There was the star-spangled, bell-bottomed, white-leather jumpsuit. The pterodactyl-wing collars. The belt buckle with the raised monogram (like a license plate, only larger). The gold-and-ebony-inlaid walking stick. The pinky ring. The diamond cuff links. The sideburns like shag-carpet swatches. In hindsight he was a charisma kleptomaniac, his magnetism lifted largely from Elvis.
But in the 1970s no one was bigger (if you were little) than Robert Craig (Evel) Knievel, and I coveted every item in the Evel empire: the lunch box and thermos, the AMF dirt bike and—from the Ideal Toy Company—the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle and action figure ("It's Ideal!").
Knievel's son had his own action figure: Robbie the Teenage Stuntman, "sold separately." By September 1974, when Evel's fame reached fever pitch and he appeared on the cover of this magazine, American hospitals were bestrewed with boys who had broken bones while trying to traverse trash cans on banana-seated Schwinns. I was seven and Evel-addled, oblivious to Bernoulli's principle. "The reality of the situation is beyond a seven-year-old," a Manhattan doctor named Russell S. Asnes told The New York Times in a discussion of the nation's daredeviltry epidemic. "[The child] really feels he can fly."
What, exactly, is wrong with that? R. Kelly sang in reference to Michael Jordan, I Believe I Can Fly. But that was a metaphor. With Evel, I believed this to be literally possible, which is why the man had to single-handedly hammer a catchphrase into the American lexicon: "Kids, do not try this at home."
Kids, do not try this at home. On Sept. 8, 1974, Evel would attempt his most audacious stunt, vaulting Idaho's milewide Snake River Canyon in his Sky-Cycle X-2 needle-nosed rocket. The back story, as any second-grader knew, was harrowing. Knievel had wanted to leap the Grand Canyon, but the Department of the Interior refused to grant him permission to kill himself on federal property. Robert Truax, the president of the American Rocket Society who designed the steam-powered Sky-Cycle, gave Knievel an 80-20 chance of survival, and Evel figured his odds of making it across the canyon were something less than 50-50. The jump sounded rather like a public execution, but—in the throes of a summerlong Knievel conniption—I desperately wished I could be there.
In the moments approaching the launch in Twin Falls, before a crowd of 15,000 people, many of them Hell's Angels, the great man was hoisted—via the Evel Knievel Freedom Crane—into the Sky-Cycle. Around the country thousands watched on closed-circuit TV as David Frost provided commentary. A priest offered benediction for "a man with a dangerous dream." Every biker at canyon-side held his foul breath. Knievel gave the cameras a thumbs-up. "The tension," reported SI, "was nearly unbearable."
Then the Sky-Cycle issued an epic cloud of steam, and Knievel shot up the ramp, and the rocket's parachute deployed prematurely, and Evel dribbled needle-nose-down over the canyon edge and into a bottomless oblivion to meet... what? Death by fireball? Cheeseball, it turned out. Knievel was rescued by boat on the near side of the river, his body unharmed, his reputation ruptured—Icarus in muttonchops.
But so what? One of his stunt cycles now hangs by wires from the ceiling of the Smithsonian, which is how I will always remember Evel: forever suspended in midair, making me think—for one summer—that I could fly.