THE EVEL ONE
I grew up in the time of Evel Knievel. If you are of a certain age, that name resonates. If you are young, you may wonder why I don’t know how to spell evil. Trust me. It’s Evel.
Robert “Evel” Knievel was an icon of the 1970’s. He dressed like Elvis. He had swag before there was swag. If you were a kid in the ’70’s, you knew Evel.
He rode motorcycles. “Rode” isn’t quite right. He jumped things on his motorcycle. Cars and buses mostly. Actually, he attempted to jump things. He crashed a lot, and we loved it. It was said that he broke every bone in his body. That wasn’t true, but we didn’t care.
He was a staple of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I’d tune in to see him jump stuff. Secretly, I hoped he’d crash–that was far cooler than a successful landing. He’d ride back and forth in front of the ramp, popping wheelies. Then, he’d ride to the top of the take off ramp and give the thumbs up. Then, it was on!
There was movie about Evel called, appropriately, Evel Knievel, starring a pre-tanned George Hamilton. It was a largely fictionalized story of his life. It ended with Evel contemplating a jump across the Grand Canyon. Even though I was a little kid, I had been to the Grand Canyon and knew that would be no simple feat.
My little brother had the Evel Knievel stunt cycle and action figure. Evel was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Evel was a rock star. He even gave me one of my favorite quotes. “If you were supposed to hang on to money, they’d put handles on it.” Or something like that.
The apex of his career was the Snake River Canyon jump. He abandoned the Grand Canyon idea but still harbored dreams of a “big” jump. Snake River Canyon in Idaho was it. It was hyped for months. Evel built a steam-powered Sky Cycle which would fire off a launching platform and hurl him across the canyon. The event was so big that it was available only on closed-circuit television (the grandfather of pay-per-view, for you youngsters). On September 8, 1974, it happened. Alas, the parachute deployed on take-off causing Evel to crash to the canyon floor without crossing the river. I was very disappointed, but I admired his trying. You had to be crazy to try that.
Evel became so popular that he eventually starred in his own movie, Viva Knievel, an almost unwatchably awful film. As with most bad films, the plot was a convoluted mess of drug dealers, conspiracies, fights and romantic subplots. Evel was duped into performing a dangerous stunt in Mexico not knowing that drug dealers planned to kill him and then use his fabulous 18-wheeler to ship cocaine back to the US. Gene Kelly, at what had to be the low point of his career, plays an alcoholic mechanic and Leslie Nielsen is a villanous drug lord. Evel actually heals a child in a wheelchair by merely visiting a hospital. Evel also delivers several inspiring monologues on the evils of “dope.” Lauren Hutton, Red Buttons and Marjoe Gortner all makes appearances, a bunch of stuff happens and Evel saves the day.
Viva Knievel is when Evel jumped the shark, as they say. If it wasn’t then, it certainly occurred when he beat the living hell out of a writer named Shelly Saltman. It seems that Saltman wrote an unflattering book about Evel who expressed his displeasure with a baseball bat. Evel drew a little jail time and kinda faded from view. He would reappear on occasions like filing bankruptcy or getting a liver transplant. His influence on me was brief but strong.
TIME FOR ME TO FLY
I offer all this as background to explain Evel’s influence on me. For a brief time, I wanted to be Evel Knievel wearing a leather jump suit and cape, risking my life. His idea of jumping the Grand Canyon intrigued me. How could you do this? I thought a lot about it. You’d need wings, I guess. I got an idea.
How hard would it really be to fly? The Evel Knievel movie came out in 1971, so I was probably 9 when I got this idea. I would try to fly in my backyard. Simple enough. I just needed wings.
I thought about making some out of plywood, but abandoned that after I realized how heavy plywood was. At my diminutive size, I wouldn’t be able to flap them fast enough. But I didn’t give up. What about jumping off the porch with an umbrella? That was just stupid. Then, I got an idea–a brilliant idea.
My little brother had an inflatable baby pool. What if I put it on my back–kind of like a cape? I could spread it out and glide. It was lightweight and gliding eliminated the aerodynamic impossibility of flapping hard enough to stay air-borne. Perfect.
My test run was off the back porch. Now, our back porch was only about 4 feet high. If it didn’t work, I wouldn’t get hurt. I got up on the porch with my baby pool, spread my “wings” and hunkered down for the jump. Our clothes line was about 20 feet away, and I figured that would be a good landing spot. 3…2…1…LAUNCH! POW! I hit the ground. Hmmm. I’m sure the Wright Brothers had failures, too. The good news was that I was sure that I did sense–if only briefly–that I was suspended in air. Not a complete failure. Back to the drawing board.
I was a pretty smart kid, and I quickly realized that caution had been my enemy. By using the porch, I had denied myself the benefit of (1) Being in the air longer; and (2) Catching enough air to hang up there for a while. If I could catch even the faintest of breezes, it could make all the difference.
After some consideration, I determined that the top of the garage was the perfect launching spot. It was probably 10-12 high and right by the clothes line. If something went horribly awry, I could just grab the clothes line and safely swing to the ground. If it worked–as it surely would–I would glide across the back yard and land safely on the porch, covering a distance of about 30-40 feet.
At this point, I should note that I had an older brother. He was much smarter than I was. If I had only consulted him, things would have been different. I suppose I knew that and didn’t want him to crush my dreams with some brainiac explanation.
The day came. First, I got the ladder and tossed the pool on top of the garage. Then, I climbed up. It’s funny how 10-12 feet doesn’t sound real high until you look down, especially if you’re about 4 feet tall. I’ll admit that my confidence was a little shaky. On the plus side, there was a good breeze. The only problem was that it was blowing away from the porch toward Mr. Wade’s farm across the fence. I really hoped that I didn’t blow over there. He scared me a little.
I pulled the pool on my back, tightened my grip and readied myself by squatting into launch position. I had reasoned that I needed to first launch upward, then I could bank toward the porch. 3…2…1…LAUNCH! For split second–very split, mind you–it was working. I was among the birds.
If you ever fall and have enough time to think about it while you’re in the air, it is terrifying. The ground rushed up at me at around 1000 miles an hour. Embarrassingly, I think I actually flapped my wings once in an effort to prevent the inevitable.
The ground was hard. My ankle rolled. I face-planted. It hurt. Luckily, I wasn’t seriously injured. A scrape on my forehead and sprained ankle. Now, I felt like an idiot, of course. I had to pretend I wasn’t hurt since I would never admit that I had jumped off the garage with a baby pool on my back. I hobbled around a few days and that was that. Later, I casually asked my brother how birds could fly. He offered me an explanation about aerodynamics. Boy, was this all a dumb idea. Oh, well.
I wasn’t done with my daredevil ways. There was still the matter of jumping things. I, of course, would use a bicycle instead of a motorcycle. This time I had a partner, my best friend Jimmy. Jimmy was, in a sense, my alter ego. He was the kid who would do anything, regardless of the danger involved–and he had the broken bones and scars to prove it. Remember how your mother cautioned you about losing an eye? He did that–a stick right in his eye.
Jimmy and I were probably 12 years old, and we both admired Evel. I’ll admit that Jimmy had a bit more Evel in him that I did. He had, for example, invented the game of Tire Wrestling where we would roll large truck tires at each other and try to tackle them. It was a very painful–yet fun–game.
We tried our hand at jumping our bikes off ramps on occasion, usually just a 2 x 10 and cinder block, but I had greater ambitions. We built a ramp in my back yard. A real ramp. It was made out of plywood and about 3 feet high. It looked something like this:
In our past efforts we had encountered two problems. First, was the ramp itself. A piece of wood on a cinder block was too unsteady, plus it didn’t launch us high enough in the air. This was now remedied. The second was that bicycles are not really designed for flight. They tend to be heavy in the front or at least almost as heavy as they are in the back. This tended to cause the bike to land on its front tire, a disaster as Evel had learned on several occasions. I needed a bike with a better design. As luck would have it, I had one available. My brother had a Schwinn Lemon Peeler, just about the coolest bike ever made.
After studying the design of the Lemon Peeler, I was confident that it was perfect. The larger racing “slick” in the back, the smaller wheel in the front, shock absorbers–perfect.
Jimmy went first–on his own bike. He hit the ramp flying, shot up in the air and hit the ground in a violent crash with his bike flipping backward. He landed almost squarely on his back. He got up laughing, ready to for another go. But it was my turn, and I wasn’t crashing.
I made a couple of passes by the ramp, just like Evel, and I was ready to go. I took off, got my speed up and hit the ramp. It felt right.
I wish there was a video of my jump. Jimmy said the landing looked good-right on the back wheel as planned. Here’s what I remember: The handlebars hitting my jaw and the back sprocket digging into my right shin. I don’t know what went wrong, but I was on the ground with my head ringing and my leg throbbing.
I looked down at my shin and there was hole–right on the shin. The hole was about an inch long and a quarter-inch wide. It was gunked up with grease from the sprocket but there was still the white gleam of bone shining through. Oh, and the big hunk of skin on the sprocket.
I ran to the house and looked at it. This was bad. I called to my older brother. He looked at it and went into a swoon. He gathered himself and told me that it HAD to be cleaned out. I begged him not to tell our parents. I then went to bathroom to find appropriate cleaning supplies.
Peroxide first. I poured it in the hole. It stung a little but not too bad. The hole wasn’t bleeding, just weird-looking. (Later in life, I had horrible infection in my left leg and learned that the skin on one’s shin has very little blood flow). The throbbing subsided, but it was still filthy. My mother had warned me of the horrors of infection, so I dabbed it with a cotton ball. That helped, and it still didn’t hurt. too bad.
I thought about putting Mercurochrome on it, but it seemed beyond that. I only had one choice. Rubbing alcohol. I knew this was the ultimate disinfectant. Oh, I knew it would burn some. My mother had applied to various injuries, and it always stung. I would soak a cotton ball and drip a little in the hole as a test.
Sometimes pain in so sudden, so severe, that it isn’t really like pain. It’s more like something you taste-like you have taste buds in the middle of your brain. It was like someone had driven a burning nail into my forehead. That subsided and then it focused on my shin. It burned so deeply that I was certain it would kill me. I then stuck my leg in the tub and rinsed it. That helped. A little. Forty years later, I can still feel it.
I managed to hide my leg from Mom for a few days. The hole started to turn black around the edges and smelled funny. That’s when I showed Mom. She cried and carried on and then took me to the doctor. Some strong antibiotics and I was good as new. Of course, the leg was never the same:
That was the end of my daredevil career. It’s probably for the best anyway. Evel had drug problems, money problems and was crippled up pretty bad. All I got was the scar on my leg. But it’s pretty cool.