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
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.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY GARY LOCKE Knievel took off in pursuit of his "dangerous dream," fueling young men's fantasies of flight.