Meet it is, in this age of waning valor, to visit betimes with heroes. And meeter still to revisit them. Heroism, after all, is like the heavier metals: it tends to wear away with use. The last time we saw Evel Knievel, self-styled "conservative wild man," motorcycle jumper and most fractured star in sports, he was flat on his back in a Las Vegas hospital, having leaped the World's Largest Privately Owned Fountain at Caesars Palace, fallen off his bike at 80 mph and rolled 165 feet (SI, Feb. 5, 1968).
That mishap cost Evel a lot in both time and pain. A broken hip, pushed up through a crushed pelvis. A plenitude of metal pins and plates installed to hold his nether parts together. A month in the hospital, followed by a year on crutches.
"After that it was a cane," said Evel last week, recalling the past with scarcely a wince. His metal seemed to be in fine fettle. He was wrapped loosely around a beer in a midtown Manhattan saloon, gaudy as all get-out in blood-red bell-bottoms, a flag-striped shirt and a look of petulant contempt that went well with his slightly puffy, Elvis Presley features. "Yeah, a black ebony cane with a gold head. I picked it up for $35 in a hock shop in Spokane. The shop had a sign that said: WE BUY JUNK AND SELL ANTIQUES. It was a helluva cane. A lot of people fell in love with it. Liberace offered me $35,000 for it but I turned him down, not that I don't like Liberace—he's O.K., he knows what he's doing and he does it well, sort of like me—but I wanted to give the cane to my grandmother, who raised me, for her 60th wedding anniversary, so I gave it to her two Sundays ago, in Butte, Mont., where we all come from. Anyway...."
And there he is, fans: The Authentic American Hero, at least in the run-on sentence department. He brings to mind Casper Gutman's accolade to Sam Spade in the closing passages of The Maltese Falcon: "By gad, sir, you're a character, that you are! Yes, sir, there's never any telling what you'll do or say next, except that it's bound to be something astonishing." In Evel's case, however, the astonishing is often linked with the self-destructive. While recuperating from the Vegas fall, he kept right on jumping whenever his sutures and surgeons would permit. Vegas was his fifth major accident. Since then, he has had four more. "I can't keep track of my hospital time," he confesses. "It all sort of blurs together."
In Yakima, Wash. early last year, Evel "lost it" during a jump of 13 cars and smashed his collarbone for the second time. "It laid me up for about two months," he says, "but I only spent a couple of days in the hospital." Then, on July 4, in Seattle, he attempted a world record leap of 19 cars. "Too slow," he recalls. The result: compound fractures of the fourth and fifth vertebrae, the first of a matched pair of spinal fractures he would suffer during 1970. "Two days in the hospital," he says, "but it forced me to cancel two weeks' worth of performances."
Back on the ramps by the end of August, he tried a 13-car jump at Mount Pocono, Pa. and cracked his upper back, along with a limb or three. "My chest was also stove in considerable," he adds. Then came Buffalo and an appearance on Dialing for Dollars, a television show. It sounded safe enough, but Evel attracts bodily harm in even the most peaceful of situations.
"They wanted me to vroom into the studio on my jumping bike—all neat and trim in my red, white and blue leathers with the diamond cuff links. It would have made a nice shot but, as I was doing a wheelie in the parking lot, the bike got away from me—its brakes hadn't been set—and I got run over by a car. How do you like that? Didn't break anything important, but, man, it sure hurt. I couldn't walk for a month."
Back in the saddle, Evel finally cleared 19 cars at the Ontario ( Calif.) Motor Speedway last February, thus beating his own world mark by the width of a single Dodge. "All told, the jump came to about 50 yards through the air," he says offhandedly. "Maybe a hair more. It's not really that far. I knew I could do it, because I'll sure as hell have to do a lot better than that when I jump the Snake River Canyon."
The which canyon? What ever happened to that Grand Canyon jump Evel had planned back in '68? "The Government put the stops to it," says Evel, waxing wroth. "What I proposed to do was legit, but they wouldn't give me permission. Too many laughs from the sportswriters and the so-called sporting public. They figured I was conning them. Well, the public is stupid. The sports-casters and the writers are stupid. And when I roar up to the edge of the Snake River Canyon on Labor Day 1972, they'll know they're stupid."
Having vented his spleen and ordered another beer, Evel explained the new setup. He has leased the south rim of the Snake River Canyon for three years for $25,000. The canyon at that point is three-quarters of a mile wide and 1,300 feet deep—versus the 1.1-mile and 6,000-foot dimensions of the Grand Canyon at the point he had planned to jump. "The public will still get its money's worth," he contends. "I'm going to jump a mile anyway."