Why you should care

Because once upon a time badass had a name, and that name was Evel Knievel.

If you don’t know who the late Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel was — motorcycle stunt jumper, Guinness World Record holder for the most broken bones (433 before he died in 2007) and friggin’ tour de force — we’d understand. By the time of his last stunt show in 1980, in Puerto Rico, he had started to healthily transition into that distinctly American phenomenon: outsize personalities famous for having been famous.

Which is to say: movies, TV guest spots, rock operas and appearances all fueled by Knievel’s motorcycle jumping of cars, buses, pits of rattlesnakes, sharks and lions and, eventually, Snake River Canyon. We’d not use the words “American icon” to describe him, but part of Knievel’s genius is that those are probably exactly the words he’d have used himself.

Hence my lifelong obsession with a man who, following one of his innumerable failed jumps, refused help getting off the field where the jump took place despite yet another set of broken pelvic bones. That’s right — he walked off.

So it wasn’t strange at all that a stand-up comic and known associate who’d had a run of shows with Knievel in Las Vegas regaled us with tales of said run, and the questions flowed fast and furiously. Knievel, woman at his side, had watched the comic’s routine every night before Knievel himself did his shtick, which amounted to chatting up an audience of fans, basking in the sun of crazed glory.

They’d drink, they’d chat, they’d get friendly. The woman leaning back on Knievel’s right side, shooting come-hither looks at our comic friend, who felt for all the world that he was on top of it. The world, that is.

One evening, toward the end of their run together, and during the drinking and the bonhomie, he had reached over to shake hands with Knievel, who held it. Well, beyond the point of casual comfortability. “You … have soft skin.” And there it was. Knievel and the woman looked at the comic, and then this: “Let’s go upstairs.”

He claimed he was dirty and tired, and Knievel continued indicating that he could shower and sleep in their room. The comic demurred. Not because he opposed threesomes, because he didn’t. Not because he was concerned about bisexual sexual activity; he was gay and not prone to squeamishness. But, well, because he wanted to get back to his room so he could start writing his new comedy routine, which had appeared whole cloth in his head the moment after the moment happened: “The Night I Got Jumped by Evel Knievel.” (Knievel’s family did not respond to request for comment.)

In the end, though? He yanked the piece, didn’t do it even once, and contented himself with just the occasional retelling to friends and known associates. Because? Because the guy “was a goddamned American hero!” And that he was.

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