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"For we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not of ourselves."

No More LSD for Me

Highwire Circus Pyramid The Testimony of a High-Flying, Highwire, Jesus Freak

by Rick Wallenda

Growing up in the circus sounds strange to “normals” – we call you “Gajos” – but a hippy, LSD-swallowing, long-haired, highwire circus freak even startles my conceptions; yet that is the description of me on my summer circus tour in 1971. With the Summer of Love long gone and the concert at Altamont over, I plunged into my own rebellious search later than the rest of the subculture, but I didn’t even know what I was looking for. Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were names I heard on the news. The Beatles were finished. Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction occasionally played on the airwaves, but I was a late comer, somewhat sheltered by our nomadic circus lives.   

While all the hippies trekked off to Woodstock in August 1969, I walked a highwire in Mexico City with El Gran Circo Imperial. News was scarce when traveling – mostly radio – and I was sheltered from the hippies except for the musical connection. In November, 1970, with the Shrine Circus in New Orleans, LA, I finally smoked pot, achieving the desired intent. Previous attempts had failed to produce the effect, but not that night. As a fifteen year old, compulsive, ready for adventure, I sailed. Within a few months I found LSD as the drug of choice. By the following summer I had spent every earned dollar on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

Wallenda Troupe 1969 Mexico City

Lysergic diethylamide was easier to locate than cannabis. We showed in college towns or sometimes on military bases where the acid was manufactured. When my preferred substance was not available, I swallowed anything offered, including alcohol, with usually no questions asked. Sometimes a bottle of wine declared to be laced with some illegal substance was passed around. The next day I would walk the highwire, my shoulder length hair whipping in the wind. My grandparents, Karl and Helen Wallenda, wisely revoked my license to climb. My only aerial ascent left: Orange Sunshine or one of her sisters.

The previous spring, as we awaited our turn with the Shrine Circus in the Cincinnati Gardens in Ohio, a concert preceded us. One of my circus friends joined me in search of something and someone to play with. As we perused the crowd we heard a sound to one side that attracted us: people laughing, singing, and dancing. We pushed our way to these people and asked what they had to share. They shared what they knew – that Jesus died for us, and we could come to know Him in the same way. They appeared high but assured us it was natural. This was the first time in my sixteen years I heard this news. I sat enthralled the entire evening, listening to testimonies of leaving drugs for Jesus. The concert lost all appeal as I allowed these Jesus Freaks to tell me about their Savior. This was good news I never heard before.      

The circus moved on from Cincinnati, but my first encounter with Jesus People stayed with me. I recall even corresponding with one of the Freaks for a time. However, I continued to pursue intoxicants, and by summer I rarely felt straight. But the seed of Jesus remained.

Unlike some churches, shunning anyone within the circus community is unheard of, except in the most extreme circumstances. My grandparents prevented me from ascending the highwire, but permitted me to remain in a ground-support position. Dissatisfied, I wandered from one circus to another. I survived, but money problems eventually forced me back to the Wallenda Winter Quarter in Florida for the winter of 1971-72. With plenty of relatives about to feed me, I needed nothing to survive. I slept in one of the show trucks and ate with others in the complex. Mom always made sure I found food, as good moms always do.

The problem in this situation was lack of work. With no money for drugs, I made friends with the local supplier. I carried his goods to concerts and other gatherings in exchange for samples I consumed. While not every night held a concert, my compulsive desires never slept.  

Rick Jesus Freak

One evening as we sat on a street corner waiting for an opportunity to get high for free, a man walked up to us and asked why we sat doing nothing. I turned to see the suit and tie, so tuned him out. He invited us to his evangelistic meetings, and it germinated something inside me. Like water on the seed planted six months earlier in Cincinnati, that seed burst into life. The images of sitting on the walkway beside the Gardens that night rushed into my mind, and the words of the Jesus Freaks swirled in my memory.  I could see the natural contentment on their faces and the absolute ecstasy blazing from their eyes, which I immediately connected to this man and his message about Jesus.    

For the next several nights we piled into my orange 1956 VW Bug and drove to his meetings. Eventually he baptized three of us. The Jesus Movement had joined the circus a few years earlier when a man named Bob Yerkes introduced his friends to a Hal Lindsey book, but for us it started with a man walking the streets inviting people to hear his message about Jesus – not in a church but a small rented hall. Like the beginning of the Jesus Movement, no individual can take credit. The circus revival came through various means, mostly unconventional, but it was the same Lord, same Spirit, and same Bible. I came to Jesus that week.

Rick in worship team 1978

By the following summer my grandfather saw the change and began giving me responsibilities, including restoring my highwire privileges. At seventeen I now had responsibility for one of his trucks and his Skywalk rigging. Yes, he walked on the sky; this great man showed me manhood and taught me his art. Within another year I was completely responsible for his entire circus – all trucks and equipment and at least a six person crew, some of which were also Jesus Freaks. In one year my entire life turned around.

A home meeting of circus people seeking answers about Jesus, to study the Bible, and sing praises to the living God that saved and changed us, rose during winter months. I never went to church, because I felt no need. I found Jesus Freaks everywhere, as I carried Bible and guitar with me. I always found others to share in this awesome move of God and never failed to share with those still in some form of darkness, always holding to Jesus.

Rick and sister Rietta, 1978

My grandfather was killed in 1978, while Skywalking between buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico; it was the second highwire death in our family in that decade. My step-father had died in a highwire related accident in July, 1972, in Wheeling, West Virginia, and I went home for the funeral. While there, a cousin who came in from California asked one evening if we could find a church to pray in. I had never attended any church, so I knew of none open at night for prayer. After driving around for about an hour we found one with an invitation sign on the door to come in and pray. The church sat empty. We entered and knelt. I prayed intensely for God’s help. Then I began shaking, my teeth chattered, and sounds came from my mouth. When the experience ended, my cousin informed me that I had just been filled with the Holy Spirit. I knew nothing of that experience, because I never attended church. I only read of it in the Bible. She said she had seen it happen in California often, so I accepted her observation.

My account of the day my grandfather died is in another narrative titled “Regretfully Yours.” That day ended an era in our family and opened the door to many seeds of destruction that came to fruition in the decades following. Perhaps I am responsible for some of those seeds, but I think they are from a sower of a different spirit.

1980 Bike Pyramid

In 1980 I returned to San Juan and completed that failed walk. A year later my grandmother gave me the company she and my grandfather established, The Great Wallendas, Inc., but my zeal for the Lord began cooling. Friends asked why, but no sensible answer forms. By 1983, I turned my back on Jesus but never denied His existence; I believed in the same way as Satan. I no longer followed Jesus. I drank beer to suppress the guilt – the greater the guilty sensation, the greater the consumption. By 1993 my drinking habit settled at about a case of beer every day. Then my wife left.
The shock of losing something very precious drove me to near suicide. I planned the event, but Jesus planned something else. One sleepless night I lay alone, channel surfing from my bed. A TV preacher just ending his message offered to pray for those watching. I prayed along. At the end he asked the Lord to show a sign to anyone who prayed. I sighed something sarcastic and tried sleeping.

The next day we presented our show on a baseball diamond as part of a festival in Southfield, Michigan. No one on our small thirty-minute show knew of my dilemma or plan. I even forgot the late night preacher. After our matinee, as we waited to preset for the next show, we all stood around second base while the audience cleared. A man came through the dugout and across the infield, stepping over circus equipment, walking straight toward our group of about seven or eight, walked up to me and said, “The Lord told me to come tell you He loves you.”

Rick and wife Debbie doing double skywalk

The conflict that arose between my internal and external responses defies description. I wanted to chase him and hear more; but I stood at second base surrounded with my show cast, thinking I must maintain some foolish image of manhood. I watched the man retreat to the dugout and leave. To this day I don’t know if he was human or angelic. It doesn’t matter. The message was delivered. I instantly knew what must be done.

Nearly two decades have passed since then; although my walk has sometimes slowed to a crawl, like a moth I head toward the light. When struggles threaten to overwhelm me, I take shelter. I never stop reading the Bible, and it keeps my rudder steady. I am not without fault or blemish. I am damaged goods. I make no claim to perfection but remain drug and alcohol free. I keep my face like a flint toward the only destination worth the loss of everything. I hold to Jesus with one hand and with the other reach for other drowning individuals.


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Last Update: 2013-08-12 16:41