Cannon Fodder

Elvin Bale's Last Flight

Elvin Bale last climbed into the cannon on Jan. 8, 1987, on the 16th day of a run with the Chipperfield Circus at a theme park in Hong Kong. He had been doing the stunt almost daily for nine years. The shot takes roughly three seconds from blastoff to landing, but Bale knew from the instant he left the barrel that he would not make it to the air bag this time.

"I could see where I was going, that it was too far, too fast."

The cannon is not a gun. The explosion is mere sound effect. In truth, it is all hydraulics, a gigantic piston. In trial shots, sandbag dummies are used to calculate how much force is needed to go how far. The dummy must be the same weight as the human cannonball. In Hong Kong, the dummy had been left on rain-soaked ground, and though the outside had dried when Bale used it for his test shot, the sand inside was still damp. When he set the calibrations for that day's performance, he did not realize that the dummy had gained weight.

Bale remembers his doomed flight seeming to be in slow motion, the way his brain assessed the situation too clearly, as if this were a perfectly solvable problem in aerodynamics. He remembers how he rotated his body,believing he might survive if only he could manage to land upright instead of in his usual backflop.

He reached the top of his arc, began his descent and watched the air cushion sail past beneath him. He missed it by maybe a yard, slamming feet first into the concrete floor. The impact shattered his ankles, a knee, a leg, and his spine. He woke up in a body cast. The world's greatest daredevil was paralyzed from the waist down, and doctors told him he would never walk again. He was 41 years old, and the circus was all he had ever known or wanted.

The Bales had always been circus people. Back in Denmark, Elvin's great-grandfather was a juggler, and his son did loop-de-loop cycling, and his son -- Elvin's father -- became a tiger trainer and Ringling Bros. ringmaster known as Col. Trevor Bale.

Trevor Bale taught his four children to perform at an early age. Gloria was swinging from a trapeze at 5. Elvin's twin, Dawnita, did handstands on his shoulders in a trick cycling act when they were 12. Bonnie, the baby, would become an aerialist. Elvin's mother was English, a former vaudeville dancer who was carried around the circus ring in an elephant's mouth.

"It's a strange world, very very hard," Elvin Bale says of the circus. "You have to be dedicated to live this life. But there is some charm, some magic that gets in your blood, and it's very, very difficult to get it out.

"I was 8 years old when I got my first job. I sold peanuts for 15 cents a bag. When I'd bring the money back, the guys in the concession used to grab me by the feet and hang me upside down and shake me to make sure all the money came out. Of course, they were just kidding around."

His own father never played with his son like that, never did anything Elvin imagined real-world boys and real-world dads doing together. Trevor Bale, in his son's bitter memory, was an alcoholic tyrant who constantly used and berated his children, pushing them to risk their lives, then telling them they were worthless. His rage was quick and explosive. Elvin remembers a childhood spent running and hiding from his father, from his snapping whip. Anything could set him off.

"He used to get mad at me for whistling," Elvin says. "I used to whistle in the dressing room while he was getting ready. He said it was bad luck. There are a lot of superstitions in the circus, but I never believed any of it. A bird inside the building, that's supposed to be unlucky. If you see a woman knitting in the seats, that's unlucky. The color green. The color yellow." After he hit the concrete in Hong Kong, the Chinese workers said it was because the foreigners had not offered tributes to the gods. The circus held a ritual and burned incense to seek protection for its other performers.

As a child, Elvin was responsible for the eight tigers his father owned. By 13, he was cleaning their cages and feeding them. One of his jobs was to cut up meat for the tigers. His father would scream he was doing it all wrong. Nothing was ever right, he would never amount to anything.

Yet this:

"I loved my father. I would have gone into the cage for my father."

Elvin was the cage boy, his father's eyes outside the ring. If a tiger made a sudden move while Trevor Bale's back was turned, his son would shout out the animal's name so his father would know where to turn with his whip.

"He got nailed a few times," Elvin remembers. "They were pretty wild. One time, one ripped his thumb off and it had to be sewn back on. And he had a plastic nose . . ."

Yet his father always returned to the cage. Someday, Elvin knew, the tiger act would be his. Someday, he would be the star. All the Bale children dreamed of having acts of their own. Leaving the circus was simply unimaginable.