Friday, November 30, 2007


There's probably nothing that better defines my "Shitkicker" status than my affection and respect for Robert "Evel" Knievel, the motorcycle stunt phenomenon who died a few hours ago.

I honestly don't know when I first encountered Evel Knievel. There was just a point when he was kind of there and a moment later he was everywhere, making the leap from obscure cult hero to cultural icon about as fast as he covered the distance from one ramp to another over an ever increasing number of cars, 18 Wheelers, fountains, canyons or buses.

Evel Kneivel routinely took his life in his hands by doing something oddly stupid, and arcanely unique -- jumping things on a motorcycle.

He probably failed at this more often than he succeeded. In the course of his "career" he broke every bone in his body at least once and endured untold muscle tears, skin shears, concussions and pierced organs. The pulmonary disease that took his life today was contracted in the same manner as the Hepatitis C that almost killed him in 1999, by a transfusion of tainted blood.

But he kept coming back. He just healed, got up, got back on his Harley-Davidson #1 motorcycle and did it again -- each time making the task before him harder than it had been before. If he crashed jumping 10 cars, the next time he took on 11. He never went back. All movement was forward.

Forward toward what? Your guess is as good as mine. Try asking yourself that question no matter who you are or what you do in life. I'm sure many of us would not comprehend your own answer.

My addiction to what he did had been affirmed by the 1971 George Hamilton movie "Evel Knievel" and fed regularly by the numerous jumps that were covered "Live" on ABC Sports.

That's how big the guy was. Before the networks had even heard of NASCAR or motocross, let alone conceived the "X" Games, Evel had touched that Thrill Ride/Desperado/Redneck nerve and consistently delivered millions of viewers.

The man's exploits were followed by "Life" and "Rolling Stone". For good or ill, Joe Esterhaz owes his Hollywood career to the coverage he wrote of Evel's failed rocket cycle jump of the Snake River Canyon.

I saw Evel Knievel jump a bunch of trucks at the CNE in August of 1974. The photo above was taken on the afternoon of the event.

The old stadium by the lake was sold out -- which would have meant I was in the company of 25,000 other fans. The show consisted of an hour or so of stunts, car rollovers and thrill driver stuff. And then Evel came out of his American flag painted mobile home, mounted the jump ramp and made a speech about how happy he was to be there. After he had taken us through the minutiae of what was arrayed against him, he led us in a moment of prayer and then got on board #1.

He was dressed in his trademark white leathers with a blue criss-cross of stars that I emulated by wearing in my 1975 film "A Sweeter Song", reversing the blue and white and replacing those American stars with more Canadian Maple Leaves.

Evel donned his helmet and did a couple of warm-up runs past the line of trucks, doing wheelies, tweaking the bike throttle, enriching the fuel mix. News reports today say there were thirteen trucks. I remember the number as 12. Either way, lined up side by side, they offered an impressive obstacle, an almost 2-storey high wall of steel.

By the time he took his place on the runway track, it was growing dark. One of those soft summer nights we get in this city, where the air only moves enough to flutter a flag and the temperature so approximates body heat that you don't know where you end and the night begins.

The place slowly went silent, as all of us suddenly came to the realization that the soft spoken man on the bike in front of us might be only a few seconds from death. Part of you wanted him to take off his helmet, wave and go home to his family. We'd seen him. We'd touched his courage and that was enough.

But it wasn't enough for him. He cranked the throttle and that Harley engine roared louder than I'd ever heard a motorcycle roar. It echoed around the mute stadium for a moment before his white boot lifted from the pavement and he was away, careening toward his destiny.

It took seconds for him to mount the ramp and seconds more to cross that chasm of trucks, but for that part time stopped. This tiny white figure hung in the sky. Then Flashbulb stars began exploding around him as he arc'd above, the bike gliding silently over the chasm. Then he started to drop and you watched the line of the fall. It looked like he'd make it. No, it didn't. Yes, it did...

The crowd erupted as the realization that he would clear the last truck became obvious. Then the place went nuts as he landed, man and bike compressing into the off-ramp. He wobbled, then shot down to the field and open road ahead.

We were all screaming now, in that tribal way like when you'd seen one of the young warriors elude the sabre-tooth tiger or slay the wooly mammoth. Evel Knievel had cheated death right there in front of us. He took the one thing he knew we all are most afraid of and took it on, demanded it either show its face and its power or shut up and scurry on home.

That night we knew death wasn't as powerful as it thought it was. And that feeling was incredibly freeing and inspiring.

We walked out of that stadium on air. Nothing was impossible. Fear was just a word. If Evel could overcome his challenge, you could scale whatever was placed in front of you.

Death, of course, lets us play that game. It knows it always wins in the end. And this afternoon it finally came to claim Evel Knievel.

But you know, if you take a careful look at the box score, it reads:

Evel Knievel: 300 or more -- Death: 1.

Rest in Peace, Buddy. You kicked the sonovabitch's ass!

And for a way cool one-on-one with Evel, check out DMC.

1 comment:

Brandon Laraby said...

You know, it was kind of weird for me when I heard about his death because when I was growing up (I was born in '80) I'd only really known the caricature of the man. That video you have on your site is the first time I've ever actually seen what he looked like, how he spoke, etc.

I knew the basic 'idea' of who he was, that stunt man character I'd seen parodied all over - from Super Dave Osborne to that Simpson's Character (Captain Lance Murdoch - thank you Google).

Maybe that's one of the inherent problems with parody; I mean, what do you do when all you've ever known is the joke?

Watching that little clip, I caught a glimpse of what you meant in your post. That man didn't have much to say but it was easy to see that he radiated determination. Even if he couldn't always win he made the attempt anyway. He couldn't NOT try.

I think that's a damn fine way to look at life.

Thanks for sharing this fantastic post!