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BASE Jumping: Articles: Interviews and Profiles: Lonnie Bissonnette Interview: What Lies Within Us

Lonnie Bissonnette Interview: What Lies Within Us (Visit this link) new

by Cynthia Lynn
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Over the past year I have had the privilege of interviewing some truly inspiring people from the sport of BASE jumping: Jeb Corliss, Clair Halliday, Tracy Walker, Matthew ‘Calvin’ Hecker, Lee Hardesty, Chris ‘douggs’ McDougall, Hank Caylor, Jevto Dedijer, Mike Pelkey and Randy’s brother, Rick Harrison.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Canadian BASE jumper, Lonnie Bissonnette, and although he will state infuriatingly that he is not an inspiration and grumble that he “hates” that word. The fact remains that Mr. Bissonnette life story is an inspiration to many jumpers and non-jumpers alike; not because he still jumps today following his 2004 accident which left him a paraplegic, but rather his undying passion for the “big picture”.

The “big picture” being living each day as if it was your last while committing to the life investing, death-defying, sport deemed BASE jumping. If ever there was a man who summed up Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us”, it is Lonnie Bissonnette.

When Lonnie speaks about his BASE jumping adventures his voice changes tone and the emotions fly left and right as if he is a composer creating a musical score. He described his Angels Falls, Venezuela jump as such, “That place called to me. I am so glad that I did that jump; you know the tallest waterfall in the world. Angel Falls was a magical place for me that held so much in a spiritually emotional way. The place spoke to me; it was so gorgeous and majestic. I fondly recall the first jumps off of the KL towers in Malaysia. Seeing the hundreds of spectators cheering for us which was different than skulking around in the dark to jump was a great experience. Niagara Falls was a big jump; there are so many jumps that were amazing for me for various reasons.”

His BASE philosophy reads as if its the tag-line for a BASE recruitment poster:

“My philosophy is to just enjoy. Enjoy the experience. You know, it’s not… I don’t think BASE jumping is about numbers. It is about the experiences and the friendships you make. You know a lot of jumps I don’t remember and those are just number jumps. Then there are tons of memories and stories that are more important than the numbers. I think you should just try to get the most out of every jump that you do.”

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The BASE jump that stands out as one might expect is his 1100th jump at Perrine Bridge, in Twin Falls, Idaho which resulted in his paralysis leaving him with an every present reminder of what can go wrong. He tells me, “That one, of all my jumps, replays in my mind the most often and is the most vivid.”

When asked if he had any regrets, “Yeah, I regret that on that particular jump I tried to do too much, I was organizing it, I designed the dive, I was taking care of some of the lower experienced people who were on the jump, I basically was doing everything including being the guy who was going to do the quad gainer. I was the last person to climb over the rail even though I had the most difficult job on the jump. I guess the regret is, that I regret that I didn’t let someone else take care of the organizing the jump, and let me focus on the task at hand, the jump itself.

There is a lot of background story to the jump as well as there was a lot going on in the jump, that I don’t want to get into. Either I could have done one of two things; I could have taken on all the responsibilities of planning the jump and went flat and stable. Or I could have relinquished and given everyone else the responsibilities and tell them you do this and you do that and concentrate on the quad. I really wanted to do the quad on my 1100 jump, so, I tried to do it all. That would be my one regret.”

In discussing his family’s reaction to the accident his “take it to the extreme attitude” lightens with serious statements about BASE jumpers, “manning up”.

Do you think that your family viewed the accident as just that, “an accident”, which could have occurred in a car accident or other scenario? Did BASE ever come into the conversation or were they more concerned for your emotional well-being and moving on with life?

“Some of them had a really hard time with it. My oldest boy had a tough time with it. I never got that impression from any of my family (that if only I hadn’t BASE jumped). I think they had for the most part, brothers, sisters, parents, the adults, had known eventually it was going to happen. I tried to prepare them too, because I was pretty sure it would happen. It’s a numbers game and if you keep playing the game long enough, your number is going to come up.

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I have always believed that I was going to die BASE jumping; from when I stood on the edge for the very first time in doing my first BASE jump. I had a Déjà Vu moment standing on the edge and it freaked me out. Because it was like how can I look down here and know everything that I was seeing. I recognized it as if I had been here before a hundred times, a thousand times. I have thought about it and truly believe this is how I’m going to die. I have told my family from day one that this is how it’s going to happen, I’m going to try to stick around as long as I can, but most likely that is how it’s going to end.

My kids are getting older now; they understand more now than at the time of the accident. My little guy was only 9, so for him, it didn’t really effect him much. They called him at his best friend’s house where he was for a sleepover and told him “Dad had been hurt really bad in a BASE jump and he went back to riding his bike, it was kind of like “I guess the doctors will fix him.” My oldest boy was 14, my accident affected him in a deeper sense.”

I suggest that his eldest son no doubt comprehended that life was going to change for the entire family from that point on. Of which, change in itself is difficult on a teenager, discovering Dad is breakable couldn’t have been easy to accept.

“Yeah I think so too”, he responds softly. “He understood and withdrew from me for a time.” “They (my boys) watched their very first base jump maybe three years before the accident. Obviously I couldn’t take them out in the middle night when most jumps take place. Eventually I found some jumps I could do during the day and they would come out and watch, often arguing over who got the radio. I think just being around me talking about BASE, even before being able to witness the jumps; they got a sense what it’s meant to me in my life.”

This led us to the importance of BASE jumpers conveying to family members and friends their desire to jump and acceptance of the consequences & risks that may befall them. I, having read the Snake River Academy First Jump Course Reader that outlines reasons jumpers should write letters to their family before starting in BASE; mention to Lonnie the reality is there are likely jumpers who have not informed their family of their activities.

“Yeah, I don’t subscribe to that way of thinking. If you are going to go out there and get into any sport where you can be killed or worse crippled, then your family should know of the risks ahead of time. If you get hurt it shouldn’t be a surprise of “why did he/she do this?” I’m sure every family loves their children just as much as the next, but some parents are more controlling and will state outright they don’t want their kids to jump.

Personally, I don’t like hiding stuff. Yeah of course, you are always going to get people who argue, “I don’t want my family to worry”, but you know they are going to worry if you go camping or when you’re in a car also. They are the type of people who worry. Keeping them in the dark and hiding things from them, I don’t agree with that, doesn’t sit well with me. I have always taught my boys, if you make a mistake or choose a path that deviates from the norm, stand up, take your grief, face the music, because to me…hiding it, is being a coward.”

The passion and conviction in which he speaks are reminiscent of a preacher at the pulpit on Sunday. This trait is what I believe makes him an inspiration to others. Grumbling be damned, only his two sons rate an equal quantity of love and commitment. His oldest would tag along to the drop zone with dad for days on end back when Lonnie was an instructor in skydiving and the youngest, being born shortly after starting BASE, earn “his boys” the title of “biggest influence and inspiration” in his life. “My kids, they put everything in perspective. They help me focus on what’s important in the big picture.”

I ask Lonnie if he would ever give up BASE jumping if his sons were to ask him.

He pauses for a moment, “That’s a tough one.”

Assessing the dynamics of their relationship I ask if the question instead is, “Would your sons ever ask you to give up BASE jumping?”

The rephrasing of the question appears to make all the difference in his quick reply of, “No. I can’t picture my kids ever asking that of me. My kids get it; they get me as a person”.

I have come to realize that the Bissonnette clan are comparable to a motor sports family, the risk, sacrifice and commitment to the sport ingrained into the family way of life as “what Dad does” and would cause a stir if suddenly “Dad wasn’t acting normal by jumping from objects or falling from planes, even without the use of his legs.”

Lonnie tells me repeatedly that he isn’t special. That he is guy who “fucked up” as much as the next guy and who continues to “fuck up”. He is an average man and anyone in his situation would have responded the same. The truth of the matter whether he wants to admit it or not, is that everyone wouldn’t have responded the same in tackling the adversities he’s faced in his lifetime. Behind every BASE jumper legend persona is a story; a very human story of a person who found meaning in that first moment they pushed off the edge, leading them to who they are today as jumpers and people.

He cracks jokes that he graduated with honors from the “school of hard knocks” before relaying the hard truth, “I thought I had all my shit figured out at the age of 15. I had gone up north to live with my uncle Dave as my mother had thrown me out of her home a year and half earlier. My father had left when I was ten years old which became the motivating factor in being an ever-present father to my boys.”

Lonnie doesn’t BASE jump because he thinks it makes him “cool”, or “to get laid at the bar” or “because he has some death wish”. As you’ll read in our question and answer dialogue, he doesn’t believe BASE is cool; he could have given up when he hit the water below the Perrine, but he didn’t and his love affair with BASE continues still today.

It’s no wonder that his favorite book is Groundrush by Simon Jakeman. ”I have such a horrible time reading and nothing seems to capture my attention. I find that I read a couple of lines and have to go back and reread them over again; I wasn’t retaining what I was reading. That book I couldn’t put it down. I picked it up and breezed right through it; probably helped that I read it when I only had about four BASE jumps at the time, but it totally sucked me in.”

He jumps because it fills a void inside like nothing else does, bringing him closer to his dream of human flight. Life while jumping becomes vivid color, rushing at him “as if you have your face pressed up against a HD flat screen and the sound is turned up” when he commits to the point of no return of a jump. The body’s senses kick into overdrive and the rush is never stronger.

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Submitted by Cynthia Lynn on 2010-07-27

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