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AT JIMMY’S HOUSE the following Saturday, it was almost as if the jump were taking place live. His father was as eager as ever, despite knowing the outcome; he seemed vaguely to suggest that someone or something had done Evel in. Somehow his grumbling seemed mixed up with all of the Ford and Nixon grumbling: the presidential canyon, the Snake River Pardon.
Now on the television, Evel was being borne to the launch pad to be loaded into a steam-powered, homemade rocket that he insisted on calling the Sky Cycle, though it bore no relation to a cycle of any kind. Carried in what seemed to be a ski lift, dressed in his trademark white, star-spangled leathers, he was waving to the crowd. I was amazed at how relaxed he looked; like a man ascending to heaven — or at least to the heaven that includes the foolish, the brave, and those that split the difference.
Five … four … three … two …. ONE! The rocket blasted off, and almost instantly its parachute had deployed, too early — even I could see that. To this day, some insist that Evel panicked and pulled the parachute release early; Knievel always maintained that it was a mechanical malfunction. And that’s another aspect of Snake River that puts it in the older lineage: there weren’t 37-odd camera angles of the event, and no one had thought to film from the vantage point of the cockpit — thereby ensuring that we’ll never know for sure what happened. Isn’t that grand?
The rocket descended at a rapid rate, pinkish smoke emanating from its tail, and landed in the canyon against a rock formation beside the river. The rocks saved Evel from all but certain death in the water’s currents. In no time there he was again, waving to the crowd pretty much like before, except that he had a bloody nose. Multiple broken bones and stress fractures from jumping school buses, but a bloody nose from vaulting a chasm! No wonder he looked so happy. He’d made $6 million and would live to count it.
After Snake River, Evel was bigger than life, though the failure also tainted him. Crashes were one thing, but fizzles were another, and he had the hard task of figuring out what to do next. Like a man passed over for a promotion, he went back to jumping cars and buses, but the thrill was gone — except when he blessed his public with more supremely violent smash-ups, from which he continued to live on, against all probability. His crashes were perfect negative images of his ego, every bit as outsized and fierce. They seemed caused in good part by poor shock absorption on those old Harleys; the bike would come down onto the landing ramp and his body would launch upwards from the impact as if he’d hit a spring. It had a symbolic feel to it, too; the earth was rejecting him and his impossible demands.
The last time an Evel stunt seemed to matter was in 1977, when, capitalizing on the Jaws craze, he agreed to jump a pool of live sharks in Chicago. But he made the odd decision to do a test run first, in which he easily cleared the pool but then crashed into a retaining wall, and the official jump had to be canceled. The network was savvy enough to have filmed the practice crash, though, and so TV audiences got their dose. A few months later, the sitcom Happy Days spoofed the stunt, and eventually the phrase “jumping the shark” was born.
Things were winding down, though, for Evel and for me. One day, as I vaulted my Schwinn over a stack of garbage-can lids, the handle on the top lid caught my back tire, and I hurdled forward onto the cement of our driveway, palms extended, landing hard — and looking at a pair of black office shoes. It was my father, home early from work.
“Right now, today,” he said, in that controlled voice that was always his scariest, “is the end of Evel Knievel. Do you get me?”
SOME SEE KNIEVEL as the precursor to today’s extreme sports, which seems logical enough. But his career pointed less forwards than backwards, to an era of traveling circuses and barnstorming ballplayers, hungry prizefighters and avaricious managers blowing into obscure towns, pulling down paydays, and moving on. He was a hard scrabble Westerner and a true survivor, a man who would have flourished a century earlier in something like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where no less a mythmaker than Sitting Bull had held court. But Evel labored in a tougher age for myth, when even great spectacles fit on a small screen in the living room, all scale and scope and wonder lost. His job was to burst through that frame; boy, did he try.
When I heard he’d died, I surfed cable channels and the Internet, all along feeling a certain embarrassment. I was reminded that at heart I’m a lowbrow; reminded, too, that it only takes the faintest suggestion to transport me back to my lucky boyhood in suburban America — where hunger was banished and danger had to be conjured. Browsing the user-comment sections on blogs and news sites, I was struck by the sameness of the reminiscences — plywood ramps, bicycle jumps, childhood awe. I wasn’t the only American man hearing that faint sound of another door closing on the past. The daredevil had touched down.
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