I have a six inch scar on my left elbow where the doctors had to cut me open to repair an extremely bad break. While I was walking up the hill with my back to the jump ramp the neighborhood weasel had raised the angle of the ramp from about 20 degrees to more like 45 degrees and when I landed I landed on my front wheel and flew forward, off the bicycle, landing on my elbow.
There are tens of thousands, maybe even millions of middle aged men with similar stories.
I don’t think anyone who wasn’t there can even imagine the level of celebrity of Evel Knievel in the 1970s. There is nothing or no one today that even comes close. He was bigger than any actor or politician; he was bigger than any world leader. He was even bigger than the astronauts that were walking on the moon. Boys and grown men all over the world admired, envied and emulated him. Women lusted for him. His appeal was truly universal — except perhaps to mothers of boys with bicycles and daring souls.
Robert Craig Knievel was a kid who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, raised by his grandparents. He went from being a contemptible petty criminal to a hero adored by millions. His was the classic tale of sin, redemption and triumphant rebirth, American style.
Evel Knievel was an exaggerated version of The American and The American dream. He lived large, spending his earnings on fast cars, fast boats, yachts, jets, diamonds and fur coats – real fur. He preached the God, mom and apple pie brand of patriotism from the heart while wearing a star spangled leather jump suit and cape. He broke bones, cheated death, and came back for more. In a typical act of showmanship and bravado, after he almost killed himself trying to jump 13 busses and announced his retirement, he healed up and then jumped 14 busses. Evel Knievel was the living embodiment of a comic book hero. There were, in fact, not only Evel Knievel comic books, but toys, games, clothing, bicycles, go karts, action figures, a half dozen movies and even a Saturday morning cartoon.
When a promoter wrote a libelous book about him Evel, his arms still in casts from an unsuccessful jump, hunted him down and beat him with a baseball bat. The move cost him all his corporate endorsements and licensing deals, but only added to his legend. Evel’s act of direct, violent action was a stand in for everyone who had ever been seriously wronged and was powerless to do anything about it. In an age that preached ambiguity this was clear, unambiguous American justice right out of a John Wayne movie.
Knievel plead guilty “because the charge was beating the **** out of this guy with a baseball bat, and that’s what I did,” served six months in jail and was ordered to pay $12.8 million to the man he beat in a civil suit. The victim never collected a dime.
To Americans, and the rest of the world in the 1970s, Evel Knievel represented everything good and possible about the United States. Even his crimes and personal failings were romanticized as the best of the worst of American possibility. At a time when many Americans had lost faith in their government and felt the U.S. slipping as a world power an unlikely hero rode into our living rooms in a star spangled jump suit on a Harley Davidson.
“I do not like the word hero. It’s the most overused, undeserved word. Too many people think the wrong people are heroes. A soldier fighting without question and dying for a cause, a scientist, an astronaut — people who stand in the way of harm and conflict and give their life without question for the good of others — they are the real heroes. I am not a hero. I was good at riding a motorcycle and a pretty good businessman. Not a hero.” — Evel Knievel.