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The Crash of a Hero

One of my favorite childhood toys was an Evel Knievel action doll. Evel’s diminutive doppelganger was a slim man in a white pantsuit with a deep, dark blue V chest applique that was studded with white stars. He had a matching white helmet and a cape. His white gloved hands were perfectly molded to clamp onto the handlebars of his shiny motorcycle. That motorcycle locked into a plastic hand crank that allowed me to wind him up and set him flying, just like the real Evel Knievel.

The real Evel Knievel was a stud. Even his name was cool, tripping off the tongue with the same fanfare and panache he displayed flying over rows of cars. We all, boy and girl alike, dreamed of doing the amazing stunts that Evel Knievel pulled off. We all dreamed of being the glitzy, famous showman featured over and over again on the Wide World of Sports. To a little girl whose heroes included drag racer Big Daddy Don Garlits and the boys from the Dukes of Hazzard, Evel Knievel was just one more daring flash in the world of fast cars, fast bikes, and reckless behavior. I ate it all up.

Fast forward 30 years, and I’m a middle-aged working mom married to a man who is solid, stable, and reliable. He doesn’t wear a white jump suit with a cape, or race a quarter mile in less than five seconds, or jump his car over creeks in an attempt to evade the law. Thank God I grew up and turned away from crass, renegade showmanship in favor of stability. This man, our child, and I were at a local amusement park last weekend, waiting for the train. We relaxed on a bench in the train station, chatting and watching a large television that promotes various add-ons in the park and features cartoons and trivia. A trivia question appeared about Evel Knievel and how many cars he had jumped during one of his motorcycle stunts.

“Evel Knievel!” I said. “Wow! I haven’t thought about him in ages!” I quickly launched into a tirade to my child, drowning her in my enthusiasm for some weird motorcycle stuntman she’s never heard of and couldn’t care less about. This was another one of my famous “teaching moments.” Wisdom gleaned from my own childhood. M and I reminisced about our Evel Knievel toys, and he’s the one who reminded me about the crank. (I vaguely remember my crank breaking early on, and resorting to wrapping Evel onto his bike, pulling it back to load the wheel spring, and letting him fly with abandon. It didn’t work as well as the crank as I never quite held Evel perfectly vertical before letting him go, but that didn’t stop the fun.) And then I made a huge tactical error.

I googled Evel Knievel. Right there on my phone, while we waited in the train station.

Turns out, for most of his life, he was a real shit. A huckster, a scammer, a ne’er do well who floated from one money-making scheme to another. He dropped out of high school after sophomore year and went to work in a copper mine. He was promoted to earth mover driver, which lasted only until he popped a wheelie with the mover and hit Butte, Montana’s main power line. He was chased by police and crashed his motorcycle. He joined the army and then left the army and got married. He started a semi-pro hockey team, and it’s implied that he swindled the 1960 Olympic Czechoslovakian hockey team out of their expense money. The USOC had to pay the Czech team in an attempt to maintain diplomatic relations. He then started a hunting and fishing guide service, which did quite well until the U.S. Park Service discovered he was illegally taking clients into Yellowstone National Park to poach. After all this, he decided to go legit and started a motocross career. An early injury forced him into less flashy work, and he sold insurance to support his family. Ever the egomaniac, he demanded a promotion to vice president months later, and quit when his request was declined. He opened a Honda motorcycle dealership, then closed the Honda motorcycle dealership and concocted his daredevil show, serving as the promotor, logistics man, PR shill, set-up crew, ticket seller and emcee. The man was not in short supply of energy. He sustained injuries, but kept riding and jumping, adding more and more cars to his jump line when he’d return to a venue in an attempt to get old customers to come see his show again. All this was before the age of 29. He finally scammed his way into jumping over the fountain at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, by creating a fictitious corporation and hiring three fictitious “lawyers.” He crashed yet again, and earned increasing notoriety.

The man’s Wikipedia page lists a litany of bone breaks and injuries, including at least three concussions and a groin injury so severe it landed him in the hospital for nearly a month. He broke his arm, ribs, left wrist, right knee, and more ribs. He crushed his pelvis and femur, suffered fractures to his hip, another wrist, and both ankles. He broke his right leg and foot, his hip again, and his collarbone. He compound-fractured his right arm, broke both legs, his back, his pelvis again, and both arms again. He estimated his broken bones to number 35.

Later, when a former promoter wrote a tell-all book that exposed Evel Knievel as a wife-abuser, child beater, and drug user, Evel attacked the man with a baseball bat. He pled guilty to battery and spent six months in jail and three years on probation.

Who in the hell thought this man was a good role model for children?

My illusions of grand Americana clad in a white leather, star spangled jumpsuit are shattered. The man was a fraud. A hack. A huckster out to make a quick buck while achieving fame and notoriety. He spent more time in casts and braces than out. He swindled where he could, and resorted to physical violence when he couldn’t. I sat there in the amusement park train station, aghast. “Oh no,” I said. M leaned over. “What?” “Evel Knievel was awful.” With that, the train pulled into the station and off we went, while I thought about how I was much better off not knowing the real Evel Knievel. I was happier remembering the toy that represented so much that I hadn’t even realized. Bravery. Heroism. Daring American ingenuity. One of my childhood dreams is now shattered by reality. My superhero stuntman is grounded by super-human faults and foibles. His was a show driven by ego and greed, not by a genuine desire to reach further, go faster, do better. The fall of Evel Knievel in my mind is breathtaking in its severity, and astounding in its absorption of brain space. I am also appalled at my own naiveté for all these years. How could I have not known the real Evel Knievel? Why do I care about this so much?

Because I am stupid and don’t learn from my mistakes, I googled Big Daddy Don Garlits. I’ll be damned if the man isn’t a racist homophobe. Because of course he is. Farewell, Evel Knievel. Farewell, Big Daddy. There’s simply no room in my heart for reprobates and haters.

That’s it. I’m never googling anyone ever again. Next thing you know, I’m liable to learn that the Dukes of Hazzard were nothing but redneck scofflaws with questionable motives, a healthy disrespect for probationary boundaries, and a trampy cousin. I just can’t handle news like that.

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