The Human Cannonball – A Story of Untested Assumptions

Posted on July 15, 2013.

In May of 1995 I graduated from James Madison University with my bachelor’s degree. It was a Saturday. On Sunday I packed all of my worldly belongings (essentially a mattress, a dresser, a Bob Marley poster and my 1984 Suzuki GS550 motorcycle) into a tiny storage unit. On Monday, I was on the road as the new sound and lighting technician for the Clyde Beatty – Cole Brothers Circus. I always joke that I actually joined to be the bearded lady (I had a lot more hair back then) but, in fact, I was pursuing what I thought was going to be my career – audio production – and this was a paying gig doing exactly that!


Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus - my home in 1995.
Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus – my home in 1995.

That summer was one of the most unique and interesting of my life. I had many adventures, learned a lot about circus culture (and myself in the process) and met many interesting people. One of the more interesting people in the circus was the human cannonball. In the 18 years that have passed since then I’ve forgotten his name but he was young (though older than me), blonde, fit – essentially an all-American football player type of guy. He was married and his wife was an aerialist performer in the same circus. He worked 4 minutes a day – 2 shows every day that lasted 2 minutes each. He collected about $1000/week I believe for taking the risk of being projectile vomited out of the mouth of a giant truck-mounted spring cannon, flying through the air and landing safely in a net about 100 yards at the other end of the big top.

The human cannonball as he enters the cannon.
The human cannonball as he enters the cannon.


I always wondered how he (or anyone for that matter) became the human cannonball. So, finally, one day I asked. I don’t remember who I asked or who answered me but I’ll never forget the story. It began with the previous human cannonball. To prep for the act every night the previous human cannonball (let’s go with HC for brevity) would drive the truck into the big top before the crowds arrived. He’d point the cannon in the appropriate direction and load in a dummy that was approximately the same size and weight as he was. He would launch the dummy, see where it landed and that is the spot where the safety net was erected. It was a simple assumption – “if the dummy weighs the same as I do then wherever it lands is where I will land and that’s where the net should go. “


One night the circus arrived at a new location during a thunderstorm. It was raining too hard to set everything up and test where the dummy should go. Instead, it was left outside overnight as torrential rains blanketed the area. The dummy absorbed a significant amount of water. The next morning, before the crowds arrived, the previous HC did what he always did. Drove the truck into the big top, aimed the cannon, loaded the dummy and fired. The dummy flew, landed and the net was erected. That evening, the HC got in the cannon in front of 3500 spectators and launched himself as he’d done dozens of times before. This time was different though. The dummy, soaked with water, was significantly heavier than the HC. This became evident as the HC soared well past the safety net and crash-landed on the circus lot floor. Needless to say this was his last flight. While he wasn’t killed he was critically injured and returned home to Florida to recuperate. While recovering, he tapped the guy cleaning his pool – a former local football player –  to be the next HC. I’m not sure if he shared with him his own fate as the HC and he chose to ignore it or if the seeming glory of the circus spotlight coupled with the pay raise compelled him to take on this new role. Regardless, the baton had been passed on and a new HC was born.


The reason to tell this story – besides its inherent uniqueness – is to make you think about the assumptions you make about your life, your business, your designs and your projects. Just because something was true yesterday, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true today. Things change – sometimes without you noticing – and can have a significant impact on your activity. Stay skeptical and keep checking even your most basic assumptions. It turns out these basic assumptions are actually the most critical and potentially life-threatening.



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