Hard to Swallow
Sword swallowing is a lot like NASCAR: You wouldn’t be there if there weren’t a chance something could go horribly wrong.
Published: February 26, 2014
So last Saturday was World Sword Swallower’s Day. I know, I know. Another ginned-up moneymaking Hallmark/sucker’s holiday like Bulk Trash Pickup or My Wife’s Birthday. But unlike those two scams, World Sword Swallower’s Day is super-important with a long history. I remember my great-grandmother gathering us around the World Sword Swallower’s Day Shrub, encouraging us in the traditional swallowing of an entire baguette and regaling us with tails of Texas Pete, the magical cowboy elf who, before being enslaved by an evil hot-sauce impresario, would travel the world every World Sword Swallower’s Day Eve, giving poor advice and throat lozenges to all the good little sword swallowers and dumping gravy into the shoes of those who had wronged carneys. Of course, I have done a lot of LSD in my day and remember so very many things that never happened, like the time I invented Canada, coined the phrase “Fahrvergnügen,” or named Germany’s Black Forest after my favorite cake.
A spot of fact checking (a Spitballin’ first!), however, has revealed that World Sword Swallower’s Day is actually in its seventh year and is a holiday largely celebrated at Ripley’s Believe It or Not outlets. So it’s not a longstanding tradition and it’s also probably not a sport, which is tough, since this is ostensibly a sports column, but if you did it while being chased, I’d argue it’s at least athletic. And let’s be honest here, sword swallowing is a lot like NASCAR: You wouldn’t be there if there weren’t a chance something could go horribly wrong. Plus, it was a good excuse to get down to the harbor on a sunny day during a winter that seems at home in a George R.R. Martin novel. Then, when I heard the event was being billed as, “The Big Swallow,” well, let’s just say I’ve been married a long time.
I’d never been to the new Ripley’s downtown and, as far as I know, I may still be lost in the mirror maze. (Word to the wise, the only thing creepier than being an extremely claustrophobic man lost in a mirror maze is being the only grown man in there following frightened children, hoping they know the way out.) But as far as sword swallowing venues go, it’s top-notch. The Big Swallow would make any less sense at a Chuck E. Cheese’s or a Presbyterian church, but put it in front of a three-legged mandolin playing robot, a morose animatronic Irish giant, and a patriotically bejazzled MINI Cooper while the Constellation fires off a couple of gut-rumbling cannon blasts, and suddenly sword swallowing seems like the right choice in entertainment.
A huddled crowd of half a hundred or more gathered for the main event, the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow, a family act not unlike the Osmonds in the same way they are not unlike a ham sandwich. A father, two very little boys, and an extraordinarily pregnant mom are not what I’d expected in a sideshow. Even more shocking than 2-year-old Hank Lightning’s adorable sword swallowing or his little brother, 1-year-old Duke Dynamite, and his silver-hilted sword-binky, though, was their illustrated explanation of how sword swallowing works. I would have gone my entire life happily believing my body only has one sphincter; thanks to the pre-swallow patter of dad Tyler Fyre and mom Thrill Kill Jill, that is an innocence I have lost forever. It turns out a sword’s journey into the stomach is a complicated, sphincter-riddled adventure, and there is a bend in the esophagus where it jinks around the heart. If a swallower were to drive the sword straight down, it could pierce the heart, which, according to Mr. Fyre, “Is something sword swallowers try to avoid at each and every performance.”
In an age when every third hipster has mutton chops that would shame a Civil War cavalry colonel, Fyre has what still must be described as truly elaborate facial hair. You know a guy is in the right line of work when you ask him his annual mustache-wax budget and he can quote you to the ha’penny because “I just did my taxes.” He starts off the show with a steel sword nearly 2-and-a-half feet long and a twisted basket hilt fit for a six-fingered man. Slowly he inserts the glistening blade halfway down his gullet. With the sword blade probably a foot and a half inside of him, Fyre paused, extended his arms outward, and let the moment and the blade hang. Then, through what one can only imagine is spectacular sphincter control, he let the sword drop, plummeting the final foot, point-first into the bottom of his stomach. With flashing eyes and somehow smiling despite the still-swallowed sword, Fyre gave one of the most well-earned bows I’ve ever seen.
That would have been show enough, but there’s an old saying, you can’t be a little bit pregnant. Seven months, however, is a lot pregnant. “I’m a sneeze away from a dime-sized amount of urine in my underpants,” Jill demurred. She took to the, well, there wasn’t a stage, per se, but the way all eyes were leveled for her performance, there didn’t need to be. Wearing a long gown as black as her flowing hair and cut from the floor to about an inch below her baby-to-be, Jill stretched her alabaster arms, well-leavened by tattoos, up toward the sea serpent hanging from above. Her hands gripped a silvery pirate sword above her lips. The audience stood transfixed.
“If she stands just right, the baby will be born with pierced ears,” quipped Fyre. As the sword dropped into Jill’s mouth, the crowd was silence made flesh. Even the camera flashes held for a moment, in prayer for a baby we all knew would be fine but were still sure was doomed. This was truly a show from a different time, an act so old it should appear quaint but was still anything but. The crowd grew through the show, ladies, gentlemen, boys, girls, children of all ages stopped to wonder, to be shocked, to be titillated and even tortured with sympathetic stomach pains, a timeless spectacle.
When she pulled the sword back out, we roared.
Jim Meyer is waiting and waiting and waiting for the birth of his new baby boy. Cross your fingers! email@example.com
To see a gallery from World Sword Swallower’s Day, go to citypaper.com/swords
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