A Nation Transfixed: High Wires and Prayers

Susan D. Harris
In 1938, in the midst of the Great Depression and suffering from an ominous foreboding of world war, America suspended the harsh realities of life to tune into a horse race.  A small horse named Seabiscuit, whom the media called "the cast off son of a cheaply held father," challenged Triple Crown winner War Admiral in the "Match of the Century."  Millions of people around the world listened to the race on their radio sets, and more than 40,000 jammed the Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore to view it firsthand.  It is now widely accepted that Seabiscuit's victory inspired a nation in the throes of poverty, hunger, international turmoil and personal depression.

Perhaps it was a country in a similar situation that caused Twitter to explode when high-wire artist and daredevil Nik Wallenda appeared on Discovery Channel's Skywire on Sunday night.  Fifteen hundred feet above the Little Colorado River in Navajo Tribal Park just east of the Grand Canyon, Wallenda took a life or death walk across a two inch steel cable with no safety harness.  Discovery Channel announced that #Skywire tweets reached over 700,000.  One tweet claimed there were one million streams of the event on Discovery.com and 40,000 tweets per minute.

People frantically tweeted how nervous they were during the event.  Many of them said they couldn't watch anymore, but recorded it for later viewing - to ensure they didn't watch a tragedy.  Others remarked that they didn't remember breathing for 22 minutes and 54 seconds -- the amount of time it took Wallenda to walk the wire.

To say that Skywire was a welcomed distraction is an understatement.  So enthralled were people with the event, they found it hard to switch their focus back to real life when it was over.  In what would become a running gag on Twitter, one person tweeted she was attempting to walk to her refrigerator, and asked for prayers.  She continued to update followers on her progress, complete with pictures of her feet straddling the crack on her tiled floors, eventually announcing when she had successfully reached "the fridge."  A video in what appeared to be a dorm room showed young men walking a makeshift high wire from one bed to another, erupting in cheers when they bounced safely to the other side.  Another man wished everyone "Good luck with those 'falling' nightmares tonight!"

Ben Shapiro of Breitbart.com had his own observation, "Difference between #Skywire and NSA: One dude on wire, everyone watching. Entire gov on wire, nobody watching."

Even President Obama didn't escape being dragged into the event as someone posted a picture of him smugly thinking, "Skywire walk? I could do that."

The only controversy that arose came when discussing Wallenda's frequent prayers to God and Jesus during his jeopardous jaunt.  One Twitter user joked that he'd like to think Wallenda was an atheist 15 minutes before he began the walk.  (Apparently he's never heard: "There are no atheists in foxholes.") 

The presence of Joel Osteen made some uncomfortable, as did the family prayer beforehand.  In a manner that exposed how far society has degraded, many online commenters thanked Discovery Channel for not censoring Wallenda's personal prayers.  While it was a good message to send the network, it was more disturbing that people thought it needed to be said.

Whether you thought he was tempting God or protected by him, internet comments seem to indicate that more people were praying as he walked that wire than there would have normally been on any given Sunday night.  How can that be bad?  And wasn't it refreshing to hear someone acknowledge the Grand Canyon as the handiwork of God, as Wallenda did, instead of a United Nations World Heritage site?

For those that had the fortitude to watch, the event was visually spectacular, featuring breathtaking camera shots.  Perhaps the most impressive view came from a camera attached to his shirt, where we could watch his feet as they carefully traversed the reverberating cable far above the canyon floor.

It felt as if, for 22 minutes, much of the country sat desperately transfixed; perhaps like they did for that "Match of the Century" seventy-five years ago. They hoped this great feat would provide escape or inspiration.  Judging by its reception, it succeeded in providing both.

Whether you care for their daredevil ways or not, the Wallenda's are an American institution that has been a mainstay of family entertainment for decades.   In our corner of the world, we've watched them perform at theme parks in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State since the 1950's.  After one performance, my parents had occasion to converse with both Karl (family patriarch and Nik's deceased great-grandfather), and Karl's brother, Herman.  So familiar were they that my parents could easily identify every Wallenda from that era, most of whom are gone now.

Still, we don't understand why they do what they do.  There is something in a performer's blood that we on the other side of the stage curtain will never understand.  One thing we do know is that while there may be something macabre in tempting death, there will always be something wonderfully grand in cheating it.

 

 

In 1938, in the midst of the Great Depression and suffering from an ominous foreboding of world war, America suspended the harsh realities of life to tune into a horse race.  A small horse named Seabiscuit, whom the media called "the cast off son of a cheaply held father," challenged Triple Crown winner War Admiral in the "Match of the Century."  Millions of people around the world listened to the race on their radio sets, and more than 40,000 jammed the Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore to view it firsthand.  It is now widely accepted that Seabiscuit's victory inspired a nation in the throes of poverty, hunger, international turmoil and personal depression.

Perhaps it was a country in a similar situation that caused Twitter to explode when high-wire artist and daredevil Nik Wallenda appeared on Discovery Channel's Skywire on Sunday night.  Fifteen hundred feet above the Little Colorado River in Navajo Tribal Park just east of the Grand Canyon, Wallenda took a life or death walk across a two inch steel cable with no safety harness.  Discovery Channel announced that #Skywire tweets reached over 700,000.  One tweet claimed there were one million streams of the event on Discovery.com and 40,000 tweets per minute.

People frantically tweeted how nervous they were during the event.  Many of them said they couldn't watch anymore, but recorded it for later viewing - to ensure they didn't watch a tragedy.  Others remarked that they didn't remember breathing for 22 minutes and 54 seconds -- the amount of time it took Wallenda to walk the wire.

To say that Skywire was a welcomed distraction is an understatement.  So enthralled were people with the event, they found it hard to switch their focus back to real life when it was over.  In what would become a running gag on Twitter, one person tweeted she was attempting to walk to her refrigerator, and asked for prayers.  She continued to update followers on her progress, complete with pictures of her feet straddling the crack on her tiled floors, eventually announcing when she had successfully reached "the fridge."  A video in what appeared to be a dorm room showed young men walking a makeshift high wire from one bed to another, erupting in cheers when they bounced safely to the other side.  Another man wished everyone "Good luck with those 'falling' nightmares tonight!"

Ben Shapiro of Breitbart.com had his own observation, "Difference between #Skywire and NSA: One dude on wire, everyone watching. Entire gov on wire, nobody watching."

Even President Obama didn't escape being dragged into the event as someone posted a picture of him smugly thinking, "Skywire walk? I could do that."

The only controversy that arose came when discussing Wallenda's frequent prayers to God and Jesus during his jeopardous jaunt.  One Twitter user joked that he'd like to think Wallenda was an atheist 15 minutes before he began the walk.  (Apparently he's never heard: "There are no atheists in foxholes.") 

The presence of Joel Osteen made some uncomfortable, as did the family prayer beforehand.  In a manner that exposed how far society has degraded, many online commenters thanked Discovery Channel for not censoring Wallenda's personal prayers.  While it was a good message to send the network, it was more disturbing that people thought it needed to be said.

Whether you thought he was tempting God or protected by him, internet comments seem to indicate that more people were praying as he walked that wire than there would have normally been on any given Sunday night.  How can that be bad?  And wasn't it refreshing to hear someone acknowledge the Grand Canyon as the handiwork of God, as Wallenda did, instead of a United Nations World Heritage site?

For those that had the fortitude to watch, the event was visually spectacular, featuring breathtaking camera shots.  Perhaps the most impressive view came from a camera attached to his shirt, where we could watch his feet as they carefully traversed the reverberating cable far above the canyon floor.

It felt as if, for 22 minutes, much of the country sat desperately transfixed; perhaps like they did for that "Match of the Century" seventy-five years ago. They hoped this great feat would provide escape or inspiration.  Judging by its reception, it succeeded in providing both.

Whether you care for their daredevil ways or not, the Wallenda's are an American institution that has been a mainstay of family entertainment for decades.   In our corner of the world, we've watched them perform at theme parks in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State since the 1950's.  After one performance, my parents had occasion to converse with both Karl (family patriarch and Nik's deceased great-grandfather), and Karl's brother, Herman.  So familiar were they that my parents could easily identify every Wallenda from that era, most of whom are gone now.

Still, we don't understand why they do what they do.  There is something in a performer's blood that we on the other side of the stage curtain will never understand.  One thing we do know is that while there may be something macabre in tempting death, there will always be something wonderfully grand in cheating it.