Tamara Jones
Washington Post
Staff Writer

Photographs by
Michael Williamson
Washington Post
Staff Photographer

Sean Thomas flys out.
They save this act for the very last, after the audience has already seen a man ride a tiger and three brothers dive from the flying trapeze, after the Bulgarian mother has balanced her daughter atop a pole on her forehead, after the elephants have danced in a chorus line. They save it for that moment when every thrill a three-ring traveling circus has to offer seems spent.

Then the lights dim and the drums roll and the back flap of the canvas tent opens. Elvin Bale's incredible human cannonball act is about to begin.

He designed this act nearly 20 years ago, when he was known as the greatest daredevil in all the world, so famous he had his own luxury car on Ringling's circus train, so thrilling he could bring a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden to its feet, so fearless that Evel Knievel once shook his hand and told him he was crazy.

The one, the only, the amazing Elvin Bale! A human bullet, shooting through space at 60 miles per hour, and this was the safest act in his repertoire, demanding little more than guts and a sturdy body.

Now the cannon rumbles into the tent, its 30-foot barrel mounted atop a shiny red truck. The Human Cannonball looks tiny straddling the gray barrel as it slowly takes aim. He straps on a helmet and salutes the hushed crowd.

"A final farewell!" the ringmaster intones.

The Human Cannonball disappears inside the gun. A beautiful blond assistant stands ready to fire it. The ringmaster urges the crowd to join the countdown. Five, four, three, two, one. The explosion rocks the bleachers and makes small children cry in terror.

Quietly, from the shadows below, Elvin Bale watches this grand finale.

His arms, still muscled and strong, grip his crutches in the sawdust, but his palms sweat and his eyes narrow and he can feel a phantom pain in his useless legs as the man he used to be flies past.