The Human Cannonball: Family, Fear, and the Inheritance of Danger
ISSUE 1 : FLESH
The Human Cannonball
Photography by Justin Weaver, text by Jess Bernhart
Several hundred people are crowded onto the midway. In just a few minutes, we’ve been promised the pyrotechnic, heart-stopping spectacle of a man emerging from smoke, flame, and noise, rocketing overhead at 60 mph, and crash-landing into an uncomfortably precise net.
David “The Bullet” Smith, Jr. is a human cannonball, and for the third time today, he’s being launched out of a 35 foot cannon, 80 feet in the air and 160 down the fairground. A red net floats in the distance, visible from the cannon like an enemy’s crimson flag. To reach it, David has to clear the Cyclops, a screamer of a ride whose namesake, bloodshot eye blinks menacingly, 75 feet up, and just beneath his flight path.
Justin Weaver, this story’s photographer, and I watch from the shade of the Tilt-a-Whirl, nervously sipping water. We’re fifteen minutes to launch. David cracks a tattered notebook to a manila page of tidy scrawl. He plucks the pen from behind his ear, makes a note, and reaches into the cannon’s clandestine instrument panel. I assume that the notebook is where he makes his flight calculations, but don’t ask, as he’s assiduously private about the show’s mechanics. In fact, the cannons’ specifics are among the industry’s most closely guarded secrets. For that reason, it seems, human cannonballs tend to be dynasties - it’s a secret passed down through families. Some estimate there have been only 100 human cannonballs in history; by blood or love, most of them are related.
As the launch gets closer, David and Lexi Bohlinger check in constantly about the time. Lexi is the show’s business manager, M.C., and cannon operator, and also David’s sweetheart. They’ve been on the road together since March. She checks her phone. “Nine minutes to go, baby.” David nods, windmilling his arms to stay loose.
The routine is exact. A playlist of songs on an explosive theme blast from Bullet Entertainment’s PA system, culminating in AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” which has been David’s firing song for years. “It’s kind of corny, but it works for me. It gets me in the right mood.” Also on rotation are “Boom” by P.O.D., and Ke$ha’s “Blow,” to which David does a fast-paced warm up.
Staying limber is essential. David experiences about 10g of force on launch and 14 on landing. For perspective, most people can sustain 5g before blacking out; the Apollo spacecraft took 7g on re-entry. The force of the cannon’s launch is so great, it accelerates David from 0 - 60 mph in 1/5th of a second. “Before my brain and eyes can catch up, I’m over the Cyclops.” The entire flight lasts only 4.5 seconds, but it’s a punishing 4.5.
I ask if he can affect his course while in the air. “Once I’m launched, that’s pretty much it. Sometimes I come out flying beautifully, sometimes I fly like a wounded duck. What I can control is how I land,” though not where. All of that happens beforehand, in the precise calculations that determine each flight and landing, and must account for weather, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure - even changes in humidity. When Lexi presses the button, the course is set. All there is to do is flex, and pray.
Most people proverbially run away to the circus. David was born into it. In 1976, his parents, Jean and David Smith Sr., won the World Circus Championships on flying trapeze. The next year, they were back to compete. Jean was four months pregnant with David Jr.
“I pretty much grew up in the circus. By the time I was about this big [David Jr. holds his hand a little higher than the picnic table], my sister and I had a trapeze act that was 90 feet in the air, about like that Ferris Wheel. We had to duck when we got to the top.”
“Didn’t you wear a diamond bikini?” Lexi asks slyly. David looks briefly as though he wishes he were dead.
“Senior Rai was the magician for the Circus Royale. A great guy and...a real showman,” David gives in to the story. “He wanted to get us new costumes, but he wouldn’t let us see them until the day of the show. He got our measurements and everything, and day-of, shows up with two bags just big enough to fit those cameras in,” he gestures to Justin’s DSLRs. “My sister’s was a bikini. It was completely covered with rhinestones, with triangle tops and two strings. Mine was pretty much the same. Except mine only had one string.”
“I’m imagining Borat’s yellow...” Justin laughs, gesturing helplessly.
“Exactly - but just one strap. Like if a caveman had nothing but rhinestones. I thought, ‘You know, I’d rather be shot out of a cannon.’”
When the kids were still young, David Sr. set his sights on becoming a human cannonball. Before he and Jean joined the circus, he had been a high school math teacher with a bent for engineering. Working at night in the garage, he designed and built the family’s first cannon and began performing at fairs and circuses. He is the family’s cannonball progenitor, and was first to hold a world record (he’s since been surpassed by David Jr., who currently holds all 5 world records in cannonballing). David Sr. performed as “Cannonball” Smith for over 40 years, only retiring in his seventies. He still designs and builds the family’s cannons, with the help of David Jr. and his brother. Four of his children - David, Rebecca, Stephanie, and Jennifer 'Cannonlady' Smith - carry the family torch.
Though the cannons were ever present, David didn’t take his first flight until he was 17. “I got home from high school with a sax in one hand and a gym bag in the other, and my dad called my bluff.” Jr.’d been asking to try the cannon for years, and suddenly there it was, set up in the yard.
“I put on two pairs of sweatpants, a sweater, and one of those big, puffy jackets that were popular at the time. I was fit, but I wasn’t as big as my dad.”
“You had to pad yourself so that you’d fill the cannon?”
“So I wouldn’t ricochet inside the shaft. That day, he shot me from about here to that ice chest. Probably not more than 20 feet, but it...made an impression.”
When he was 19, his dad called from Madison, Wisconsin to say he’d been injured, not seriously, but he couldn’t continue with the shows. He needed David to fill in. David agreed, with only three days to get from North Carolina to Madison and train before his first performance. He’d been fired from the cannon a handful of times before. And although he’d spent years dangling by his big toe from the big top, cannonballing is a different animal.
The show was a success - an 85 foot launch that by David’s current standards was “pathetic.” Ever since, cannonballing has taken him around the world, filling the pages of two passports. He’s performed for sultans and sports fans, fairgoers and film crews, and four-times-over for the British royal family, who seemingly can’t get enough.
We’re five minutes to launch. A crowd assembles as David inspects the cannon from every angle, leaping on top and cat-walking down the shaft, shading his eyes with his right hand. He crouches over the cannon’s mouth, sighting the net like a rifleman. It’s hard to know whether the elaborate preparations and thousand-yard-stare are part of the show’s heart-pumping theater or a necessary precaution, given the dangers inherent in turning yourself into a fleshy projectile.
The rate of injury among cannonballs is high, so high it will make you cherish the limp, lapdog dangers of your desk job. One historian estimates that approximately 60% of cannonballs have died in the act, most by missing the net. A human cannonball free of injury is unheard of.
Several years ago, David was injured at this fairground, Jim R Miller Park in Marietta, Georgia. His net failed and he went right through. He woke up eight minutes later, lying in the grass with his clothes cut off. He remembers seeing a little girl on top of her dad’s shoulders. After an MRI, he was back in the cannon the next day.
Three boys walk past. The one nearest me glances at the cannon and nudges his buddy: “He’s gonna die.” They all laugh. Tilt-a-Whirl riders shout to David from their twisting cages, “You can do it! You can do it, man!” Out on the midway, the crowd is a now-cliche sea of raised smartphones. Parents laugh anxiously, kids squirm with sugar and nerves, teenagers lean against each other with a sort of languorous expectation.
David straps on his helmet as Lexi uncoils the mic cord. It’s almost time for “Thunderstruck.” This morning, David noticed that his net was dangerously stressed where he’d been landing and decided to flip it around. It’s safer, but the change makes the net unpredictable, and it nearly tossed him out in the second show. “I was hanging on like a cat,” he shakes his head.
“One more, baby. One more,” he repeats, more to himself than to Lexi. “It’s hurt both times today, so I know it’s going to hurt this time. The question is how much.” David has been fired from the cannon 26 times in the last 11 days. After tonight, he’ll have three days off before the next 11 day stretch.
Lexi steps in front of the crowd. “Alright, Marietta! Thank you for having us in your beautiful city!” Lexi and David pass the mic back and forth, warming up the audience. David jogs down to check the net one last time; the crowd parts biblically to make way. He climbs onto the cannon, pumping his arms, and as it rises to a 50° firing angle, he scurries up the shaft to stand braced in its mouth, about 40 feet in the air. Here, there is no net.
Once inside the cannon, David has 30 seconds until launch. “It’s a nerve-wracking place to hang out, listening to the count-down to your own blast-off.” With a final salute, he lowers himself inside.
The midway is quiet, almost breathless, apart from AC/DC’s shrill soundtrack: Beating in my heart / The thunder of guns / Tore me apart / You've been / Thunderstruck. Both Lexi and David have to be inside the cannon for launch, and the spectacle is, for a moment, eerily still. Over the speakers, Lexi’s disembodied voice starts the countdown. The crowd joins in, 4...3...2...1.
The noise comes first - a close, towering crack - and with it an angry cloud of sparks and white smoke. David rockets out, Superman-style, body stiff and arms fixed in determined flight.
The Cyclops is still raging. Its massive metal arm swings upward, not unlike an angry, myopic giant. David flies true, clearing the eye. He tucks into a jack-knife, swinging his legs quickly overhead to land on his back in the caroming net. And just like that, it’s over.
In another couple seconds David’s up, pumping his fist in the air. He grabs the edge of the net and somersaults over its side, dropping onto the grass. Hands extend for high-fives as he trots through. Kids trail him, asking for pictures.
Slowly, the crowd dissolves, restored to its amorphous search for hotdogs and adrenaline. The whole spectacle is brief, just 5 minutes from start to finish. As David says, “The Human Cannonball show doesn’t last very long” (at which he and Lexi can barely stifle their laughter). And it’s true: 4.5 seconds in the air, two or three times a day, makes for a 72 second work week. What this leaves out, of course, is everything.