If you met Jack Wysocki sauntering the streets last year, you probably wouldn’t believe he was once a well-known Polish stilt walker. After seeing the oak cane propping his old, tenuous legs, you’d be even more surprised to learn that Jack could still walk on stilts. Not only that, but he moved so gracefully on stilts at the age of 76, you might surmise that Jack must have been born with the poised pillars attached to his legs. And you’d be partly right.
Though not literally born on stilts, Jack was born into stilts and with a natural gravitation towards defying gravity. Jack was born on February 29, 1928 to Josephine and Anthony Wysocki. Josephine, whom everyone called Jo, left home at the age of 17 to become a trapeze artist in Majewski’s Mistyczne Menazeria Cudownych Srodkow (loosely translated as Majewski’s Mystical Menagerie of Marvelous Measures). Mr. Majewski was a terribly interesting person and why he chose to start a traveling circus in Poland in 1918 was anybody’s guess. Regardless of why, Majewski had created a masterpiece with his Mystical Menagerie. He drew in crowds from all walks of life and brought together laughing and clapping flocks of Poles and Soviets. In fact, at that time, his giant tent was one of the only places on earth where you would find Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Populists, and Marxists rubbing elbows and patting each other on the back. Majewski had hired the best of the best. In 1920, Majewski hired the nubile, twenty-year-old Anthony Wysocki. Not only was Anthony the best of the best, but he was the best high wire walker in existence in those days. It was no surprise then, since he stole the show almost every night, that Anthony stole Jo’s heart within months of his joining the circus. And the two lovers exchanged vows mid-air on March 19, 1921, the day after the signing of the Peace of Riga.
When Jo and Anthony discovered the joyous news of her pregnancy, Majewski saw an opportunity too good to pass up, and lobbied fervently for the happy couple to put on what was to be the greatest show on earth. It took some convincing for everyone to agree that the swinging and flinging trapeze would be too dangerous a setting to bring a child into the world. That being the case, Jo and Anthony choose a slightly safer venue, the high wire.
Majewski spent his life savings advertising the upcoming event. If this show did not sell out he would be broke. But sell out it did, and the big top was so packed there was barely breathing room. It was quite a scene to behold if you were lucky enough to be a member of the audience on that particular day. If the crowd was at all uncomfortable being squeezed cheek-to-cheek into the warm womb of the circus tent you never would have known by the looks on their faces. The oos and ahs oozed through the crowd, and jubilant, somewhat nervous, smiles stretched from ear to ear. And if Jo was at all uncomfortable being thirty feet off the ground in the midst of labor, she definitely did not show it. Her beaming smile and the ease with which she controlled her feet was such an unforgettable feat in itself, spectators nearly forgot she was on the verge of birth.
The only one who was visibly anxious was Anthony. His part in the act was to perform the usual juggling, cartwheels, etcetera. Only he would be on a wire six feet below Jo, giving himself enough room to perform his acts, and still safely catch the newborn when it was time. Onlookers stared in awe, hopeful for a splashy miracle, praying it would not become a tragedy. Deep down, though entirely pleased with the spectacle, the suspense was killing the crowd. People couldn’t help but wonder if this was going to be one of those quick births, or the type that was drawn out over days. Fortunately, the event was relatively quick, lasting only a few hours. And everything went off without a hitch. Newborn Jack landed perfectly in Anthony’s shaky hands. Rapturous applause, popping corks, and tears of joy celebrated what was, without a doubt, one of the most spectacular and memorable moments of high wire history. Hats were tossed to unimaginable heights; and out of nowhere, a tall, wide-brimmed, black hat with a single lustrous peacock feather managed to find its way directly on to Jo’s head. Even the gurgles of the serene and unknowing infant seemed to be praising the performance.
For his fifth birthday, Jack received a pair of stilts from his father. He immediately strapped the pegs to his legs and began stumbling around. He wore the stilts everywhere, occasionally even sleeping with them on. They became an extension of his real legs, and by the age of eight, Jack was a verifiable stilt master. He could do cartwheels and back flips. He could skip and pounce as if stilts were his natural state. At the age of 12, Jack took his father’s place in the spotlight, since on February 29, 1940, Anthony was sent to war. This would have been a difficult situation for any family, but for the Wysockis, who spent every living moment together, this was particularly hard. So, to remain preoccupied, Jo and Jack continued on with their trapeze art and stilt tricks.
Anthony returned three years later an entirely changed man. War had wreaked havoc on his soul and interfered with his concentration. Anthony was out of sorts, and Jo implored him not to attempt work until he was himself again. But the family was desperate for money, and the Polish spirit was so crushed by the war, that Anthony stubbornly insisted he do his duty. Unfortunately Jo was right,and Anthony fell to his death during an extravagant high wire act on February 29, 1944. Jo decided she no longer wanted to live in a war-ravaged Poland. She definitely did not want her only son, who looked like a small version of Anthony, and who had become increasingly brazen on stilts, to befall the same fate as her late husband. So in the spring of 1944 Jo and Jack were on a ship to America.
Putting aside her circus act of a life, Jo earned decent wages as a waitress, astounding customers with her spellbinding ability to swirl and twirl gracefully through bustling crowds of hungry patrons. And Jack, well, he couldn’t just stop stilt walking altogether. Stilts brought balance to his life, and were the only memory he had left of his father. So every day, while his mother thought he was at school, Jack would take to the streets of New York City, and treat onlookers with remarkable performances. By 1952, Jack had become a somewhat renowned stilt walker on the streets of New York. He had become such the talk of the town, that Jo eventually overheard gossiping in the restaurant and discovered Jack’s stealthy stilt walking. Since Jack was, like his father, stubborn and unpersuadable, Jo eventually stopped pleading and accepted Jack’s commitment to the art. In fact, she even secretly enjoyed watching her son perform. And every other day, until her death on February 29, 1984, Jo would brush, clean, and oil her son’s old wooden stilts.
At the time of his mother’s death, Jack was 56. Up until that point, he had never once noticed a single one of his multitudes of onlookers. Actually, one of the secrets to his success was his ability to keep his head in the clouds and not be distracted by swarms of people and clamorous chatter. Until the years following his mother’s death, Jack had been an unflinching and stoic performer. But something changed and now he was entirely alone; and he felt utterly lonely. There was a void even his stilts couldn’t fill. Without realizing it, Jack began looking down more. He started scanning the crowd as he strolled the bustling New York City streets on his stilts. Maybe he was looking for something to fill the emptiness in his heart, or maybe he was just getting old. Either way, this new habit is precisely why, on February 29, 1988, Jack first noticed the woman in the lavish, somewhat gaudy, tall, black, peacock feathered hat. She wore long white gloves and a flattering, navy blue vintage dress. Her eyes remained well hidden by the wide brim of the enormous hat. And, since he towered high above, all Jack ever really saw from his bird’s-eye view were her lips. Beautiful, plump, bright red lips poised against perfectly porcelain skin. That was all he needed to see to fall immediately in love.
For the next seven years, no matter where Jack performed in the city (Times Square, Coney Island, the Bronx Zoo), he would catch a glimpse of the woman in the peacock hat. Every day Jack would watch the love of his life from above without ever really seeing her. Because she somehow made him feel less lonely and less empty, he never considered the absurdity of the fact that he saw her every day, without fail, for seven straight years. She gave him purpose. He would dream at night of kissing those red lips. He would imagine what her eyes looked like; what her hands felt like; what her hair smelled like; what her laugh sounded like. Then in the eighth year on the exact day of her first appearance, she disappeared. Jack stopped seeing the feathered hat and the red lips. He would pace frantically through the throngs of onlookers on his stilts, hoping to catch sight of her. Nothing. She was gone. The void grew inside him again, and Jack became hollow with loneliness. For eight years the woman in the peacock hat had been the only reason he got out of bed and strapped on his stilts. Yet, after her sudden disappearance on February 29, 1996 Jack even stopped dreaming of her. He would never see her eyes, never touch her hands, never smell her hair or hear her laugh, not even in his dreams.
For the next three years, the only thing forcing stilts on Jack’s feet was that it was the only way he knew how to make money. Furthermore, years of stilt walking had debilitated his legs to the point where he could not walk without a cane. But, on stilts he felt normal; he could walk as if he were 28 again. So, with a heavy heart, he would amble along the Hudson River, taking long, sluggish wooden strides up and down Riverside Park. Then eight years after her disappearance, to the day, she miraculously reappeared. Jack was now 76, and so couldn’t be sure if his eyes were deceiving him. But he swore he saw the garish peacock hat, and the plump red lips against the porcelain skin. After some blinking and rubbing his eyes, he knew, without a doubt that it was her. This was the chance encounter he had been yearning for all these years. And so, without hesitation, without so much as a thought as to why she looked exactly the same as the first time he saw her sixteen years ago, Jack galloped toward her with such wild excitement he stopped paying attention to everything around him. For a slow-motion moment the world around him stopped. Everything but the woman in the peacock hat stood motionless. She slowly glanced up at Jack. At the moment their eyes met, the speedy world around them began to hustle and bustle again. In that split second, one of Jack’s stilts snapped, sending him crashing into the frigid Hudson River. And so, on February 29, 2004 Jack Wysocki left this world in much the same way he had entered it — with a look of serenity and a splash.