Rick Harrison Interview: Simply stated, “A Man Amongst Men” , conclusion

During my exchanges with Rick he made mention of his friendship with Iiro Seppepan that began on a trip back in 2002, I phoned Iiro and asked him to write his take on this B.A.S.E. pioneer which follows:

“I first met Rick and his brother Randy, when we did the Mexican Cave trip together. I had not heard about them before, not even by reputation, so I was in for quite a surprise.

I remember them showing up with these old skydiving suits and skydiving canopies and doing their own thing. The two of them were throwing aerials, opening low, doing very weird modifications to their equipment and always having a smile while doing it.

Throughout the week in Mexico I was able to get to know them better and talking with them inspired me to want to stay in touch for the rest of my life. I have a lot to learn.

Why?

You know, I’d like to think I’m hard-core person with the type of stuff I do. Most of the people you will ever meet, we’ll probably appear the same to yourself. There are not many people, who I look upon and have the ultimate respect for, but Rick is definitely one of these people.

When you’re a young B.A.S.E. jumper, you’ll get a few hundred jumps under your belt and then you start thinking you know everything. Then you happen to see old videos by someone like Rick and you realize that they have outdone you by over 25 years; and in Ricks case has done it ever since! This makes you kind of humble going forward.

What makes Rick so different form many other pioneer jumpers is the fact that he still lives for himself and continues to be semi-active in jumping. The say that usually the lifespan for an average B.A.S.E. jumper is about five years, and then the person gets hurt, dies or sees too many injuries or deaths and decides to stop. Rick has gone through all of that (except the personal dying of course) and still continues to jump.

There are people who SAY they love the sport and then there are people like Rick, who PROVE their love by staying true to the sport by jumping and enjoying life to the fullest.

Rick has so many sides to him that make him so unique and special. Then there is of course the partying, where he can keep up with any 20 year old, but more over anything, his humanitarian work is incredible!

Rick has done such amazing things in “real life”, in his career and his well earned reputation with the sport of B.A.S.E. Working for the government and suing companies that polluted the Everglades, a decision that forced companies to change their environmental codes…is priceless!!!

I am personally motivated by people who are comfortable in their own skin and dedicate their life to their passions. They say: “Being true to you is a path to happiness” and I think Rick realized this at a very early age.”

Iiro’s sentiments regarding Rick are echoed again and again by his friend and most recent jump buddy, B.A.S.E. 460. He offered these insights on his friends “health and physical stamina”. As you read, you’ll discover a man who appears unstoppable. Simply stated, “Superhuman”.

“I am constantly amazed at how healthy Rick is and continues to be as he matures. If you want to see the energizer bunny, talk to Rick Harrison. His legs look like he was attacked by a great white shark. He received that injury when he jumped a building and his round reserve out at 20 feet above the asphalt. Then there is the jump where he cracked his heel at the bottom of Black Canyon and spent 11 hours crawling out. Or more recently when he was knocked unconscious in a bike accident, broke a rib and his shoulder blade.

Rick, my friend Bryan and I climbed a 1600 feet antenna in the heat of the day. How many 59 year old, American men do you know who can do that? When Rick nearly died from a building jump in 1984, he received a blood transfusion that infected him with Hepatitis, the fatal kind. He went through interferon treatments and still managed to bicycle 50-100 miles a week. That’s just unheard of. I had another friend go through that treatment and he couldn’t even crawl from one side of the room to the other. Rick just keeps bouncing back and seemingly becoming stronger.”

One of the Rick’s qualities is his sense of humor and good nature, as witnessed in these commentaries by B.A.S.E. 460/Chris.

“I remember when, Rick, his brother Randy, Rick Payne (BASE 137) and I had when we were driving to France to jump the hammer. We were lost at night in the mountains and Randy yelled “pull over! -pull over! So Rick pulled over and the two brothers started getting their orientations by star navigation, back in the car we get and we immediately find our way to Chamonix. It’s funny when the brothers are together because they are literally finishing each other’s sentences and telling jokes simultaneously and really loudly!

Rick, Kevin Vennell (BASE 58), and I stayed at Kevin’s mother’s home in Houston during Hurricane Ike last September. The impending situation was pretty stressful. In anticipation of supply shortages and our habits, we bought many, many cases of beer and bags of ice.

There was a Walgreens store about a block away. The area is historic and home to this strange breed of Oak Tree. Anyway, we decide to not park by the house with its many potentially fragile trees, but instead in the lot next to the Walgreens.

So the morning after the storm, Kevin and I immediately went to check out our vehicles. The vehicles were fine; Kevin and I decided to play a little joke on Rick.

Kevin tells Rick, “Rick, my car and Chris’s car were fine. Umm…I hate to tell you this…umm, the big “W” from the sign was blown off and went through your front windshield…sorry dude.”

Of course Rick wanted to go check out his car. We each grabbed a cold beer and walked over to the lot where the cars were parked. The streets were like a ghost town. While walking, some homeless dude who survived the storm on the streets who looked so damn pitiful said to Rick, ‘can I get a sip of your beer’ and Rick replied, “Hey man, you look like you need this a lot more than me. We have plenty more back home, enjoy yourself.”

The ambiance of this was one of the epitome of cool as we rounded the corner while Kevin kept muttering, “the big W”. Soon as we had a clear view of the cars from around the corner, Rick exclaims, “Ha! You assholes!” with a big grin.”

If B.A.S.E. jumping had a Hall of Fame, then Rick would definitely be a member, as it turns out a friend pointed out that Rick does have his own collectors’ card. A friend pointed the cards out to me one day when he was searching E-bay and suggested that I get the story behind the famed cards.

“Glad you asked. It’s funny. Phil Smith was my best friend and jump buddy, with the exception of my twin brother, from 1982 to when I left Texas in 1987. Smitty earned BASE 1 in 1981. He was always trying to promote some idea. He did a couple active wear clothing shots for Patagonia, lined up PM Magazine to cover a couple of our old B.A.S.E. trips, and Sports Illustrated for a couple tower jumps we did for them.

Then he got the idea for a B.A.S.E. cards. He looked into it and found that Vision Sports cards had just started a line on Extreme Sports cards. Somehow he got them to agree to do four B.A.S.E. cards. So Phil, Kevin Venell, Bill Legg and I were the four cards. All we got out of the deal was a day of signing autographs to mainly kids at a big trading card convention. They bought us a Rib Eye and Stone Crab Dinner and we each got 300 cards. Smitty made a few bucks as well, we think.”

I questioned Rick, this champion, who has met challenges face to face whether in his professional life, personal or in sporting, “What is your biggest fear?”

He replied, “Losing freedom for any reason or becoming seriously paralyzed mentally or physically from an accident”. As demonstrated throughout this interview and by his own admission, Rick and Randy Harrison are more than brothers, more than twins, they are soul mates. Knowing that Randy had suffered a serious injury last year, I asked Rick how difficult has it been for him to cope with Randy’s accident and injuries? Also, has there ever been a time when he lost a friend that he thought, “enough is enough”?

“My brother’s accident scared me since we all fear being a vegetable much more than dying. He is doing quite well now. I remember in about 1990, after B.A.S.E. jumping for nearly 10 years, Randy and I made a list of all of the skydiving and B.A.S.E. friends or acquaintances who had died by violent deaths like jumping, motorcycles, iron worker falls, etc. We couldn’t think of anyone else after listing 40 names.

Some were pretty close friends which really hurt, like when Carl Boenish died in 1984. After that many friends passing, you sort of accept it as part of what we do and get somewhat immune to the death. In our early years of skydiving, that sport wasn’t as forgiving either due to equipment issues.

Anyway, back when I was really active, like when Carl died, it only reinforced our belief that we should keep jumping. Not sure why, but quitting due to someone dying just didn’t seem right since we had been skydiving all those years full well knowing the risk.

I think B.A.S.E. jumpers live more for the moment than many other kinds of sports folks. It is very much an inner personal thing to B.A.S.E. jump and I really don’t think it’s easy to fully understand until one has done it. Today, many young folks with little to no skydiving experience get into the sport and I’m afraid many see it as more of a carnival ride since it has been done by so many. In our day, we would never have taken B.A.S.E. as casually since we were basically inventing technique and equipment as we went along and using our experience to do so.”

Continuing in the vein of B.A.S.E. having taken friends from your life, can you talk about the flipside and what has B.A.S.E. contributed to your personal growth?

“Everything. Jumping doesn’t really make a person who they are; they are already that kind of person if they do it for the right reason. Jumping is just a great way to remind us who we are and what is really important. It is also a great way to get whatever chemical help we need in the form of adrenalin to replace whatever enzyme is missing or low in the brains of extreme thrill seekers.

Some folks, especially when they are still in their 20’s thru 40’s and even 50’s in my case, have a physical and even psychological need for adrenalin. It may well be replacing other neurotransmitters that are missing. In me and in many, a shot of adrenalin is required to keep them productive and focused. The older I get, the less often I need it, but used to be I needed a fix every week.

For example, when I started law school at the University of Iowa in 1972 I had 80 skydives. After 3 years of law school, when I graduated, I had over 600 skydives. My law school friends used to ask me “how do you do it without studying on the weekends?’ I would reply, “How do you do it studying on the weekends?” For me it was a sanity check. I functioned at a much higher level the entire week after a good weekend of jumping.” Simply stated, “The man understands the hungry inside”.

I found it interesting in speaking with Rick that his view on “risk takers” is very similar to the views of Calvin19, who comes from the latest generation of jumpers. Both men have a sincere appreciation for frontiers yet to be discovered and the need for exploration if humans are to advance. Perhaps also shedding some light on the notion that “old timer’s and the new generation” are not that different in their jumping philosophy’s.

“An editorial comment is that the nature of society seems to appreciate the risk taker less than in the past. Think about Columbus asking permission and funding to sail west across an uncharted ocean today if there were no navigation aids. He’d be branded a nut and would be labeled a danger to himself and the public. Same is true throughout history, first to fly the Atlantic, first to climb Everest, etc. Humans by our very nature seek to explore new things and new ways. It’s one thing that sets us apart from animals. There will always be someone willing to go further, push the envelope open a little further to see what mankind can really accomplish.

Some will die, but in their death, human knowledge of our limits will be expanded. Without the risk takers, or the civil disobedient, the adventures and others willing to defy conventional thinking at the time, the entirety of civilization will stagnate. For humans to ever advance, they must continue to challenge limitations. We will always need the Columbus’s of the world to push the limits and there will always be resistance by the establishment believing that they shouldn’t be doing it.”

In working with a person as the subject of an interview, I am faced with garnering as much information as possible from them, while deciphering and straining through it all in hopes of painting a portrait that reflects who that person is at this moment and time. When I initially contacted Rick, he informed me politely that he “while I am more accustomed to giving interviews to folks who are jumpers or have been around it a lot, my wife Joy says she has read your profiles and likes them”. I braced for what might have been a rocky interview filled with contention.

Slowly as the exchanges passed between us, the well spoken lawyer showed himself quickly, followed by the contentious B.A.S.E. jumper, then the fatherly pioneer, continuing as the wise guy with the funny stories, and lastly a caring friend whose voice sparkles with life even across the phone lines.

Rick Harrison provided me with a wealth of B.A.S.E. facts, stories, and personal information regarding the sport he credits with enhancing his life and contributing to his personal growth. It is fair to say that with all of Rick’s pioneering of new techniques & equipment, mentoring, serving as the Executive Director of the U.S. B.A.S.E. Association and legal counsel to the Alliance of Backcountry Parachutists that he has enhanced & contributed to the world of B.A.S.E. equally in return. Simply stated, “Rick Harrison is a man amongst men”.

Instead of 5 Random Facts or Habits that can be classified as Weird, Strange or different regarding Rick, I am going to share his two self anointed “bonehead” moves.

• Most bonehead thing ever done in jumping…”Accidentally packed a Bag Lock in my chute while talking to a friend. Gave me a total malfunction which was no problem as the reserved opened, but it was a dumb mistake.”

• Most bonehead thing ever done in general…” Saved $15.00 on a cheaper, 40 inch open vein pilot chute in 1982 I got from Phil Smith for $25.00 He tried to talk me into a $40.00, 52 inch Para Innovators Pilot Chute but I told him you didn’t need one that big and bulky. Well, in 1983, Halloween night, after Smitty and I had done the Building crane 2 nights before, my 40 inch pilot chute sucked back in behind my back. I pulled a reserve after 7 seconds, (We jumped skydiving rigs in those days), both canopies went up and tangled and I broke legs, feet, ankles, etc. But I did save $15.00 on that pilot chute.”

Quick questions with Rick:

Q: Do you have a hobby?

A: Bicycle, I try to ride 45 to 60 miles a week.

Q: Favorite Movie, Book and 1st song on the iPod:

A: Dr. Strangelove, Animal Farm by George Orwell and “Whitebird” by “It’s a Beautiful Day”

Q: What will your epitaph read?

A: “He has lived” (I stole this from a suggestion Randy had to put on John Mjoen’s headstone back in 1994.) John was Norway BASE #1 and a great friend of ours. After he died on a tandem skydive when a big German student wrapped him up on exit, John’s brother was asking what Randy thought would be a good eulogy for his grave and Randy told him “he has lived”. We’ve not seen the grave so not sure if those words made it.

Q: Do you consider yourself a sportsman, adventurer, daredevil or athlete?

A: More of an adventurer. I love daredevil adventures, but they have to be new or different, not just daredevil. I loved sailing across the Gulf for 8 days with my brother on a 33′ sailboat more than jumping some tower. On the other hand, a trip to Italy or Norway for the big cliffs or Mexico for a Cave, is an adventure and that’s what I really enjoy.

Q: What makes you unique to jumping?

A: One of the oldest guys on any BASE load except when I’m with my twin brother. I guess also the fact that I was there near the start of B.A.S.E. and have a lot of early experience with rounds and the real psychology around the start of B.A.S.E.

Q: Is there anything you wouldn’t try or do in life?

A: Not if it was legal, ethical, fairly moral and I could do it physically.

Q: How do you reconcile the desire to jump versus personal responsibilities to family?

A: I have no children and enough insurance and pension for Joy if anything happened. She married me after I became a B.A.S.E. jumper. I know folks who quit because of kids, just like one of my best friends, BASE 1, Smitty. B.A.S.E is by no means super safe. I totally respect anyone who quits B.A.S.E jumping out of concern for family and loved ones.

Q: Is there a sport outside your realm of participation that you enjoy viewing?

A: Football, IRL racing, even the Tour de France if Lance Armstrong is riding.

Q: Who do you chose as the next interview subject?

A: That’s a tough one. Spacey Tracy, (Tracy Walker), an American friend of mine since 1987 who has been in Europe the last 20 years or so is kind of known as the Yoda or Guru of BASE.

Rick’s Statistics:

  • Age: 59
  • Marital Status: Married 27 years
  • Children: 0
  • Location: Galveston, Texas
  • Number of Jumps: About 3500 skydives and about 350 – 400 B.A.S.E. jumps. Haven’t logged either for years.
  • Year of first Jump: May 4, 1972 first skydive, January 1, 1982 first B.A.S.E. jump which was a Building.
  • Container: Vision
  • Canopy: ACE 280
  • Profession: Retired U.S. Attorney
  • B.A.S.E. 38, Night B.A.S.E. 13
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