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Texas | Features | The Thirties in Texas

Endangered Stories

Excerpted from "I Was a Teen in the 1930s and Some More Stuff"

THE TIGHT-WIRE WALKER

by Harold Bell
It was near the end of the summer, and I was in Waycross, Georgia, desperately trying to sell my Holland's Magazines. I had to be sure I had enough money for my college tuition in the fall.

The circus was in town that Saturday afternoon, but I didn't have the time or the money to go. However, I decided to go to the courthouse square and watch the parade.

There were several hundred people in the square also waiting for the parade. Promptly at two o'clock, we heard the calliope several blocks away. The calliope is a steam-whistle organ used to attract attention at circuses and fairs. It consists of a boiler that forces steam through a set of whistle pipes. It is operated with a keyboard similar to an organ, and the steam is forced through the pipes making the shrill, exciting music that can often be heard for miles.

On the square, people were in a festive mood and cheered as the calliope rolled in front of them-followed by a great parade of banners, flags, clowns, knights in armor, cowboys and Indians, Roman chariots pulled by two horses, colorfully draped cages containing lions and tigers, and huge elephants marching trunk to tail.

Toward the end of the parade came the acrobats. Leading them was a girl about my age, seventeen or eighteen-years-old. She was happily moving toward me while she performed something between a march, a dance and a prance.

I looked at her, and we made instant eye contact. I thought she would look away, but she just kept looking at me. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life, and I fell in love with her at first sight. I had the feeling that maybe she felt the same way because she kept looking at me. It was actually about ten seconds, but it seemed much longer.

A man, who was about twice my age, stood next to me and said, "Some girl, huh?" and I said, "Yes, Sir." He said, "She is the star of the circus. She is their tight-wire walker, and although she's young, they say she's the best in the world.

"Her father owns this circus. Otherwise, she would be traveling with Barnum & Bailey or a big circus in Europe. She's very daring. They put her wire up to the very tiptop of the tent thirty-five feet above the ground, and she does exciting maneuvers without using a net."

At the end of the parade, all of the spectators were expected to follow them down to the circus tent, buy tickets, and go inside and see the show.

Although I couldn't spare the time or money to go to the circus, I decided to follow the crowd and enjoy the excitement. I noticed a few houses not far from the tent, so I planned to go there and knock on doors to sell my magazines and still stay close to the action.

Soon after the show began, I was standing in a yard talking to a woman, whom I was trying to sell, and we were looking down toward the tent area.

All of a sudden, the flaps of the tent opened, and people started running out, talking excitedly, while many of the women and children were screaming and crying. I ran toward the tent as fast as I could to see what was happening.

It didn't take long, as everyone was talking to each other and telling their version. The beautiful little girl - the tight-wire walker - had made a misstep on the wire and fallen to her instant death.

Many of the women, who were crying, said, "Why didn't she use a net? She didn't have to die." People who witnessed the fall said they knew she died immediately by the manner in which her body hit the ground.

In just a few minutes, some men brought her out on a stretcher and loaded her into an ambulance/hearse, although it was obvious to everyone that she was gone.

As she passed by us, all of the men removed their hats, including me. (We all wore dress hats in those days.)

I was crushed. I just couldn't believe it. Less than an hour ago I had fallen head over heels in love with this wonderful little girl and felt she liked me too. Now she was gone, and I would never see her again.

I walked back to the house where I was talking to a lady and asked her if she wanted to buy my magazine, and she said, "No." I immediately hurried to my rooming house, packed my suitcase, checked out, and left town.

Well, that's pretty much the end of the story. There is one question I never got answered. There's an old saying "The show must go on," and I've always wondered if after the accident, the people went back inside the tent and the show proceeded. Or did they call the show off, refund the money to the customers, and leave town? We'll never know.

Many times when I have thought of this tragedy, I have been reminded how fragile and precious life really is and how quickly it can end. This incident with the beautiful tight-wire walker helped me learn we should always love and be good to our family and friends.

Any of us can be taken away in the blink of an eye.


Harold Bell
February 3, 2004
Excerpts from
"I Was a Teen in the 1930s and Some More Stuff" by Harold Bell
  • Miss Bell
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  • The Sheriff
    "You never know when somebody says something, or does something, that it may have a big effect on you the rest of your life."
  • The Tight-Wire Walker
    "She's very daring. They put her wire up to the very tiptop of the tent thirty-five feet above the ground, and she does exciting maneuvers without using a net."
  • My Date with Mary
    Mary was the cause of the most exciting week of my young life.
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