March Forth – Take Small Steps, Don’t Look Down
March 4, 1986 began much like any other Tuesday in Birmingham, Alabama. The weather was cloudy with a light breeze gusting occasionally up to 16 miles per hour. By mid-day the temperature was supposed to reach about 55 degrees, pretty normal for this time of year. As Birminghamians read their morning paper (at the time the city had daily morning and evening papers), the Birmingham Post Herald, in the 5th year of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, they learned that the Soviet Union’s space probe Vega 1 was approaching Halley’s Comet. After a stop near Venus the probe was sending back the first close-up photographs of the comet’s return to the solar system. Its last visit had been in 1910. NASA had planned to follow up with its own probe as the Earth moved closer to the comet’s orbit but all space projects had been put on hold following the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January.
In other news on this day, the U.S. Congress was busy passing important legislation. Representative Jonas Frost of Texas introduced a resolution proclaiming March 4, 1986 as “National Electronics Technicians Day.” On a sad note, Howie Greenfield, a popular songwriter, had passed away from complications due to AIDS. Greenfield was famous for writing the lyrics for the number one hit “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” for Neil Sedaka, then completely changing his tone by writing the lyrics for “Love Will Keep Us Together” for the Captain and Tennille. “Pretty in Pink” starring Molly Ringwald was playing in local theaters and the number one song on the radio was “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister.
However, most local citizens of the city did not know that something unique was about to happen downtown on First Avenue North. The Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce had been looking for a way to advertise its upcoming 100th anniversary and increase its membership. The Chamber had been established 99 years previously in 1887, holding its first meeting at the O’Brien Opera House. After many years at the Lincoln Life Building on First Avenue North (now the Jemison Flats), the Chamber had purchased the Protective Life Building in the mid-1970s, an interesting combination Art Deco/Gothic 14-story structure located on the southwest corner of First Avenue North and 21st Street (now Richard Arrington Boulevard).
The Chamber had hired Jay Cochrane, a Canadian tightrope entertainer, to walk a cable strung between the 168 foot tall Commerce Center building to the 210 foot tall Brown-Marx building at the northeast corner of 1st Avenue and 20th Street. After running away from his home in Ontario at the age of 14, Cochrane’s tightrope walking career almost ended before it started when in 1965, a tightrope 88 feet high at Varsity Stadium in Toronto collapsed. He suffered a broken pelvis, two broken legs and other fractures and was told he would never walk again. Recovering by 1986, Cochrane had not yet achieved fame as a premier funambulist (one who performs on a tightrope) in the mode of the Flying Wallendas. But, before his death in 2013 (not a height related end), he would set many tightrope records, including the longest walk (11.8 miles), the highest blindfolded walk (300 feet), and the longest and highest combined skywalk (2,098 feet long and 1,340 feet high over the Yangtze River gorge in China). Previous to his walk in Birmingham, he had set the longest time on a wire record (21 days in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1981).
His walk in Birmingham would be a piece of cake by comparison. With a town crier announcing the stunt to a small crowd of about 200 people, including a high school band, Cochrane stepping out of a white limousine, dressed in a bright blue shirt with “Join the Chamber” written on the front. After stating that is was “a nice day for a walk,” he briskly stepped to the Chamber Center door and took the elevator to the roof of the building. There he found a cable and wire supports connecting the building to the Brown-Marx building 300 feet away. Picking up his 30-foot long, 40-pound balance pole he stepped out. Halfway across, he stopped, balanced the pole on one knee and waved to the crowd below. He then continued. The entire walk took seven minutes. And that was it, just another Tuesday in Birmingham, Alabama.