If you grew up in the ’70s, you probably had a one-speed bike with a banana seat and a sissy bar. It might have been red, or purple, or dark green, maybe even orange. The seat may have had a speckle-pattern. At some point, you or the big kids on the block built a ramp, out of some old panelling or plywood. The high end was jacked up with rocks, or a cinderblock. Maybe more than one cinderblock. You and the other kids on the block took turns riding hard and fast at the ramp, and got airborne. Eventually, pretty quickly in fact, someone got hurt. A trip to the emergency room was not out of the question. Moms insisted the ramp come down — “are you kids crazy?”. But the components of the ramp would be dispersed, only to reemerge. The risk was part of the game. The moment of flight was worth it.
We did these things because of one man: Evel Knievel.
His life was a unique effusion of Jacksonian American culture. He dressed a lot like Elvis. He was saying: I, Evel Knievel, am also the King. Elvis was king of a larger world not of his own making: show biz, Vegas, rock’n’roll, contemporary male vocalists. But Evel Knievel made a kingdom no one else had ever thought of and ruled it by himself.
We all saw the TV documentaries, the bone-crushing bad landing in the Caesar’s Palace parking lot. I watched it on You Tube today, and I found I remembered it in minute detail: The too-hard, off-angle touchdown on the far ramp, the hands jerked off the handlebars, Evel going over the handlebars, the bouncing impact on the ground, apparently getting tangled up with the bike as he bounces and skids … .
But he did not give up. The fractures healed. The metal pins held him together. He got back on the motorcycle.
The Snake River rocket-flight debacle finished him off because it seemed silly, and the sense of grandeur was lost. I remember the rumors: Evel Knievel is going to jump the Grand Canyon! But then it turned out it was something called the Snake River. What is that? Then further strangeness, as the preparations were televised. It was not a motorcycle, but some kind of weird rocket thing … . What was he trying to do?
Gigantic ambition had met the reality that no motorcycle could leap such a chasm. There were limits. Some things are just beyond what you can do with a bike. Sad but true. The actual failure was an anticlimax. We all moved on then.
Rest in peace, sir. You cut your own path. You were one of a kind.