Monday, December 3, 2007

Happy Landings, Evel!

Men of my generation lost yet another hero last week when Evel Knievel died, finally, at age 69. Having broken most of his bones several times and cheating death while making spectacular--and not always successful--motorcycle jumps, it was diabetes and idiopathic pulmonary fibrodiabetes that finally did him in.

To young American boys in a pre-Cable/Satellite television, pre-video game, pre-computer age, Evel was our hero. He was bigger than life--brash, outlandish. His ego was as wide as the chasm he attempted to cross in a "rocket cycle." He was perhaps the ultimate salesman, hooking us with his red, white, and blue leather outfits, then reeling us inside on countless Saturday afternoons to watch ABC's Wide World Of Sports. Evel did more than a dozen jumps on Wide World, each time ratcheting up the tension for an hour while we waited for 20 seconds of motorcycle flight. Would he make it? Usually he did; but when he failed, he usually did so spectacularly.
And we ate it up. No sooner was Wide World turned "back over to Jim McKay in the studio," than we dashed outside and set up jumps of our own to execute on our Schwinn Sing-Ray bicycles. It wasn't enough to have a ramp--we needed to jump over SOMETHING, and that usually ended up being a younger sister or brother. For us, it was ALMOST as good as the fountain at Caesar's Palace (where he crashed on landing in 1968, ending up in a coma for 28 days).

What a paradox Knievel was! He wrapped himself in the American flag, extolling his love for the country, while often being the first one to sue a writer for an unflattering story. He preached good old-fashioned American values, while he left his wife of many years for a younger woman, eventually beating her up. He admonished the kids to Stay Off Drugs, but the accumulated pain from his many crashes and 15 major accidents let him to an addiction to painkillers, his fading star turned him to alcohol. Beloved in his hometown of Butte, Montana, he left behind many pissed-off promoters and sponsors who never were paid their share of the gate.

For a while, he was flying high, figuratively as well as literally, making millions of dollars a year not only on his jumps but by lending his name to countless products. An action figure bearing his likeness was a best seller, bumping GI Joe from the top spot as the Vietnam war tarnished the military image. Later, strapped for cash but still full of bravado, he appeared on an ad for a motorized scooter for the infirm. White-haired and frail looking, Evel defiantly gives us a thumbs-up and his best bad-ass look. I don't think he tried jumping anything riding his Legend Scooter (chosen for its "outstanding performance, style, durability and value") but I probably would've watched it on TV if he did.

Old enough to be your grandfather, tough enough to Kick Your Ass--if you'll help him off the scooter, please. . .

Knievel will probably be best remembered for his failed 1974 jump across the Snake River Canyon in Idaho on a rocket powered with compressed steam. Broadcast live around the world, the jump failed to match the incredible hype and buildup, when the rocket's parachute deployed immediately on launch. Knievel, facing straight down, descended into the canyon, strapped into the rocket, banging off the rocks below, breaking another couple bones and banging his head. He was lucky he didn't land in the river and drown.

Earlier that year, Knievel visited North Richland Hills for a leap over 11 Mack Trucks, broadcast on Wide World Sports. Howard Cosell and "Dandy" Don Meredith--HUGE television stars at the time, hosting Monday Night Football--did the call. "How do you like THAT!" Cosell gushed as Evel cleared the trucks with ease.
No monument or marker denotes the spot where Evel launched himself in the North Texas leap. Indeed, in the past couple of years, the old drag strip where the jump took place, once way out in the boonies, has turned into yet another housing subdivision. Too bad there isn't a big red "X" painted in someone's driveway or perhaps on the street at the location Knievel stuck the landing. I wonder if any bike-riding kids in the neighborhood have ever jumped their bikes over their kid brothers--or if they even know who Knievel was.

No comments: