By Nik Wallenda
With David Ritz
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When Nik was four years old, he watched a video from 1978 of his great grandfather, Karl Wallenda, walking between the towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in Puerto Rico, stumbling, and falling to his death because of improper rigging. When Nik heard his father quote his great-grandfather-“Life is on the wire, everything else is just waiting”-the words resonated deep within his soul and he vowed to be a hero like Karl Wallenda.
Balance is the theme of Nik’s life: between his work and family, his faith in God and artistry, his body and soul. It resonates from him when performing and when no one is looking. When walking across Niagara Falls, he prayed aloud the entire time, and to keep his lust for glory and fame in check, Nik returned to the site of his performance the next day and spent three hours cleaning up trash left by the crowd.
Nik Wallenda is an entertainer who wants to not only thrill hearts, but to change hearts for Christ. Christ is the balance pole that keeps him from falling.
Table of Contents
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God is my center.
God's grace is the balancing pole that keeps me from falling into self-obsession and self-deception. Whatever I have achieved—and will ever achieve—is the result of my relationship with Him.
This book is a continuation of that relationship. I invoke His holy spirit in helping me understand my past. I need His insightful compassion to illuminate my story and the story of my remarkable family.
As God inspires me every hour of every day, I pray that the same inspiration informs every page of this book. I pray that the miracle of His limitless love touches me as I write, just as it touches you as you read.
The first things I notice are the dogs. They're Cairn terriers, like Toto in The Wizard of Oz, like the terriers that Mom and Dad keep as pets, the warm and fuzzy pups that are part of my clown act. I'm a kid in this dream, a little boy on a journey whose destination is unknown. I walk through the woods. The sky is clear, the sun bright, the air clean. The dogs run ahead of me, leading the way. The woods morph into a jungle. There are chimpanzees and exotic birds perched in the trees. Wildflowers are everywhere. In the distance, I make out the trumpet cry of an elephant. I hear the growl of lions and tigers. I'm not afraid because I've been around all sorts of animals. I'm a circus kid with circus parents from whom I've inherited a circus life. Are the dogs directing me to a circus where I'll put on my clown's outfit and perform?
As the dogs charge ahead, I sprint to keep up. The jungle turns into a green meadow and the meadow leads to a mountain covered with blue and yellow wildflowers. The sounds change. The cry of the beasts transforms into the roar of raging water.
What is the source?
Where is the water?
Chasing after the pups, I run up the mountainside. The faster I run, the taller the mountain seems to grow, the louder the roar. I keep running and running, wondering if this is a trick. Is this real? Will I ever reach the top?
I finally do. I stop to catch my breath and survey the scene. Spread out before me is a natural wonder, a spectacular horseshoe-shaped waterfall commanding the width of the entire horizon.
"Walk over the falls."
I turn around and see the man who has spoken these words. He is dressed in the billowy white shirt and satin trousers outfit of a circus performer. His face is friendly. His voice is not stern, not frightening, but simply clear. He speaks in a tone that is matter-of-fact, repeating the words for a second time—"Walk over the falls."
Although the task seems impossible, the idea excites me. It seems like fun. I want to do it. I want to know how. I want to know where to set the poles and put up the cable. I want the man to instruct me. But just as I turn to him for more instruction, I wake up.
Over the years the dream will assume different forms, but the theme never changes. Not only am I challenged to achieve the impossible, but the challenges grow in dimension. I soon realize that the man who haunts my imagination, awake and sleeping, is Karl Wallenda, the great patriarch of the Wallenda family. He is the man who fell from the high wire to his death in Puerto Rico on March 22, 1978, ten months before my birth on January 24, 1979. He is the man who entered my dreams early in my life and has remained there ever since. He is also the man who is my mother's grandfather and my father's teacher, the man who literally brought my parents together and hired them to work in his company of performing artists.
Amazingly enough, one day the abstract dream becomes concrete reality when my parents are performing at the Shrine Circus in Buffalo. That's when they take their two children to Niagara Falls. I'm six and my sister Lijana is eight. We spend months at a time on the road and on days off often visit places of interest like the Washington Monument or the field where the Battle of Gettysburg was fought. I like these tourist excursions. I find them fascinating. But Niagara is something else altogether. I'm not only stunned by its tremendous size, but thrilled to be facing an awesome sight that seems to have emerged from my dream.
"I've been here before," I tell my dad.
"You must have seen pictures, son," he says. "We've never been here before."
Dad laughs off my remarks, but I cling to the memory. As we drive from the American side to Canada for a closer look at the rushing waters cascading some twenty stories down into the Niagara River, I relive my dream. My heart beats like crazy. I don't feel at all crazy. I feel connected. I feel centered. I don't know what to call these feelings. I don't know how to describe the excitement coursing through me. I don't know words like "destiny" and "purpose." My parents have taught us that all good things come from God, so I do know that this sensation of being connected to my dreams has to be good. I know that God has to be at the center of my imagination that is constructing a wire across the Falls. In my mind, I see myself walking from one country to another. Even as a child, I realize that the vision isn't mine. It has come to me in a dream. It has come to me from a relative I have never known. But now I am standing before it, my face wet from the spray of water. My eyes are wet with tears of joy.
I know what I have to do.
I know I will do it.
But in doing it—not in a dream, not in the imagination of a child, but in real time before millions of television viewers the world over—I will require two and a half decades of learning. Those lessons engage the mind but mostly they engage the spirit. The lessons involve steely determination. Yet the source of that determination is God.
Without Him, there is no journey, no lesson, no dream.
Look at the little kid in the backyard of his parents' house in Sarasota, Florida.
You won't be impressed by the surroundings. Though his mom and dad are well-known circus performers and part of the legendary Wallenda clan, they live modestly. The scruffy working-class neighborhood has an almost rural feel. Scattered around the yard is the training gear—the various poles, posts, and bars—that aerialists use to hone their skills and develop new stunts. The object that captivates the kid is a cable some twenty-four inches off the ground strung between two stands. The kid is fixated on the cable. The kid is barely two years old. The kid is me.
My earliest and strongest memory is stepping out on the wire with the absolute conviction that I would walk across it. I have already seen my parents walk the high wire, an act that seems both wonderful and natural. Naturally I'm moved to do the same.
I take a couple of steps, and then fall.
I get back on, only to fall again.
I keep getting on and keep falling, getting on and falling until in a short while I'm able to walk the entire length of the wire. The accomplishment does not feel remarkable. I don't feel that I've had done anything extraordinary. It simply feels right.
The length of the wire isn't long—just a few yards. I wish it were longer. All that morning and well into early afternoon I keep walking back and forth. I've found my footing. I'm a restless and superenergetic child, yet this short walk over a cable has calmed me down and sent me into a state of inexplicable concentration, hardly typical of someone my age. No doubt about it; I've found this magical comfort zone in which time is suspended.
"Time to come in!" Mom shouts.
But I'm not about to come in. I shout back, "I did it! Did you see how good I did it?"
"Of course you did it! You did it beautifully!"
"I wanna keep doing it."
"You need to eat, Nik."
"I need to keep doing it."
"You will. You have the rest of your life to do it."
But would I?
All I knew then was the joy of a boy who had found the greatest toy in the world. What I didn't know was that my parents were barely making a living. I didn't know that the traditional circus circuit was on the verge of collapse. For all the satisfaction that came with their life as entertainers, they continually faced financial ruin. Circuses were going bankrupt. Premier performers with sterling reputations, Mom and Dad were forced to take all sorts of odd jobs—washing windows, working in restaurants—to keep a roof over our heads. Whatever precocious talents I might have displayed at an early age, they had no hope for my future in a field that had sustained the Wallenda family for over two hundred years. Understandably, they saw this as the end of the line. In fact, the title of the book about my mom's life was The Last of the Wallendas.
In the first two decades of my life I became increasingly aware of a dark cloud hanging over circus life. From that first step on the wire at age two, it was my passion, but a passion born at a time of impending death. Even when there was a reinvention of sorts—the explosion of Cirque du Soleil in the nineties—that Canadian phenomenon had little effect on my parents and the old-school venues that were rapidly disappearing. The wolf remained at our door.
I offer none of this in the way of complaint. Being born into struggle is a blessing. That struggle gave me an extra measure of motivation—and for that I'm grateful. That struggle tested my commitment to the aerial art form I love so deeply. That struggle also made me dependent on God. It didn't take long to realize that I couldn't win the struggle without leaning on a source of strength no human could supply.
My parents helped me realize that at an early age. Practicing Christians, they were devoted to their children. Through their example, I accepted Christ as a child. But I also found myself absorbing their very human fears and anxieties. They couldn't guide me past their own fears and anxieties. Only God could.
In the same way, only God could give me the insight and strength to turn my long family lineage, marked by deadly tragedies, to triumph. To an alarming degree, that lineage is also marked by betrayal, backbiting, and mean-spirited jealousy. Yet my lineage is a miraculous blessing—as long as I view it through the eyes of a grateful child of God.
I believe that God gives us the power to transform any story from darkness to light. He has taught me how the stories of my forebears, no matter how painful, can benefit my life and the lives of my children. He has shown me how negative can be rebirthed as positive. To tell that story, though, the negatives cannot be overlooked. To show the miracle of transformation—the movement from despair to hope—the despair must be revealed. The truth must be told.
As a young child, I loved fairy tales. I looked at the Wallenda family saga as something of a fairy tale. Karl Wallenda, the man who excited my imagination, was a hero. He remains so to this day. I continue to derive sustenance from his never-say-die example of optimism. I never tire of quoting his mantra: "Life is on the wire; everything else is just waiting."
I view my great-grandfather as a man of boundless courage and fortitude. I've never seen him as a competitor, but only an inspiration. It is never my intention to overshadow his feats. They remain remarkable. But as I have come of age, I have learned that, unlike some mythic character out of a fairy tale, Karl Wallenda was made of flesh and blood. As a family man, he suffered through a long series of spectacular failures. His private life resulted in chaos and confusion for those close to him. That chaos filtered down to his daughter Jenny, my grandmother, and Jenny's daughter Delilah, my mother. These women were deeply hurt. They bore emotional scars. Those scars had enormous impact on me. They are part of my story.
To tell any story with honesty and candor, scars cannot be hidden. Scars must be shown. If scars are to heal, they must be attended to. There's no way, for example, to understand the story of Christ without seeing His scars. If His scars are airbrushed out, we miss the message. His scars are the means by which we comprehend His undying love for us. His scars are the means by which we feel His undying love for us. His scars are part of God's instructional plan, symbols of how human pain can lead to divine glory.
For me, Jesus' story is the big one. It's the story that says even the most brutal and tortuous ending isn't an ending at all but merely the beginning of forever. It's the one that says that lies can turn to truth and death can turn to life.
So I will do my best to reveal all scars and shortcomings—especially my own—without assigning blame or wallowing in self-pity. I will do my best, through my own limited understanding, to briefly tell the story that little Nik, walking a wire a few feet off the ground, could never have known. This gutsy kid—happy, hyper, fun loving—had no idea of the monumental saga that was, in fact, his legacy. Looking to stay on the wire, trying to find balance, he was blissfully unaware of how the history of the man in his dreams would shape his own life.
Karl Wallenda's great-grandfather Johannes was an acrobat. So was his namesake, his grandfather Karl. His father, Englebert, was an animal trainer as well as a celebrated aerialist.
Karl Wallenda, born in Germany in 1905, had it in his blood. It was an impassioned boiling blood, even a violent blood. His older brother Herman and young brother Willy feared their father's trigger temper. At age four, Karl experienced Englebert's brutality. In punishment for a minor infraction, his dad threw him to the ground and for the rest of his life Karl remained half-deaf in his right ear.
Karl's older brother Herman said that Englebert "was kinder to animals than he was people." Yet Karl also admired his father's artistry. Englebert was the first to bring a flying trapeze act, an innovation developed in the United States, to Europe. Admiration was intermingled with fear. When Karl was six, Englebert abandoned the family. Karl and Willy were placed in a Catholic boarding school while Herman stayed with Englebert to perform in the father's traveling circus.
After twelve months away from his parents, Karl returned to his mother Kunigunde—as did brother Herman. But Willy was whisked off by Englebert to perform as a member of his troupe. Mama Kunigunde, the daughter of a noted ballerina from Berlin's Staats Theater, was a gifted performer in her own right. Her claim to fame was an ability on the slack wire to use her teeth to pick up a handkerchief—all this as she daintily spun an umbrella overhead.
Two years after Englebert left Mama Kunigunde, she married a circus colleague sixteen years her junior, George Grotefant, with whom she would have two children. A musician, clown, contortionist, and acrobat, George displayed talent for all aspects of circus entertainment except money management. George and Mama Kunigunde combined resources to form a troupe of entertainers seeking work in rural Western Europe.
In 1913, as war clouds gathered, the family fell into abject poverty. Their circus wagon broke down in a small German village. George was conscripted into the army. Herman was working at a munitions plant. Karl was teased and beaten because the Wallenda name was Czech in origin, not German. He challenged his tormentors with a wager—that he could climb the church steeple and do a headstand on the revolving weathercock. In an act of great daring, he won the bet hands down. He did this at age nine.
At age ten, with his stepfather and brothers gone, Karl became his mother's sole breadwinner. In the tiny town of Gros Ottersleben he worked as a street performer for spare change to stave off his family's starvation. George survived the war and the troupe—the Wallenda-Grotefant circus—was reassembled, but postwar Germany was in ruins. Rather than walk on high, Karl found himself walking below ground. He was forced to take a job in a run-down coal mine. The work nearly drove him mad. A season with a traveling circus restored his sanity. He worked as a clown and trapeze artist. Karl perfected his astounding handstands and chair stands. He devised a unique way to fix his arms and legs in two rings suspended in space, a visual suggestion of a crucified Christ. He worked in the same show as Marlene Dietrich, still a teenager. They met and spoke for the first and only time in their lives.
At sixteen, Karl broke from his family and traveled to Breslau to join the circus of Louis Weitzmann—a womanizing tyrant—who saw Karl's high-wire potential. The Weitzmann troupe traveled to Budapest, where Karl's confidence grew. Before long he left the despot and ventured out on his own.
He didn't leave alone. His companion was a colleague, ten years his senior, known professionally as Princess Magneta, "The Levitating Marvel." The blonde beauty in a magician's act, she was Magdalena Schmidt, called Lena by her friends. Together they fled Weitzmann's company and found work with Max "The Human Kite" Zimmerman, whose troupe traveled to Leipzig.
In 1923 Karl and Lena switched to the Strassburger Circus as the company toured Austria and ventured over the Bavarian Alps. Karl, at age eighteen, became more audacious on the high wire. He insisted on performing without a net. He taught Lena tricks on the sway pole. He reunited with brother Herman and stepfather George to form the Wallenda Circus that traveled to Italy, where they rivaled the Cristanis, another famous family act. In short order, though, the Wallenda Circus went bust, even as Karl's high-wire exploits expanded in daring and design—along with his amorous desires.
In Berlin, working for Circus Busch, Karl fell in love with Martha Schepp, a fifteen-year-old ballerina. When Lena learned of the betrayal, she tried to slash Karl's throat and disfigure Martha's face with sulfuric acid. Lena finally left, but Martha, who feared the high wire, could not replace her in the act. Besides, Martha was pregnant. That same year Karl married her.
But also in that same year Helen Kreis replaced Martha, both on the high wire and in bed. Helen was young, beautiful, and talented. She, Karl, and Herman traveled to Cuba where the Wallendas were booked for three months. Meanwhile, back in Germany, in 1927 a daughter was born to Karl and Martha—Jenny Wallenda, my maternal grandmother.
In 1928, John Ringling, famed owner of the Ringling Brothers Circus, invited Karl Wallenda and his troupe to perform in America. Hoping to win his love back, Martha took infant Jenny to the United States to rejoin the troupe. Karl allowed this. According to my grandmother, her dad embraced her and said, "Jenny, one day we will perform together."
But Ringling Brothers, a mammoth operation with nearly two thousand workers, proved daunting for Martha. She took Jenny back to Germany, leaving her daughter in the care of her mother so that she—Martha—could return to Karl in America.
"Mine was a disruptive childhood," says Jenny. "Yet I recall all these disruptions clearly. When I was three I came to America. I was told the move was permanent. In Sarasota, where all the circus performers lived during the winter, my father had one house with my mother Martha and another right next door with Helen. It was confusing. My mother acted as though he were still her husband—and he was, until 1934 when a telegram came from Mexico telling Martha that Karl had divorced her and married Helen. But that still wasn't enough to get my mother to leave the troupe. She sent me back to Germany under the care of my grandparents.
"When I was eleven, I visited my parents in Blackpool, England. Daddy had taken a leave from Ringling Brothers to tour Europe. I was finally reunited with my family. I was sure I would be with them forever. But then everything changed. The war was coming. And because Daddy, Helen, and my mother, Martha, had German passports, they saw themselves on the wrong side. They wanted to get back to America where Daddy saw his future. Europe was about to explode. Through Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, the future president's father, Daddy was able to get on one of the last boats. Three days later war broke out. But I didn't leave with them. By then I was back in Berlin with my grandparents.
"I remained in Berlin where I became a youth leader during the Nazi regime. I had no political feelings. I was simply a superb athlete, a young lady who did as I was told. I had no view of the larger world. By then my mother had married again, but that didn't last for more than a year. Six years—the war years—passed without a word from my parents. When Germany fell and the Red Army invaded Berlin, young girls were raped. I was among them. But not all the soldiers were brutes. Some were kind and compassionate. I fell in love with such a soldier. We were going to marry and then escape to America where I would finally join my parents. But his commanding officer discovered that he was involved with a German girl and he was sent to Siberia. I never saw him again. But I did, thank God, learn that my parents were alive and well. Daddy went to great lengths to secure my passage from Germany to join him and my mother, Martha, in Sarasota. I arrived in 1947, at age nineteen. Martha was still living next door to Karl and Helen. That strange triangle was still intact."
The world might have been falling apart around him, but during the war years in America Karl stayed focused. His artistry became more daring. He never stopped pushing the envelope. He began his decade-long plan to execute a seven-person pyramid, a stunt he saw as the most spectacular in circus history. His reputation grew and his troupe was called the Flying Wallendas. Ironically, he was quoted as saying that he never liked the name because, in his mind, it suggested that he and his troupe were flying off the wire in some disastrous fall, the fate that had befallen his brother Willy in Sweden. Willy's death was another reason Karl would not work with a safety net. Riding a bike across the wire, Willy fell, bounced from the net, and fractured his skull.
My great-grandmother Martha married for the third time. Her new husband, introduced to her by Karl, was J. Y. Henderson, the most celebrated veterinarian in the history of the circus. At the height of his career, he was in charge of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey's seven hundred animals—wildcats, bears, zebras, giraffes, antelopes, elephants, donkeys, buffalo, ponies, and horses. Not only did he devise innovative treatments to save the lives of hundreds of animals, he became a proficient wire-walker himself—a Renaissance man in the world of the circus.
In 1942, thirty-six of Doc Henderson's beloved animals died in a fire at the Ringling Brothers' circus in Cleveland.
In 1944, Karl and his troupe were on the high wire in Hartford when an even more terrifying fire broke out. They slid down the ropes and escaped through the animal chutes. In one of the most horrific events in circus history, 168 people died from asphyxiation.
Grandmother Jenny joined the troupe in 1947, the year she arrived in Sarasota. She became part of her father's treacherous and sensational seven-person pyramid, a high-wire stunt in which three ascending tiers of performers walked the wire, each linked by shoulder bars and poles. On the very top a woman sat in a chair carried by the two performers below her. Eventually Jenny became the woman in the chair.
She married Alberto Zoppe, a brilliant Italian bareback rider who had earned fabled status for his work with Circo Italia, Circus Europa, and his own Circus Zoppe. In 1950 she gave birth to a son, Tino.
Meanwhile, Jenny had taken up her husband's specialty. She became so skilled that in Cecil B. DeMille's Academy Award–winning film, The Greatest Show on Earth, my grandmother was a featured bareback rider.
- "This book makes an irrefutable case for relying on faith as a source of balance and strength."—Booklist Online
- On Sale
- Jun 4, 2013
- Page Count
- 224 pages