Evel Knievel's high-flying, electrifying Snake River jump
An excerpt from Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel
In 1974, Evel Knievel attempted what some say was his craziest jump
The crowd and action surrounding the jump was just as crazy as main event
Book excerpt from Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend, by Leigh Montville. Copyright (c) 2011 by Leigh Montville. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
The man of the moment made the moment a family affair. If this was going to be his last day on earth, then he would go out looking like a church deacon, Linda and the three kids would be there. His mother would be there from Reno. His father had been there all week. ("Bob always had to have a challenge," his dad said at a press conference, sounding a bit like Ward Cleaver. "I tried to discourage him for years for fear of injury.") His eighty-one-year-old grandmother, Emma, would be there. His half-sisters would be there from both sides of the family tree. His cousin, Father Jerry Sullivan, a Catholic priest from Carroll College in Helena, Montana, would give the benediction before liftoff.
His lawyers, accountants, bartenders, friends, and fellow reprobates from long ago had appeared already at the site. Bus trips had gone down from Butte. There had been a mass migration from the city, people driving the 364 miles in five, six, seven hours, depending on speed. The Butte High band had gone down to play the National Anthem. Everyone had assembled, former promoters, fans, everyone ...Ray Gunn, his first assistant from Moses Lake in the early days, had returned for the show, friends again, signed up now to watch the jump from a helicopter and carry a bottle of Wild Turkey to the other side for an instant celebration.
The day would be part wake, part wedding reception, an all-time Humpty Dumpty experience. The broken pieces of Robert Craig Knievel's life would be put together for this one time as they never had been put together, not once, in all of his years.
He would fly from Butte in the Lear in the morning with his family. Watcha would be at the controls and would buzz the crowd at the canyon, a dramatic touch. Watcha and everybody else would switch to a helicopter at the Twin Falls City- County Airport, arrive at the site to great applause, and the man of the moment would put on the flight suit in his trailer, and the show would begin.
Unless, of course, he canceled the show.
"I have two demands that if you don't meet I'll cancel the show," Knievel said in an early morning phone call to Bob Arum from Butte.
Arum prepared for the worst.
"First," Knievel said, "I want to have all the press meet my helicopter when it lands. I want to make a statement."
Arum said that would be impossible. Moving the entire press corps through the crowd could start a riot. (Another riot.) What he could do was bring Knievel to the press tent. That was possible. Knievel could make his statement that way. Same result.
"Second," he said. "I want you to bring your two sons to my trailer before the jump. I want to say some words to them before the jump because people are going to blame you for my death and I want them to know it was my idea. And I want them to sit with my family at the jump."
"Done," Arum said, figuring that the two boys, ages eleven and nine, would do what he told them. "I'll get them there."
Knievel seemed sentimental in everything he did that morning. He seemed to be turning off the lights, locking all the doors. Just in case. He had a picture of the canyon, just the canyon, no Skycycle or ramp, that he secretly signed, "Linda, I love you," across the blue sky. He told Kelly, his oldest son, last thing before everybody left Butte for the jump, to pretend to go back into the house for his shaving kit and hang the picture on the bedroom wall. He wanted that waiting for his wife if somehow the results turned out badly.
Even when he arrived at the site -- plane flight, helicopter, there -- he was sentimental. Even when he talked to the press.
"When I weighed last night all the good things and the bad things that were said, it came out a million to three for the good," he told the press after he landed in Watcha's helicopter. "So I hope all your landings in life are happy ones -- and I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
Could this be the same man who had been such a terror for the previous week?
The crowd was somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people, far fewer than Knievel or the promoters had expected, but still a nightmare. These were the same hard-living characters who had run wild a night earlier, now joined by reinforcements who doubled or tripled their number. The burnt-out chemical toilets and the knocked-down concession stands were a testament to the work these people could do. The toilets that weren't burnt out and the concessions that weren't knocked down were incredibly busy.
The temperature hung around 90 degrees, all sunshine. A strong wind, as much as twenty miles per hour, whipped clouds of dust everywhere. The heat and the dust made a man want another beer. Or convinced a woman to take her shirt off. Both acts happened quite often. The women were encouraged by more than one sign that read "Show Us Your Tits."
The crowd was forced to provide much of its own entertainment. The preliminary acts -- Karl Wallenda walked on the high wire, Gil Eagles rode a motorcycle blindfolded along the rim of the canyon, a man named Sensational Parker swung over the edge on an eighty-foot pole, and the Great Manzini escaped from a straitjacket while he was hung upside down over the canyon from a burning rope -- were performed out of sight from the live crowd, staged only for the closed- circuit viewers across the country. Fenced off from the compound and the rocket and any activity around it, with only the few remaining concession stands to visit, with no security except at the fences, the crowd improvised. Freely.
One of the few live attractions was the Butte High School marching band and the accompanying Purple B's Drill Team. Knievel had requested the presence of the band, even requested that certain songs be played, and had put up $2,200 to make the trip happen. Ken Berg, the twenty-six-year-old band director in his first year at the school, had pulled all the pieces together. It was quite a task. He was in charge now of over one hundred kids dressed in heavy purple-and-silver uniforms topped by heavy fur hats that were over a foot and a half tall. The band had left Butte at midnight in buses, ridden for seven hours, and appeared at the site at sunrise. The return trip would start immediately after the liftoff. The buses were expected back in Butte around 2:00 a.m.
"It was a lot of work," Berg said, an understatement. "I probably saw less of what happened that day than anyone. I was worried the whole time about those kids."
The crowd, well, members of the crowd made comments about the Butte High School band. The comments were not nice. The Purple B's Drill Team, girls, had their butts pinched. Lewd suggestions were made to all females in uniform. Director Berg had to keep photographers away from the drill team because the photographers were trying to take shots from ground level, up the high school girls' legs. The band already had planned to take part in the Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena on January 1, 1975, appropriate monies having been raised. This was not the Rose Bowl parade.
A picture of that horizontal naked woman, or perhaps another horizontal naked woman, would appear in an article about the jump a week later in Sports Illustrated. The caption would read: "The biker crowd does its own launching." High school boys would study this picture endlessly in school libraries in coming weeks.
Heinz Kleutmeier, the SI photographer for the Evel Knievel cover, had come back to Snake River for the jump. He had flown in from Madison, Wisconsin, where he had been part of a project for Life magazine called "One Day in the Life of America." Over one hundred photographers had been sent across the country to take pictures of various people and events on September 5, 1974, a random date chosen to represent the everyday hum of the country at work.
Kleutmeier's assignment was at a high school in Madison, then at a college bar at the University of Wisconsin. The magazine would choose 208 shots from over 1.5 million photographs taken across the nation.
The format would be so successful that it would be expanded in future years to fill best-selling coffee-table books. The magazine noted that on September 5, 1974, no different from any other day in America, about 8,600 babies would be born, 5,400 people would die, 2,500 would get divorced, and 6,300 would get married.
There was no real news. The date was selected because, "in the period after Labor Day each year, summer is put away, school begins, the tempo is up. In many ways it is the year's real beginning."
Three days later at Snake River there was this different dynamic at work. Kleutmeier was stunned by the difference. The universal was replaced by the bizarre. "One canyon jump" was added to the list of births, deaths, marriages, and divorces. One guy would be shot into the unknown. Chaos seemed to be everywhere. Kleutmeier tried to inject a small bit of common sense into the proceedings.
"You're going back to the bottom of the canyon," the photographer told his assistant when they arrived at the site. "That's where I want you for the jump."
The assistant objected. The sun was brutal. The bottom of the canyon would be hot, dirty, and totally without merit. Nothing would happen there.
"No, that's where the story is going to be," Kleutmeier said, thinking about the test shot he had witnessed. "I saw the test. That's where this guy is going to land."
This was a different One Day in the Life of America. Yes, it was. The ceremonies before the launch were part halftime at the Super Bowl, part High Mass in the Roman Catholic Church. The broadcaster for the closed-circuit show was David Frost, the thirty-five-year-old British talk show host, noted as an interviewer of political figures and fiancÚ of actress Diahann Carroll. Three years in the future he would do interviews with Richard Nixon that would help explain what had happened in the past couple of years. His color man now was Jim Lovell, the decorated American astronaut.
"This is reminiscent of the early Mercury days," Lovell said, presumably talking about rockets, overlooking what was happening with the crowd around the launch site.
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