When was the last time you went for it? Took a chance? Killed your fear and did something crazy? No, something not just crazy—something death-defying, where one tiny miscalculation, one misstep, could result in your instant removal from Planet Earth?
Chances are it wasn’t when you refused to return your shopping cart at Kroger. Or when you cut through that corner gas station to dodge a red light. No, we mortals rarely tempt fate. We might bend the rules, or let our adventure-starved hearts tremble with excitement as we double down on a ten buck blackjack hand, but usually, it’s more about bills than thrills.
But some people need more than these trappings of the everyday. More than Val-Pak coupons and a Cinnabun. They need adrenaline. Thrills, risk, danger; above all, they need to feel the raw, molten joy of existence. These rebellious souls need to go full throttle, all cares, worries, and concerns left in the dust as they look the Grim Reaper in the eye, scoff, and growl, “not today, pal.” And as sure as a sunny day in Daytona, there was no one who thumbed his nose at Death, or flipped the bird at The Man, or drained a bottle of 100-proof bourbon, cursed louder, rode faster, or lived larger, mightier, and madder than the immortal Evel Knievel.
I say “immortal,” because the name Evel Knievel, as well as the things that Evel Knievel did, will live forever. Things like jumping over a twenty-foot long box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions, which was his first jump in 1965. Or jumping 13, 14, 15, 16, and up to 22 cars over the years, until mere cars didn’t cut it and then the obstacles became 141 feet of backbreaking, coma-inducing fountains at Caesar’s Palace (his fee: $4,500), ten Kenworth trucks, thirteen Mack trucks, or fourteen Greyhound buses, and so on, until it all culminated one infamous morning on September 8th, 1974, when this insane daredevil actually convinced us he would jump across the mile-long Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho. And not just on another souped up dirt tracker, but on something he called his “Skycycle,” a steam-powered, glorified bottle rocket that looked like it was built with Erector set rejects and spare sheet metal from your shop class. Because at that point, what he rode had to be as outrageous as he was.
So let us now salute this man, no, this showman who invented reality TV decades before the hoarders, faux swampbillies, monosyllabic Jersey Shoreans, transgender jocks and pampered celebrities with chick pea-sized brains would go on to dominate our screens. In an age before Twitter, before smart phones, Facebook, SnapChat, FourSquare, Instagram, before all that social networking blather. Before a hundred of your so called “friends” gave a hearty thumbs up to the ham sandwich you had for lunch, there was Evel Knievel, right there on ABC’s Wide World of Sports on Saturday afternoon, or at your local drag strip, (or at the Okalahoma State Fairgrounds, where this article’s images are from), balanced on one wheel, front tire aloft, gunning it up and down the raceway. Or doing another wheelie while standing on the seat, and generally performing other stunts that made our eyeballs remain riveted on him until we almost forgot to blink. Stunts so outlandish, so ill-advised, so absolutely foolish that they made every person in America—except your mom—love him unconditionally.
What wasn’t there to love? He wore white leathers emblazoned with red and blue stars and stripes, a towering, Elvis-like collar, and a flashy belt buckle the size of a dinner plate showcasing his initials. His pants flared out in bell bottoms, revealing white, kick-your-head-in boots, and a long, flowing, baronial cape—the kind of thing a comic book hero would wear, and he definitely qualified—draped from his shoulders. And, as time wore on, as the bones cracked, the ligaments snapped, and the stitch-count grew, the man eventually walked with a cane. But not just any cane—a cane encrusted with diamonds, whose top unscrewed to reveal an interior storage compartment that held eight shots of what else, Wild Turkey.
Did you think Evel Knievel would roll any other way? After all, this is a man who, when asked why he did what he did, said, simply, “Life is a bore. That’s why I jump through the air.” It makes total sense. Jumping through the air is a lot more exciting than selling insurance—which happened to be the job he had for the Combined Insurance Company for most of 1964, if you can comprehend that. (Highlights included selling 110 policies to employees, as well as residents, of the Montana State Mental Hospital). Shortly thereafter, in addition to being an arm wrestling champ, elk hunter, amateur hockey player, brawler, and entertaining people outside a saloon by riding his motorcycle up a 500-ft slag heap, he became a salesman of something he was far more passionate about: motorcycles.
Soon, when he was selling them in Spokane, Evel got the idea to build a quarter mile oval racetrack to promote the bikes and the dirt track scene, which he’d competed in since he was a teenager. To amp things up further, and get even more attention for the dealership, he convinced a coworker to ride his Harley-Davidson through several walls of flaming particle boards. The stunt was an instant success, and the crowds ate it up. A few weeks later, not wanting to be outdone, Evel one-upped his co-worker by offering to jump over a cage of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions, a distance of nearly 50 feet. Evel didn’t clear the jump, slammed his back tire on the box of snakes, and several hundred of the angry rattlers slithered out towards the 300 fans, who all fled in terror. Laughing, Evel was already plotting more entertaining jumps. A boat. Two cars. Four cars. Buses. Trucks. Shark tanks. Canyons. You know the rest.
Evel’s ill-fated Snake River Canyon jump remains his most well known stunt. And what an epic stunt it was, for it captured the imagination of the entire nation in late 1974. I was a Midwestern boy of ten years old then, with my Evel Knievel lunchbox, Evel Knievel stunt cycle and action figure, posters, comic books, and of course my red, white and blue Free Spirit 20-inch BMX bike with the chrome fenders and knobby tires. All the kids in the neighborhood had the same type of bike. These were used for trail riding, but, very often, were also used for a more urgent purpose: to be jumped into the air, as high as possible, to carry us away from all earthly bounds, from all cares, responsibilities and chores, just like they carried our hero.
Of course we lusted after motorcycles, salivating over Evel’s stripped down Harley-Davidson XR-750, the bike that he used on his jumps. But we were ten. And mom hated motorcycles. So after religiously following every new distance Evel jumped, we began building our own ramps, much smaller, but made of the same no nonsense materials: plywood, two by fours, cinder blocks, whatever we could pinch from dad’s garage and neighborhood construction sites. These ramps were built to jump ten to twelve garbage cans, and one by one, each of us would pedal furiously, aiming at the ramp, attain peak velocity, pull up on the bars, and sail away, into that glorious realm where gravity was suspended, where we soared on like our hero soared on, if only for a brief second. But it was during that second, that brief moment, where we, too, had gone for it. Had taken a chance. Killed our fear. And done something crazy, ill-advised, mad, irresponsible, foolish, and utterly stupid. Our mothers hated us, but we loved it.
Because it was fun. Oh, god was it fun. And luckily, unlike Evel, none of us ever paid the price that the real daredevil paid. Sure, there were skinned knees, sprains, ripped Sears Toughskin jeans, road rash, and gashes requiring the sting of Bactine. But nothing like what Evel went through: the breaking of every bone in his body, myth had it; the terrifying footage of his body rag-dolling down the landing ramp at Caesar’s—the prepubescent Zapruder film that we never tired of marveling at—or the Cow Palace jump, the Wembley jump, all of the horrifying spectacles where Evel crashed, wrecked, binned it, and went Johnny Shithouse over the bars into what surely must have resulted in death, and an agonizing one at that.
But, miracle of miracles, it never happened. Evel never died on any of his jumps. “Color me lucky,” one of his many unofficial mottos, was true. His body, zippered with scars, and containing more metal plates than a Bradley armored vehicle, had held up. Only when his liver crapped out—that poor defenseless, utterly abused organ—did he finally shuffle off this mortal coil at the ripe old age of 69. A man who sailed into history. A man who went for it. A man, quite simply, who didn’t want to sell insurance.
So here’s to kicking it up a gear. Here’s to going balls out, screaming into the wind, to twisting the throttle until it won’t twist any more. Because as Robert Craig Knievel said, “If a guy hasn’t got any gamble in him, he isn’t worth crap.”
Thank you, Evel.
-As published in 1903 Magazine