March 27th, 2011
02:29 PM ET

Letters to the President: #797 'Houdini's last assistant? Hardly'

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Reporter's Note: I once stood on a bridge in Boston at the very spot from which Houdini performed an escape. I’m sure being the president is a thrill, but hey…it must be nothing compared to that!

Dear Mr. President,

I read online how Houdini’s last living assistant has passed away. She was 103 and apparently performed some kind of dance routine in one of his shows, which was built around the groundbreaking new entertainment medium of radio. Can you imagine?

The way things have changed in this country over the past hundred years would no doubt make even the old master magician shake his head in wonder. I mean, he built his act on the idea of being able to escape from hundreds of handcuffs, straightjackets, milk cans, and more; but I’ll bet he’d throw his hands up in surrender if he were trapped just once in rush hour traffic here in D.C. Ha!

Actually, Houdini was one of my earliest heroes. I still have a tattered old paperback biography of his life that I discovered when I was still in grade school. I was captivated by the whole idea of this poor kid learning how to seemingly magically escape from any bonds, and soon enough I was trying to emulate him.

By the age of twelve, I was routinely walking into rooms, heaving a bundle of chains, ropes, and handcuffs to the floor, and saying to anyone who would take the challenge, “Tie me up!” (In retrospect, I’m surprised that my parents never seemed alarmed by this behavior. Although, in their defense, they did quietly dissuade me from wanting to be padlocked to a few hundred pounds of weights and tossed into the river while trying to escape. My brother, btw, was all for me making the attempt.)

I became pretty good at it, especially after I built up a magic show and included an escape in each performance.

I had a few setbacks. The son of a nearby veterinarian once bound my arms so tightly behind me back that my hands were blue before my parents called me to dinner and cut me loose. I spent an agonizing fifteen minutes hanging from a tree by chains around my ankles before conceding that I had no idea how to get free. And I once chained myself to a hasp in the wall of a barn and threw the padlock keys across the stable, only to find that in the end I could not slip the last few links and I was forced, MacGyver-like, to snag the keys with a long loop of baling wire I noticed hanging just barely within my reach.

I took every failure very hard. I was convinced that Houdini would have never suffered such embarrassments. Even years later when I read more and understood the degree to which he, well, kind of cheated, I still felt ashamed that I had been bested a few times.

And to be honest, I still feel that way. Because I guess I liked the idea of Houdini as much as the reality. One of my daughters recently gave me a little plastic Houdini action figure, and I just love it. I love the idea of someone who could rise from a working class past to be the best in his field, to amaze presidents and kings, and to stupefy the world. I always felt that what he’d most escaped was destiny itself - the destiny that says anyone has to be just another face in the crowd, that their ideas and dreams are impossible.

Sure, not everyone is able to break the shackles of life as we know it. Truth be told, very few are. But as long as I live, I am sure I will remain inspired by Houdini. And he’ll have, in a fashion, one assistant still roaming the Earth.

Call if you have some time. I’m sure I can escape for a few minutes to talk. Ha!


Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (One Response)
  1. Ned in Connecticut

    A sunami of one and a half meters high is not one and a half feet as spoken on CNN. It is about 4.5 ft. high as a meter is 39.37 inches.

    March 27, 2011 at 7:13 pm |

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