Karl Wallenda died yesterday. We should not mourn. He died doind exactly what he liked to do best, which in his case was not really walking the high wire, but starting people into an endless round of applause.
"You know," he said one month ago in an interview, "you have to face reality. You can go on an airplane and die, after all . . ." But if you die on an airplane, you may die a nonentity.
"I tell you I'm thinking if I retire I'm a very worthless man," Wallenda also said ". . . because you might as well be dead." At 73, Karl Wallenda fell 150 feet from a wire strung between two hotels in San Juan, Puerto Rico. And he died unretired.
Karl Wallenda was one of those people who clearly adore talking about themselves, but 10 minutes into the conversation you realized you did not understand much of what he was saying.
It wasn't the language - after 50 years in this country his words were our words even if the accent was thick with Germanic consonants. It was this: Karl Wallenda came equipped with a wholly different attitude toward risk, toward fate, and toward his own death. Four members of his extended family troupe had been killed doing just what he did for a living; a fifth, his son, was crippled for life more than 15 years ago.
And Karl Wallenda - while he mourned these tragedies, suffered over them and resumed work right away after every one, to try somehow to earn enough to compensate the survivors - Karl Wallenda didn't seem to fear much for himself. When the famous seven-person pyramid that he and his family had created collapsed on the high wire in 1962, resulting in two deaths, one permanent injury - and his own survival, Karl Wallenda couldn't belive it.
"There must be some angel watching," he said last month.
There is no arguing with that. There is no way to reason with or to explain a man who feels he has been endowed with some special, outragous and protected destiny. For 73 years, Karl Wallenda proved the rest of us wrong, after all, proved you could play the odds and remain healthier and get older than, say, the average consumer of prune yoguri. Karl Wallenda drank two martinis a day. When he was asked about exercise, he smiled, nostrils distended, and announced he got quite enough exercise climbing up to the high wire, thank you.
At the same time, Karl Wallenda was a very cautious, very meticulous and very precise man. He fretted constantly about missing planes and phone calls, and he was known, when he did his famous hotel walks, for checking both the winds and the ropes.
Yesterday, according to all accounts, he did the same. And he found that the wind was stronger on the ground that it was in the air. Twelve miles an hour, officially, but gusting much higher.
But you could not, as one of his co-workers said, tell Karl Wallenda what to do.
Two-thirds of his way through the 200-foot walk, one of those gusts caught Karl Wallenda. He lowered his balancing bar, tried to sit on the rope, and then toppled sideways.
The wind was just too strong for him.
The word is now that Karl Wallenda always knew that he would die on the high wire. Certainly, he could not stop himself from going back. "In one way you like to BE somebody," is how he explained it. "You know how beautiful it is? I stretch my hands and then they all stand up and applaud."
He was a lucky man. He never heard the silence.