A Daredevil In the X-treme

Evel Knievel in his X-2 Skycycle on Sept. 8, 1974, shortly before his ill-fated attempt to leap the Snake River Canyon. Against all odds, he died yesterday with his jumpsuit off.
Evel Knievel in his X-2 Skycycle on Sept. 8, 1974, shortly before his ill-fated attempt to leap the Snake River Canyon. Against all odds, he died yesterday with his jumpsuit off. (Associated Press)
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007

Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel Jr. jumped the Snake River Canyon in that souped-up X-2 Skycycle on a Sunday afternoon in the September I started first grade, 1974.

Snake River was a seminal moment of hype, working a psychological number on little boys back then that is in X-treme evidence around us now: You see it in Mountain Dew commercials, or during those 11-day searches for overconfident millionaires who get lost on Everest, and in seven-figure endorsement deals for professional skateboarders.

Did he make it across? Technically, no. The drag chute malfunctioned and opened early. Remembering Evel Knievel requires us to broaden our definition of almost. The rocket drifted down, down to the canyon bottom.

He died yesterday at 69, in Clearwater, Fla., of pulmonary failure. Which is another way of saying something more remarkable: Evel Knievel died in bed, technically old. After all those star-spangled compound fractures, concussions, cracks to the pelvis, comas, tractions and multiple surgeries; after the liver transplant, the diabetes, the hepatitis; after prison, after bankruptcy, after familial disruptions and woe.

His survival story still invites others to the edge. Jumping cars and buses and the fountains of Caesars Palace on a motorcycle is one of the true American folk arts, up there with beauty pageants and competitive cheerleading.

Any time ABC showed a Sunday afternoon Knievel stunt on "Wide World of Sports," you could expect half the neighborhood to show up in the cul-de-sac immediately afterward, in an act of instant emulation. Someone would get a piece of plywood or a couple of 2-by-4's and a cinderblock. Everyone had their bikes (bicycles, that is -- Huffys, BMXs, with the banana seats and faded Wacky Packages stickers) and would perform jumps. You could get the little kids to lie flat on the asphalt in a row next to the ramp. (I can jump all four of you.) Kids would jump until the wood broke, or, more wonderfully, a daredevil got hurt and ran home bleeding.

You were all grounded and -- always it seemed -- so was Evel. A modern testeroculture was being invented, nationwide, picking up where Harry Houdini and Superman left off and "The Six Million Dollar Man" had only just crashed and been reborn on TV. Evel Knievel was a prototype for the boys who became the half-pipers of Generation X, the first Americans to waste time playing video games and who sought some sort of glorious, death-defying arc in everything, or some fantasy thereof.

More kids started asking Santa for dirt bikes in the 1970s. The Evel Knievel action figure saw a lot of abuse, while Malibu Barbie cheered him on. Vacant lots became theaters of preteen drama -- wheelies and jumps performed off earthen mounds while girls in tube tops watched and chomped Bubble Yum. (Then the girls got dirt bikes. Then it got interesting, very Pinky Tuscadero.)

There's a popular complaint that the mid-1970s were strewn with antiheroes and all that Nixonian moral rot, and it would be a stretch to call Knievel a heroic salve to his times. (When we all know Fonzie was.) Knievel dazzled us just as we were seeking refuge in the ruburban comforts of muscle cars and Marlboro sensuality, the Bicentennial-era cusses and hicks and daredevils of the day.

Thank God for the "Cannonball Run" movies, and the song "Convoy," and the Dukes of Hazzard, and episodes of "That's Incredible," the yeehaw stuff, those souped-up vehicles in mid-flight. It was leather, jumpsuits, helmets, rockets, red-white-and-blue stuff. Knievel stood at the front of all that imagery, and what you have to honor is the opportunism, the marketing potential, the attitude. (When a dying Evel at last accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior earlier this year, the pastor of the Crystal Cathedral praised Knievel's life work a whole new way, calling it "possibility thinking.")

Every episode and movie version of "Jackass" owes a large debt to Knievel, not because of how he succeeded but how he failed. His completed jumps may in fact have outnumbered his failures, but all we really remember are the spectacular crashes, the press conferences held from hospital beds, the resolve. Soon enough he'd be back in the jumpsuit that defined him, thumbs up to the crowd, revving the engine, getting ready to jump seven, 13 buses in a row.

Hold your breath. Go, Evel! Go, Evel! Gooooooooouhhhhmmmm -- hissssssssss. Ouch! Crash! Let's look at that a thousand times in slow motion: Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch. The life and pain of Evel Knievel; the stretcher, the ambulance, the faith. He jumped in the Astrodome, he jumped in the Kingdome, all those '70s arenas and domes. The very sort of building you take your kid to now, to watch it get imploded.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company