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For the Wallendas, the stunts are the easy part of life

NIAGARA FALLS — Nik and Erendira Wallenda have developed a comfortable patter for talking stunts. He is the charismatic, slick-haired charmer, with a roomy grin and new-age circus-chic style: distressed jeans, dark leather shoes, and a black button-down embroidered with “Big Apple Circus,” the company Wallenda is joining.

She is softer-spoken, seemingly shy and relatably glamorous. She’s wearing a pink dress and a flowing floral robe, and she has wavy, light brown hair that cascades over her shoulders.

Erendira used her easy smile often Wednesday, when the Wallendas spent the better part of their day at the Seneca Niagara Casino talking to reporters and VIPs about their next stunt. This one is hers: Just after 8 a.m. Thursday, Erendira, who is an aerialist, will bite into a custom-fitted mouthpiece and dangle from a helicopter, 300 feet above the Horseshoe Falls. This will happen exactly five years to the day after her husband’s historic walk across Niagara Falls.

Both husband and wife are good at talking about this and answering all of the predictable questions: How will it work? (There’s a cable and harness; Nik will fly the helicopter and keep visual contact with his wife.) Will you take in the view from above the falls? (Of course; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.) Are you scared? (No, you can’t be.)

It’s what happens after the stunt that kindles the Wallendas’ emotions. At 2:30 p.m. Thursday, hours after the performance, they are boarding a flight bound for South Carolina. On Friday, their 19-year-old son, Yanni, who is the eldest of their three children, graduates from Marine Corps boot camp on Parris Island.

“I haven’t seen him for three months,” said Erendira, her smile melting and her voice tinged with pride and a touch of sadness. “He’s my baby.”

Tightrope artist Nik Wallenda and his wife, Erendira, at the entrance of the Seneca Niagara Casino. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

They’ll drive their firstborn home to Florida for a short stay, and then he’s off to California for more training. And then? They do not know, and they cannot control or influence what comes next.

This is why, when you are a Wallenda, stunts are the easy part of life. Where most see danger, they feel control. To Nik, the high wire is one of the safest places in the world. He is 38 years old and has trained on the wire since age 2. It doesn’t matter what’s underneath – the Niagara Gorge, the Grand Canyon – because the process is the same: You walk, steady and smart, toe to heel, swaying with the cord, flowing with the elements, always keeping balance.

If he loses that balance, he can sit. If he can’t sit, he can grasp the wire. He knows he can cling to it for 20 minutes, because he’s practiced doing that. He also knows that rescue crews should be able to reach him in 90 seconds. It’s all mechanics, numbers, balance, focus.

“I would say the odds of me getting killed on the road driving or walking along the street are probably better than falling off a wire,” he said. “Because I’m not in control of the other car.”

It’s the same for Erendira, who is three years younger than her husband and, like him, the progeny of a circus family that dates back centuries. She has performed since childhood. If something goes awry Thursday morning, Erendira knows the safety guard in place. (She will be harnessed.) If it goes well, she knows how it will feel afterward: Her jaw will be tight. The area where her spinal cord meets her neck will be tender.

Erendira Wallenda shows off the mouthpiece that will be her connection between the helicopter and Niagara Falls. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Thanks to practice, it’s all predictable. It’s all so unlike the rest of life. Like when your son decides to join the military.

“I was struggling with that every night – just like struggling,” she said, sitting at a bench outside the Seneca Niagara Casino after the crowd that greeted them filtered out. “Finally, God was like, ‘Erendira, he’s not yours. You could have him for that 18 years. And even though you thought you were protecting him, you never were. It was always me. Now you’re going to let him go off and make his own path.’ ”

That devotion to God shapes every aspect of the Wallendas’ life. They read the Bible. Prayer is a constant. On Wednesday afternoon, Nik wore a silver David’s Harp necklace with a 2,000-year-old coin “from when Jesus walked the earth,” a piece he acquired on a recent trip to Israel. Erendira, too, wore a silver necklace from Israel, a flat, scroll-shaped piece engraved with one of her favorite lines of scripture, which she paraphrased like this: “May the Lord bless you. May the Lord keep you. May the Lord shine His favor upon you.”

An older couple, one of whom was a pastor, approached them and offered to bring a group the next morning to pray for Erendira.

“It will be great to see you,” Nik told the man, and noted that his own pastor, a Western New York native named Burnard Scott Jr., was flying to town. Pastor Scott works at Bayside Community Church, a large congregation near the Wallendas’ home in Bradenton, Fla., and is coming to Niagara Falls for the stunt. Afterward, he is accompanying the Wallendas to to South Carolina for the graduation ceremony.

That realization that Yanni was not theirs to control, or even protect, helped Erendira deal with her son’s departure to the military. “I found comfort in that,” she said, “like, ‘OK, God, yeah, you’re right. I’m sorry for thinking that it was me when it was always you.' ”

Nik, sitting next to his wife, added, “He’s is God’s. He is not ours. ... You can’t control him, just like you can’t control the war, or the bullets coming at him. You can’t control that.”

Going to see Erendira Wallenda's stunt at Niagara Falls? Read this.

You can’t control much. Early that morning in their Niagara Falls hotel room, the Wallendas saw the news of a shooting at a ballpark where Republican members of Congress and their staffs were practicing for a charity game.

“It’s just sad that our world has come to that point where you can’t play a game of baseball without possibly getting killed,” Nik Wallenda said. “Or you can’t go to a concert without somebody being there. And how do you secure the outside of an arena? You know what I mean? What do you do? Sadly, it’s just the way our world has gone. I wish we could all just get along. I wish we could all love each other.”

He can control that – a little. Aside from practical details like earning a living, this is why the Wallendas walk wires and hang from cables: They hope the message of setting goals, pushing your limits and testing your resolve resonates with the people who are watching.

They fear little.

“My wife, and snakes,” Nik said, a glint in his eye. To which Erendira replied, with a laugh, “Fear of God!”

[Gallery: Nik Wallenda walks a wire over Niagara Falls]

And comfort. As confident as the Wallendas are risking their lives, they realize it can all go wrong. “At least I have reassurance that if a madman tries to kill me, or if I slip off that wire, at least I’m confident in where I’m going to go,” said Nik, who of course is talking about heaven.

Multiple Wallendas of generations past, including Nik’s great-grandfather Karl, have died on the wire. Last February, five members of Wallenda’s troupe – including his sister – were injured during a fall while practicing an eight-person pyramid. (Nik caught the wire and was unhurt.)

Even that lofty and safe place – the wire – cannot be controlled. Not completely.

“You can’t always control it,” Nik said, “but you prepare the best.”

“You can’t live life fearing everything,” Erendira added, “or it’s not life anymore."

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