WASHINGTON — Early in their marriage, Tina Miser used to light her husband, Brian, on fire and shoot him out of a cannon, but after a while that got boring. Tina wanted more out of life. She told Brian she longed to be shot out of the cannon, too. At first Brian wasn’t thrilled with the idea. He worried Tina might get hurt, as he did when his cannon misfired in Japan in 1999. But Tina kept asking and finally Brian relented and started building a double-barreled cannon.
Consequently, when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus arrived in the Washington, D.C., area for a three-week stint, Brian and Tina Miser, the world’s only husband-and-wife human cannonball team, climbed atop their cannon as the crowd cheered.
“They’re not only married to danger,” the ringmaster bellowed, “they’re married to each other!!!”
Brian and Tina waved to the crowd, then climbed into the cannon, Tina in the bottom barrel, Brian in the top.
“Tina,” the ringmaster asked, “are you ready?”
“Ready,” she said, her voice echoing from deep in the 25-foot-long barrel.
“Brian, are you ready?”
“Ready,” he said.
The ringmaster led the crowd in a countdown: “5 … 4 … 3 …”
But wait. Before the Misers blast off, let’s pause for a moment to note that getting shot out of a cannon might be the perfect metaphor for marriage: It starts with a bang and you feel you’re floating on air, but then the gravity of the situation kicks in and you begin to wonder if you’ll land on a nice soft pillow or crash with a splat.
For Brian, 42, and Tina, 30, it all began in their hometown, Peru, Ind. A century ago, Peru was a place where circus folks spent the winter, and the town still has an active amateur circus for school kids. Both Brian and Tina excelled at the trapeze. Brian was so good that he got a job with a circus when he graduated from high school in 1981.
Later, he decided that he really wanted to be a human cannonball. But there are only “about eight” of them in the world, Brian says, and he had a hard time getting one to teach him the trade.
“It’s very secretive,” he says, sitting in Ring 3 before the show, with his daughter Skyler, 2, bouncing on his lap. “Nobody will share their secrets.”
He built a cannon anyway and soon was hiring himself out as a human cannonball. In 1999, he took his act to Japan. But when his cannon was unloaded there, a weld was cracked, which caused a tiny change in trajectory, which caused Brian to miss his air bag and crash into a scaffold. He broke his pelvis, three ribs and a foot, the worst flight he’s had.
He went home to Indiana to recuperate and start building a new cannon. He volunteered to help out at the amateur circus, where he met Tina, who was also volunteering. She had earned a degree in exercise science at Ball State University, then returned home to work for the Air Force Reserve.
They began dating. Soon it got serious, and when he was ready to resume his career as a human cannonball, he asked her if she’d be his trigger woman.
“I’m not sure that’s something to ask when you start dating somebody,” Tina says, smiling.
“We were dating, so I thought it was appropriate,” Brian replies.
At any rate, she agreed, and they made their debut at a monster-truck rally in South Carolina in 1999.
Back home in Peru a couple of years later, Brian took Tina for a ride in a flying parachute contraption that achieved enough liftoff that she could read the sign he’d put on his roof: “Tina, will you marry me?”
They wed in 2002. Soon they added a new twist to Brian’s cannonball act: Now he was on fire when he flew out of the cannon.
“It was the perfect job for a wife — lighting your husband on fire and shooting him out of a cannon,” he says.
Soon, Tina was begging Brian to shoot her out of the cannon, although she had no desire to be set ablaze. Her first flight was disappointing.
“I came out like a big sack of potatoes,” she says.
As she speaks, acrobats do headstands a few feet away, warming up for tonight’s show. Skyler ignores them, crawling out of her father’s lap and into her mother’s. Asked what she thinks of her parents’ profession, Skyler declines to comment, hiding her face behind a stuffed white bunny with floppy ears.
“I wasn’t scared,” Tina continues. “Being scared came later as I learned more.”
Fired out of the cannon one day in Atlantic City, she miscalculated and instead of landing on her back, she crashed on her left arm, breaking it.
“That was the end of my cannonball career for a long time,” she says.
Brian encouraged her to try again, just to overcome her fear. But there was one problem: She was pregnant. You can’t be a human cannonball while pregnant.
After Skyler was born in 2003, Tina and Brian began practicing their double-barreled cannonball act. They debuted in Tampa in January 2005.
And they’ve been doing it ever since. Which is how they happen to be in the barrels of the big cannon in the D.C. Armory on Tuesday night, while the ringmaster leads the crowd in the countdown:
“3 … 2 … 1 …
Inside the barrels, they tense all their muscles, preparing to fly.
Boom! Brian flies out of the top barrel in his red-and-white jumpsuit, spreading his arms like a bird. About three-tenths of a second later, Tina zooms out of the bottom barrel in her matching outfit. She flies about 90 feet, flips over in midair and lands on her back on an air bag, which is maybe five yards square. Brian flies about 20 feet farther before landing.
“Ladies and gentlemen … Brian and Tina Miser, the courageous cannonballs!”
They leap to their feet, kiss each other and wave to the cheering crowd.
Backstage a few minutes later, Brian unzips his costume and pulls out his back brace.
“I wear this to hold my guts in,” he says.
Being a cannonball is tough on a human body. “We go from zero to 65 miles per hour in about a half-second,” Brian says.
And then, about two seconds later, they go from 65 mph to zero. “And if the air bag is too tight,” he says, “it knocks the wind out of you.”
But when the flight goes right, it’s a lot of fun, Tina says. “You fly 100 feet with nothing — it’s just you and the air.”
At this point, Brian has been shot out of cannons more than 5,000 times, Tina about 600. How long can they keep this up?
“I think I can do it till I’m 50 — so maybe eight more years,” Brian says. He looks at Tina and smiles. “Then you can keep doing it.”
“I don’t know about that plan,” she says, laughing. “When a shot’s good, I think, ‘I could do this till I’m 50.’ But when it’s not, I think, ‘Maybe it’s time to get a real job.’ ” (Brian declined to reveal how much money a human cannonball makes.)
What about Skyler? Will she grow up to be a cannonball?
“I hope not,” Tina says.
“If she wants to,” Brian says.
“She likes to help us get dressed for the show,” Tina says. “She looks up at me and says, ‘Mom go boom?’ And I say, ‘Yes.’ “
“I used to take her into the cannon barrel with me when I worked on it,” says Brian. “But now that she’s seen Mom and Dad go into it and come flying out, she won’t go in anymore.”