It was Sal’s job to catch the high-wire performers if they fell. He was equipped with 200 extra pounds of his own self, a hand towel, and a gymnastics mat.
Catching a falling tightrope walker is an impossible task, but Sal took his role very seriously. He paced under the wire watching their every move, nervously chomping Juicy Fruit on the side of his mouth that still had teeth.
He was loved by everyone, especially the kids. He knew all of our names, handed out sticks of gum, and grabbed our sides. We ran away squealing, and then ran back for more just as fast. The circus was his home. He was important there. His name was proudly sewn in navy blue thread on every one of his uniforms.
I don’t think anyone believed there was any real need for him to be marching around under the high wire. Pedro and Daniel were the death-defying Colossal Carrillo Brothers. They were famous for crafting and executing some of the most complex and dangerous high-wire feats ever performed. Circus legends. Precision, showmanship, and their sequined bell-bottom costumes made them two of the brightest stars in the Greatest Show on Earth.
The Carrillo Brothers were unrivaled in the art of pretending to almost fall. Their weebling and wobbling produced rolling collective gasps from the audience, always followed by thundering applause when they steadied themselves. Those alternating waves of gasps and applause all sound the same backstage. Loud but muffled. They’re a subconscious indicator that all is well. The white noise of circus life.
It’s very rare for the sound of the gasp to change. But when it does, the hair on the back of your neck stands up before your ears have a chance to tell your brain. When that kind of gasp sweeps an arena, everything stops backstage. Children stop playing, wardrobe ladies stop pinning, showgirls stop tugging at their fishnets. It’s just suffocating silence while you wait, hoping to hear the applause so you can exhale.
One night the gasp changed, and the applause didn’t come. That’s how we knew Daniel had fallen 42 feet, and landed on the concrete floor of Madison Square Garden.
Three long and eerie seconds passed before the ringmaster blew the whistle. Then the band started playing, and clowns rushed into all three rings to distract the audience from what they’d just seen. My dad watched it all unfold from behind his drums. Daniel did a backward roll on the wire and he wasn’t pleased with it. He put his finger up to the audience to indicate he wanted another chance to get it perfect. He completed the backward roll again, and rolled right off the wire, making that his very last performance.
Was the first one good enough? Absolutely. Was it necessary for it to be perfect? Definitely not. The quest for perfection crippled Daniel for life. He walked with a cane and never worked again. If I could ask him if it was worth it, I know what he would say. We all do.
I try to keep that in mind when I’m driving myself crazy trying to be perfect. Most of the time, good enough is actually really great. I like the peace and happiness in that. And I won’t need an emotional cane if I don’t get it exactly right.
We’re all good enough. Actually we’re already perfect.
If you’re wondering what happened to Sal, as Daniel was being driven away in the ambulance with a shattered pelvis, Sal was still standing there under the wire, frozen in horror, with a mouth full of Juicy Fruit.