Thirteen years ago we took our first and only trip to Niagara Falls. Never say never – I guess circumstance could bring me back one day – but once is enough for that place, and having seen Iceland’s great waterfalls, none of which have a casino overlooking them, I see no reason to go back to Niagara.
Of course we checked out the gift shop. I believe I bought a tacky spoon rest which has never been used, and a book. Not much of a book, more like a fat pamphlet, self-published and titled something like “Daredevils of the Falls.” It might have been the only item in the store that addressed the thing everyone knows about Niagara Falls: People have been trying to “conquer” them forever. The falls generally remain unconquered.
I read the book on the drive back to Toronto, and a theme quickly emerged: The people who take on Niagara, almost to a man or woman, are desperate. They’re out of money, out of options, and think that one spectacular stunt will lift them out of their rut once and for all. Even the town itself has a certain desperation to it (the casino, just so no tourist dollar remains un-angled-for). It’s as though they arrive at the falls thinking here’s where the road ends for you, but maybe it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, won’t you have a story to tell. There was a little tourist boom in the 19th century, when people were amused and amazed at daredevils who would cross the river gorge on a tightrope. Then that got old, and the devils had to get more daring. They began to grapple with the falls themselves.
Humans have dreamed up and built all sorts of conveyances meant to carry them over the drop and let them live through it. We speak of “going over Niagara Falls in a barrel,” but that was only the beginning. Barrel after barrel has smashed on the rocks below, killing the occupants, as humans tried to improve the concept.
That’s not to say some people didn’t make it. A few did, and the Wikipedia entry is sort of a Cliff’s notes of “Daredevils of the Falls,” starting with Annie Edson Taylor in 1901, the first to do it and live.
The list of attempts reads like grim comedy:
1920 – On July 11, Charles Stephens from Bristol went over the falls in a barrel. Bobby Leach and William “Red” Hill, Sr. urged Stephens to test his barrel over the falls before attempting the stunt, but he refused. When the barrel was recovered at the foot of the falls, the ballast had pulled Stephen’s body out of the barrel, leaving just his right arm in the safety harness.
1930 – On July 4, George Stathakis, a Greek immigrant working as a chef in Buffalo, New York, went over the falls in a barrel. Upon impact, the barrel was stuck behind a curtain of water and could not be recovered for 18 hours. Stathakis had an air supply of up to eight hours – although he had survived the initial fall, he died of suffocation. Stathakis took the plunge with his pet turtle, which was said to be around 150 years old. The turtle survived the ordeal.
1990 – On June 5, Jessie Sharp went over the falls in a kayak. He intended to continue paddling downriver after the fall, and had made dinner reservations at a restaurant in Lewiston, 4 miles downstream. After beginning the plunge he quickly disappeared into the falls and although his kayak was later found, his body was never recovered. Sharp decided not to wear a life jacket in case it impeded an escape should he get trapped under the falls, and refused to wear a helmet in order to keep his face recognizable to cameras.
My all-time favorite, though, was Karel Soucek, a career stuntman. He crafted a special, high-tech barrel, and made it in one piece and with only a minor injury, caused by his own wristwatch hitting his face. He sought to capitalize on his fame with a tour re-enacting the feat. How do you do such a thing away from the falls? He rented the Houston Astrodome and installed a tank on the field, that’s how, and then had himself and his barrel winched 180 feet up to the ceiling, about the height of Niagara. Thirty-five thousand people bought tickets to watch this spectacle. The barrel started to spin as it fell, clipped the edge of the tank and killed its occupant.
Yes, he survived Niagara Falls, but not the Houston Astrodome. This was in 1985. I have to assume video of it exists somewhere, but it’s not immediately available on YouTube.
I was studying screenwriting at the time, and thought these stories would make a wonderful movie. A Robert Altman movie, to be precise.
I also recalled that a few months before our trip, right after we moved to Ann Arbor, a Metro Detroit man named Kirk Jones had gone over the falls and lived. He claimed it was a suicide attempt, although some dispute this, but it wasn’t his turn to die, and he lived through it without maiming or serious injury, only the second person to do so without any protective gear or conveyance. (The other was a boy who’d fallen from a fishing boat in 1960.) Within a few months he had joined a traveling circus. Adrianne? Fort Wayne peeps from the ’80s? He joined the Toby Tyler Circus, which is a whole other story. He didn’t have to drop from the top of the tent or anything, but was featured in a segment where he basically just told his story and, if I’m remembering correctly, gave the glory to God.
(I’ll tell the Toby Tyler Circus story some other day. Promise.)
So this long story brings us up to Thursday, and guess what I read yesterday morning: Kirk Jones is dead, killed by Niagara Falls. And because this is Niagara Falls, the story is extra-weird:
A man who died going down Niagara Falls in a plastic ball may have taken a seven-foot snake down with him.
The body of Kirk Jones was discovered below the falls on June 2, and authorities now believe he may have put a boa constrictor inside an inflatable ball with him.
Following Jones’ death, police discovered a website called “Kirk Jones Niagara Falls Daredevil” in which he shared his plans for going down the falls with the seven-foot snake named Misty, the Associated Press reported.
Who knows, maybe Misty killed him. I’d be one pissed-off snake if I knew some unstable asshole had sealed me into a plastic ball and intended to take us both over a 200-foot waterfall. I might give him a good squeeze and hope he cushioned the blow for both of us.
If I’d met an actual Icelandic person at Gullfoss or Go∂afoss or one of their spectacular falls, I might have asked if that country had a tradition of idiots and famewhores trying to conquer their natural beauty. Somehow, I doubt it. This seems a peculiarly American pursuit.
So, a little bloggage beyond Kirk? Rex Tillerson threw a fit at the White House recently, but it doesn’t matter because the State Department is pretty much screwed, anyway.
And finally, a note about Trump’s tweets about Mika Brzezinski: I think these are flat-out lies. Not that a TV newswoman would never have a facelift, but when women in her position do have that sort of thing done, they don’t go out to dinner, even at a private club, when they’re still “bleeding badly,” or whatever. There are high-end spas and recovery centers for just this purpose, where you lie around in a robe and maybe get your toenails painted and eat dinner in your suite. Have you ever seen a woman’s face immediately after a lift? They look like they’ve been in a car accident — black eyes, puffy everything, the works. No woman would risk having her photo taken by a Mar-a-lago guest, or a paparazzo. I speculated on Facebook that maybe she got caught by Joe’s backswing on the golf course, and the president just made an assumption.
OK, then. Long weekend ahead for many of us. Enjoy.