Bronx Banter Book Excerpt
Here’s a smile for you. From Leigh Montville’s terrific new book, “Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel:American Showman, Daredevil and Legend.” I reviewed the book in SI last week and can’t recommend it enough.
“Most of us think of what we do as writing,” said William Nack. “But Leigh Montville sits down and says, ‘Why don’t I tell you all a story?’ ”
“My philosophy has always been that sports should be fun—a thing of joy,” Montville once told SI. “I don’t get up a whole lot of outrage; I’d rather laugh. What I really like to do is take something and stand it on its head, look at it that way, from a different perspective.”
Montville is one of our best pure storyteller’s and he’s perfectly suited to tell the tale tale of Evel Knievel. Here’s the first of two-part excerpt detailing Knievel’s most infamous stunt–Snake River Canyon.
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.
Knievel agreed. “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?
“He apparently has not read all of the papers,” one of the cynics suggested within the hearing of Charles Maher of the L.A. Times.
“I think he’s making his peace,” another cynic said. This was his goodbye to his adversaries. He went inside his trailer to get dressed and say good-bye to his family. And to Bob Arum’s sons.
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.
“These young girls . . . these beautiful young girls . . . were saying that they wanted to give blow jobs for Evel,” Bob Arum said. “And they did. Right there. Blow jobs for Evel. It was an amazing thing to see.”
One of the few live attractions was the Butte High School march- ing 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.
“We were a bunch of naive band students,” flute player Judy Staudinger, whose brother played the drums, said. “This was not a very naive crowd.”
The kids were mostly terrified. They had never seen anything like what they saw now. Kim Ungerman, a photographer for the Montana Standard, stood on the announcer’s platform to take a group picture of the band in formation. He said he could see four fights taking place in the crowd at one time, one that involved eleven of the motorcycle gang security officers. There was little water on the site, less food. The purple suits weighed a thousand pounds apiece. No one had slept. The ticket holders were upset because the band was on the far side of the first fence, a prime location. The ticket holders said more nasty things.
At one point a riot seemed to be developing, an assault on the fence. Someone from the promotion quickly asked the Butte band to play a song, any song. Berg whipped the troops together. They played a special Evel Knievel song they had learned for the trip. The music, curiously, seemed to quiet the crowd. The promoter asked the band to keep playing.
“We played ‘Come On, Baby, Light My Fire,’ ” Judy Staudinger said. “I remember that. It seemed to fit.”
The only celebrities who had appeared were President Gerald Ford’s two sons and singer Claudine Longet and her boyfriend, skier Spider Sabich. (The couple would be in the news a year and a half later when Longet shot and killed Sabich in their Aspen, Colorado, home. After a front-page trial, she was convicted of negligent homicide.) The location was too remote to attract most celebrities. Then again, the location was too remote to attract most people. There were few places to stay, few big-city resources for travelers.
Duane Unkefer, who handled Knievel’s dealings with Harley-Davidson, described the problems as well as anyone. He was in charge of a group of Harley executives and their wives who had flown in for the event. Harley had removed itself from the production—the rocket was not a motorcycle, not even close—but the company logo had been slapped on the side of the thing and Evel was their man, so the executives followed.
The accommodations, alas, were terrible, a roadside motel that was miles from the jump site, then a yellow school bus early in the morning for a ride to the launch. This was the only transportation Unkefer could find for his bosses and their wives. After an interminable ride in two-lane traffic, the bus bounced over the dirt road to the jump site, then pulled up maybe twenty feet from the canyon, which was as close as the bus could go. There were no such things as reserved seats or luxury boxes for canyon jumps.
The executives were parked here in the middle of the masses. The masses pounded on the side of the school bus, drank, cussed, stirred up a bunch of dust. Unkefer stepped out of the bus to see what he could see.
“They mostly were all males, but there were a couple of women too,” he reported. “Right near me, three or four guys, big guys, grabbed one of the women and ripped all of her clothes off. Just like that. Then they held her in the air. Horizontal.”
And then a succession of other males proceeded to have oral sex with the woman, who did not seem to mind. Unkefer looked back into the bus. All of the executives and all of their wives had witnessed this display.
“I wondered,” he said, “what my future with the company might be.” A picture of that horizontal naked woman, or perhaps another hori- zontal 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 peo- ple 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.”
He stood with Frost on the platform for the benediction, delivered by his cousin (“Guide him to a successful landing, Lord, whether it be on earth or in Heaven” Father Sullivan said), shook hands with Bob Truax (“Don’t pull that chute until the right time” Truax said), then was carried through the air slowly in the bosun’s chair hung from the crane. He could have climbed the stairs to the rocket, no problem, but a sponsor had supplied the crane, plus money, so he rode the crane. An Evel Knievel song, John Culliton Mahoney’s “Ballad of Evel Knievel,” was played over the loudspeaker during the trip (“A strong yet simple man, riding on the edge of danger”). The poem “Why,” which Knievel read often before his jumps and claimed he had written, was read while he was helped into the Skycycle (“To be a man and do my best is my only quest”).
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.
“He’s sitting in the thing, and he’s out of it,” Arum said. “He didn’t even recognize me. He was scared shit out of his mind. I wished him good luck.”
“He was okay,” Facundo Campoy, who wiped his face and then helped him put on the flight helmet, said. “He was alert. He heard me. He wasn’t drunk. No. He was okay.”
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.
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.