If you ever want to be successful as a trapeze artist, a healthy fear of heights is necessary. It was my fear of heights that pushed me to become the best. It was that same fear of heights that kept me from falling.
I was a tall woman at six feet, one inch. Much taller than most trapeze artists and a little heftier. Lucky for me there was Albert Minkin. He auditioned the same time as me. He was quite short. A Jewish fellow. (They’re not known for their athleticism.)
It was 1947. Albert was a veteran who fought in Europe. He raided a few camps. He had scars. He always wore full sleeve shirts. That made it difficult to really get an idea of the kind of physique he had but he was shy about the scars. Always made sure that no one could see them feared they might ask what he’d done. As if scars like that are something you choose to get.
He told me it was because they were so ugly and we were in showbiz. Showbiz people always had to be beautiful. That’s why he had me for his partner. Those were his words, not mine. I never thought I was much of a looker. But I also know there was more to his scars. I never asked. I’m sure he would’ve told me. I guess I never wanted him to think about the whys of painful things.
Onced he started his audition, everyone knew that he was the real deal.
Even a double somersault.
He could do it all. The circus, some two bit swindlers, but a circus nonetheless, tried to convince me to do dance trapeze. That’s what women did then and besides, no one was strong enough to hold me. The flying trapeze wasn’t for me. It was dance or nothing, they said.
Then little Alby butt in and told them swindlers he could hold me. Just like that. Like it was no big deal.
“I can hold her.”
I had at least six inches on him. I probably even weighed as much, if not more. They put the net up for me. It was ratty and barely holding on by a few threads. Had I fallen, I’m not sure it would’ve held. I wanted to tell them to tear it down. Say something bold like, “I don’t need no damn net!” But I did.
As I climbed up the ladder to the platform, I became more and more fearful. Each step got me closer to the platform but further from the ground. Alby told me not to look down. Which was easy to say now but what about when I’m up there and I’m hanging upside down and the only thing keeping me from meeting my make is a stick, two ropes and a little Jewish fellow?
“Have you ever been on a trapeze,” he asked.
As I’m sure you’ve already figured out, that was a bit of a half truth. Not quite a lie, but definitely not the truth. I’d done gymnastics. Played around on the make shift platform my father built for me back on our farm in Palmer, Iowa. He made me a harness with a pretty sophisticated pulley and rope system that insured I would never touch the ground.
My father was like Alby, a good man. If I wanted something, I’d get it. Let me correct that, I don’t want to sound like a spoiled little girl. If I NEEDED something, I’d get it. And I needed a trapeze at home.
My dad knew the trouble he’d gotten himself in after the Pocahontas County Fair had come and gone. There was a couple, a trapeze couple, that performed. Not to be cliché here but my socks got knocked right off. I knew at fifteen that I wanted to be like that woman. So beautiful. So slender. So strong as she flew through the air like a bird.
I was already approaching six feet. I was stout for a girl my age. Really for a girl of any age. But it didn’t stop me from chewing my dad’s ear the whole ride back telling him all about what I’d do if I were her.
“I’d do five flips. No eight flips all at once and then instead of the man catching me, I’d reach out, grab the bar thing and swing back over to take him by the wrists.”
My dad listened as I followed him around the house for a week. I’m not even sure I asked him to build it for me, now that I think of it. You know, he just might’ve done it to shut me up.
Once he was done, he said, “Alright, let’s see what you got.”
He put me on the spot. It wasn’t as tall as a normal trapeze setup. It was about ten feet. High enough I could get a decent swing.
I looked at the ladded. Then back at my dad. I climbed the first rung of the ladder. Then another. And another. I got about halfway up before looking down. It took about two point five seconds for my supper to come right up too.
I was glad Momma wasn’t there. She’d have laid into me for wasting her fried chicken and mashed potatoes like that.
I jumped off the ladder and ran inside, too embarrassed to face my father. He was nice enough not to say anything. Every day after he’d ask me if I wanted to go on the trapeze. I’d say no. He’d leave it alone and then ask again the next day.
After two weeks, he asked, “What’re you scared of?”
“I’m afraid I’ll fall.”
“Then don’t fall.”
Now, as a fifteen-year old, that’s a profound response to a simple statement. As an adult you understand the falacy of simply saying don’t do something, especially something you see as out of your control. But I think that was my dad’s point, it wasn’t out of my control. I was the one that made sure I didn’t fall. If I did fall, it’s because I failed to catch the bar or to hold on.
I went to the trapeze. I climbed the ladder. I tied on the harness. Connected the rope. I grabbed the bar. Then…
I took a leap.
I made it across to the other side without a hitch. It was exhilirating. When I looked down, my stomach would turn and grumble. So I didn’t look down and over the years, my skills began to improve. Of course, I never credited my father’s intricate safety protocols for any of it. I just assumed, as most children do, that I was magnificent.
At nineteen, I was climbing my first real trapeze with Alby just below me. It was fifty feet in the air. It was far more stomach churning than the little ol’ contraption my father built for me. With each rung of the ladder, it sank in deeper and deeper that I didn’t know what I was doing.
“Have you ever been on a trapeze,” Alby asked.
“Why do you say that?”
“Cuz you’re shaking.”
The entire ladder trembled below me. Alby could feel the vibrations.
“Don’t tell anyone,” I said.
“Just do me a favor and try not to shake when I’m holding you.”
We stood on the platform together. I never looked down. Never.
Alby grabbed the bar without even looking at me he says, “Hocks to legs.” Then he stepped off the edge, swinging away from me. He pulls up onto the bar in the seated position. Then falls back, legs holding the bar, hands free. Dangling. Waiting for me. He looks at me like I should know what Hocks to Legs meant.
I rolled through my mind all the different tricks. All the catches. The somersaults. Pullovers. Swings. In hindsight, it’s pretty clear what the move was.
I took a deep breath. Grabbed my bar then I went for it. We had a couple swings to get the timing down, then I let go. I flipped once and just hoped he catch me.
And he did. Right by my ankles. I had nowhere to look but down and my breakfast had nowhere to go but out or down I guess depending on your angle.
But Alby never let go. He held me tightly while I let it all out.
We were trapeze partners for twenty years and married for over sixty. We lived without a net in more ways than I can recount here. Last month, after battling colon cancer for two years, my dear Alby passed.
He was survived by me, our four daughters and seventeen grandchildren. Sometimes I can still feel the grasp of his hands around my wrists.