Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales


by Norris Chambers



          When I was in the fifth grade Mrs. Dryden was my teacher. She was a good teacher and I learned many useful things from her. She often told us about her son, Bunny Dryden, who performed as a high wire walker in circus acts, at county fairs, etc. She told how he turned flips on the wire, carried men on his back while high up on a wire, hung from his toes and many other interesting things. I was interested in wire walking and was thrilled when she announced that he was coming to Texas to do some performances and that we might get to meet him.

            When Bunny arrived one of his first appearances was in our school gymnasium. He set up a portable wire about seven or eight feet above the floor and did many unbelievable stunts on it. He also did some strong man stunts, such as bending steel rods, standing erect on one arm and carrying two men on his back. I thought it was a very good show.

            When the show was over Mrs. Dryden introduced me to him and he took the time to talk with me for several minutes. He performed at most of the schools in our end of the county. The admission prices were very reasonable and I attended three of them. Besides the school shows he performed in most of the towns in the area. The merchants in the towns paid him for the performance and the show was free. The wire was stretched from the tallest building on one side of the street to one of similar height on the other side and the act was performed high above the street. Usually some local dignitary rode on his back while he walked across the wire. He carried a long piece pipe as a balance pole and the crossings were made safely.

            The pipe, or balance pole, makes wire walking much safer. The pole has considerable weight and cannot be moved in either direction quickly. By allowing the legs and lower part of the body to become limp there is no way to become unbalanced as long as the feet are on the wire. Holding to a balance pole is like holding to a fixed object and any tendency to become unbalanced can be instantly corrected. I attended most of these Saturday afternoon free town shows and talked with Bunny about his profession.

            When I asked him how he learned the art he told me it was a matter of practice and then more practice. He said that when he wasn’t working he practiced at least eight hours a day. He also told me it was a dangerous profession that required hard work and he didn’t recommend it for anybody. “It takes a crazy nut like me to do something like this!” he explained.

            Bunny Dryden continued to pursue his profession or several years. He never returned to our area and in 1936 was killed when he fell many feet from a wire above a street. The short account of the incident said that a supporting wire broke and allowed the main wire to go suddenly slack.

            My first experience with wire walking was on cables that were run in all directions from the power houses that pumped oil wells. The power house had a very large eccentric wheel that moved cables back and forth in all directions. Each cable went to a well and moved the pump jack up and down. The cables moved back and forth over the tops of 2” pipe stakes with wooden inserts in the top that were called “doll heads”. The power house pulled the cable and raised the pump and the weight of the rods in the well kept it tight as it descended. These cables made an excellent place to practice wire walking. Clifton and I found some suitable 1” pipes about ten feet long and used these for balance poles.

            I was surprised at how easy it was to stand and walk on a cable with a balance pole. Holding the pipe was just as Bunny had described. It was like holding on to a solid rail. The physics explanation of inertia explained it perfectly. The resistance to movement by the pipe served as a remedy to any tendency to become unbalanced. When walking without the balance pole the arms served as the balance tool. After much practice the arms worked almost as well as the balance pole. When first switching from the pole to the arms weights held in each hand made the balance easier. After a few days of practice the weights could be discarded and the arms served well as balance poles.

            I built a practice cable about fifty feet long and a little over three feet high. I had a metal barrel on each end turned upside down which made a nice little platform for starting a walk. Then I graduated to an eight foot one. The highest wire I ever practiced on was about twelve feet above the ground.

            The only public performance I ever did was at school when I was in the tenth grade. I stretched a rope across the stage and did my show there. The kids thought it was a good thing to keep them from classes.

            From a financial standpoint the only money I ever made from wire walking was on a bet when I was working in the oil field a few years later. I bet the roustabout crew that I could walk a guy wire to the top of the drilling floor house, about 12 or 15 feet high at the top and 75 feet long. Some of them pooled their money and made the bet. Of course I took a joint of pipe as a balance pole and walked up the cable, then turned around walked back down. They didn’t know that I knew how to walk a wire.

            The lesson projected in this tale, if there is one, is to NEVER bet on another man’s tricks.


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