AMERICAN CHRONICLES: RIDE THE FALLS
Copyright: John C. Merino 2016
There’s been recent talk about “shutting off” Niagara Falls. I was there the first time……..back in 1969 when the Army Corp of Engineers dammed the Niagara River between Goat Island and the main land.
Their objective was to inspect the face of the falls itself. Centuries of erosion had collapsed over 2000 tons of rock to the base of the falls, and the precipice was beginning to look like it would simply erode into a rapids.
Ultimately, the Corp removed the rock at the base of the American Falls, though there was discussion about structurally installing steel and concrete to curtail future erosion.
The public went nuts…………….and after the rock was removed, the dam was exploded and the water flowed again.
We were detained by State Park Police, a friend and I, when we decided to walk to the edge, sit down and look around. It was an incredible sight. We were brought downtown, threatened with arrest…………but ultimately all the cops wanted to know was what the view was like.
All of that got me thinking about Jean Lussier. Jean was a “Daredevil.” He went over Niagara Falls on July 4, 1929 in a rubber ball he claimed was designed by old man DuPont himself.
I first met him in the late 1950’s. I was a kid…..maybe 9 or 10……taking the bus downtown to the Saturday matinees at either the Strand or Cataract theater(s). Three Stooges shorts and a feature………..a candy bar, soda and pop corn………all for 35 cents. It was a deal at twice the price.
Jean would stand in front of the shows as they let out. He’d hustle tourists telling them his story, selling them autographed post cards that featured his picture kneeling next to the craft he had trusted. They were charged a dollar, and on the back he’d write…”Over the Falls in a Rubber Ball….that’s me, Jen Lussier”……and he’d recite it as he wrote it, in a thick French Canadian accent.
When the tourist’s thinned out, he’d gather a group of kids and retell the entire story. How he’d met old man DuPont and convinced him to design and build the ball……a sphere of light weight aluminum framing approximately 5 feet in diameter. It was double coated with thick milled rubber sheets, torch fused, and it had a small oxygen tank on the inside, where Jean sat on a swiveling platform, strapped in and in theory, he was always upright because the bottom was weighted with lead bars.
The ball, Jean inside, had been rolled down the bank of the Niagara River on the Canadian side, some 500 yards above the falls. It pitched and bobbed its way to the brink……….and within seconds, he had reached the precipice, plunging over the edge….188 feet to the lower river…..lost momentarily in the foam and crash of water below….popping up a few hundred yards down river where his co-conspirators waited to retrieve him. He’d made it and became history……..all 5 foot 5 inches of him.
On Sundays he would stand in front of the Daredevil Museum. The curators would wheel the remains of the ball out front on a pallet …..and for $2.00 tourists could take his picture standing next to the ball………..and get an autographed post card.
I didn’t see him for over a decade. Beginning in the mid-sixties the urban renewal plague hit Niagara Falls and the museum, old theaters, historic train station, tourist traps and offices were all torn down.
He had nowhere to corral tourists after that.
When I returned home from my wanderlust that found me in Kansas and Mexico, hitching around the mid-west with a guitar and dining at the finest truck stops, I was hired as a maintenance man with the Niagara Falls Housing Authority.
Mainly, I mopped the hallways on each of the 14 stories of the low income senior citizen apartment complex called Spallino Towers. Occasionally, I’d be invited to a birthday luncheon in the rec-room. Someone had reached 75 or 80 and the residents would sup on pot luck and guzzle cheap wine.
It was at one of these soirees, when I looked over to a table in the corner. A slight man sat alone at a table of four………..head down, sipping his wine.
I went over to join him, saying hello and when he raised his head the first thing that crossed my mind was the phrase, “That’s Me.”
It was Jean……worn and old……his smile gone……his clothes, sized for a younger man, must have come from the Goodwill. I told him where I had met him and when. We spoke about old Falls Street and the shops, clubs and tourist traps. He again, told me the story about his feat. I got him to smile.
I went to work early every day after that….and stopped by his apartment on the 11th floor. I’d stick my head in when my shift was over to see if he needed anything from the store……Milk or bread or coffee.
The other old men ignored him. “I’m so damn tired of that story, I don’t even want to talk to him anymore”, Tony said.
For me, it was even more reason to listen when Jean would re-tell his story, recount the lunch he had with Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio at the Como Restaurant when she was filming the movie Niagara in 1951, and show me the letter he’d received from President Eisenhower after, he claimed, he was a guest on What’s My Line.
When Jean died in 1971, it wasn’t like Walter Cronkite reported it on the news. It wasn’t peaceful nor pretty.
I made my usual morning stop and knocked on his door. There was no answer and the tenant next door said she hadn’t seen him for a couple days.
I went down to the maintenance garage and told Tom the mechanic that I was concerned about Jean. He grabbed a pass key and we went back up to the 11th floor and let ourselves in.
Jean’s apartment was barely furnished…..a lawn chair and plastic table that held a small radio. No TV. An army cot with a surplus blanket, a coffee pot on the stove and a toaster I had picked up at a garage sale.
Here he was……the Daredevil……..it seemed worse to me than the ride over the falls, itself.
Tom went in first. He opened the bathroom door and told me to go downstairs to the office and call an ambulance. He didn’t want me to, but I looked through the door and Jean sat, in a tub of red water, clothes on, his head bent to its side.
Jean chose to slit his arms with a razor, rather than live the indignity of it all. He was alive still, but barely.
He was rushed across the street to Memorial Hospital. I visited that night, but couldn’t get in to intensive care. Jean held on for a couple days.
When Walter Cronkite reported his death from natural causes on the news, I cried.
I picked up my guitar that night and wrote the ballad of Jean Lussier. I never play the song anymore….but here’s the opening line:
“Jean Lussier was kind of small, but he rode the Falls in a rubber ball.
Why he came here at all, is still not clear to me.”
I’m John Merino and this is American Chronicles.
American Chronicles is a bi-weekly locally produced feature on WRFA written and produced by retired Gebbie Foundation CEO, John C. Merino. Currently, John is an Adjunct Professor of Micro-Economics, Organizational Management, and 20th Century World History at Mercyhurst University. American Chronicles airs twice monthly, Friday mornings at 7:15 and Friday Afternoons at 4:35. American Chronicles features original stories (partly fact and partly fiction), commentary on local, state , national, world conditions and more.
For past episodes and transcripts, visit www.wrfalp.com/tag/american-chronicles/