This article appeared in the February 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
That Sunday, September 8, 1974, my parents were batting the names “Ford” and “Nixon” around our house like verbal tennis balls: Ford, Nixon, Nixon, Ford, Nixon. President Gerald Ford had announced that he would pardon Richard Nixon, igniting a huge controversy. But the only name that mattered to me that day was “Knievel.” Later that afternoon, the great Evel Knievel was finally going to get his chance at jumping the Snake River Canyon, in the town of Twin Falls, Idaho. I was eight years old, living in suburban Illinois, and had thought of little else for some time. The great event would not be shown live on broadcast television, though — only for a fee at theaters and arenas in what was then called “closed circuit television.” That I wouldn’t see the jump live only added to its allure, of course. I’d have to wait until the following weekend to watch the taped broadcast with my friend Jimmy, a myopic kid with thick, rounded glasses that always seemed to be fogging up from excitement.
Jimmy’s father was not unlike a suburban version of Knievel. A boisterous, perhaps unstable man, he retained the pyromaniacal enthusiasms of boys everywhere. He enjoyed detonating objects on his driveway with exotic explosives on almost any day of the year — especially the Fourth of July, when his home was like an armory. “He’ll burn their house down,” my mother was always saying. The boys of our neighborhood only hoped that when he did, we could watch.
Jimmy’s father was the only adult who seemed excited about the canyon jump — he was all amped up about torque and rocket propulsion and wind currents, and even asked me what I thought Evel’s chances were. I had no thermodynamic opinions to share, but hoped that Evel would succeed so that I could see the reaction of my father, who considered Knievel a maniac but used less generous terms. He seemed offended that a man would willingly subject himself to destruction, when the world was always willing to do it for you.
Later that afternoon, he gave me the news of what had happened: “That nut landed in the river,” he said. “He didn’t make the jump, but he’s alive.” It seemed like a concession for him even to mention it.
YEARS AFTER HE LEFT the White House, Theodore Roosevelt went on an ill-advised expedition in the Brazilian jungle, an adventure that nearly cost him his life. When asked why he had braved such danger and hardship, he supposedly replied: “It was my last chance to be a boy.” Robert Craig Knievel wasn’t that sentimental; gruff and contrary, he didn’t pine for lost innocence, probably because he never had much of it to lose. Like great self-promoters before him, he merged the facts and the legends of his life into one narrative, and since it always takes work to sort out such things, most people couldn’t tell the difference.
He hailed from the copper-mining town of Butte, Montana, and had worked in the mines there for a time, been a paratrooper in the Army in the 1950s, a semiprofessional hockey player, and maybe even — the irony is too good for it to be true — a health and accident insurance salesman. He stole his first motorcycle, and his propensity for violence didn’t leave him when success came. At the time of the Snake River Canyon jump, he was most famous for his epic crash at Caesar’s Palace in 1967, where he had jumped the casino fountains. The horror of the Caesar’s smash-up put Evel on the national map. It also put him into a coma for a month — or so he claimed. Steve Mandich, a definitive chronicler of all things Evel, cites local news reports showing that Knievel was giving interviews shortly afterward.
Who knows how many American kids Knievel set off to trying to duplicate his stunts on their bicycles? In our neighborhood, we’d use cast-off plywood for ramps and jump over stacks of garbage-can lids. Middle-class American boys, growing up in postwar plenty and comfort, we needed an updated mythology, and Evel supplied it. His one deed — flying through the air on a motorcycle, neatly bridging the Wright Brothers and Henry Ford — combined everything a boy craves when he is at play: high speed, noise, excitement, and the tantalizing possibility of disaster. Some said he was a superhero for the 1970s, but beyond his Elvis-like costume, Evel had nothing of the superman about him, as his many transcendent crashes confirmed. Yet that was what made him so awe-inspiring; we knew he hurt, we knew he bled — but he kept doing it. In a boy’s code of virtues, intelligence and discretion lag far behind nerve, and Evel was to nerve what Nixon was to anguish.
Knievel’s quest to jump the Snake River Canyon was just about the last great hustle by an American showman in the grand old style. There was the requisite government resistance: Knievel had originally wanted to get permission to jump the Grand Canyon — no middling craters for him — but the killjoy Department of the Interior blocked his plans, telling him he couldn’t perform his stunt on public land. So Evel cast about for a private canyon, and remembered Snake River. It just so happened to be in a town in which he had spent a night in the drunk tank years earlier.
Twin Falls, too, was part of an older lineage: that of the small American town that briefly has the world overrun its streets, and then settles back to obscurity. “We have a nice rodeo here, and a nice fairgrounds and a great fair, but this was way beyond any of our expectations,” remembered Doug Vollmer, a local Jaycees member who went on to become the town’s mayor. Indeed, when the world arrived in 1974, it wasn’t clear that Twin Falls would survive. As a Time correspondent described it:
It was a bizarre spectacle, garnished with machismo and the threat of death: the ultimate expression of the motorcycle culture and, according to one Evel Knievel aide, “a blue-collar Woodstock”…. crowds awaiting the jump were partying and building bonfires against the night chill. Bikers and their women stripped naked and drove through the fires on drunken dares….Some 25 people lurched off the jump ramp, apparently intent on burning it, but were turned aside by shotgun-toting deputies and the sobering information that Knievel could not perform without his ramp…. At the big moment, the VIP gates were thrown open and the crowd surged forward for a better view, nearly sweeping some onlookers over the canyon’s rim….
Such was the chaos of such spectacles in the waning days before corporate sponsorship and professional event planners. Now, they are safer and much better run — and not likely to be discussed 30 years later.
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.