Book excerpt from Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend, by Leigh Montville. Copyright (c) 2011 by Leigh Montville. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
The man of the moment made the moment a family affair. If this was going to be his last day on earth, then he would go out looking like a church deacon, Linda and the three kids would be there. His mother would be there from Reno. His father had been there all week. ("Bob always had to have a challenge," his dad said at a press conference, sounding a bit like Ward Cleaver. "I tried to discourage him for years for fear of injury.") His eighty-one-year-old grandmother, Emma, would be there. His half-sisters would be there from both sides of the family tree. His cousin, Father Jerry Sullivan, a Catholic priest from Carroll College in Helena, Montana, would give the benediction before liftoff.
His lawyers, accountants, bartenders, friends, and fellow reprobates from long ago had appeared already at the site. Bus trips had gone down from Butte. There had been a mass migration from the city, people driving the 364 miles in five, six, seven hours, depending on speed. The Butte High band had gone down to play the National Anthem. Everyone had assembled, former promoters, fans, everyone ...Ray Gunn, his first assistant from Moses Lake in the early days, had returned for the show, friends again, signed up now to watch the jump from a helicopter and carry a bottle of Wild Turkey to the other side for an instant celebration.
The day would be part wake, part wedding reception, an all-time Humpty Dumpty experience. The broken pieces of Robert Craig Knievel's life would be put together for this one time as they never had been put together, not once, in all of his years.
He would fly from Butte in the Lear in the morning with his family. Watcha would be at the controls and would buzz the crowd at the canyon, a dramatic touch. Watcha and everybody else would switch to a helicopter at the Twin Falls City- County Airport, arrive at the site to great applause, and the man of the moment would put on the flight suit in his trailer, and the show would begin.
Unless, of course, he canceled the show.
"I have two demands that if you don't meet I'll cancel the show," Knievel said in an early morning phone call to Bob Arum from Butte.
Arum prepared for the worst.
"First," Knievel said, "I want to have all the press meet my helicopter when it lands. I want to make a statement."
Arum said that would be impossible. Moving the entire press corps through the crowd could start a riot. (Another riot.) What he could do was bring Knievel to the press tent. That was possible. Knievel could make his statement that way. Same result.
"Second," he said. "I want you to bring your two sons to my trailer before the jump. I want to say some words to them before the jump because people are going to blame you for my death and I want them to know it was my idea. And I want them to sit with my family at the jump."
"Done," Arum said, figuring that the two boys, ages eleven and nine, would do what he told them. "I'll get them there."
Knievel seemed sentimental in everything he did that morning. He seemed to be turning off the lights, locking all the doors. Just in case. He had a picture of the canyon, just the canyon, no Skycycle or ramp, that he secretly signed, "Linda, I love you," across the blue sky. He told Kelly, his oldest son, last thing before everybody left Butte for the jump, to pretend to go back into the house for his shaving kit and hang the picture on the bedroom wall. He wanted that waiting for his wife if somehow the results turned out badly.
Even when he arrived at the site -- plane flight, helicopter, there -- he was sentimental. Even when he talked to the press.
"When I weighed last night all the good things and the bad things that were said, it came out a million to three for the good," he told the press after he landed in Watcha's helicopter. "So I hope all your landings in life are happy ones -- and I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
Could this be the same man who had been such a terror for the previous week?
The crowd was somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people, far fewer than Knievel or the promoters had expected, but still a nightmare. These were the same hard-living characters who had run wild a night earlier, now joined by reinforcements who doubled or tripled their number. The burnt-out chemical toilets and the knocked-down concession stands were a testament to the work these people could do. The toilets that weren't burnt out and the concessions that weren't knocked down were incredibly busy.
The temperature hung around 90 degrees, all sunshine. A strong wind, as much as twenty miles per hour, whipped clouds of dust everywhere. The heat and the dust made a man want another beer. Or convinced a woman to take her shirt off. Both acts happened quite often. The women were encouraged by more than one sign that read "Show Us Your Tits."
The crowd was forced to provide much of its own entertainment. The preliminary acts -- Karl Wallenda walked on the high wire, Gil Eagles rode a motorcycle blindfolded along the rim of the canyon, a man named Sensational Parker swung over the edge on an eighty-foot pole, and the Great Manzini escaped from a straitjacket while he was hung upside down over the canyon from a burning rope -- were performed out of sight from the live crowd, staged only for the closed- circuit viewers across the country. Fenced off from the compound and the rocket and any activity around it, with only the few remaining concession stands to visit, with no security except at the fences, the crowd improvised. Freely.
One of the few live attractions was the Butte High School marching band and the accompanying Purple B's Drill Team. Knievel had requested the presence of the band, even requested that certain songs be played, and had put up $2,200 to make the trip happen. Ken Berg, the twenty-six-year-old band director in his first year at the school, had pulled all the pieces together. It was quite a task. He was in charge now of over one hundred kids dressed in heavy purple-and-silver uniforms topped by heavy fur hats that were over a foot and a half tall. The band had left Butte at midnight in buses, ridden for seven hours, and appeared at the site at sunrise. The return trip would start immediately after the liftoff. The buses were expected back in Butte around 2:00 a.m.
"It was a lot of work," Berg said, an understatement. "I probably saw less of what happened that day than anyone. I was worried the whole time about those kids."
The crowd, well, members of the crowd made comments about the Butte High School band. The comments were not nice. The Purple B's Drill Team, girls, had their butts pinched. Lewd suggestions were made to all females in uniform. Director Berg had to keep photographers away from the drill team because the photographers were trying to take shots from ground level, up the high school girls' legs. The band already had planned to take part in the Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena on January 1, 1975, appropriate monies having been raised. This was not the Rose Bowl parade.
A picture of that horizontal naked woman, or perhaps another horizontal naked woman, would appear in an article about the jump a week later in Sports Illustrated. The caption would read: "The biker crowd does its own launching." High school boys would study this picture endlessly in school libraries in coming weeks.
Heinz Kleutmeier, the SI photographer for the Evel Knievel cover, had come back to Snake River for the jump. He had flown in from Madison, Wisconsin, where he had been part of a project for Life magazine called "One Day in the Life of America." Over one hundred photographers had been sent across the country to take pictures of various people and events on September 5, 1974, a random date chosen to represent the everyday hum of the country at work.
Kleutmeier's assignment was at a high school in Madison, then at a college bar at the University of Wisconsin. The magazine would choose 208 shots from over 1.5 million photographs taken across the nation.
The format would be so successful that it would be expanded in future years to fill best-selling coffee-table books. The magazine noted that on September 5, 1974, no different from any other day in America, about 8,600 babies would be born, 5,400 people would die, 2,500 would get divorced, and 6,300 would get married.
There was no real news. The date was selected because, "in the period after Labor Day each year, summer is put away, school begins, the tempo is up. In many ways it is the year's real beginning."
Three days later at Snake River there was this different dynamic at work. Kleutmeier was stunned by the difference. The universal was replaced by the bizarre. "One canyon jump" was added to the list of births, deaths, marriages, and divorces. One guy would be shot into the unknown. Chaos seemed to be everywhere. Kleutmeier tried to inject a small bit of common sense into the proceedings.
"You're going back to the bottom of the canyon," the photographer told his assistant when they arrived at the site. "That's where I want you for the jump."
The assistant objected. The sun was brutal. The bottom of the canyon would be hot, dirty, and totally without merit. Nothing would happen there.
"No, that's where the story is going to be," Kleutmeier said, thinking about the test shot he had witnessed. "I saw the test. That's where this guy is going to land."
This was a different One Day in the Life of America. Yes, it was. The ceremonies before the launch were part halftime at the Super Bowl, part High Mass in the Roman Catholic Church. The broadcaster for the closed-circuit show was David Frost, the thirty-five-year-old British talk show host, noted as an interviewer of political figures and fiancé of actress Diahann Carroll. Three years in the future he would do interviews with Richard Nixon that would help explain what had happened in the past couple of years. His color man now was Jim Lovell, the decorated American astronaut.
"This is reminiscent of the early Mercury days," Lovell said, presumably talking about rockets, overlooking what was happening with the crowd around the launch site.
Knievel came out of his trailer and bounded up the dirt hill that was the base for the launch ramp. He looked clean and perfect in his red-white-and-blue flight suit, the copy of his motorcycle leathers. He was a Saturday morning cartoon brought to life. A well-dressed, but worried Saturday morning cartoon. He shook a few hands on the way to meet Frost on a platform at the top of the hill overlooking the canyon.
Frost seemed nonplussed to be asking questions of a man who might be dead within the next five or ten minutes. Knievel talked in solemn tones, which befit a man who might be dead in the next five or ten minutes. It was not the greatest interview in interview history.
"How have you prepared yourself physically and mentally for this?" Frost asked in the midst of his questions.
"David, I don't drink very much," Knievel said. "And I never have taken a narcotic."
"Do you have any advice for people out there?"
"Live like you were made to live. Don't take a narcotic."
Frost's final question was whether or not Knievel was afraid at this moment. Knievel gave a lengthy answer that mentioned God and Old Glory, Jesus and living "in a country like this."
"I think that a man was put here to live, not just exist, and today is the proudest day of my life," he said in conclusion. "I'm living a dream that they thought never could be done, but it'll be done."
There would be debate later about his condition when he went into the cockpit. There would be people who claimed he was drunk, blitzed on shots of Wild Turkey when he went in. There would be other people who declared he was perfectly fine. There would not be a consensus. He definitely was scared, nervous.
The most important fact for everyone involved in the promotion was that he was inside the cockpit. The show would happen. More than one of the promoters during the closing weeks had doubted that this moment ever would take place.
"There was a big guard with a cowboy hat and a shotgun right next to the rocket," Don Branker said. "Everyone thought he was there to protect Knievel. I told him he was there to threaten to shoot Knievel if Knievel tried to climb out of that thing."
David Frost said the announcers would be silent for the countdown.
"Happy landings, Evel," he said.
The time was 3:36 in the afternoon of September 8, 1974. The numbers came through the radio in the pilot helmet clamped tight over the man of the moment's troubled head. No stopping now. He was going to travel over Snake River Canyon in this bucket of previously used bolts.
There was no turning back now. He was strapped into this compartment in the front end of this retread airplane fuel tank that had been salvaged from a government junkyard, one of those fuel tanks you see on the wingtips of fighter planes or private jets, a fuel tank that cost no more than $100 as scrap metal. He waited to be blasted into the sky. Maybe blasted to smithereens. Blasted in some manner or shape or form. That was for sure.
The fuel tank, which was supposed to be a rocket of course, had been altered, painted, given some kind of "jet propulsion" system, a set of surplus helicopter fins had been stuck on the side, and some corporate logos had been added to complete the red-white-and-blue American commercial package, but truth was truth: he was riding a homemade piece of s---. Three smart kids with an Encyclopedia Brittanica and a whole lot of spare time could have made this thing. Shot it off from their backyard.
The sense of doom that had been an undigested worry in his stomach for the longest time had grown and grown in the past months, days, hours, and now, in the final minutes and seconds, it filled his entire body, gushed out, covered his every word and action. He was a dead man.
He had talked so much about the risk, the peril involved, while selling this event, this stunt, this whatever it was across the country, that he had convinced himself. He was a goner. He had created his own demise, built it from scratch, from an idea in his head to a public extravaganza televised around the world. "Man Kills Himself." Come on, folks. Get your money up. Bring the wife and kids.
"Right now I don't think I've got better than a fifty-fifty chance of making it," he had told Robert Boyle of Sports Illustrated. "It's an awful feeling. I can't sleep nights. I toss and turn, and all I can see is that big ugly hole in the ground grinning up at me like a death's head. You know, I've always been concerned about kids -- not just my own three, but all kids -- what kind of an image I'm providing for them, what kind of an inspiration. I don't know now. Maybe I'm leading them down a path to self-destruction. Our house in Butte is surrounded night and day by people wanting to take a look at me, to take something as a souvenir. And that damn little Robbie of mine, the 11-year-old, you know what he's gone and done, He has got a big old sign out in front that says 'SEE EVEL JR JUMP -- 25 CENTS.' It's not a good thing."
Push the button. That was all he had to do. Push the button and away he went. He had little control over what happened next. He had no steering wheel. He had no gears to shift. Nothing. He was so cramped he couldn't put his arms out and attempt to fly as a last gasp if trouble arose.
The last-resort personal parachute hanging from his chest was nuisance rather than comfort. He had his hand on the lever for the drogue shoot, that was it. Wait ten seconds after liftoff and let it go. It would work without him if he passed out. He really was a passenger, not a driver.
When he pushed that one button in front of him, the plug would be pulled on the seventy-seven- gallon boiler underneath, the water inside superheated in the past fourteen hours to 475 degrees, and 5,000 pounds of steam pressure would be released. The old airplane fuel tank ... okay, the rocket ... the rocket would be traveling at 200 miles per hour by the time it reached the end of the 108- foot ramp into the sky, traveling as fast as 400 miles per hour when it hit the height of its arc, 2,000 feet in the air. (Plus the 540- foot drop into the canyon. That meant he would be almost half a mile off the ground.) If all went well, the drogue parachute and then the big parachute would deploy from the back of the rocket, and he would slow down as he reached the other side. He would be traveling no more than fifteen miles per hour when a pointed shock absorber, sort of a pogo stick on the front of the rocket, would cushion the landing on the moonscape on the other side.
This, of course, was all hypothesis. No one ever had done this.
Maybe the rocket would blow up when he pushed the button. That was a possibility. Maybe the rocket would flip in midair, go out of control, plunge straight down. Maybe there wouldn't be enough power, the rocket limping over the edge of the canyon, bang and crash and bang and crash all the way to the bottom. Maybe the parachute wouldn't open and there would be too much power, the rocket shooting off to God knows where and landing God knows where. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe the pressure from the liftoff, the G forces, would cause a heart attack.
Simple as that.
He could die by fire. He could drown in the Snake River. He could die from internal or external injuries. The permutations of death seemed endless. He could break his neck. Some jagged piece of something could cut him in two. He could be paralyzed for life. Anything. He was a crash-test dummy, a passenger, along for the ride. He could be scared to death right now, before anything happened. Is anyone literally scared to death?
Someone had written that he would be like a guy with a firecracker stuck up his butt. That was a good description. Now the firecracker was going to be lit.
He had left a letter for the citizens of Butte on the front page of the Montana Standard two days before the jump.
Citizens of ButteAfter being close to home for the past days, hearing and seeing much evident thoughts of all of you, I have wondered, especially these last few days as the jump time grows closer, how to let you know my feelings. Today under my name on the Skycycle X2, there is a sign that says "City of Butte, Mont., Richest Hill on Earth." For me, it not only means richest for ore deposits, it also means richest for the friends and loved ones that I have.
On Sunday, about 3:20 p.m., Butte time, the countdown will start for a Skycycle shot the world thought could not be done. I know that there are many of you in this little City that I call home who always knew that some how I'd get a chance to realize my Impossible Dream.
When the launch control center gives me in my helmet-radio earphones "T minus 10 seconds to blastoff," I'll give you the "thumbs up" sign. That will be my way of saying Thanks!
He had carried this thing to the limit. No doubt about that. Straight from Good Time Charlie Shelton's couch in Kalispell all the way to this phantasmagorical sideshow that had stopped the world in its tracks.
Pretty good. Pretty damn good. Talk about a good sales pitch.
The canyon was part of the basic package from that Kalispell night forward. Never let it go. He talked coast to coast about jumping the canyon. He talked about it when he was poor, everybody living in the trailer, Linda and the kids picking oranges from some guy's grove, just to have something to eat. He talked about it when he was famous, filling the Astrodome, filling Madison Square Garden, his name on the marquee, dinner delivered now by room service. He talked about it before the shows and after the shows, talked about it in press conferences and at testimonial dinners, talked about it on Wide World of Sports. Talked about it on American Bandstand.
Maybe the name of the canyon changed during those eight years from the Grand Canyon to Snake River because of circumstances. Maybe the motorcycle jump became a rocket jump because of simple physics. The double-dare never changed: he would jump a canyon. He jumped cars and trucks and buses in a line, jumped the fountains at Caesars Palace.
No matter what he jumped and no matter how he landed -- and he'd landed badly, broken most of the big bones in his body, spent maybe three of the past eight years in hospitals -- the canyon was the ultimate challenge. He talked about it in the hospitals as soon as he could talk.
And here he was.
The money wasn't nearly as much as he'd thought it would be. The crowd wasn't nearly as large as he'd thought it would be. The Pope hadn't appeared. Nor had President Gerald Ford. Nor had Elvis or John Wayne or Muhammad Ali or most of the people on the invited list. That was okay. The hell with it. The television cameras were here and 260 sites around the country would show this thing live on pay-per-view, and ABC would show it on film next week on Wide World. David Frost and Jules Bergman and Jim Lovell, who went to the moon, were here to do the play-by-play, and for this moment on this one afternoon all of America would wonder what was happening out here in the middle of nowhere. Would he win or lose, live or die? All of America would wonder.
Want to know.
The press, okay, hadn't been good. Someone had written, and everyone else had copied, that line that said, "The canyon was the sentimental favorite." The guy from the Washington Post lamented that "brutality is big business and suicide attempts can be marketed in a big way in America." Jimmy the Greek, the oddsmaker, had said that thing about "three-to-one this guy is crazy." Bob Truax, he said he wouldn't ride in what he had built.
Voices of negativity came from everywhere.
They followed him wherever he went, did what he did, wanted to grow up to be just like him. Businessmen stood in line, paid money simply to talk to him for fifteen minutes. If he put his name on their product, it flew off the shelves. He went to bed as late as he wanted, played golf when he wanted, ate what he wanted, drank Wild Turkey or Jack Daniel's just about every day of his life, starting before noon. He had it running through his body right now, mixing with the adrenaline and the fear.
He never had been a religious man, he was more of a fatalist in everything he did. Whatever happened was what was bound to happen. He did talk to God for a second now. He said, "God, take care of me." He definitely wanted to live. Take care of me. Take care of me. Take care.
The rocket was set at that 56-degree angle at the bottom of that 108-foot ramp. The sky was all he could see in front of him, blue sky with a few faraway clouds, the sky a kid would draw in third grade, fat yellow sun with rays coming out from the side, a picture that maybe would be hung on the wall in the classroom on the night that parents would visit the teachers. Nice picture, kid.
He pushed the button.