Roger asked me to do something on Evel Knievel’s passing because I’m a motorcycle guy and Knievel became famous flying through the air on his motorbike; but in reality Knievel’s life and passing are of far more interest than his vehicle. Why? Because he perfectly represented a uniquely American type, and that type doesn’t get a lot of attention these days.
Robert Craig Knievel was a type all right, and I hope there is still room his type for somewhere away from the big-city media world that fills our eyes and ears.
His life story is such an archetype that it’s almost an embarrassment to recount it: Born after World War II to a family that divorced before it was OK to, raised by his grandparents, he dropped out of school and started work as an underground miner.
There must have been some kind of seriously restless core in him, because his life took him from mining to jail to rodeo to ski jumping to hockey to poaching. Anyplace he could be fearless and physical and make a few bucks and hold out the promise of a future with enough more to keep him in what must have been a long series of low-rent apartments and motels.
That core is more interesting to us than the wrapper around it; the story goes that when the elk population in Yellowstone got too large, the Federal government was going to bring professional hunters in to cull them – and Kneivel went to Washington, where he convinced his Congressman to have them moves to private land where they could be
hunted instead of slaughtered. That’s the act of a fearless man, someone who looked around him and said that by damn, I’m just as good as they all are…
His fearlessness and love for speed finally connected him with the American public in Indio, California – in the ramshackle inland desert just outside Palm Springs. He took huge risks, flew through the air , and the American public loved it, and loved him.
The risks were real – he broke a lot of bones. “…I have broken 35 bones. I had surgery 14 times to pin and plate. I shattered my pelvis. I forget all of the things that have broke.” And the image of him flopping across the parking lot at Caesar’s Palace in 1967 – where he nearly died – was bought by ABC for a huge sum, and then made his celebrity and his
He milked that celebrity for the rest of his life, spent the fortune carelessly, and continued to put himself on the line for it for another 15 years. He led a wild, uncontrolled life – brushes with the law, the courts, bankruptcy, assault. And I’m sure he wasn’t necessarily a
But there’s something in him that is a pluperfect example of what built America; that’s why seeing him in his late-Elvis stars and stripes leathers doesn’t quite bring the mocking laughter that it ought to. Because he has that glint in his eye.
It’s the one you see in the self-made rough-handed men in the corner of the hardware store that would as soon shake your hand as knock you down – and might just do both in one morning before loaning you twenty bucks and buying you a cup of coffee for 50 cents.
To put an academic point on it, it’s the Jacksonian impulse in the American spirit. Generous, vain, reckless, violent, striving and ever hopeful.
Evel the man would be the furthest thing from the groomed motorcyclists and their polished machines that you see whiz past on the highway every day – except I can tell you that in our imaginations, every time we gas it up and merge onto the 405, on a panhead Harley or a Ducati or even in a minivan, a little bit of Evel is still somewhere inside each of us. And that’s really not a bad thing.
Marc Danziger is a California-based blogger known as Armed Liberal at Winds of Change