Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Man on Wire! The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein

As the anniversary of the destruction of the twin World Trade Center towers draws near again, perhaps it is time to recall a different moment in the history of those iconic structures, a moment when one person's daring left the world with awe-inspiring images.

When he watched the construction in progress and saw the towers rise, Philippe Petit looked, "not at the towers but at the space between them.... What a wonderful place to stretch a rope; a wire on which to walk," he thought.

A street performer who was haunted by visions of feats on the high wire since early life, Petit had already won wide attention for his stroll between the twin steeples of Notre Dame in Paris when he began his audacious plan to walk the space between the twin towers. With a few confederates dressed as construction workers Petit and his helpers loaded a giant reel of cable and other equipment on the elevator during the afternoon of August 6, hiding themselves as the builders left at the end of the workday. As dark fell over the still unlighted towers, the small team of conspirators began to execute Petit's plan.

Surrounded by the twin monuments to twentieth century technology, their preparations were amazingly low tech. An arrow shot from a bow carried the guide line across the abyss, where human muscle used it to draw the cable across to the other tower. It took hours to pull the heavy cable across. At one point it sagged hundreds of feet toward the street, 1350 feet below, and Philippe was barely able to retain control of his end. Eventually, just as the first stars began to fade, the wire spanned the space, and Petit changed into his performance costume, a black tee and tights, with soft black aerialist's shoes on his feet.

As sunshine began to light the sky and seagulls soared among the skyscrapers, Philippe Petit took up his 28-foot balance pole and stepped out upon the wire between the towers.

Out to the middle he walked as if he were walking on the air itself.

Many winds swirled up from between the towers and he swayed with them.

He could feel the towers breathing.

He was not afraid. He felt happy and absolutely free.

As early subway riders began to pour onto the streets below, a crowd formed and watched the walker cross, eight times, between the towers, stopping to salute them, kneel, and even lie down on the wire. For close to an hour Petit gloried in his experience before he finally returned to the South Tower and the handcuffs of the waiting police. Briefly held for what came to be known as "the artistic crime of the century," the daredevil finally was freed, his penance a wire-walking performance for children in Central Park.

Gerstein's stately language and breathtaking illustrations capture the wonder and heart-stopping thrills of that day in 1974. A three-page horizontal gatefold shows the view as Petit must have seen it, with the towers stretching below him, the street and docks far away, and Brooklyn beyond the river. A page turn reveals a three-page vertical gatefold which takes the eye of the reader up from the watchers at street level to the tiny figure of the walker silhouetted against the sky.

Rarely has a picture book captured such a iconic event as well as does Gerstein's The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. Awarded the Caldecott Medal, this book presents the memorable event lyrically, without hype or overstatement, in just-right language and images for young readers.

For young adults who want to know more, James Marsh's documentary drama Man on Wire! opened a few weeks ago to good reviews. Just as Gerstein's final page shows the ghostly image of the twin towers among the remaining skyscrapers on the site, the memory of those structures in their last moments will continue to haunt us all. But it is perhaps good for children to see them also with Mordecai Gerstein through Phillipe Petit's eyes, young and soaring and promising great things.

Labels: ,


  • - true images and video

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:53 PM  

  • Back in the 80's I lived in Hoboken, was a guitarist in a rock band that played in NYC, and I took summer jobs as a bicycle messenger for extra cash and to stay in shape.

    One outfit I worked for had several clients in the WTC towers, so I was up and down them a lot. If it was a nice day and I had to deliver to WTC around noon, I'd take my lunch and eat on the observation deck. It was breathtaking spectacular and all of those related adjectives.

    My favorite part of my trips down there was, however, walking between the towers and looking up to get the vanishing-point effect. I don't know how many times I did that, but I do know I laughed out loud every single time because the effect was so stupefying.


    By Blogger Hucbald, at 4:17 PM  

  • There's a very good documentary about this as well:

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:17 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home