Charlie Bissat, Lillooet’s madcap mechanical genius, is the man responsible for creating six imaginative and colourful metal bike racks that represent our unique community.
Three of the racks – a yellow cactus by the Old Bridge, ‘Wine Country’ grapevines outside the municipal hall and the bars of a jail at the Museum/Visitor Centre – were installed this fall to oohs, aahs and applause from residents.
“The grape one I was dying to do for the simple reason I’ve been designing a wine bench for Fort Berens for three years,” says Bissat.
He adds casually, “It’s just ball bearings and pieces of scrap. Every piece had to be cut, cleaned, ground. You don’t want it to be too abstract; it still has to have some look. I never made a vine before, I had to look al the leaves when I was on my way to work, I thought they’re just green leaves, what the hell.”
And then he laughs that unmistakeable Charlie Bissat cackle that is so familiar to those who know him. “They’re ball bearings – what they hell. It’s all about the colour. Then I draped them right at the very end over the rack.”
Three more racks are still to be installed at locations around town. One of the racks features a six-foot green snake with a spring-loaded rattler at the back and fangs that look scary but are not sharp enough to hurt a child. “The snake is mounted on little pods of grass so it’s moving along,” explains Bissat.
The fifth rack is a broken skateboard with a skeleton hand that some people have suggested should be located at the REC Centre – or the cemetery.
The sixth bike rack is a tennis racket with the netting of the racket pulled out because a “300-mile-an-hour” tennis ball has been driven completely through it. “It’s very active looking,” according to its creator.
Does he have a favorite, the News wondered.
“Most of the time I tell people the stuff that looks challenging is easy. It’s the stuff that’s easy that’s tough. It’s like drawing a straight line, but how straight is it? In this instance it’s hard to say,” he replies. “I was working on two or three at a time and you blend them around and then you sit down for 10 minutes when I actually stop and then I draw more and add more and think of the next piece I have to build for all of them. I’m having fun - there’s a lot of giggling going on. It’s all off one original little sketch, And it looks like that sketch when it’s done and that’s the scary part.”
He continues, “The hand was pretty intense because you had to make it to hold something.”
And then he concludes, “The tennis racket visually is the one that’s definitely Dali (Salvador). It has that look - the strings are blowing open and the ball’s halfway through and it’s leaning back and it’s totally parallel. Symmetrically, it wasn’t hard to do and when I welded the ball, I started to get the look I wanted.”
Then were “no rules” when he created the bike racks or the steel sturgeon and salmon sculptures at the Entrance Kiosk at the top of Station Hill or the other metalwork pieces he’s designed, cut and welded around town. “If you don’t like it, bend it one way, twist it up, make another one. It’s not like it has to fit in parameters, it just has to fit in the parameters that you see as you go. Some stuff doesn’t work, some works better than you think.”
He’s also the co-inventor of a sprinkler system designed to be used on rural properties during wildfire season.
Born in Williams Lake, raised in 100 Mile until Grade 8, he’s basically spent the rest of his life living here in Lillooet. “I’m pretty well a local yokel.”
Charlie got his start in metal fabricating when he was young.
“I was a kid, we rode bikes from morning to night. I knew so many kids who wouldn’t ride their bikes because their dads wouldn’t fix their tires, My old man showed us how to do tires and after that, we fixed tires, we rode, we built out of scrap. I still give bikes to the kids; I wish I could get more from the dump; I take them, I fix them up and give them away, especially to the little tiny kids. My mom was a Tour of Switzerland rider so bikes are in us, big time.”
He’s worked for decades as the millwright at Aspen Planers and still finds time to craft memorial and birth gifts for families, retirement mementoes, trophies and golden signature plaques for the desks of community leaders and prominent business owners, including the owner of Aspen Planers.
Bissat worked the graveyard shift at Aspen for 21 years. He chuckles at the memory of what occurred one morning when he returned home after a long night at work.
“One morning I came in from work and I was taking my boots off and I turned around and my son Max was hiding behind the wall and he said, ‘What are you doing, Dad?’ And I said, ‘I’m just coming home from work.’ He said, ‘Mom, mom, dad’s got a job!’”
Charlie’s speech is rapid fire. Enthusiasm, energy, ideas, thoughts, memories, homespun philosophy, considered opinions, they all, all seem to come in a stream of consciousness rush.
“The computer and the phone are great inventions but they’re not used properly,” he observes. “I listen to CBC and they’re talking about kids and they’re not learning to read as much. And ebonics - Max wanting to talk like blacks. That’s cool on a show but that doesn’t work anymore. Just the same, it’s really scary – the reading, writing and arithmetic thing. We’ll be writing and texting in a couple of symbols. We’ll be going back to hieroglyphics with a triangle and a dot and a nudge, nudge.
“And on top of it, the Scrabble guys come up with words that are more usable. There’s a triple A word like Aaa” (he makes a strangulated choking sound). “And I’m playing Scrabble with the kids and I say, ‘That’s not even a word and they say ‘It’s in the book.’ Really, I thought this was about the language! It’s the same as the dictionary – some of the crap they put in the dictionary now, I go, ‘C’mon.’ It’s prevalent. It’s sad. Even the oldest guy in town is sitting on a bench with a phone. That shows how fast modernity can move. That’s wicked. We can’t get recycling down pat, but everybody’s got a phone.”
How do he arrive at his creative ideas?
His answer is immediate: “I’ll take a lot of energy off other people when they’re talking to me. I’ll be listening to them, but it’s like a kid in school. I told my teacher right off the bat when I was doing my apprenticeship, ‘If you see me drawing and doodling in my book, don’t think I’m not listening. That’s when I’m listening.’ It’s a contact buzz, if you make me put my hands together and look at you, I’ll be looking right through you. This is the same thing. All I have is to be confronted with someone saying something or someone saying, ‘Here’s something crazy, we should do this’ and it just goes off one way. I have a doodle pad and I do a lot of doodling and writing and ranting. A couple of beer and I’m ranting… When I’m into this stuff, nothing really matters. I feel I should be doing other stuff, but I can’t.”
His conversation veers from the need to get a new tattoo (the most recent one says “Lost in the Past”) to memories of Margaret “Ma” Murray.
“I remember fussin’ over her tea and then seeing her on Front Page Challenge. Chief Dan George was like that, too. Especially if you’re not trying to get something – you say something, he says something, you say something stupid, he laughs, you laugh. Next thing you know you’re on your way and you never forget it.”
Charlie and his wife Angela live on acreage overlooking Fort Berens Estate Winery. Traffic hums by on Highway 12 below. An afternoon haze lingers over Lillooet. Fountain Ridge looms jaggedly in the background. The view is spectacular up and down the river.
He once considered running a bed and breakfast on the property, which evokes a fantasyland of metal work and vehicles, vehicle and more vehicles. Giant handlebars mark the entrance to the property, a Sears truck sits beside the driveway, his nearby workshop is impressively large and one of his most prized possession is rusting near the Bissats’ home.
It’s a scarifying ball.
What exactly is a scarifying ball?
“A scarifying ball is used when they do the clearing to build a dam,” he answers. It’s a big ball and it’s got a shaft through it and two bearings and great big shackles. They tie a big D8 CAT to one side with a hundred feet of cable and another D8 on the other with a hundred feet of cable. Then they just drive down the valley in third gear and that ball rolls very softly. It weighs 10 tons and then they just pull the trees down.
“This is the Peace ball from the Peace dam when they were building it. The other is called the Mica ball. Supposedly, Hydro only owned two and this one was at the old Forestry site in Kamloops and they were moving it to make a mall…This is one of the most prized possessions of my life. So I phoned a guy about it and he said, ‘You move it, you can have it.’ I called a friend who had a crane service, lined him up, we went over, brought it home, dropped it in a ditch.”
He calls the scarifying ball “Greenpeace’s worst nightmare,” noting that the ball was capable of mowing down 15 miles of trees in a day.
Charlie says there are times when he finds himself laying on it at three in the morning, hugging it, contemplating life in the moonlight “when it’s 125 plus outside...When it’s a full moon in the middle of summer, you can put your Ray-Bans on just like today; it’s the same brightness, but in blue.”
Then he pats the scarifying ball, adding with a grin, “Nobody’s going to steal it.
Charlie has one great ambition – to build an extreme sports park on his property.
Citing the adage, “Gravity is free,” he envisions using the terrain there for ice climbing, mountain biking, winter luge, summer luge, zip-lining, swimming in a giant pool 50 feet across and 35 feet deep, downhill sledding, winter campsites - he’s thought it all out.
“It’s here right now.” (He taps his head). “I’ve got everything planned for it from the street luges to the coaster carts. Everything is here because you’re using all the hills… Max made two downhill mountain biking courses diagonally on the hill above Fort Berens. So there’s downhill courses, there’s overs and unders, there’s BMX things, but it’s all separate so you can do it all in the winter or in the summer.”
But, he says, “Nobody ever took it seriously. When I came up with the design, they didn’t have zip lines anywhere and Whistler was just somewhere you skied. They didn’t even have BMX stuff. I just built my street luges and started riding on hills and highways. And then I started building my sand ones to come down sandhills. The next thing you know, all of this stuff became vogue.”
He’s looking for money to make his dream a reality.
“I’d like to meet a real rich guy who wants to have fun, who’ll say ‘What do you want to build? Let’s go build something.’ If you’re a wild and crazy guy, I’m always willing to listen. Some of my ideas might sound crazy, but so did go-kart tracks and water slides.”
He continues, “This is all or nothing. I’ll either be dust in the dirt here or I’ll finish this off how it’s supposed to be because I’m not far off here.”