Rick Bruner is still struggling with his unicyle. Reading his post reminded me of the circus arts program I had at my elementary school. That's right, Wading River Elementary School had a circus arts program. It was one of the benefits of having the Shoreham Nuclear Power Station looming over the landscape while it pumped kajillions of dollars' worth of PILOT payments into the school district.
One day in third grade, we went to Phys. Ed. class to find a bunch of really weird stuff strewn about the gym. There were stilts, unicycles, juggling balls - all sorts of weird stuff you'd normally find in a circus tent. We'd play with this stuff and eventually learn how to use some of it. Initially, I was attracted to the stilts and learned how to walk with five foot stilts strapped to the bottom of my feet. Later on, I learned how to ride a unicycle.
This was a couple decades and change ago, so forgive me if my memory is a bit fuzzy. I do remember there was a progression to mastering the unicycle. First the kids would get their unicycles and practice balancing with one arm on the wall of the gym. Then someone figured out the way to get to the next stage was to simply pedal like mad and hope like hell that centripetal acceleration would keep one upright. I actually got pretty good at it, and by the end of fourth grade, I could zip around the gym, go over jumps and stuff, and even hover in place for a few minutes. The next step was learning how to ride backwards. I never really figured out how to do it consistently well, but I did manage to be able to go for 30-50 foot stretches before I'd wipe out. Once you figured out how to ride backwards a bit, the gym teacher Carl Jutting would let you have a stab at the Penguin or the Giraffe.
The Penguin and the Giraffe were two tall, chain-driven unicycles the school owned. When I was a little kid in the fifth grade, I tried out the Giraffe and got good at riding it. I'm not sure how tall it was -maybe five or six feet tops, but to my little 5th grade body, it seemed like it was 20 feet tall.
The fourth and fifth graders who participated in this program (which was pretty much everybody) got to put on a little circus for parents called "SWRcus" (get it? SWR for Shoreham-Wading River... You pronounce it "SWiRcus.") and moms and dads would show up one night to watch their kids walk around on stilts, juggle and ride unicycles. I remember my friend Craig was very good at balancing things, and if I recall correctly, his SWRcus act was balancing what looked like a 30-foot pole on his chin. Other kids would balance spinning plates on the end of sticks, use "devil sticks" (those twirling sticks you see hippies playing with at Phish concerts in between rounds of hacky-sack), juggle objects and whatnot.
I know all of this sounds odd, but it's pretty cool to be able to tell people I learned how to ride a 5-foot tall unicycle as part of my elementary school Phys. Ed. curriculum.