During the hot, dry days of late July, the circus bug bit me and my neighborhood cousins the year I was eleven-years-old. We had no interest in the lions, elephants or clowns. What fascinated us were the intriguingly dangerous skills of the tight-rope walkers, fire eaters and stilt acrobats.
Our interest in circus acts wasn’t prompted by a visit to a big tent show, but through the relatively new form of entertainment; a television special. My cousins had had a television for several years. My family only got one when my brother-in-law gave us theirs because he and my sister were moving to Germany for a military assignment.
In 1962 there was only one station available. Good old channel 7! I considered it was all we needed and memorized the evening programs for each day of the week. When my friends and I got together, we never had to ask, “What did you watch last night?” We inquired, “Did you see…?”
The day following the circus special, I hopped on my bike and peddled up the hill to my neighbor’s home. The three girls closest to my age were sitting under the shade trees in front of their house. After greeting them I gushed, “Did you see the tightrope walker last night? Wasn’t that neat? I want to try doing that!”
Alice, who was a year younger than me, enthused, “How about when the man swallowed the flaming sword?”
Our responses were, “Oh my gosh! I couldn’t believe it!”, “I wonder how that was done?” and, “It’s so hot today, I don’t even want to think about handling a flaming sword!”
Barb, who was a year older than me, ruminated, “The guy on stilts walked around and did things so normally, you’d never guess he was on them.”
Donna, who was my age suggested, “Flaming swords are out. So are stilts because we don’t have any. Why don’t we try tight-rope walking? I know where there’s a coil of rope in the shed.”
Practicing rope walking under the shade trees sounded like a good idea. Always the practical one, Barb ordered, “Tie the rope close to the ground. That way we won’t get hurt falling off until we get good at doing it.”
With great difficulty we tied the rope to two trees. Our goal was to have the rope tight like the clothes lines. The rope sagged more than we liked. We tried again and again, but couldn’t get past the wobbles. Even with a person on each side of the walker holding them upright, it was impossible to cross the expanse.
One of my older boy cousins came to watch for a while before smiling and pointing out, “It’s called tight-rope for a reason. To be able to walk on a rope, it has to be solid as the ground.”
That evening at the supper table, I told my family about how I had spent the day. My brother Billy said, “I can make you a pair of stilts. They’ll be more fun to play with than a rope tied between two trees.
True to his word, Billy found two five-foot posts that were 3 by 3 inches. He nailed sturdy foot rests on them 18 inches from the end and painted them the same red as our barn. They were heavy, but I was determined. Before long I was walking all over our farm yard.
I let my cousins know that I would visit them the following afternoon, so they would be watching for me. At the appointed time I got up on the red stilts and walked the quarter mile from my yard to their yard. Even the soft gravel on the side of the road wasn’t a problem for me. We had fun that summer taking turns.
Four years ago, when my brothers were no longer able to live on the farm, I cleaned out our family belongings so a new family could move in. When I found the red stilts in the garage, I had a strong urge to step up onto them and walk around. I knew how to do it. Stilt walking is like riding a bike; unforgettable. I placed them in the starting position and prepared to step up onto the foot rest.
Coming to my senses, I put them down. I was 65 years old and my knees didn’t work like they did when I was eleven. I could get hurt! In my mind, I recalled striding up the gravel road to surprise and impress my cousins, feeling totally grand.