They Earn Their Bread at The Risk of Their Lives (Jan, 1931)

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They Earn Their Bread at The Risk of Their Lives


Daredevils who hold down the most dangerous occupations in the world don’t depend on luck to keep them alive — they’re keen students who plan their stunts scientifically to put natural laws to work for them.

WHY is a daredevil, anyway—and why is it that firemen, circus acrobats, lion tamers, tight rope walkers, and race car drivers usually live to a ripe old age, or are cut down by measles, pneumonia, and other prosaic diseases which one would naturally expect would have the good taste to avoid these men who daily laugh at death?

There are several reasons why there are daredevils. In the first place, they must live the same as other folks, and the rewards in the game are high. Then, too, the daredevil is usually a man with an urge for adventure, and his occupation gives him the thrills he craves. Not all daredevils, of course, hold down spectacular jobs. Your window washer, working 30 stories above the street, is as much a daredevil as the chap who permits himself to be shot out of a cannon.

The qualifications for men who hold down the world’s most dangerous occupations, however, are pretty much the same. Steady nerves, a body in perfect physical condition, fearlessness, and something of the instincts of a gambler are required. And above all, a keen brain which can size up a situation, and make hair-trigger decisions when life hangs in the balance. Natural science has a good deal to do with the success of a daredevil, whether he knows it or not. Instinctively he takes advantage of the laws of leverage, balance, and kinematics.

Take Sig Smith, for instance. Everybody has heard of the Statue of Liberty, though not many people realize what a huge object it is. They say that a man can crawl out of the statue’s eye. If he should slip through that eye he would drop to certain death at the base, more than 150 feet below.

Yet Sig Smith, the man who earns his corned-beef-and by pursuing the profession of daredevil, mounted up to the top there. And blindfolded, with his eyes bandaged against the possibility of seeing a thing, he walked around on the prongs of the crown with all the carelessness of a child skipping rope.

Sig Smith has reached the ripe old age of 32, by the way. The records show that steeplejacks and stunt artists are always flirting with death and each year a number of them turn in their badges, so to speak, and go to their reward aware that no other Fate was in store for them. Theirs is a Spartan attitude. They are like the railroad engineer I spoke to during the strike on the New Haven Road several years ago when I was a reporter assigned to cover the story.

Already there had been violent outbreaks. At one point a suitcase of dynamite was found. It was no secret that the strikers meant to wreck property, trains, and human lives. At exactly midnight, just as the train was pulling out of the Back Bay station in Boston for its run to New York, I asked the engineer how he felt about it, in the face of the reports of outbreaks.

“My job is here at the throttle. I haven’t any idea whether I’ll get there. But I’m going.”

That is the daredevil’s shibboleth. He tries beforehand to be prepared for all emergencies. His instruments are kept as near perfect as possible. But there is no safeguard against the unexpected.

There was the case of Diver Francis Smith, one of the chief aids to Commander Edward Ellsberg, who directed the raising of the S-51. Smith was known as an intrepid diver, one of the best in the business. Equipped with a special pneumatic hose, he descended to the bottom at the scene of the S-15 sinking. He bored his way with his hose through the mud, to pave the way for fixing a chain around the hull.

After he had burrowed his way in deep, he suddenly discovered that the opening which he had made closed in behind him. A thousand horrors gripped the heart of this veteran diver. He communicated with Commander Ellsberg, telling him of his plight. But rescue would have been impossible. He saved himself by managing to turn his back and boring his way out again in the same manner he had entered. On reaching the surface again, he asked for a cup of coffee, went down again, and this time he came up a great hero.

There are about a dozen salvage firms in New York. If that particular occupation appeals to you, you can earn from $60 to $100 a week. Or you can work piece-work and get from $3 to $5 a dive, which at the end of a week might net you a salary of $150 to $200. Pretty dangerous work, but the casualties seem few and far between. They have the diving business down to a science. Of course, the dangers are still there, however.

Firefighting has always been a spectacular business, and the fire-laddies are mighty brave men. No day passes without some catastrophe threatening to bring them nearer to the brink of eternity.

Every once in a while they tackle a harbor fire on a freighter or an oil tanker. Their water assault meets with a series of explosions which carry a death wallop.

“Human flies” represent just about the last word in dangerous occupations. No insurance company will risk a policy on these daredevils who climb up the sides of skyscrapers with no other assistance than their own hands and feet. I was talking to one of them the other day, and I asked him how he was able to go on month after month repeating his hazardous stunt.

“It’s not easy,” he said, “but it’s simple—if you get what I mean. A human fly has to have fingers of steel. He must be able to support his entire weight – with two fingers clamped over a projecting ledge, while his feet or other hand seek a hold farther on. He must be able to pull himself up with one hand. He must have endurance—staying power. Any normally agile young man can climb the face of a skyscraper for a story or so—until the increasing height gets his nerve. Most of them are built nowadays with footholds almost as good as a ladder.

“It’s when you get up ten stories or so that your mettle is tested. You know that a slip will be fatal, but a good human fly forgets about that. He’s concerned with the job in hand. He’s always looking up—never down. There’s sound psychology in that. Keep the mind occupied with the job in hand, and you don’t have time to get scared. It’s really a puzzle, climbing a skyscraper. You can chart your pathway in advance, but you can’t tell what unexpected thing will wreck your plans. Usually the hardest part of the whole climb comes at the end, just when the climber is most exhausted. I refer to the overhanging coping which surrounds the top of most skyscrapers.

“The climber has to swing out and over, with nothing under him but a sidewalk a thousand feet below—has to elbow his way over the top, to edge himself finally upon the roof. It’s a great game— but not for weak hearts.”

“Mine’s too weak, I guess,” I said. “It’s going pitty-pat right now, just from listening to you.”

It is significant that most daredevil stunts are associated with height in some way. Perhaps that is because of the normal human sensation of vertigo which attacks most of us when we look over the top of a skyscraper. Unless you are different from most folks, you’ve been seized with a desire to jump from the top of some building when you look down into the street below, even while the hair at the nape of your neck is curling. It’s mostly your imagination, picturing to you what would happen if you should fall, which accounts for this feeling, scientists tell us. But it makes us appreciate the deeds of those who do defy height all the more.

Men get used to height. Look at the steelworkers at work on a skyscraper skeleton. Watch them nonchalantly riding a huge girder while a crane lifts it hundreds of feet above the street. Height is simply a condition of the day’s work to them. Fear of height is something which can be overcome with a little training.

Here’s an example. If you can ride a bicycle at all, you have no difficulty in keeping it within the boundaries of an ordinary sidewalk, five or six feet wide. Yet lift that sidewalk on stilts a hundred feet in the air, and you’ll not only be unable to keep the bicycle from running off—you’ll be too paralyzed at the idea even to attempt it. Your ability to ride the bicycle is just the same as on the ground, but your imagination has paralyzed you. A psychologist would call this a fear complex, or something like that. Daredevils don’t have them.

Then there are the building-wreckers. Some of those unsung heroes ought to get Congressional Medals twice a year. It’s nothing strange to hear of an entire building collapsing. Also, a dozen men may be working with their bars high up on a wall when suddenly everything vanishes from under them. A full blooded building-wrecker has got as much chance of getting an endowed insurance policy as a parachute-jumper in the mountains.

Aviation offers a number of candidates for the most dangerous occupations in the world. Take pilots like Dick Grace, who cracks up on purpose just to provide a thrill for the movies; Capt. Frank Hawks who commutes regularly from coast to coast; Al Williams, Jimmy Doolittle, Commander Richard Byrd and the rest of the daring aviator-explorers who brave the perils of the Antarctic or the jungles.

And what about those reckless stunt men who climb out onto the wings in mid-air, stand on their hands, or hang from the edge of the plane and swing themselves around like a chef flips a pan-cake? You’ve got to admit that’s a hair-raising occupation if ever there was one.

John Weld, who in his days of airplane stunting has been everywhere on a plane while in flight except in the fuselage, has this to say about his job when he doubles for movie actors, “You don’t get much glory or much money either doubling for the movie stars in dangerous stunts, but at least it’s not monotonous.”.

Brooklyn Bridge has been quite an experimental station for the dangerous job fiends. Steve Brody’s famous dive will never be forgotten. Twice a year painters give it a coat of paint. You can put that down as a nerve-wracking job. One slip and you shake hands with Brody’s ghost.

Brooklyn Bridge calls up a strange twist of irony. Patrick Gerrity was the first man to cross it on the first strand of cable while the bridge was in the course of construction. As a steeple-jack he was without equal for his daring, and in those days a steeple-jack struck awe into the hearts of the most hard- boiled. For many years Pat Gerrity cut the deck with Death. On his 80th birthday he was killed by an automobile while riding a bicycle on a country road.

While on the subject of Brooklyn, one cannot think of men whose callings are hazardous without a thought for Sidney Franklin, who gave up the dry goods business for balmy Spain where he became internationally famous as a toreador. Next to lion-tamers who actually stick their own heads into a lion’s jaw to examine his tonsils, plaguing a bull is probably the nearest approach to suicide.

After many heroic exploits, Toreador Franklin returned to his native heath, in Brooklyn to recuperate from a little mishap which he suffered from an improvident encounter with a bull. It seems that a bull caught him on his horns during a fight last spring. He was injured badly, but true to the code of the bull-fighters he never told anyone, not even his own mother, how badly he was hurt.

Though Franklin is only 27 he gave Madrid and its royal denizens enough thrills to talk over their claret for a lifetime. A very precarious method of earning one’s living, and one’s death, but the Yankee toreador is going back as soon as he gets mended.

He says: “A good toreador gets a purse of $3,000 and more for a fight. And if he’s a good fighter he can get all the engagements he wants. I have conquered fifty bulls.”

Madison Square Garden is a paradise for daredevils. They show up here with the circus. A man gets himself shot through the mouth of a big cannon. Trapeze performers kiss the lips of Death from their high berths. That goes for the aerialists too.

Later on comes the Rodeo. Cowboys battle with steers. The bronco-busters do their darndest to thrill a jaded multitude, seeking thrills at the expense of blood that might be spilled. Prize-fighting sometimes gets into the dangerous occupation class, but since the days of bare-knuckles and John L. Sullivan it has been looked upon as a refined art.

The six-day bicycle races which they hold at the Garden together with the motor-paced races in which motorcycles set the pace for the bike riders offer plenty of talent for the super-dangerous vocations.

Further on uptown we find men at work in an excavation. It has something to do with a new subway line. You can’t be sure just what the excavators are looking for because they are 600 feet down at this point. At three different times within the past year a quantity of dynamite has exploded down in that subterranean cavern, with a number of deaths resulting. Presumably some workmen carelessly tried to drill through a hole plugged with dynamite.

To speak in the popular argot, one can find the most dangerous occupations in the world right in his own backyard, any undertaker will tell you. Not all the perilous occupations of man are thrilling, nor do they excite thrills in those who watch men at certain jobs, such as the man who sits around tending a powder magazine. But what we have been giving the once-over are the jobs which any sane-minded insurance agent would regard as V.P.R., which scribbled next to your application would mean Very Poor Risk.

1 comment
  1. blast says: July 22, 201011:07 pm

    1. “Natural science has a good deal to do with the success of a daredevil, whether he knows it or not.”

    I’m thinking natural selection has a great deal to do with the success (or failure) of a daredevil.

    2. Love how the fellow who crashes planes for a living is mentioned in the same sentence as the one who “commutes regularly from coast to coast.”

    3. So are all these men too proud to have safety lines? I can’t wrap my head around that generation. A little effort would have saved a few lives here and there.

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