pressure few ever feel.
This was, too, so human a thing, so movingly individualistic at a brutalizing period in history that finds men slipping deeper and deeper into the mold of mass man. The huge glistening machinery of our society seemed to come apart like a Tinker Toy with every step he took. He was alone, and it was truly staggering to imagine the amount of hard-rock assurance he must possess in his own power and invulnerability. The problems that confronted him were enormous: the thermal currents of the gorge, the 35-pound balancing pole that could suddenly seem like 200 pounds to an old man, and, finally, the deadly 821 feet of sloping downhill wire.
Yet he walked the wire (1[11/16]ths of an inch in diameter) 20 minutes faster than he thought he would. He was quite cautious early in the walk, and then he seemed to pick up the pace. As his tiny figure began to emerge slowly out of that awful, hot sky, one could see through field glasses a smile grow larger and larger on his rubbery, almost clownlike face. His wife, who has refused to watch him perform for eight years, hid her face in her hands. Only occasionally would she look up, and then she would begin to sob. When he reached the end he was promptly placed on a stretcher where he could be examined by doctors who were interested in his heartbeat. He remained under this observation only briefly, then walked over to the grandstand, trailed by 200 reporters and photographers, some from Europe, where he partook of a mammoth martini. "I've had two a day for 20 years," he says.