Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

July 31, 2013

Up, up and away

Jon and Jenny Cole look back at 2 years in Chinese circus

By Carson Gerber Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — It’s a unique gig, getting shot out of a cannon. Want to make it even more unique? Do it in China. At the world’s largest permanent circus.

That’s exactly what 28-year-old Jon Cole did for two years. In June 2011, he left with his wife, Jenny, and their two young kids to become the first human cannonball to ever perform the act in China’s history.

At the same time, he be-came one of fewer than 10 human cannonball acts in the world.

How did the Peru native end up on the far side of the world? It’s a winding road that led him to China and into the history books, and it begins in Peru — the self-proclaimed “Circus Capital of the World.”

When he was 5 years old, his parents decided against signing Jon up for baseball. Instead, they enrolled him in the Peru youth circus as a kiddy clown.

At the age of 7, Jon started performing actual circus acts and eventually worked his way up to the flying trapeze.

“I loved it. My older sister kind of fell out of it, but I was the kid who was totally into it,” he said.

Jon was a first-generation performer, and he meshed with the circus scene. After high school, he went to Indiana Wesleyan University, where he received a degree in physical and health education.

Right after graduating from college, The Flying Pages offered him a spot in their flying trapeze act. Jon jumped at the chance and hit the road for the next year traveling with the group.

Then it was back to Peru. Jon landed a job at Carroll High School teaching P.E. and gym. He also started dating Jenny while they were both working as coaches at the Peru amateur circus. They married after he stopped performing with The Flying Pages.

Jenny said she’s a third-generation trainer in the Peru circus, and both her parents were professional circus performers. She also received a teaching degree from Purdue University.

But Jon said teaching wasn’t cutting it for him. He had an itch to do something else — something more exciting.

“After that, I kind of got bored with teaching,” he said. “I thought life here was a same-kind-of-thing-everyday routine. It just seemed like I couldn’t do this for 30 years and then retire.”

Then he had an idea. Jon knew Brian Miser, the recently retired human cannonball for Ringling Brothers who lives in Peru. Miser builds and leases cannons to circuses. He has a shop on 2nd Street.

Jon approached Miser about doing a cannonball act, but there wasn’t any work available. A few months later, though, Miser called him with a proposition.

He had just built a cannon for a circus in China. Would Jon want to travel over with it and perform as a human cannonball?

“At the time, we just laughed,” he said. “We never wanted to leave Peru, let alone go to China. But then we looked into it more and started thinking about it. I couldn’t really see myself teaching for the next 30 years, so we started praying about it a lot.”

Jon and Jenny said they are a praying couple, and the more they did it, the more they felt like it was meant to be.

“I knew he was really itching to get back into the circus,” Jenny said. “And circus has always been in my life, so you could probably say I was the perfect match for him. So when someone comes to me and says, ‘Hey, I want to go and be a human cannonball,’ it wasn’t that out of the blue. I was really excited about it.”

The plan was this: Jon would be the human cannonball, and Jenny would be the operator, or the “trigger woman,” so they could both perform in the Chinese show.

Now it was just a matter of training. In April 2011, they began meeting with Miser to learn the ins and outs of getting blasted from a homemade cannon. They started off simple with some trampoline exercises, then moved on to free falling off platforms into a net.

“With the flying trapeze, you learn how to contort your body in the air. With the cannon, you need good body awareness so you don’t land on your head,” Jon said. “So I had the body control.”

After the initial training, it was time to take the leap, and wedge down into the cannon for the first blast off.

“When I slid down in there the first time and the cannon was cocked and loaded, I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’” he said with a laugh. “It was terrifying.”

“I thought, ‘I don’t want him to do this anymore, too,’” added Jenny.

But he’d come too far to turn back, so Jenny pulled the trigger. The shot went off without a hitch.

As often as they could, the couple practiced that act over and over, each time lengthening the distance.

And then it was time to leave for China.

The last day of teaching for Jon and Jenny was on a Friday in June. The next Wednesday, the family was on a plane heading overseas.

A few weeks before, they shipped the cannon over on a tanker. Inside the barrel they packed supplies, like baby diapers and formula.

Jenny said they were dead tired when they arrived that first night after traveling more than 40 hours. They asked their translator for something to eat. He brought back three bottles of water, seven hard-boiled eggs and wished them a good night.

The next day, they found out there was trouble getting the cannon into China, Jon said, so they didn’t start performing in the circus until July.

“Apparently they don’t just let cannons into China willy-nilly,” he said. “It was a stressful time.”

During the down period, though, the family got situated into their new home at the Changlong Tourist Resort, where the Chang Long International Circus performed every night from 7:30 to 9 p.m.

Jon described the resort as the Chinese equivalent of Disney World. The resort included a theme park, water park, zoo and safari, as well as the world-famous circus show.

The family had unlimited access to everything in the resort, so when they weren’t performing, they took the kids on amusement and water rides and just hung out at one of the most posh resorts in the world.

They also got to know some of the other performers, who hailed from places like Russia, Kenya and Colombia. Jenny said the Kenyans were the nicest group and helped them get settled.

Then it was time to perform. In July, Jon and Jenny stepped for the first time into the 10,000-seat arena at the resort as the human cannonball act. It was the grand finale that ended each show with a bang.

And that’s the act the couple performed every night for nearly two years in one of the best circuses in the world.

“It’s the best show I’ve ever seen,” Jon said. “It was stuff you just wouldn’t believe. The audio-visual of it all was itself amazing.”

The two got ready around 8:30 p.m. and headed up to the arena. At 8:55, Jenny blasted Jon onto a large air bag. By a little after 9, they were back in their room. Work was done for the day.

“It was like a two-year paid vacation, is what it was,” Jon said.

And over time, the family became celebrities. City billboards advertising Jon as the human cannonball stood all over the country. His face graced huge ads in subway stations and on the sides of buses.

Their two kids, 7-year-old Alivia and 2-year-old Jaxon, also became a huge hit, and ended up doing modeling for different Chinese agencies.

But all good things must come to an end, and Jon and Jenny decided to head back to Peru. It was time their own kids started participating in the Peru circus, just like they did.

The family arrived back in Indiana in February, and Jon and Jenny started working as trainers for this year’s Peru Circus City Festival. Alivia is performing for the first time this year.

“The Peru circus is what got us where we are today,” Jenny said. “For me, it’s a family thing. Alivia is a fourth-generation performer with the circus. We’re the only family that can say that. I didn’t want to take that experience away from her just because we’re working 15 minutes a day in paradise.”

Since then, Jenny landed a part-time job at Edward Jones and Anytime Fitness in Logansport. Jon said he has his application in for a few teaching gigs and other jobs.

For now, Jon said he’s officially retired from the human cannonball business at the ripe old age of 28. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t ever get back into it.

“We’re not closed to any ideas at this point, including the circus or ‘cannonball-ism,’” Jenny said. “We’re praying people, so wherever God leads us, that’s where we’ll go.”

And even though the couple said their experience in the Chinese circus was amazing, it still doesn’t touch the unique experience they had performing in Peru as kids.

“The Peru circus changes you,” Jenny said. “You learn so much. You learn how to trust people. It’s a family. Kids have a family here, and they know that. They can count on us and their peers, and that changes you. It’s home.”

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, or at carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com.