By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
"It's not a gift I have," Charles insists one recent afternoon while sitting in the plush comfort of the Heat family room at the Triple A. "I have a drive. If you show me how to cook something, I will do it until I master it, and not just master it but master it...."
Yet at first glance, there is nothing about Ricky that would distinguish him in a crowd. His skin is dark, though not exceptionally so. He appears to be bald, of average height and build, well muscled but certainly not with the physique of a bodybuilder. A closer look reveals that his head is not completely shaved. There is a wide, closely cropped triangle of hair that goes from back to front. As he carries on a conversation, Charles is constantly stretching his feet, legs, and arms in small ways. After a few minutes, his positive can-do attitude shines through.
Ever since he was five years old, he's been practicing tumbling and gymnastics. In 1981 he and his family moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Always trying to improve, he befriended a ballet teacher. She gave him free lessons in exchange for gymnastic instruction.
"It helped my gymnastics, because when you are self-taught, you have no technique," he relates. "So now I'm a self-taught tumbler, [but] I look like a natural gymnast."
The ballet teacher got Ricky an audition for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. Although he was accepted, Ricky decided he wanted to be an acrobatic performer instead. "Deep down in my heart, I knew that was what I wanted," he says.
He found a partner in a fellow gymnast, worked up a few routines, and set out to join the circus. His family took bets on how soon he'd return, but that only strengthened his resolve. He and his friend traveled with the big top, working with Ringling Bros., the Clyde Beatty Circus, and the Toby Tyler Circus.
Along the way he continued his education. "I wanted to learn as much as I could," Ricky recalls. "I'm always looking ahead. I learned wire-walking, juggling, trapeze."
But his circus career came to end in Virginia six years later while performing on a teeter-totter. Two performers jump on one side, and the person on the opposite end goes flying into the air. "I was filling in for a guy," he remembers. "No big deal, it's just a simple layout [a complete rotating flip during which the arms and legs are held together against the body]. But I over-rotated. So in midair I'm looking down, going, “Yup, I'm either going to break my neck or my back.' So I had to sacrifice my hand to break the fall."
The resulting compound fracture of his forearm sidelined him. It's just one of a number of scars Ricky has on his body. They were the price of doing what he loved, and Charles is stoic about the injuries.
He returned to the Virgin Islands in 1988 to recuperate and never rejoined the circus. Instead he started his own gymnastics school and performed in community theater. A colleague at the theater knew how to breathe fire. Intrigued, Ricky convinced the man to teach him, too. "I thought maybe it would come in handy some day," he laughs.
The trick took work to learn. "First you have to practice spitting water as a fine mist," he instructs. "You blow like wind coming off a lake. The more mist, the bigger the flame."
After getting the hang of the water, the apprentice fire-breather graduates to something flammable. Ricky uses lamp oil because gasoline is too dangerous. "Of course don't drink it," he instructs, but inevitably some goes down the gullet. "When you first start, some of it is going to go down," he says. Some get sick when this happens, but not Charles. "It goes right through me. But if I do a lot of it, I have a little diarrhea."
The key to fire-breathing is to move the flame away from your body as you blow, he says. Still, it's not something Ricky encourages people to try at home, especially the way he does it: by lighting up his arms. The trick works because of special "thermostat sleeves," attached metal and leather that serve as a kind of wick.
But despite the success of his gymnastics school, Ricky still wasn't doing what he loved: performing. Through a friend in Texas, he enrolled in a stunt workshop in Seattle. "Most of it I already knew," he says, "except for precision driving and falling off horses and buildings."
When it ended, he moved to Dallas, Texas, to stay with a friend because he had spent all his money on the stunt course. He took on three jobs -- a server at Taco Bell, a gymnastics teacher, and a role at the Six Flags amusement park -- and soon had enough to afford a small apartment. For the Six Flags job he performed as the mayor of Gotham City during the day show and Robin (of Batman fame) in the night production.