OAKLEY — At the age of 80, Jim “Lucky” Ball has a hobby like few others and one not easily mastered.
He is a sword swallower in what might literally be a dying art.
Ball has toned the act down since the days he swallowed three swords at a time, but he still performs for birthday parties and special events. He said he holds the record as the oldest living, active sword swallower and the youngest.
“I enjoy entertaining,” Ball said.”I’d like to say I’m one of the better sword swallowers in the business.”
He has never been injured and explains care must be taken each time to stay safe. He has never had to have medical care, but has had a little bruise or cut.
“I’ve occasionally had a ‘sword” throat,’ he laughed. “I’ve tried to be careful. Know your limitations.”
Ball explained how it is done.
He carefully wipes the sword with a cloth to remove any dust and inspects it to make sure no burrs have developed before he swallows it.
“All I have to do is know that it is a clean instrument like a knife or a fork or a spoon,” he said.
“The sword goes down the esophagus and the trick is to be able to isolate certain feelings and extra control on your body,” Ball said. He compared it with other activities involving self-control.
“It’s mind over matter. Think about it twice and do it once,” he said. “Take everything into consideration and use common sense.”
Ball admits it’s not something everyone can do, but after so many years, the trick is automatic for him now.
“The one thing I have to do is control how far it goes down because I don’t want to knock the bottom out of Texas,” he said, laughing.
He was inducted into the Sword Swallowers Hall of Fame in 2008.
Ball was taught to swallow swords at the age of 12 by his mother, Estelline Pike. She worked as a sword swallower at Hubert’s Museum in New York and at Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus sideshow at Madison Square Gardens as well as other shows.
The two appeared together in 1958 on the television show “What’s My Line?”
In 2005, the story came full circle. Ball was invited to perform on a recreated version of “What’s My Line?” in Hollywood, Calif.
In the early days, he traveled with his folks in the carnival and shared another act besides swords with his mother, snakes. He said that at one time, they performed many, many shows per day.
Probably his worst injury was a snake bite in the face. For a while, Estelline and Ball had a snake pit with many types of reptiles.
“I was 8 years old and I was in the snake pit, lecturing and handling snakes,” he said. “We got a new shipment of snakes. One was an 8-foot boa constrictor that was coiled in the corner.”
When he picked it up, it bit him in the face.
“My mother was selling tickets at the front of the show,” he said. “She pried that snake’s mouth open.”
He said the constrictor’s teeth were shaped liked fish hooks and she didn’t want to tear up his face.
“She had to work him out,” he said. “I asked her why she took so much time, and she said she didn’t want to disfigure my face. She got bit trying to take it off.”
Ball made a full recovery.
Ball returned home to Hoxie for many years because of family and because he tends to be a homebody, he said, often living with his grandparents there.
Ball’s wife also is from Hoxie.
“We grew up together,” Lona Ball said.
“That’s just what he does,” she said. “Every since he was kid.”
Times have changed, and Ball believes the days of the carnival side show, where people do strange things, are coming to end. None of his descendants have become fully engaged in sword swallowing .
“I’m the last of the line,” he said. “I’m still here and I’m not done yet.
“Not many people want to risk life a and limb to entertain. What I do will become obsolete.”