With Friday’s passing of daredevil legend Evel Knievel, the great American myths of stubborn individualism and odds beating, nose thumbing defiance have received a blow not quite fatal, but staggering non-the-less.
A self-made man who began his performing career jumping rattlesnakes and mountain lions, Knievel was a deeply flawed genius of physical daring, macho hubris and endearing defiance.
To any number of young boys like myself in the late 1970’s, he was nothing less than a hero.
Although too young to have witnessed the spectacular crash during his 1968 Caesar’s Palace Fountain jump, I’ve watched the replay countless times. I believe I saw it for the first time in 1976 or 77, I would have been 6 or 7 at the time, and the overriding memory I carry of watching that horrific scene in gut-churning slow motion is simply how beautiful it all was: the elegant tumbling over the handle bars as the bike came up short and slammed into the safety ramp, the spiraling slide down the concrete side by side with his ruined bike, then the abrupt camera cut to the screaming crowd running towards the smoke filled parking lot. The man was an artist of destruction and perseverance, never more so than when his flesh met concrete and his battle-scarred frame was past the point of all human control.
What he most assuredly wasn’t however, was a skilled daredevil, a point that somehow escaped me as a wide-eyed youth. At the time it simply never occurred to me that the man was anything less than superhuman. The facts, however, tell a far different story: 40 broken bones, a month long, crash-induced coma, numerous miscalculations and oversights that daredevils of today wouldn’t dream of committing.
And of course, most famously of all, the 1974 Snake River Canyon, rocket cycle debacle. After witnessing two failed test runs, Knievel decided to go ahead with the jump as scheduled. Upon take off the parachute deployed sending the rocket bike spiraling to the canyons bottom. Trapped inside the crumpled vehicle, he avoided drowning by a matter of only several feet.
But sitting in my parents home as a young boy playing with my new Christmas present, a miniature replica of that ridiculous rocket cycle with Knievel strapped inside, none of that mattered. The man was a red, white and blue jump suited god who had attempted something mere mortals would never dare.
And I have to admit, as I write this on the eve of his passing, none of the knowledge and experience I’ve gained in the intervening years has changed that feeling. I now know all about the drinking and womanizing; how he brawled with Hells Angels, neglected his children and assaulted the author of a less-than-flattering biography with a baseball bat. While I still relish his brave attempts, which were spectacularly over the top, I also cherish the failures, which were grandiosely human.
In the end those very failures were a central part of the man’s art. While pushing himself to physical extremes that bordered on the suicidal, he managed to survive every brutal crash, drunken fight and predatory blonde with spirit, if not body, fully intact.
The world will not see his like again.