Philippe Petit might not be a name that immediately attaches itself to a face. In fact, I wouldn’t know a single thing about the man except that I read his name as a youngster in an old copy of the Guiness Book of World Records.
Most all of us, however, know about the World Trade Center. The North and South Towers stand forever etched in our minds, though they stand no longer. As we approach the 10th anniversary of their terrible destruction at the hands of terrorists, it stands to reason that there will be memorials, television specials, and tears. But let’s look at a somewhat lighter, happier story, one that connects our country’s most famous buildings and a Frenchman you don’t know.
Philippe Petit was a high-wire artist. Well, he was many things (all of them much safer). He juggled, performed magic tricks, and enjoyed rock-climbing and horses, among other things. But when a teen-aged Petit first stepped on the wire in the mid 1960s, he had apparently found his calling.
He had soon taught himself the tricks of the trade – riding bicycles and unicycles on the wire, doing somersaults, stuff like that. But he wanted more. And the answer was height. There were the towers of the Notre Dame. There was the Sydney Harbor Bridge. But bigger, or rather, taller, was yet to come.
He saw a model of the to-be-built Twin Towers in 1968, and just knew they would have to be conquered. For six years he prepared. And the preparation involved more than practice…there was spy-work as well, because security wouldn’t just let some guy run up a wire between the buildings and have at it. He made fake IDs to gain access to the roof. He posed as a writer of a French architectural magazine so he could interview workers during construction. He watched the workers, noting their clothes so he could closely match them and blend in.
The night before what he came to call his “coup”, he moved a 450-foot steel cable up the service elevator, along with a bow and arrow. He and his helpers then shot the arrow with fishing line attached across the space between the Towers. Assistants in the second Tower passed ropes back and forth until the cable could be supported, pulled across, and stabilized.
And on August 7, 1974, he made his move. At 7:15am, he stepped onto the wire, carrying just his 55-foot balancing pole. And from a height of 1,368 feet, he did his thing for 45 minutes. I imagine that no one on the ground noticed at first. Then someone looked up for some odd reason, saw something moving, and pointed. Then another looked, then two more, then five, then a dozen. Pretty soon he everyone in the area was watching. Petit traversed the wire an incredible 8 times. He sat on the wire. He laid on the wire. He waved to the crowds.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I helped Dad tear down his old garage. It took quite a bit of courage for me to get up on that 10-foot high roof and balance myself to rip off the old boards. Petit was 130 times higher than I was, standing on a wire. This morning, I walked part way across the High Trestle Trail Bridge, 120 feet above the Des Moines River Valley, on a 10-foot wide bike path with nice high railings. Petit was 10 times higher than I was, standing on a wire.
I can only shake my head. Just looking at the photo above gives me a shiver.
You don’t have to be crazy to be a high-wire artist, but I think it probably helps.