Monday, February 27, 2017

Nurse the Hate: My Wingwalking Days

I don’t remember if I ever told you about what happened to me after my ventriloquism career ended…  Shortly after emerging from rehab, I found myself adrift.  My so-called celebrity “friends” wouldn’t take my calls, or even acknowledge my existence.  At the time I was devastated to find myself so abandoned by what I thought of as my social support system.  Now looking back, I can understand why Sandra Bullock had security remove me from her property as I wandered around outside in the rain with no pants screaming “Sandy!  Sandy!  Come outside and have a drink with me you crazy fuck!”  Even Iggy Pop avoided me.  Shannon Hoon blocked my calls.  I had become unmoored as “The Second Golden Age of Ventriloquism” ended as quickly as it had begun.  I never saw it coming.  I had no skills and no plan.  Rehab provided me with a much needed reset, but I had no direction.

I can’t explain now why I thought my future was in Wingwalking and forming a barnstorming troupe.  You need to understand what it was like in America in 1994.  The war had just ended and the streets were filled with men like myself looking for adventure.  We were young and addicted to adrenalin, used to having our nerves on edge facing death while fighting The Hun.  Risk was our food.  The crazier the situation, the more we liked it.  It was at a logging camp outside of Coeur d’Alene when I first fell in with Danny “Hipshot” Hamilton, a former RAF pilot that was supporting his drinking by crop-dusting his way across America.  Hipshot had a biplane which he had won in a poker game in Minsk after the war on an inside straight on what could only be called “stacked odds” thanks to his proclivity for dealing from the bottom of the deck.  He was a hell of a character. 

Hipshot and I were cut from the same cloth in that neither of us was in much of a hurry to embrace an anchored life of a house, wife and 1.8 kids.  We were both broken in a sense.  Hipshot had just flown too many missions while I had never gotten over a blonde I had met backstage in an Edinburgh club while on tour with Temple of the Dog.  We were fast friends.  It was over the course of many bourbons at The 44 Club that we hatched our plan.  The idea was to make enough money on the small town air show circuit to finance an eventual trip to Hawaii where we would permanently perform for open mouthed tourists and make love to Island girls on the beach while drunk on rum.  In theory it was a great plan.  We really should have investigated the air show circuit more thoroughly.     

In the mid-1990s America was interested in two things:  The Macarena and Wingwalking.  It was just like the newsreels show it.  There wasn’t a bar you could walk into without running into a bunch of folks doing the Macarena talking about Wingwalking.  It was a mania.  Everyone was getting into it.  I remember seeing Ed Asner hanging off a tail section in Duluth in 1995.  Now here comes Hipshot and I trying to break into this circuit with absolutely no cred while big time acts like The Gates Flying Circus, Tex Rankin’s Flying Circus and The Wood Brothers Air Thrill Show are taking all available budgets.  We knew we had to come up with a competitive edge.  We were on the outside looking in.

I can’t recall which one of us came up with the idea of trying to train the wolves to wingwalk.  Hell, I barely knew what I was doing.  Our “show” at the time consisted of me being strapped onto the plane like Hannibal Lechter while Hipshot did various barrel rolls and loops while I barfed all over the place.  We were confident that there wasn’t a booking agent in the circuit that wouldn’t book us at top dollar if I could somehow get the wolves to jump through hoops on the wings while we roared over the crowd.  It was just a question of being able to train the wolves…

I will be honest.  Mistakes were made.  The first five or six wolves totally freaked out once I released them from their cage on the wing and immediately plunged to their deaths.  We couldn’t figure out how to get it done and were almost broke from the expense of wolves.  That was when we came up with the foot harness that kept them on the wing while I made a big show of tossing them scraps of meat while cracking a whip theatrically.  It wasn’t the trick show that we initially envisioned, but it was a hit.  We played them all.  Boise, Lincoln, Norman, Wichita… the entire circuit.  We were flush with cash.  Even the wolf didn’t have to be tranquilized as much as before as he had gotten used to chomping on Slim Jims at 8000 feet while being inverted.  Hawaii and our dreams were within reach.

It was probably inevitable that Danny “Hipshot” Hamilton would leave with the money.  It’s like the story of the scorpion that stings his friend the frog.  It was just in his nature.  I wasn’t even that mad.  I woke up on a Sunday morning in Springfield Missouri with $9, a wolf and no sign of Hipshot.  I let the wolf go in a park outside of town.  He’s still in Springfield as far as I know.  As for Hipshot, I’ve heard some rumors about him.  I’d heard he was a tattoo artist in the Philippines.  A tilt-a-whirl operator on the Georgia carnival circuit.  That he died diving for pearls in Indonesia.  He could be selling insurance here in town for all I know.  I will tell you this.  Whenever I hear the roar of a propeller plane I look up, just to see if it’s him.  Even after all that’s happened, I miss him.    


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