Phillippe Petit

   What Philippe Petit did between the World Trade Center towers on August 7, 1974, is probably the only thing scarier to me than the possibility of waking up in my coffin after I have been buried.  He and an accomplice strung a wire between the towers, using a bow and arrow to send a fishing line from one tower to the other before hauling larger and larger caliber wires across.  At 7:15 am, he stepped out onto the wire, traversed the 140 feet between the towers eight times, 1,368 feet above the concrete sidewalks.  He danced, his feet actually leaving the 3/4 inch wire.  At one point he lay down on his back, lay the pole across his hips, and extended his arms.  He chatted with a red-eyed seabird that hovered over him.  That's the moment of greatest horror for me.  He might have been able to see the towers in the periphery of his vision, otherwise all he could see was the blue sky and the bird.  He couldn't see all of New York laid out behind him, but he knew that it was there.  When rain began, he ran and threw himself into the arms of the Port Authority cops.  The rough handling he received from them, he said, was the most dangerous part of the expedition.
    I am so freaked out by the possibility he created that morning that I have fallen off that wire hundreds of times, usually while I am trying to go to sleep, without ever having stepped onto the wire.  He must be able to switch off his fear as if it were a light bulb.  Or maybe he has an extremely well developed ability to visualize success.  If falling wasn't a possibility in his world, then what is to fear?  The uncontrollable assault of the possible would have prevented me from trying to walk between the two towers even if the wire were a yard wide strip of rigid, flat steel with with plenty of skid strips.  I could walk 140 feet on a yard-wide platform if it were twenty feet off the ground, but not 1,368 feet.  The only difference is psychological.  I think from that height, a human body actually splashes when it hits the ground.


    I am scared of heights.  Any height greater than fifty feet terrifies me.  So it is a little strange that I feel a desire to have been Joseph Kittinger.   On August 16, 1960, he jumped out of a capsule suspended beneath a weather balloon at 102,800 feet.  The record I like more than the record of highest balloon ascent and highest parachute jump is the fastest human outside of a vehicle of any kind.  After a four minute fall in thin atmosphere, he achieved 614 mph.  In a previous jump he set another record: he went into a flat rotational spin of 120 rpms.  His head experienced 22 times the normal gravity.  He passed out of course and survived only because his chute opened automatically.
    Those are the tops of clouds visible in the photograph, tops of clouds close to twenty miles away.  I assume the picture was taken automatically rather than by some unheralded, Tenzing Norgay-type Life magazine photographer.  Did Kittinger have second thoughts about jumping?  I don't suppose there were very many ways back down to earth.  An unwillingness to endure the ribbing he would have gotten from his macho test flight buddies was probably the final nudge he needed.  Even so, I wonder what his words to himself were just before he pushed off into the void.
      I think the number one objective of life is the accumulation of memories.  I remember climbing a water tower (120 feet) now fifty years later.  Imagine Kittinger's memory.  He rolled onto his back and saw the weather balloon shrink into invisibility above him.  Totally freaky.