Well, not our sins, I don’t think. Is there anything 70s America could have atoned for by having a man jump over Mack trucks and double-decker buses?
There was still one year to go before the last American personnel would leave Vietnam when Knievel attempted jumping over Idaho’s 400-foot deep Snake River Canyon on a device he called the “Sky Cycle X-2.” He barely made it halfway across when he returned to earth by parachute…sinking into the canyon. If you wanted to build a metaphor, there seems to be plenty to play with in just that one moment.
At the time of Snake River, the columnist George F. Will wrote that the “witless Knievel is titillating a barbaric appetite for treating violent death as a spectator sport.” There’s no record of how much Vietnam newsreel footage Will had screened previous to writing that comment, but it’s safe to say he was aware that young Americans were dying there and even safer to note that he even had time to write about “violent” motorcycle stunts with the U.S. still entrenched in Southeast Asia.
So maybe when Evel Knievel succumbed to failing health last week at age 69, what might be true is that he died, at least a little, for our distraction. That September 8, 1974 jump across that canyon yielded a million dollars alone in live spectator admissions, plus more for closed-circuit TV coverage. America, and George F. Will, focused on a crazy dude from Montana riding a rocket bike when they might have been out in the streets protesting the war. Maybe because back then there was no Dancing with the Stars.
As a kid I was less than enamored with Knievel because he reached for something that to me was far less involving than America’s space program and the astronauts who piloted the rockets. Was it a coincidence that Knievel’s Snake River career highpoint involved a “rocket bike?” Maybe for those that had difficulty getting their heads around the vast potential of space (millions still believe we never walked on the moon), Knievel presented a more easily understood adventure. “See that pile of stuff? I’m going to jump over it on my motorcycle.” He was that bad boy in junior high that, had he lived in another era, would have leapt off the garage roof onto a folding table as a friend videotaped the splat-down for the Internet.
Which is not to say that each generation has its own special hyper-banality, although it does. But maybe there’s a better way to remember Knievel by placing him in some line-up of royalty as a king of weird folk art. His gatherings, albeit meant to generate revenue, were still in some ways a mesh of the “Be-In” and “happenings” of the 60s and the Burning Man Festival.
Certainly there was theater to everything Knievel did, even if it belonged to the branch of theater that includes Alice Cooper concerts and Mike Tyson fights. Knievel was inspirational, in that kids everywhere attempted to emulate his jumps in miniature with their pedal-powered bicycles. And we should observe that in pursuing his flamboyant goals, Knievel did what man has yearned to do throughout the ages: Fly. Evel Knievel was a man flying through the air at a time when many had to settle for barely gliding across a disco floor. He brought back capes…for men… for crying out loud!
And the LA Times noted that in 1965 Knievel was attempting a stunt where he would jump at the last second, spread eagle, as a speeding motorcycle headed right at him. He didn’t jump high enough and took a hit that, years later, became the inspiration for America’s Funniest Home Videos and the cinema du groin of Adam Sandler.
Was Knievel noble? You’d probably have to argue that, once he found he could get girls and money by singing, Elvis was equally noble. Again, no coincidence that Presley and Knievel got their outfits from the same tailor: Nudie. But then it occurred to me that regardless of the bombast and showmanship, Evel Knievel did the stunts himself. He was alone on that motorcycle. He wasn’t the promoter who made money sending someone else into harm’s way: He was the man. And in that, we must acknowledge his courage. Knievel himself faced the danger. Unlike Nixon and Agnew in Knievel’s time, or Bush and Cheney now, he didn’t ask someone else to make the jump.