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When I tell people Evel Knievel died recently, the response is always the same one I had:

“Died? Are you telling me he was still alive?”

Sure he was. Fortune favors the foolish, and angels watch over the insane. Knievel made it to age 69 and, shockingly, died of natural causes.

But I get ahead of myself. It’s possible some of you don’t know who Evel Knievel was, considering he’s been out of public view for awhile, so here’s a brief recap of his career:

Evel Knievel jumped things.

That pretty much covers it. Since 1965, he made his living by hopping on a motorcycle and jumping anything that got into his way. Cars, busses, rattlesnakes, mountain lions. I once tuned into a live broadcast in which he was to jump a tank full of sharks in Chicago. No, not lawyers – real sharks. Unfortunately, the entire show consisted of repeated showings of his practice jump, in which he missed the opposite ramp and landed in the hospital, instead.

Come to think of it, he actually did two things a lot: jump stuff and break things. Those things were usually inside him – forty of his bones, for instance. Knievel once said he’d broken every bone in his body, and some twice, as if he actually needed to exaggerate. Turns out he missed both little toes and his left eardrum. He also broke a lot of motorcycles, of course.

At first he charged $500 to jump over two cars. But we’ve all known people like Knievel: He had to top himself. Also, he had to charge more to pay for replacement motorcycles and ER bills. So he went further and further, culminating on New Year’s Day 1968, when he jumped 151 feet across the fountains at Las Vegas’ Caesar’s Palace. He made the jump – but missed the landing.

His fame increased with his scars, and he began planning an attempt to jump the Grand Canyon. Sadly, officials refused after Knievel demanded that, if he failed, his family get all proceeds from any tourism involving an Evel shaped crater in the canyon wall.

So instead, he took $6 million to jump the Snake River Canyon in Idaho, using a rocket-powered motorcycle that was almost certainly not street legal. The jump went just fine, and his parachute deployed just fine too. Unfortunately, the parachute deployed before it was supposed to, and that’s the last time he tried to jump a snake. To get over it, he jumped 14 greyhound buses at Ohio’s Kings Island, without a parachute.

It was in 1976 that he celebrated the Bicentennial by making the infamous shark jump in Chicago, which brought him a concussion and two broken arms. This inspired the equally infamous 1977 episode of the TV show Happy Days, in which the character of Fonzie literally jumped sharks on water skies. Since that time, any over-the-top moment in which a TV show seems to go too far in its attempt to keep an audience has been called “jumping the shark”.

The irony of that is that Knievel later appeared in the TV series Bionic Woman, in which he no doubt drove a motorcycle and most likely jumped something. I don’t recall the episode, but my guess is that Jamie Sommers jumped Evel. Get your mind out of the gutter, I mean literally jumped – she was bionic, after all. So Bionic Woman’s jumping the shark moment may have been with the original shark jumper.

Knievel also starred as himself in a movie, while George Hamilton and Sam Elliott played him in other shows – three movies about the guy. He was the subject of several toys, all of which involved, let’s face it, motorcycles and jumping things. I always thought his action figure should have been packaged with Johnny and Roy, the paramedic action figures from the TV show Emergency!

Yep, Evel Knievel jumped things.

His real name was Robert, by the way. Bob Knievel just didn’t have the same punch. Bob was in the Army, worked as a hunting guide, sold insurance (insert joke here) and even owned, managed, coached and played for a semi-pro hockey team. Of his early careers, the closest to his heart had to have been his time at a Honda motorcycle dealership.

But Robert Knievel wasn’t meant for having his feet on the ground. He jumped things, and he inspired others to jump things. Have you ever heard the argument that the entertainment industry is to blame when people copy what they see on the screen? While I disagree – it’s the parents’ responsibility to teach right from wrong –my experience is that Knievel inspired a lot of people.

Luckily for me, we mostly only had bicycles to jump stuff with. I shudder to think what kind of damage I’d have caused with access to a motorcycle. Lost a great Schwinn single speed that way, though, and I don’t even want to think about what happened to that five speed with the banana seat. Also, my first Timex watch took a licking and did not keep on ticking. We (the others have requested anonymity) were only jumping ditches, so imagine what would have happened if we’d gotten ahold of two ramps and a school bus. Okay, we tried it once, which explains the anonymity.

I don’t know. I guess you couldn’t call him a hero. Brave, yes, and he made his living honestly. He only did one thing, but he did it with style. He didn’t blame other people for his woes, he didn’t sue the ramp makers, and he got right back on that bike (ahem – or its replacement) and went back to work. Hm. Maybe he is a hero.

Now, did Evel Knievel go to Heaven? Of course he did! He spent half his time up there already – he was on a first name basis with the angels.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 8th, 2007 08:37 am (UTC)
He'll be the one who doesn't need wings!
Dec. 7th, 2007 01:57 pm (UTC)
This inspired the equally infamous 1977 episode of the TV show Happy Days, in which the character of Fonzie literally jumped sharks on water skies.

I was going to say worst episode *ever* and then I remembered Pottsie singing about body parts at school, Fonzie adopting a kid, and *Roger*. So yeah, that jumping the shark term is very appropriate.
Dec. 8th, 2007 08:41 am (UTC)
I've mostly blacked out the last few seasons of that show .... but one things for sure: There's a shelf life on all TV shows, no matter how good they are, and some go bad much earlier than other.
Dec. 7th, 2007 02:18 pm (UTC)
I have to amit my first thought was, indeed, that I hadn't realised that he was still alive.
Dec. 8th, 2007 08:42 am (UTC)
I knew only because I'd read something about him a few months ago, when it was announced he needed a transplant. He'd picked up Hepatitis from, naturally, a blood transfusion.
Dec. 7th, 2007 09:58 pm (UTC)
Local kids emulating Evel Knievel always brings me great joy. Few things are more entertaining than watching them set up their dodgy, rotten fence palings on a couple of filched bricks and then see the look of bemusement when they crash and burn.

There are some hard core, home made, mountain bike stunt areas dug out in my local area. One of them I've never seen in action, but I'm betting it's responsible for quite a bit of blood loss and mangled bicycles.
Dec. 8th, 2007 08:49 am (UTC)
Exactly, that's what made him so great! He thinned out the herd! I believe Darwin had something to say about that. :-0

Actually, in my experience people who are inclined to do things like that will figure it out for themelves, regardless of what entertainment venues they're exposed to. Just the same, there's no doubt Evel's exploits inspired these kids to greater, um, heights. As for me, I got smart and gave up on taking chances years ago.
Dec. 14th, 2007 09:36 am (UTC)
Which, naturally, reminds me of a country song in which it was 1980 something and and the singer had a couple of Evel Knieval scars on his right knee.

My original intention was to tell you to stay FAR away from my obituary and/or death story. But the ending was actually rather sweet. And honestly, I'd rather have my hypothetical kids looking up to this man than Britany Spears. Jumping over things I could handle. Pregnancy and binge drinking, not so much.

Also, I can rightfully say I've broken a bone that Mr. Knieval never did. *points to little toe* Karate. Sixth grade. Kick that wasn't supposed to make contact.

Nice tribute :)

Dec. 14th, 2007 10:03 am (UTC)
I don't recall that song, but I don't listen to country music all that terribly often ... I can't stand the wounded looks on my kids' faces when they hear it. :-)

Generally if I write about someone's death it's either someone I admired for one reason or other, or someone I hated with a fiery passion, and it's not usually that difficult to figure out which one. You could argue that Evel wasted his life, but I really do think he was an admirable person, as I said in my column. But it is a humor column, after all, so I had to take the scenic route to reach that conclusion.

Speaking of role models, I did some damage myself back when my brother and I were in our "Kung Fu" stage ... I'd always wanted to take Karate lessons, but never got around to it. Probably for the best.
Dec. 14th, 2007 11:03 am (UTC)
Hehe. It's one of those new-classic songs. I like it. It's cute. I understand that. My mother is of the Rolling Stones generation and needles me endlessly about liking country. I like stories. Hence the music I like is countries and musicals. Hence why I prefer prose to poetry. Your article reminded me of the song because it has the same 'remember when?' feel.

*laughs* I got to a very early red belt and then high school came along. I really enjoyed it, and if I had any money, I'd go back to taking lessons. Not a lot stuck, but I'm still pretty strong and I'm not exactly afraid to walk around my complex at night.
Dec. 14th, 2007 11:45 am (UTC)
I don't dislike country, but everyone around me does, so I don't listen often. Usually I listen to classical or soundtrack scores when I have time alone, and classic rock or pop when I'm with people. My first love is scores: John Williams, James Horner, ect. But my hidden weakness is, indeed, musicals -- I even liked High School Musical.

The truth is, I like virtually all music, except rap, which I still maintain is not music.

I think everyone should have a certain amount of self defense training, so good for you. Maybe you'll get a chance to get rebelted someday!
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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