Monday, December 01, 2008

On The High Wire

On The High Wire

Khuk Khak, Thailand

Maybe you’ve heard of The Flying Palaminos?


I was with them back in the late sixties. When I was drifting between high school, college, and a war I didn’t want to go to, I spent one summer with the circus, with the high wire act, part of the trapeze show performed by the Palamino family.

After Tito fell during an attempt of the triple-chair stunt in Newark and was paralyzed from the waist down, I ended up filling in for him, ‘walking the wire’ for only about five minutes of the act, easy stuff, a walk-out, a couple of 180s, squat on the wire, stand on one foot.

Tito could do flips, the bicycle, juggling, and a repertoire of all sorts of other astonishing stunts on the wire and trapeze, but I wasn’t that good, nor nearly as confident. He was a gazelle in the air, and what they called 'a natural aerial artist’.

Like a lot of things in life, it’s all about balance. But really, anybody could do it. You don’t start out at fifty feet in the air without a net, with a huge crowd under the Big Top hoping to see you fall. You start in your backyard on a rope between your mom’s clothesline poles.

Really, I didn’t even start there. When I was small, I was all over the sidewalk, clumsy and club-footed as a duck. My mom told me to go down and ‘walk the rails’ down on the railroad track, and that’s where I began to get myself straightened out, as my dad would occasionally suggest I begin to do.

The old ‘Wabash Cannonball’ tracks. Yep. We lived right beside them. People would ask, 'Do those trains bother you at night?' and I would say, 'What trains?'

You get pretty good at something if you practice every day, and us boys in the neighborhood, instead of taking the alleys down to Gackenheimer’s drugstore for chips and Double Colas, would walk the rails to town.

Before long, us kids, daring and trying to outdo one another the way young boys do, were ‘running the rails.’

We were running the rails. Running the rails in Redball Jets. A lot of us could. Not just the switch track, which was rusty and easy to gain a purchase, a foothold, but also the mainline track, too, slick and shiny as a Japanese samurai blade.

Before long, we were running the rails with our eyes closed, visualizing the rail running straight as an arrow in our minds. From there, we went to the clothesline poles. A lot of us got pretty good.

Jack could almost do a flip, but after he racked himself up pretty good one afternoon, unable to walk fully erect for several days, none of us other guys wanted to try that. We wanted to enter manhood with an intact set.

Anyway, I was the only one to go on with it as an actual performer, to the big time, so to speak, if only for one...did I say summer? I meant month; six shows from Detroit to St. Louis, then they got a cousin of Miranda’s for a full time replacement for Tito, who the doctors said would never walk again, much less climb back up on the wire.

We say ‘wire’, but it’s actually a rope. Jean-Phillipe Petit used cable to cross between the world trade center towers in 1974, and Karl Wallenda...maybe you've heard of 'The Flying Wallendas'?...used cable for the San Juan, Puerto Rico Hotel tower crossing, when he fell to his death at age 73 in a 25 mph crosswind, caught on grainy super 8 film.

Wallenda's fall was more dignified than Phillipo's, but not nearly as artistic as Geppetto's. Both Petit and Wallenda used crossbars, long balancing poles. Under the tent, we used hemp rope. No crossbars. ‘Crossbars are for sissies’, they used to say. Nets, too, in the business.

The Palaminos got their start after the old man, Lorenzo Palamioni (Pah-lam-ee-oh-nee), a legend in the business, left ‘The Old Country,’ Sicily, for New York, and at Ellis Island upon his entry into the U.S., shorted his name to Palamino, then eventually imported the entire act, which was also saying, the entire family.

The act had been fully operational across Europe, with big name high-wire and trapeze acts running for decades in families in places like Prague, Budapest, Leipzig, and Belgrade. The Tapezios, the Wallendas, the Kryzinskis. Circus is big in Europe, whereas in the States, ‘Carny people’, are the gypsy, trailer-trash people that everyday folks look down upon as greasy, trailer-trash gypsies.

This is not to say that Sophia did not wear a clean outfit.

She did the ‘Cloud Swing’ and the rope, easy shit. Sophia, smiling broadly, in the spotlight, under the big top.

Lorenzo had three sons, Tito, Marco and Alonzo, the husband of Miranda, who was on top in the pyramid; and four daughters, Sophia, Maria, Rosalia, and Caterina, all of whom were married and brought their husbands into the act on the trapeze, trampoline, and double pyramid on the wire.

I had a diagram of the family tree and who was married to who, and who did what in the act, but it was lost in the fire. Main thing was getting the elephants and all those animals out. There were horseback-riding monkeys and lions and all kinds of other exotic and trained animals, but of course, they weren’t part of our act.

I mean, a monkey is ‘a natural’ on the wire, like Tito was, but say, an elephant or a giraffe, couldn’t even get up the ladder, no matter how long they trained. They simply 'didn't have what it takes.'

Anyway, old man Lorenzo was the only person on earth, living, who could perform the triple chair stunt. They say some of the old-timers, two, three generations back, did amazing credibility defying, if-I-didn't-see-it-with-my-own-two-damn-eyes stuff like that all the time. Like, "Heya boys, whatcha this."

That’s a chair balanced on two legs on the wire, with another chair on top of that, with the back legs on top of can picture it...and a third chair on top of that, atop which the old man would perform a one-armed handstand and the splits while spinning hoops on a pencil in his mouth. A real crowd-pleaser, and he had it down to a ‘T’. Nobody else could even do the chairs.

A lot of people died trying. Phillipo fell to his death in Kansas City attempting it, partially because of a rigging failure on the net, but he fell and died, nonetheless. Hit the net and the ground, full force. And Carlo died in San Francisco attempting two chairs. And Maria’s husband Geppetto fell to his death, on trapeze, not the wire.

His catcher, Vinnie’s timing was just a bit off, and in this business, a little bit off is the same as a country mile, like a shuttle launch being ‘a little bit off’ in a rendezvous with the space station. The usual slap of palms against taped wrists, followed by a puff of talcum powder just didn’t happen that night. A total miss.

After a double forward spin, Geppetto opened up for the catch and went sailing by, too early, and flailed at the air like a butterfly swimmer, bringing the crowd instantly to their feet in astonished fascination, then landed straight smack on his chest, a spectacular fall of about sixty feet.

This was long before cell phone cameras and video cameras, so there weren’t any replays. You had to be there. It was absolutely spellbinding. It took the whole family to persuade Vinnie to continue on the trapeze, since everyone knew it was his fault, coming off the platform juuuust a little bit late.

They brought in a stretcher, then the pony-riding Tinkerbell poodles with the silly party hats, and the clowns, with the Ringmaster attempting to restore a sense of showmanship in the midst of that terrible tragedy, but the crowd, the family, and especially Maria, was still in shock. But the show must go on, as they say in the business.

“These athings happen from time a to time,” said the old man, slowly. “He wasa almosta like a son to a me.”

So when Geppetto fell, coming right after Tito, that put another damper on the family, and a person can’t just go in there and replace a guy like that. It’s not like coming in, in relief in the top of the ninth, looking for three outs.

So I had people against me from the start. Some of the members were resentful, like toward a step-dad or something, like Tito and Geppetto’s falls were somehow my fault, and others said I didn’t have what it takes, that I was too chickenshit. Others suggested it was me behind the fire. I could never be a true aerial artist, they said.

But Tito was with me, and a big help from his wheelchair, offering tips and whatnot, despite his persistent depression, so we were cool, and the old man, we were okay, too. I was okay with mama and Marco and the sisters, too, but their husbands, with the exception of Vinnie, always made me feel like I was an impostor, a fraud, a charlatan, which I was.

I mean, I never was cut out for that kind of work. Deep deep down I was chickenshit up in the air, and you can’t ‘fake it’ up on the wire. You gotta have it in your blood. Aerial artistry runs in bloodlines through the generations, like singers in Senegal, or NASCAR drivers. In some ways, the circus is sort of like Churchill Downs. Your momma’s a gypsy, your daddy’s a gypsy – what are you going to be?

Like I said, I was only with the Palaminos for a month, July, so that brief chance didn’t offer the time to really develop my craft into an art the way Tito did, but then the war and the draft was going on strong, and then there was that little run-in with the law, the choice between a prison stretch and the ‘Nam, and before you knew it, I was eating rice over here, just a couple blocks away. The Palaminos went on to Texas without me.

I went to basic training. The rest is history.

They asked me what my last job was.

“You like being in the air, huh, liar?” they asked. “Ok then. We’re going to put you in helicopters.”