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.”