Something extraordinary happened at Niagara Falls recently. An era came to an end.
Usually when an era passes, it does so gradually. In most cases, we are not even aware that a change is taking place. We just wake up one day and what was, now isn't. For instance, can you remember exactly when it was no longer hip to wear a mullet? Or when it became no longer hip to use the word hip?
Bell-bottoms, mood rings, polyester shirts, Earth shoes and David Cassidy all had their day in the sun, but despite Neil Young's admonitions, they didn't burn out, they just faded away.
That's what makes 12:45 p.m. on Oct. 20, 2003 so special. It was at that precise moment that Kirk Jones of Canton, Mich., was swept safely over the Horseshoe Falls wearing nothing but the clothes on his back and ended the era of barrel-riders at Niagara forever.
Think about it: If someone went over tomorrow in a barrel, sphere or some other contraption, who would care? It's debatable whether the event would even make the evening news.
"On Channel 2 News tonight, these are the top stories we are tracking. A Buffalo man takes a Model T for a spin down Delaware Avenue. A department store in Lockport expects a mad rush on a newly arrived shipment of black-and-white television sets. And a man safely rides a barrel over Niagara Falls."
Old news, that's what a barrel ride over Niagara Falls has become -- and an old era as well.
From the moment that Annie Edson Taylor made the plunge in a pickle barrel in 1901, taking along her cat for good luck, barrels and Niagara Falls have become almost synonymous. It's part of the lexicon: "Let's rent a barrel and take a ride over Niagara Falls." Over the next 102 years, 13 people did just that.
Dave Munday and Steve Trotter did it twice. Karel Souchek went over in 1984 and lived. He wasn't so fortunate in 1985, when he died recreating the stunt in the Houston Astrodome. Bobby Leach also survived the plunge over Niagara, only to die from gangrene after slipping on an orange peel in New Zealand. Three men -- Charles Stephens, George Stathakis and Red Hill Jr. -- died while challenging the mighty cataracts.
Barrel-riding's ascent coincided with the growth in popularity of honeymooning at Niagara Falls. It was not uncommon to see a "Niagara Falls or Bust" sign on a car's bumper along with an odd assortment of shoes. Nor was it out of the ordinary for a bride and groom to openly wish to witness a barrel stunt whilst christening their marriage in Niagara's mist.
Those days are gone for good now. Kirk Jones saw to that last month. The scary question that now presents itself is: What will the new era be like?
Make no mistake about it: Kirk Jones is just the first of many who will attempt to conquer Niagara sans barrel. That's a thought that puts a chill through the bones of Niagara County Coroner Jimmy Joyce. Jimmy is the guy that gets the call when a body has been recovered from the lower Niagara River. Too many times he's had to examine the battered remains of a suicide leaper. He knows how the river swells a body to the point that it becomes unrecognizable. He's had to document the staring eyes and open mouths of dead men who have no more tales to tell.
"Every young kid with alcohol and testosterone flowing through his veins is going to think, 'If that 40-year-old guy can make it, why the heck can't I?'" Joyce told the Reporter.
He's right, of course. Here's another thought that just might float through those young kids' heads. When 7-year-old Roger Woodward survived an accidental trip over the falls in 1960, wearing nothing but a life jacket, it was hailed as the "Miracle of Niagara." Most people believed it was a one-in-a-million occurrence, which we would never witness again. Many expressed those same sentiments when Kirk Jones went over two weeks ago.
According to Joyce, approximately 25 bodies are recovered from the Niagara River each year due to successful suicide attempts. He estimates that, if you were to track the missing persons reports that are filed and never resolved, that number might double to account for bodies that aren't recovered.
So, if we use 50 as the number of people who end their lives each year by going over the falls, a sobering statistic becomes evident. In the 43 years between Roger Woodward and Kirk Jones' plunges, approximately 2,150 died by going over Niagara Falls. What was believed to be a one-in-a-million long shot, now appears to be a much more doable proposition at 2,150-1 odds. If we subtract the number of people who went over the American Falls -- which, because of its rock outcroppings, offers no chance of survival -- the odds might drop all the way down to 1,500-1 or so. For comparison purposes, your chances of being struck by lightning are 1 in 600,000 and your odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are 80 million to 1.
I guarantee you that two people are already weighing those odds -- Dave Munday and Steve Trotter. Think about it. These two guys were so enamored of the idea of conquering Niagara that they did it twice. They've also lived off whatever small-time fame comes from surviving a barrel-ride over the falls. They both were featured in the Discovery Channel program on Niagara Falls. They have been profiled in many articles about Niagara's daredevils. For a short while, Trotter even traded on his fame by setting up shop in the Rainbow Centre Mall, where he sold autographed souvenirs commemorating his first trip over the cascades.
Can you imagine what went through Munday and Trotter's minds when they first heard the news about Jones' trip? It must have been similar to what the king of the silent films felt when he stepped into a theater and watched his first talkie. Instant obsolescence.
In fact, Munday was in such a state of shock when reporters told him a man had survived a plunge without a barrel that he insisted it had to be some kind of hoax.
I'll make a morbid prediction right here and now that you can take to the bank. Someone will die attempting to duplicate Jones' feat.
And they won't be the last. This new era just might evoke memories of the tightrope-walker wars of the mid-1800s, when a bevy of aerialists such as Blondin and The Great Farini dueled in a constant game of one-upmanship.
As my colleague David Staba has so astutely pointed out, Jones impressed no one with his mental quickness or knowledge of the water flow at Niagara when he spoke to the press, after being released from police custody and charged with stunting. The unfortunate message he sends to aspiring new-era daredevils is this: If a simpleton like me call pull this off, anyone can do it and survive.
A new era has dawned at Niagara Falls. Because of the inconceivable ride of Kirk Jones, hundreds of young men and women will attempt to bodysurf the mighty cataracts in hopes of staring into the bright lights of fame and fortune. Most, if not all, will end up under the bright lights of the coroner's autopsy table.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||November 4 2003|