Friday, November 30, 2007

Daredevil soars with the angels

We shared the same birthday, but I didn't know that as a kid. If I had known then, it probably would have made me admire him even more.

When Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel was on TV, it was huge. Bigger than the Super Bowl or World Series to me. I never pictured myself competing in those venues. But when Evel Knievel, dressed in star-spangled leather, soared over the top of cars, or trucks or buses, my spirit soared with him.

Yes, he had some spectacular crashes over the years, but he never let those failures beat him. He always came back to attempt something more daring, more spectacular.

My favorite toy (or toys) in grade school were this Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle set. It included a poseable action figure you could put on the bike in a variety of poses. You could stand him on the seat, attach one or both hands to the handlebars, hang him off the side -- you name it -- for a variety of trick-riding poses.

In the toy set I had, the bike was a chopper. When I first got the chopper, I have to admit I was disappointed because it did not look as authentic as the motorcycles Knievel actually used for his daredevil stunts. But I grew to love that toy, and it did look cooler than the original stunt cycle.

Also in the collection was a motor home, known as a "Scramble Van," that you could load up the bike in and put a ramp on the back to jump the motorcycle over. The bike was powered by sliding it backward into a hand-cranked launcher that would whine with a psuedo engine sound. My friends and I would crank that sucker just as hard and fast as our skinny little arms would allow to make the Knievel action figure and bike jump as high and as far as we could. We'd run that thing indoors, outdoors, wherever and whenever we could. I don't even know how many hours or years were spent soaring over obstacles with Evel Knievel.

As I got older, I traded the toy bike for an actual bicycle. And of course, my friends and I would make ramps out of slaps of wood, dirt, whatever we could, to jump as high and as far as we could. A few years later the bicycle was replaced with a motorcycle and more jumps.

There were a few spectacular crashes on the bike, and the motorcycle, and an untold number of near misses. Perhaps it was the naivette of youth that didn't allow me to think a crash could be potentially fatal, and maybe that was fueled by watching Evel Knievel survive many spectacular crashes on bigger motorcycles and bigger ramps over bigger obstacles than my friends and I ever tried to conquer. But the reality of potential pain was always there. That was a known potential consequence, one experienced from time to time. But facing up to the fear and overcoming it, was part of the thrill.

There was nothing like the momentary weightless feeling at the peak of a jump, but you couldn't relish in it too long, because the pull of gravity would bring the ground racing back toward you in a huge hurry. And that euphoric feeling could be wiped out instantly if you felt the bike coming down at an odd angle. It sucked when you wrenched too hard on the handlebars and got the front tire too high above the back, because then you would start flipping over backwards. But more terrifying, if that was at all possible, was coming down nose first, landing on the front tire first and flipping over handlebars and landing in front of the bike.

The toys from my youth are gone. I haven't owned or even ridden a motorcycle in years. But one of my prized possessions from those days is a photo of me a neighbor from down the road who I sometimes road with. It's a picture of my on my motorcycle, flying through the air -- frozen at the peak of the jump, the background blurred behind me. I'm wearing my dad's old green Marine Corps jacket and flying high.

My daredevil days were probably pretty tame compared to the lunacy you can see of some of the street riders these days screaming down the asphalt backwards or upside down, or even the motocross riders who hang off the back of their biked and let go in midair. But thanks to my friends and Evel Knievel, I got to experience some thrills, chills and spills and live to tell the tale.
I was sad to read about Evel Knievel's death today. I knew he had been in failing health for many years, but it doesn't make it any easier to lose a childhood hero.

R.I.P. Mr. Knievel, and thanks for the ride.


1 comment:

Gene said...

My birth year. (Hey, I need all the reflected glory I can get!)

The "Jackass" types can only hope to have the class of the original public stuntman.

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