David Smith doesn’t usually stay in his “office” for long.
He finds it dark, cramped, and he sometimes whispers prayers inside — right before it ejects him 60 feet into the air and he goes from 0 to 60 mph in one-fifth of a second.
Smith’s unusual “office” just so happens to be tucked inside the barrel of a 35-foot cannon. He once entertained thoughts about entering law school or opening his own business but, instead, he became the world’s most renowned “human cannonball” — and he soared more than 100 feet through the air Monday night into a safety net after the minor league baseball game between the State College Spikes and Batavia Muckdogs.
“I say lots of prayers. Prayers are good,” Smith, 40, said with a laugh. “When I’m scared, they help a lot. And they’ve done me good so far. I don’t think I’ve ever really been hurt.”
Smith got into the family business at the age of 19 — his father was also a human cannonball, after transitioning from a trapeze artist — and he’s been shot out of a cannon about 7,000 times. He set four world records for height and distance, and he’s performed in 15 countries — for royalty in Dubai to fairgoers in Wisconsin. He’s even appeared on “America’s Got Talent” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
“I’m a certified sky diver, and I’ve bungee jumped — and that’s pretty scary,” Smith said. “But none of it even touches this.”
One moment of panic or one miscalculation, in the best-case scenario, could mean a sore back or a broken spine. The worst-case? Death.
Everyone has something they’re good at. And I can deal with fear.
David “The Bullet” Smith
Smith cracks a nervous smile whenever he alludes to what could go wrong, but he never mentions the “D” word. He pushes the boundaries, sure, but there’s no sense in adding even a little more pressure to an exercise that hangs more Gs — about nine times the normal gravity — than Apollo 16’s re-entry.
Smith, nicknamed “The Bullet,” just tosses his yellow pack of Natural American Spirit cigarettes aside, grins and shrugs. He’s even begun performing some shows without a net and into a body of water. And how’d he discover he’s capable of that? “I just pulled it up to the lake and shot once. ... It was like, ‘Hey, I lived through the first test, so we’ll rip it for the next show.’ ”
This wasn’t always the occupation, or the “office,” that Smith envisioned. When he just reached up to his father’s knee as a child, he always wondered about that big cannon. And, at the age of 17, his father finally rigged the setup for his son when he returned home from high school carrying a saxophone case and a gym bag.
The cannon was turned to “baby settings,” and Smith felt he got it out of his system after two quick attempts. But, two years later, when he was painting beach houses in North Carolina, the teenager received a call from his father: He had hurt his back, and he needed his son to fill in for him in Wisconsin.
Turns out, Smith said, he was pretty good at being a human cannonball. And he never stopped. He couldn’t.
“Everyone has something they’re good at,” Smith said. “And I can deal with fear.”
When he sits on the end of the barrel and feels the wind against his face, minutes before takeoff, he can still feel the adrenaline kick in. He sweats. His pulse quickens. He’s still nervous, even 21 years after he started.
But once his head disappears into that office, there’s no turning back. At that point, it’s like trying to abandon a back-flip halfway through. So he accepts his fate, prays that his calculations are correct — and then prepares to get out of that office as quickly as possible.
Then it’s time to hit the road again, get back in the office a few days later at the next concert, baseball game, festival or air show and repeat until his muscles ache and he needs time off. And, then, it’s back to the office once more.
“When I haven’t done it in a while, it’s like I have to get my fix,” Smith said, smiling.
“It’s almost addicting, actually.”