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Higher Education : Walking Above His O.C. Home Reminds 66-Year-Old That Life's a Balancing Act

July 19, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COWAN HEIGHTS — There's something to be said for unincorporated areas. In more civilized parts of the county, there are laws and rules designating what four weekends of the year one can have garage sales, or even how many minutes of the day your garage door can be open. Community associations can make folks tear down their ducky weather vanes, and La Habra is mulling an ordinance to prohibit hanging laundry in public view.

Meanwhile, in the unincorporated hills above Tustin, two ungainly aluminum framework high-wire towers jut above Hendrik de Kanter's yard. Nearly every day his neighbors can see the 66-year-old out on them practicing his skill at tightrope walking. Sometimes he's on the wire on a bicycle or roller skates. Sometimes he is nude.

"The majority of the people here seem to have a certain amount of imagination," De Kanter says of his neighborhood. "They think it's just fine what I do."

De Kanter's ranch-style home lets you know he's interested in balance and suspension. Mobiles, including one made with old wrenches, hang on wires above his driveway. His stereo speakers hang off metal poles mounted in his fireplace. Sculptures and chunky mineral formations are cleverly balanced on elegantly simple stands he builds. A cassette deck, metronome and microphone float on wires in his living room above a Steinway grand piano, which, thankfully, is earthbound.

"I like to suspend things," he said, with a touch of Dutch accent. "It's easier to clean under them."

There is a firm face and inquisitive eyes under his gray hair. Attired as he was in a blue jumpsuit and matching orange scarf and pocket handkerchief, he looked as if he'd stepped out of a Dragnet episode, a Dutch Hollywood Hills eccentric artist perhaps.

Actually, for most of his life De Kanter has been an engineer and inventor. He was an advance design engineer on the Apollo space program and since the 1970s has headed his own company, which manufactures a machine that cuts glass tubing for use in electrical diodes. A widower since 1976, he also spends his time composing music, painting, skating and modeling--clothed and otherwise--for art classes.

And three years ago, at an age when many people are permanently bonding with their TV remote controls, De Kanter decided to take up tightrope walking.

"I got to be 63 and it happened. I think I've always been a tightrope walker, but it took me this long to come out of the closet, to admit to myself that it was what I wanted to do," he said.

*

Surprisingly, he didn't grow up with a love of circuses. But one year when he was a child in Holland, his industrialist father got a tightrope walker--actually a Dutch variant on the practice called a cord dancer --to perform at the annual factory variety show. De Kanter was entranced, and "I think ever since it's been in there."

Three years ago a neighbor who knew of his interest told him about high-wire artist Jay Cochrane, billed as "the Canadian Prince of the Air," who was then appearing weekly at Knott's Berry Farm. De Kanter saw Cochrane perform and was so impressed that he now says he reveres him, and keeps a photo of his tightrope shoes. After De Kanter pestered him for two weeks, Cochrane, in turn, was impressed enough with his sincerity that he agreed to give him a lesson.

That invaluable 2 1/2-hour lesson in De Kanter's back yard formed the basis for what he's done since. He works on his wires an average of 15 minutes a day--for hours some days and others not at all--with the present goal of being able to walk safely along the seven-sixteenths-of-an-inch steel cable without use of a balancing bar.

He has three wires running in the yard. There aren't kits for such things, so he had to design and build them from scratch. "It helps to be an engineer," he advises. One wire is barely a foot above the ground, for practicing, and directly above it is an 11-foot-high wire. They are 31 feet long. If one were to fall, there is a lawn to one side and a rock garden to the other. The third wire, 38 feet long, is strung over a cliff drop in the yard, making it an 18-foot drop to the cactus patch below.

"That's just a reminder that you want to stay on the wire, given the choice," he said. We did mention, didn't we, that he does this naked sometimes?

He has kept a log of his air time and estimates he has navigated the 18-foot-high wire 736 times, adding up to several miles traveled on a cable thinner than a pinkie. He's never fallen and doesn't expect to.

He said: "One of the things you learn, and this applies to life, is you don't want to take risks beyond your capabilities. So you start out low. Once you feel comfortable at that height and know you can stay on the wire, regardless of flies buzzing, cats running under the wire, someone shouting or whatever, or misplacing your foot a little, then you go higher and higher."

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