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The Man Who Fell to Earth

Bronx Banter Book Excerpt

Here is Part Two of Evel Knievel’s Snake River Canyon Jump from Leigh Montville’s new book, “Evel:The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend.”

(Click here for Part One)


Ten . . .

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. Or not.

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 fi ghter 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 fi ns 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 shit. 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.

Nine . . .

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 fi nal 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.”

Eight . . .

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 fl y 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.

Seven . . .

Maybe the rocket would blow up when he pushed the button. That was a possibility. Maybe the rocket would fl ip 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 fi re. 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 fucking 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 fi recracker was going to be lit.

Six . . .

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 Butte

After 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!

Five . . .

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.

Four . . .

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 fi lm 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.

Three . . .

You know what? Fuck all of those people. Fuck Jimmy the Greek. Fuck Truax. Fuck the bastards with their typewriters, clickety- clacking away, making fun of him with their big words, throwing up their hands in horror about what might happen, screaming about the money he was going to make, acting like he was stealing from cookie jars and piggy banks that belonged to old widows. Fuck the promoters, all taking their bites, not worrying a bit about whether he lived or died. Fuck the hippies and the draft dodgers, who couldn’t care less about him. Fuck the fatsos in their living rooms, staring at the blue light every night, grazing, feeding their faces, and never taking a chance. Fuck anyone who thought he was going to die. Fuck anyone who wanted to tell him how to live.

He was Evel Knievel. He was “the Last of the Gladiators.” He was “the King of the Stunt Men.” If life could be measured by wealth and possessions, he had a hell of a life. He had a good- looking wife and three healthy kids. He had all the pussy on the side a man ever could imagine. He had a Cadillac, a Lincoln, two Ferraris, a $400,000 house on a golf course. He had jewelry. A movie had been made about his life. He knew famous people, and they knew him. Name a restaurant, a bar, a gas station, or a city hall in the United States of America, and he could walk in tomorrow and everything would stop and everybody would know his name and everybody would smile. He was Evel Knievel. Kids loved him. 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 fi fteen 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 was Evel Knievel, and he didn’t have to take shit from anyone.

Did he mention the pussy on the side?

Fuck ’em all.

Two . . .

He never had been a religious man, he was more of a fatalist in everythinghe 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 defi nitely 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.

One . . .

He pushed the button.

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.


1 Sliced Bread   ~  May 4, 2011 4:39 pm

Great stuff. Thanks for this, Alex. Montville is ridiculously good, and Evel is a ridiculously fun character. I watched all his big stunts as a kid, and even once got to "work" with him briefly (a story for another time).
I have one minor nit to pick over your review of the book for SI. The line calling him the godfather of Jackass. While it may be entirely true that the Jackass guys were inspired by Evel, they took his game in a completely different (dumber) direction. Evel, for all his bluster and contradictions was a true showman, and I think a more relevant pop culture icon than the Jackass crew.
Basically, my beef is this: saying Evel is the godfather of Jackass - to me is like saying Houdini is the godfather of any cheesy magician on the Vegas strip. That character Gob from "Arrested Development" comes to mind. Know what I'm saying?
I just don't think you can put Jackass in the same sentence as Evel.
Minor nit. Picked.
Thanks again for posting the Montville selects. Terrific stuff, and I hope to get around to reading the book.

2 Alex Belth   ~  May 5, 2011 9:41 am

Good point. I was using it as a hook to the current reality TV generation. But I see where you are coming from.

Evel and Montville are ideally matched. The book is a ton of fun even if Evel was a shitheel of a guy.

3 Sliced Bread   ~  May 5, 2011 1:09 pm

Firsthand I can confirm he was an odd, and bitter guy in his later years.

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