Consider your sister-in-law. Picture your whole family around the dining room table for the holidays, and start with your sister-in-law as she's spooning the gravy. Think of all her strengths, her good intentions, as well as all the things that make you want to stick your fork into your thigh.
This is an article from the June 9, 1997 issue
Look, I know you don't know me from Adam—but just indulge me for a minute before the showstopper comes on. Turn to your brother now. You're studying him as he drains his third beer, thinking of all the stupid arguments you've had, all the quirks of his that have made your teeth grind since you were kids.
Now your spouse. Don't worry, she's oblivious; she's yapping to her sister. Consider her moods, her hormones, her chocolate addiction—the whole works. Got it?
Now close your eyes and imagine this. Imagine all of you at that table—brothers, sisters, in-laws—forming a human pyramid. Seven of you, stacked up in three tiers, except you're not on the ground. You're on a wire the width of your ring finger . . . three stories above the ground . . . the person on top standing on a chair . . . and no safety net below. To survive, your family has to synchronize every step and walk from one end of the 34-foot wire to the other. Just one failure to accommodate one of the niggling little pushes or pulls from that sister-in-law, one old jealousy between you and your brother, one bad night with your wife—hell, one cough or sneeze—and it's coffins for all of you.
One more thing. You have to do this not once, but seven days a week, for two years, all over the country. Traveling and eating and sleeping and dressing together, hating one another and loving one another and handing one another your lives again and again and. . . . Look, the Guerreros are almost ready now.
LADEEZ and GENTLEMEN! You are about to witness CIRCUS HISTORY! Fifty years after the Wallenda family ASTONISHED the world with an UNPRECEDENTED seven-man pyramid on the high wire. . . .
This is all you needed, right? You got your kids here, you got your popcorn and soda, and all you want to do is enjoy the circus, and you got some idiot next to you chewing your ear off. I'll shut up in just a second, promise. But there're just a few things I can tell you that'll make what you're about to see, as amazing as it is, even more amazing. Like the ringmaster said, the Wallendas were the ones that made The Pyramid famous. They're the family that brought it from Europe back in the late '40s and the pictures made everyone's eyes bug out . . . and then made them cover their eyes 15 years later when the Wallendas collapsed in Detroit. It was horrible. Karl Wallenda up there dangling by his foot with a cracked pelvis, his ex-wife's niece clawing for dear life to his back, two other in-laws dead on the floor, and his own son paralyzed for life. And have you heard? It's already gotten one of the Guerreros, too. Just a few months ago, not long after the beginning of this two-year tour they're doing with Ringling Brothers. The Pyramid took out their kid brother Walfer, crushed the poor guy's vertebrae and paralyzed him from the waist down. You're probably wondering how the hell the other six survived, but it's not that simple, because—
LADEEZ and GENTLEMEN, the challenge of the seven-man pyramid requires the complete communication, cooperation and concentration of our artists. We ask for COMPLETE SILENCE in the arena!
All right already, I'll whisper. Don't worry, I'm not going to ruin it for you, because I can't. The more you learn about this trick and this family, the more unbelievable it gets. See, it's a family that . . . how can I say this? They all love one another, maybe too much, but hang around them for a few days and you start finding out about the rivalries and spats, conflicts that were never quite resolved. Maybe a little like your family or mine, the difference being, for the Guerreros, that each of those things can play itself out in the most subtle of ways, and kill them.
This might sound strange, but you know how hard it is to keep a family together these days? That's all the Guerreros are trying to do up there. To be one, a clan, just like when they were kids in Colombia, even now that they're adults living in America and some of them have kids of their own. Maybe that's unrealistic nowadays, an impossible illusion, and one thing's for sure—it's cost them years of heartache and anger between the ones who held onto that illusion and the ones who gave it up. Until a couple years ago, when they finally came to realize that there was only one way to do it, a way no other family would ever dream of. Because the one thing that can keep them all together is the one thing that can destroy them altogether.
You guessed it. The Pyramid. The Seven.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is proud to present this DEATH-DEFYING maneuver, performed by the sen-SA-tional GUERRERO FAMILY!
See their lips moving up there on the tower platform? They're praying together. "En el nombre de Dios." In the name of God. Now they'll start assembling The Pyramid. It's going to take lots of equipment: three crossbars, a metal chair and a balancing pole in each of their hands. And it's complicated. But I'll guarantee you, once they're all up there, you won't be worrying about the details. It'll all be in the pit of your stomach.
There goes Brian French, the only gringo, stepping onto the wire. He's one of the Guerrero in-laws, married to the captain, Jahaida; heavier than you'd picture a wire walker, isn't he? That's because he's not a wire walker. He's an elephant trainer, poor fellow, 23 years old, never walked a wire in his life till the family sucked him into this adventure a couple of years ago. It's easier that way, they kept telling him. No bad habits to break; just do everything exactly the way they tell him to, and he'll be just fine. Only he doesn't believe them, not for a minute, and he's praying like the pope after 10 cups of coffee, and he won't be able to see anything, not one glimpse of The Pyramid or of his destiny, because it's all going to happen behind his back. He would much rather, as a matter of fact, lie down and let a pachyderm put its foot on his chest, which he's done hundreds of times in circuses, than do this. The more stressed he gets, the more he eats, and the more Jahaida nags him, reminds him that the high wire is the last place on earth you want to haul an extra 30 pounds.
Now that Brian's far enough out onto the wire, two hooked braces are being placed over his shoulders from behind. Who's next, slipping his shoulders into the braces that attach him to Brian? The kind of creature the Guerreros fear most on this earth: an outsider. Cappy Acevedo from Colombia, 24 years old, the only nonfamily member in The Seven. Every time he sees the Guerreros playing with their children, his mouth goes dry and all he can think is: What if I make the mistake that orphans them? Which is not a far-fetched notion, because, for one thing, he once broke his leg going down a stairway, and he has to support the 300 pounds of pressure that each man on the base of The Pyramid has to carry. Jahaida keeps trying to transfer the mound of french fries and slice of carrot cake from her husband Brian's plate to Cappy's plate, and to get Cappy into bed by midnight so he won't be off fast-talking the Ringling dance girls in the curve-clutching tights. He's the sweetest guy, but they watch him like a hawk. He's an outsider.
Next, a striking 33-year-old woman from Portugal is stepping from the second level of the platform onto the thin crossbar that's attached to the shoulder braces between Brian and Cappy. That's Aura, a contortionist from a circus family who never dreamed of going near the high wire until she met one of the Guerrero brothers at 18 and married him two weeks later, and suddenly realized she had to learn so much so fast to go up where he went that she ended up in the hospital from a miscarriage that damn near killed her.
For their safety, ladies and gentlemen, there is to be ABSOLUTELY NO flash photography!
Wilson's toeing the wire now, third member of the four-man base, the half brother who ran away at age 12 and never came back to the Guerreros, except to visit . . . until now. The humorous, sensitive one who even today, at 46, can't help wondering sometimes if he's really a Zamudio, his natural father's name, or a Guerrero—if yoking his life to theirs is enough. Who can't help wondering sometimes if the family is criticizing his posture on the wire or second-guessing his steps because it's warranted, or because . . . well, you know how it is with brothers. Because the brother who's about to attach himself to Wilson from behind is the one who used to put Wilson's teeth on edge, the one Wilson always thought was the favored son, his stepfather's first real son. Funny, how he ends up with his fate tied to what he ran away from.
Next: Werner. He's the last man on the base, the short, well-built guy who's shouldering the brace that's connected to Wilson, which has been resting on the lower tier of the platform. He's the 38-year-old brother who was a star on his own in Europe for years, the one you'd think would be in charge, but he's swallowing that bile for now, just thankful after all his years of loneliness to be part of the family again.
He's the handle of a whip: Every movement, no matter how small, will ripple through The Pyramid back to him, and he has to absorb that movement, kill that wave, or it'll oscillate back to the others while they're still reeling from the first one. Want to know how he sleeps? He wedges himself against the wall every night so that he won't bolt out of bed with his arms thrashing, certain that he's falling again, the way he did that time in Stockholm, fell so bad he suffered a hematoma eight inches wide the length of his back. He's the one who took the place of his paralyzed brother.
Now Jenny, the purest daredevil. She's the eldest Guerrero daughter, stepping from the railing on the second level of the platform onto the crossbar that now rests on Aura's shoulders. Jenny has dislocated her hip, sprained her neck in three places, ripped virtually every tendon in one hand, broken her tailbone, dislocated two discs and broken a foot. Way back, before the Guerreros dared try The Seven, Jenny was the family's star, leaping over one of her brothers on a wire 30 feet above the ground, letting him climb onto her shoulders and then carrying him across the air, stuff that no woman had done before. Until that day at the airport 15 years ago when she betrayed the family—those are her own words—and walked away . . . only here she is coming back to volunteer for the most vulnerable position of all: on the chair at the top of The Seven, almost five stories up.
Now watch carefully. Jahaida, Jenny's 29-year-old sister, is reaching out from the platform and balancing the metal chair on the crossbar just behind Jenny. Jenny's taking a step backwards and slowly lowering herself onto the chair. Below Jenny, Jahaida tucks her shoulders into the brace, assuming the 150 pounds of pressure she has to support, hitching herself to Aura on the second level, and now she's stepping onto the crossbar running between Wilson and Werner.
Jahaida's got one helluva job. She has to keep her poise for every instant of the 34-foot-long journey across the wire, to notice every faint leaning, every infinitesimal loss of harmony, and to correct it, with the subtlest tilt of her body, or with the coolest verbal command, without betraying even a trace of the terror that might be screaming through her heart. It's Jahaida's job to mother them all, psychoanalyze them all, heal them all, hold them all together, even the ones she resented for walking away years ago. She's in the cockpit, the position Karl Wallenda manned four decades ago, only her role is infinitely more complicated than his was because she's a female in a Latin family, not to mention the youngest Guerrero out there, and how in the hell, you might well ask, just as Jenny and Werner and Aura often have, did she ever get to be in charge?
So now they're all in position, but before they start across, before Werner calls out "Listos?" (Ready?), let me ask you something: Why is it that people don't consider high wire a sport? Where's the line that separates the two? Strength? Agility? Athleticism? Balance? Teamwork? Damned if I can find it!
At any rate, now you've got the how, but you're still wondering . . . why? Don't worry. Even the Guerreros still wonder that. Why in the name of God are they doing a damn fool thing like this?
I'll tell you why. And you know what's really amazing? The guy who dreamed this whole thing up, the real reason they're all up there, the one who should be basking in all the glory, can't even be here to see it. He's a thousand miles away feeling proud, but feeling awful, too. He's in Sarasota, Fla., at the side of the one in the wheelchair, the one that the dream cut down. He's their dad, Arturo.
Let me tell you about this guy. He's 67 now, and he can't be more than five feet tall. You think you're looking at a spectacle now, wait till you hear his story—that's a spectacle—and there's no way you're going to make sense of the one without the other. I mean, who'd ever think that an altar boy would run away and join the circus? Who'd ever think that one of the smartest kids in the class, the serious little squirt pulling A's, would up and vanish one day to join the hucksters?
But Arturo was disillusioned, and he was suffocating. His father's parents were rich and educated landholders in Colombia who had disowned his dad for running off with an illiterate Indian woman and having two kids with her. When Arturo was two—poof!—his dad flew the coop, leaving this poor Indian woman with two little boys and not much more than her wits, her rosary beads and her saints to get her through. She had a stick she wasn't shy about using, and her son Arturo was going to wake up while it was still dark to go sell fruits and vegetables in the town market, and he was going to run from there to school to get the good grades, and he was going to run from school to the rectory to do odds and ends for the priests, and he was going to run home and do his homework and go to bed and get up and start all over the next day, and she was going to earn enough money prowling the countryside with her truck, buying and selling produce so that her two boys could go to university and reclaim their daddy's place with the elite. . . .
Then the circus came to Cajamarca, the town in the foothills of the Andes where they lived. And here's this 16-year-old kid who's been stashing away pesos for the right moment by slipping them inside a hollow tree in his yard, who can't understand why his mother keeps saying movies are immoral and the circus a perversion, and how the priest can keep saying amen!, the same priest who demands Arturo kick back half his pay for the work he does in the rectory.
So the circus came, and Arturo tapped the tree and joined the pagans, and imagine how delicious that must've been. For about five minutes, because right away he knew he'd made a terrible mistake. But he was just as bullheaded as he was smart, and he didn't go back, no matter how guilty he felt, no matter how many days he went hungry when the circus promoters took advantage of him, no matter how many times he got word that his mother still loved him and wanted him back. Not once, for 10 years, did he return to Mama, and not once—ever—to God. He shot right up the ladder, from candy vendor to carpenter to mechanic to chief of trucks to stilt-walker to clown to the promoter's righthand man, for godsake, by the time he was 18, because he was a gem amid the peanut shells and sawdust—an honest, humble, diligent, intelligent young man in a circus.
But circus ladders are rope ladders, and they kept swaying and fraying and snapping right in his hands. And each time Arturo was left to wonder: Would this have happened, would they have exploited him yet again, if he had a family? You've got to understand, family in a South American country is respect, integrity and wealth . . . and Arturo had cashed all that in—for freedom. Would he ever admit his doubt to anyone else? Oh, no. Call it pride, call it sin, call it cojones, call it dignity: He'd up the ante. He'd build his own circus, build his own family. A big family, tight as a fist. A fist that a lonely little man could raise to the sky.
Weird, isn't it? Ten thousand people, and suddenly it's so quiet you could hear a family drop. Just like on an airplane when you hit turbulence—everyone silent except the wailing babies. That's what it's like until—or if—Arturo's family gets across.
Watch their feet. The heel of each gymnastic slipper must come down on the cable two inches in front of the other toe. They all take a step together and pause, counting to themselves, one, two, three, STEP. Nothing inside their heads except those three numbers and God.
You keep watching and tell me what you think; I can never decide if The Pyramid's a prayer to God, or a thumbing of the nose at Him. Maybe it would've been better if Arturo had never hoped for The Seven, dreamed of it, breathed a word of it to his family. Maybe it would have been better if he'd never glimpsed The Seven that night in Cali, Colombia, back in 1955 when the Wallendas were touring South America. But something in that image—one big family, so trusting, so united, so precise, so majestic, walking across the void on a thread to the commands of its patriarch, Karl—touched him, and set off the dream.
That was the year he met Maria Ruth Cortes. Ruth—that's what she went by—was doing trapeze, just as he was, and she was a knockout. Get this: Her brother would end up having 19 children, all in the circus. Her father, at 16, escaped with the aid of a circus rope over the wall of the seminary he had been forced by his mother to enter, causing that poor woman to suffer a fatal heart attack when she learned that he had overthrown God and family for trapeze. You got it. Perfect marrying material for Arturo Guerrero.
Sure, they were polar opposites. Ruth was the soft, temperamental, dependent one, Arturo the aloof, philosophical, hell-or-high-water dependable one. She would pull south, he would pull north: Don't couples, when they're in love, call that balance? Those three sons she had from previous lovers—Edmundo, Aston and Wilson—they were fine with Arturo too, a head start on his fist; instant respect, automatic clan. They named their first daughter after Jenny Wallenda, the girl Arturo had seen on the chair on top of the Wallendas' pyramid, and they kept building from there.
The high wire came next. It had to. It was the perfect metaphor for Arturo's life: one step from the platform, and you couldn't retreat—it was harder to turn around on the wire and take that single step back than to take 30 more to the other side. And no net. Ever.
But he had a problem. He needed a partner up there to do the stunts that dropped the jaws that brought in the money that made sure he never caved in and crawled back to Madre. So he would take in a newcomer, feed and shelter him, teach him his tricks, create a humdinger act—and then watch it go up in smoke. The circus would duplicate Arturo's rigging, the partner would steal his tricks, and it'd break Arturo's heart every time. Have you ever met anyone like that? Arturo was always the first to pick up hitchhikers, the first to clothe gypsies and the first to sound the alarm to his family: "Never trust outsiders! Only your family!" So Ruth, who thought he was out of his skull when he first suggested it, and 10-year-old Edmundo, who didn't know any better, ended up as his partners on the high wire. Who else could Arturo trust?
Take another look at Jenny up there on top, Jahaida in the middle, Werner on the bottom. They were on the high wire as fetuses. Ruth would suck in her breath, girdle her gut, wrap herself in baggy skirts, go up on the high wire, climb onto Arturo's shoulders, then let little Edmundo wriggle up onto hers . . . eight months pregnant . . . seven pregnancies. Wait'll you tell your wife that one. Ruth had already lost one baby at seven months when she fell off the trapeze. "Arturo, I have pain!" she cried one night when her contractions started while Edmundo was balancing on a chair on the crossbar between her and Arturo. "Hold on!" cried Arturo.
She held on, was rushed to a tiny clinic and gave birth to Walfer. That's when the village doctor said, "No más, Ruth," and mercifully tied her tubes.
Picture it: Circus Guerrero groaning up the flanks of the Andes in a cream-white '52 Ford truck, its bed jammed with tigers and bears, mountain lions, monkeys and pumas, the cabin jammed with diapers and milk bottles, infants and toddlers and teens. Arturo with a cushion stuffed behind his back so he could reach the steering wheel, and little Walfer riding on his shoulders, clutching his hair around the curves. Arturo watching the Communist guerrillas blink the message up the mountainside as he drove his family through the dark toward another town too remote, too dangerous for any other circus to consider: Let this one through. Rolling through town, braying the arrival of Circus Guerrero over the truck's loudspeaker; Ruth unpacking the red tights if they were in a left-wing town, blue for a right-wing one; Edmundo putting bear dung in a jar and selling it to the yokels as tonic for baldness; Wilson sticking flyers in the awestruck children's hands; Aston pounding tent stakes into the earth; Werner and Shirley and Jenny helping the grown-ups set up the seats for another two-show night; little Jahaida and Walfer getting in everyone's way. Arturo wading into the river to bathe the bath-hating bear, the one that nearly tore off his privates with a swipe of its claws. Then all of them—Guerreros, that is—collapsing at night in their home: one room in a local boardinghouse.
When you're living out of a truck, there are no cribs. One baby girl rolled off the bed, struck her head on the floor and died. After that, to save another one from a similar fate, Ruth wrapped her up like a mummy, but she ended up wriggling under the wrappings and suffocating.
So Arturo's fist kept growing—and losing fingers too. Back in the mid-'60s, 14-year-old Aston and 12-year-old Wilson ran away, ground down by the relentless regimen of cage-mucking and tent-raising, of wire-walking and tumbling under the eyes of a stepfather with a remorseless stick. And they couldn't shake the feeling, whether it was true or not, that Werner was living on Easy Street because he had Arturo's blood. Playtime? Arturo didn't believe in toys. Hell, Arturo didn't even believe in friends. They're bums, he'd say. You give them a hand, they take an arm. Work is your best friend; everything else is just headaches.
For nearly four years the family never saw Aston and Wilson. Guess where they went? To another circus. When they finally came back, it was just to visit. Then there was Edmundo, who had fallen from the wire, broken four ribs and a collarbone. Doubt began creeping into Arturo's mind. Maybe he'd been too hard. Maybe he'd lose all his children to death and defection if he kept taking them up on the high wire, dragging them along on this endless ride. But he felt trapped. He'd invested his life's savings in Circus Guerrero, and what else could he do? It had been so long since he had picked up a pencil that he had trouble writing.
He agonized and finally, in 1966, decided that eight-year-old Jenny, seven-year-old Werner and six-year-old Shirley were going to have a school, a home and a warm bed. So one day he showed up at the door of the mother he'd left all those years ago. She hugged them all and cried. Arturo was formal, polite. He offered her the children. The Guerreros split up.
The telegram arrived at Circus Guerrero a few years later. Arturo read it and crawled under the truck, sobbing. Ruth had to claw the message from his fingers to find out. Shirley was dead, killed by a bus.
God, the whole thing would be so incredibly sad, if it wasn't even more amazing. Arturo collected Werner and Jenny, furious with himself for having opened his fist and allowing his family to scatter, angry at the world for tricking him into softening . . . and then smashing him. All his fears had been confirmed. There was no justice, no fairness, no law in the universe except the one he calls the Law of Compensation. No matter what a man does, he pays for it 10 times—that's the law. If that's how things worked, if death was waiting everywhere, for the corrupt and the innocent both, then the only important thing was for a family to stick together, go down together . . . but only, goddammit, after going up together.
Look. Here's where they stop, dead center on the wire. Here's where they forget everything that's happened and trust one another absolutely. Here's where they pray they have been perfect, because if one of them is leaning when Werner calls, "Stop!" then God help him, because he's going to have to hold that position regardless, while Jenny slowly rises from her seat and carefully lifts her foot up onto the chair . . . and stands to her full height, her full glory, beneath the lights. At that moment, she'll tell you, she feels an aliveness, an awareness in every cell of her body, that she's never felt anywhere else on this earth. And the ones below her will tell you that everything in their lives—their aches, their arguments, their bills—is gone, completely gone. And there's a purity in that stillness, the most terrible of purities, one you and I will never know.
That's the gift Arturo gave them. And if you don't get that, you'll never understand him . . . and maybe you never will, regardless. Because there's no way you or I, never having felt that moment, would ever dream of putting our children through all the hardship and danger that he did.
I'm telling you, I've been around them all—your boxers, your matadors and your poets too—and there's a purity to this guy Arturo that outstrips all of 'em. He's an atheist who understands the concept of God, and hungers for it. He keeps climbing toward that absolute, no matter how many times reality strikes him down. And he's found it, even if it only lasts for a few minutes, right in the midst of all the hucksters and con artists—no, right above them—and he's passed it to his children. Purity. The magical healing place. Just look how still The Pyramid is . . . all but that little quiver—here, take the binoculars—that quiver in their biceps and their calves.
It was inevitable, I guess, that a guy like Arturo ended up in America. It was only going to be for two or three years, he figured, when he closed up the family circus back in '76. All he wanted was to see the shiny place he had heard so much about, to make some decent money and return. How could he have known?
Just when they had become successful with Ringling, just when promoters all over Europe were panting for them, just when Arturo had turned Jenny and Werner into stars in a three-man act with him, doing all the running and leaps, the rope-jumping and baton-jumping and somersaults that other wire walkers considered lunacy . . . the two of them left. Bang, bang, within nine months of each other in 1982. They were suffocating, they said.
Edmundo . . . Aston . . . Wilson . . . Jenny . . . Shirley . . . Werner. . . .Now the fist was down to just Jahaida and Walfer, the two youngest. Arturo was in the middle of Europe, his act up in smoke, his heart in ruins, his family split—the remaining children convinced that those who had left, even though the family still loved them, were traitors. And itching to prove them wrong, the one place it counted most: on the wire.
Arturo drove the family's silver trailer to an orange grove outside Valencia, Spain, and set up a low wire. Jahaida, 15 years old at the time, was a natural, almost ready. Walfer, 14—the baby, the softhearted one, just like his mom—was another story. For six months, under a relentless sun, a relentless eye, Walfer walked the wire from dawn to dusk, waiting for Arturo's stick to sting his feet when he erred and loathing every second of it. Six months in that orange grove, with no electricity or lights; a half year of black bread and white pea soup. And then months more of drifting through Europe, all but broke, parking in rest stops to sleep, waking up to the knock from police who now considered them gypsies.
Arturo's dream? He couldn't even utter it anymore. No circus would conceive of paying enough money to bring the seven Guerrero children back together unless they did The Seven . . . but how could they do The Seven if each of the seven needed to leave the family and be free?
Then one day, after they'd finally found work in Italy, Walfer fell. He lay there shaking, aching everywhere—his moment of truth. Suddenly it hit him: If he crawled away, if he quit this job he'd never liked and confirmed his father's suspicions about his lack of heart, then . . . it was over. He was the last child, no one to take his place, no one to stand between his parents and a desperate old age. So he got to his feet, and started climbing back up, and the crowd went wild, and he nailed all the crazy jumps Arturo had dreamed up, and that was it: A maniac, one of the world's best wire walkers, was born. A kid who'd end up doing an unprecedented 1,250 jump-rope repetitions on the high wire, who'd become the first man to leap four people on the wire in public and seven in practice—God, I wish he was up there right now so you could see him. A son you could almost . . . maybe . . . rebuild a dream on.
Want to know how Jenny passed her decade and a half in exile? As an Avon Lady, a roofer, a lineman for the telephone company and a souvenir vendor, before finding her own partner—an outsider—and going back up on the wire. Werner? He became a star in his own right all over Europe, with Aura as his partner. But it was never quite satisfying. No matter how many times the poor kid called home and tried to get Arturo to say three words on the phone, tried to share his triumphs and disasters with his family, it was never right.
Finally, even Jahaida left. She snuck out of the back window of the trailer—at 25, for godsake!—to marry Brian . . . only to faint as the justice of the peace read the vows, and scurry back home to Mama and Papa three days later. Then Walfer, after he and Jahaida had finally persuaded Arturo to retire in 1992, when he was 62, went to Europe to be Werner's high-wire partner, just to keep the creditors at bay. Poor guy, 24 years old, cried for so long in the airplane that the flight attendant finally had to ask him what was wrong.
Sure, the kids chipped in and helped their parents buy a house in Sarasota that same year—imagine, all those years with all those kids, and now they buy a five-bedroom house. And sure, they visited their mom and dad. But they were just visits, too often loaded with almost as much second-guessing and feuding as they were with laughter and hugs.
Only Werner, the cockiest one, ever flung the contradiction into his father's face. "How can you say I abandoned the family?" he demanded of Arturo one day. "You left your family . . . didn't you?"
This is where the Wallendas fell apart. This is where the nephew of Karl's first wife felt his shoulders sagging from all the weight piled on top of him and the 45-poundbalancing pole began to drag his hands lower and lower. . . . This is where Brian, Cappy, Wilson and Werner must actually walk uphill, because even the 16,000 pounds of pressure pulling on the cable to keep it taut, from 14 guy wires ratcheted as tightly as the rigging will bear, aren't enough to keep the high wire from sagging at the center under a half ton of human beings and 350 pounds of poles. This is where the Guerreros know why they ended up suffering a year of Florida sun and mosquitoes and two-a-day practice sessions on the wire in Arturo's backyard before they took this two-year double dare. Didn't I tell you that lady behind us trying to hush us earlier would be leaning over my shoulder before I was through?
Look . . . see what's happened? One of them in the base has stepped too fast, or too slow, and they've separated just a hair, but look how it makes the whole thing tremble. This is when they all wonder if they weren't all better off spread across the globe, every man for himself, scrambling to survive, just as they were back in the early '90s.
This is where Werner wonders what drove him and Walfer to the international circus festival in Monte Carlo in January 1994 and what made them get worked up into such a lather, just because seven wire walkers called the White Angels had the audacity to do The Pyramid there, the trick the Guerreros considered their birthright—even if they hadn't done it yet. This is where Werner wonders why he hungered so much for a way back into the family, why he cried, "That's our trick! We can't let this happen! We were born to do this!"—and then, when Walfer heard the trumpets too, jumped onto a plane home with him, and convinced the family that they had to do The Seven. For Dad! For the family name! For the mortgage payments! For the fist! For the way things always should've been!
Never were so many problems solved by one dramatic stroke. Nobody could remember Mom and Dad looking so happy. Three generations running around the Sarasota house, big steaming bowls of Colombian soup between the midday and evening practices, and then everyone, at the end of the day, jumping into the backyard pool.
You'd think they finally had it made, but let me tell you what happened. Jahaida and Walfer wondered who had elected Werner the boss. Jenny and Werner wondered what made Jahaida and Walfer think they had all the answers, just because they'd stayed at Papa's side longer. A couple of them weren't happy over the money split. None of them could shake the feeling that Arturo, barking suggestions from the ground, was turning them all into children again. And oh, yes, that other problem. They had six—Jenny, Jahaida, Walfer, Wilson, Werner, Aura. They needed seven. Aston, down in Colombia, and Edmundo, off doing trapeze with his three kids, couldn't do it. The Guerreros had no choice but the one they'd all been raised to dread: an outsider.
The Grand Opening came in Amsterdam in December 1994. One of their first practices there, and they came this close to kingdom come. A few feet from the end of the wire, a wire walker from Colombia named Jorge—the outsider they'd reluctantly settled on—couldn't bear the strain any longer. He lunged for the platform to save his hide and The Pyramid began to disintegrate. Net? Are you kidding? Not even in practice. Jahaida took three quick steps backward on the crossbar to compensate, and God knows how, but Walfer held on when her last step ended up in his teeth.
But they pressed on. And for two weeks in Amsterdam, and then a few weeks more in Vienna, the standing ovations, the awe, the purity were enough. "This isn't work!" Jahaida would go around saying. "This is fun!" Then The Seven began to flush out every character flaw, pick at every old scar, rub up all the old friction. So what happened? The Pyramid fell apart six weeks after it finally came together, undone by the same old dilemma: What needs too much to be together falls apart. They all quit in Vienna and went home.
Which is where this story would've ended, or never quite begun, if one of the jaws hanging open in Vienna hadn't belonged to the chief talent scout for the Greatest Show on Earth. This guy showed up at Arturo's house late one night and asked a question: Would the Guerreros accept one of the richest contracts in Ringling history to do The Seven for two years, beginning in late '96, with Ringling holding an option for two more?
Would they? Could they? Of course they couldn't. Of course they did.
I shouldn't tell you what happened next. After all, they're so close to the other end now, and if they can just hold on for a few more steps, we can both go look for a cold beer. It's not the best time to talk about family history following them up to the wire, one of the Guerreros falling, crushing his spine, coming within a whisper of death. But I can't put it off, because everything's linked.
Jahaida and Walfer, fearing their older brother's dominance again, didn't include Werner and his wife in The Seven that would tour America for Ringling. Wilson begged off; he'd had enough. Jorge, the outsider, was axed when he panicked once again. In their places stood a Moroccan named Mustafa, Cappy and two more Guerrero spouses, virgins to the wire whom the family painstakingly trained for a year: Jahaida's Brian and Walfer's Angelina. This time they asked Dad to be their maestro on the floor, and for both him and their mom to live with them on Ringling's milelong train.
Then, Werner showed up in Tampa, just as the tour was about to begin last December. He was pining to share the greatest moment in the family's life. Arturo begged the others to take him back into the fist, to let him take the Moroccan's place—that man's poison, Arturo warned them. But they wouldn't listen.
The old man's eyes misted, and Ruth cried, when they saw The Seven walk for Ringling. But then Arturo, feeling badly for Werner, went back to Sarasota with his banished son, leaving the tour a month after it had begun.
The pressure buckled the Moroccan. He smashed his head over and over against a box one night, sobbing that he couldn't take it. Just before it was time to assemble The Pyramid in Asheville, N.C., early in February, he did something no Guerrero had ever seen—he leaped from the high wire onto the mat during a performance—forcing the Guerreros to cancel The Seven that night. They had no replacements. They could either keep hinging themselves to a man coming unhinged—or surrender the fat contract and a lifelong dream. Then, about a week later, as they packed up in Greensboro, N.C., Jenny, sick of her younger siblings' commands, said she was quitting.
The Seven was swallowing Walfer piece by piece. What would he tell management at curtain time in Richmond two days later? He agonized until nearly 4 a.m., then finally hit the road. An hour and a half later he lost control of his truck and turned it over on I-85. He spent five hours in the emergency room, went nearly 40 hours without sleep, and bled internally from the impact of the wreck. Jenny showed up in Richmond after a change of heart, and Walfer, fearing that Ringling was losing all patience, couldn't bear the thought of canceling The Seven once more.
Arturo was the only man with the power to persuade him not to go up, but he was back in Sarasota with the banished Werner. In a fog, without making his customary last check of the rigging, Walfer stepped onto the wire to do the tricks he performed each night just before The Pyramid. He raced toward Cappy—the over-under stunt—and leaped just as Cappy ducked. It's hard to know exactly what happened then. Maybe Walfer missed the jump that badly. Maybe the wire, not quite secured to the tower, sagged when he landed, and then recoiled. He fell, breaking three ribs and puncturing a lung as he struck the cable, his hand grabbing it just long enough to swing him outward, toward the edge of the mats. Half on, half off, he landed, his legs jackknifing over his head, crushing two vertebrae and his spinal cord.
Arturo's face drained of blood when he got the call in Sarasota, and he hopped into a car alongside Werner, with Wilson and Edmundo not far behind. For 16 hours of extremely risky surgery, the Guerreros, united, waited for the head shake that would signal life or death.
Three weeks later, his family all still at his side, Walfer called them to his bed. Jahaida had made it clear: She was finished with The Pyramid and the wire; she would take care of her brother for the rest of her life. Brian kept it quiet, but he was never going up again either. Walfer cleared his throat, four tubes sticking out of his chest. "I need to see a light in front of me, Jahaida," he begged. "You've got to do The Pyramid again."
Jahaida, in tears, finally nodded, and Brian did too. Walfer turned to Werner. " You and Aura will take my place and Tweedy's," he said, using his wife's nickname. He turned to Wilson. "You'll take the Moroccan's place, won't you?" he asked. Wilson flinched . . . but couldn't turn him down. For once, he was sure. The family needed him. His family needed him. The Pyramid went on.
I'll be honest. They still argue. But the arguments end sooner now. Jahaida only has to mention Walfer, and the voices hush. She tries harder than ever to begin each critique of Werner by saying, "I know you've been on the wire for many years, bu—" and he tries harder than ever just to shrug and listen. She tries harder than ever not to take Wilson to task in front of the others, and to treat Aura as a sister instead of a sister-in-law, and to give Jenny the space she needs.
It's working right now, and it's fun again, but they admit The Pyramid's scarier than it's ever been because of how little time the new members have had to harmonize their steps. For a while there was a net below them—New York state law—which the Guererros considered a disgrace, but it's gone again now.
They call home every day, sometimes twice, to talk to Walfer. He loves to talk but sometimes the pain from his spine grinding against the two long metal bars the doctors inserted is just too much. Arturo tells him the doctors are wrong—he'll walk again, walk on earth and on air both. He tells Walfer he's made of different material than other human beings. Then the others in the room will look up, and realize Arturo's gone. They'll look outside and see him in the backyard, walking over the weeds, walking on the wire.
He just didn't want his kids to suffer, like he did. That's why he couldn't bear to let them go away, even when they grew up. He can't quite figure out how things ended up this way. "Sometimes I think that the only thing I ever really planned was running away when I was 16," Arturo says. "And that everything after that just . . . just happened."
When you ask him if he could've ever imagined it like this, getting his dream and not being able to see it, getting his family back together and getting his son in the wheelchair with it too, Arturo doesn't say anything. He just takes off his glasses and cries.
Look! They're finished! You can breathe again. Listen to the crowd. Now I'm going to tell you the most amazing thing of all. Maybe it's just a joke, but Walfer's said it enough times now that even he's not sure anymore. If he can't get out of his wheelchair one day, if he really can't . . . then he and his wheelchair are going up. Up on the high wire, where a Guerrero belongs.