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Memoirs of a Sword Swallower Excerpt: Fire-eating; Buying swords from Rafael

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I’ve never actually understood the physical principles that make fire-eating possible. I have talked to several doctors about it and they all had conflicting theories. Apparently the extreme heat of the flame coming suddenly in contact with the moisture inside the mouth creates a thin layer of steam which acts as insulation. The inside of your mouth and lips must be wet before you can swallow a torch. The flame will burn your skin if it touches any other part of the body except the inside of the mouth and the red part of the lips. Of course, sometimes it burns you there too if you aren’t breathing correctly or if you’re holding the torch at the wrong angle.

Although my mouth felt like the inside of a carburetor, I didn’t experience any pain while I was practicing. I thought I was at last getting onto the trick. But a few hours later, blisters formed all over the inside of my cheeks and the skin on the roof of my mouth began to peel off in thin strips. I was too sick to appear on the bally platform that evening and the pain kept getting steadily worse. Everyone with the show was very sympathetic but no one suggested that I see a doctor. Their unspoken attitude seemed to be that this was just one of the things you go through learning an act. Curiously, it never occurred to me to go to a doctor, either. I tried to keep down the burning in my mouth by making periodic trips to an open-all-night diner and filling my mouth with ice cream. About three o’clock in the morning, the diner ran out of ice cream, so I started buying the cracked ice the proprietor kept his ice cream cartons in. The man began to look at me rather curiously after that, although I was paying him as much for his darned cracked ice as I had for the ice cream, and the ice was full of salt that stung. Finally he quietly closed down between two of my trips. I really suffered after that until the drugstores opened in the morning. Then I bought several commercial ointments sold to relieve burns, but they all tasted horrible and didn’t do any good. Finally, I went back to ice cream.

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