I don’t doomscroll things as they are. I go on YouTube, to look at things that once were, and ask, “How fucked up was that?”
This week, I real-time revisited Evel Knievel’s Snake River Canyon jump in Twin Falls, Idaho, September 8, 1974. In which the motorcycle stuntman, then at the height of his fame, attempted to use some kind of rocket called a “Sky Cycle” to jump over the deep canyon before 33,000 paying spectators, while many more Americans, many of them children, sat watching on closed-circuit TV piped into stadiums and movie theaters across the country, waiting to see if their hero would fall to his death, or not.
Like the 1977 “Disco Demolition Night” I revisited last year, this event was is even nuttier in retrospect than it was at the time. And it was plenty nutty then.
The closed-circuit broadcast begins after a bizarre lead-up to the event, according to a look back in the hotrodding mag Fuel Curve:
During the lead up to the big jump, there were shotgun toting hillbillies acting as “security,” crazy bikers, rapes, a constantly pissed-off Kneivel and more mele than you can imagine. The local Jaycees saw the event as the perfect time to sell beer for a fundraiser. That sounded great but the outlaw bikers got tipped off on the supply and broke into the container and stole all the suds.”
The broadcast opens with Knievel acknowledging to an interviewer the possibility that he might black out from the g-forces in the launch and let go of the parachute handle, causing the chute to prematurely ejaculate (or whatever).
Then Knievel recites a long poem, apparently self-penned, that attempts to lend broader social mission to daredevil work. The poem is called, “Why?”
Well, I’m just like you, and you, you—and your wife.
We all have a special purpose in life.
And my way of life, I’m glad that I found.
For, like you, too, I make the world go round.
We’re all alike, oh yes we are.
We all have a dream on some far away star.
For me, when it’s over and done, at the end of a day, my men go to relax, but I go to pray.
For I know that tomorrow, in some other place, I’ll have that jump again to face.
And so on and so forth, as we see shots of the canyon, and of Knievel being prepped on a bulldozed dirt ramp with an American flag flapping on a flimsy scaffolding above.
And we’re counting down—”one minute forty-nine seconds.”
A British announcer now says, “There is just one and a half minutes to go til Evel Knievel’s date with destiny.”
We pause this broadcast to get another drink and to reflect on what else was going on in September, 1974: President Nixon had resigned the presidency the month before in the wake of Watergate, the Vietnam War he promised to end still on. President Ford actually pardoned Nixon on the very same day, September 8, that the Snake River Canyon jump took place.
I was five, and the boys my age who didn’t have an Evel Knievel lunch box, had the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle. Because this was a nation that knew what was important to teach our children, about life. In 1974 in America, Evel Knievel was as famous as Muhammad Ali.
“One minute and counting.”
“Five, four, three, two, one. “
Abruptly the craft takes off. The first couple of seconds are majestic, until a parachute insanely pops out the back of the rocket long before it approaches an apex, and the whole rig begins a sudden descent into the canyon, trailing a cloud of patriotic red smoke. “Evel, stay with the bird, stay with the bird,” says “flight coordinator” Ron Chase. “Looks like you’re going to go into the canyon.”
“It’s going to crash, obviously into the river,” says one announcer. Another answers, “She’s okay though, coming down 17 feet per second …”
The “bird” lands hard, pointy-end first on some rocks near the bank of the river, and then seems to plunge into the river.
“What’s it look like, Bob?” an interviewer asks back at the launch site.
“Looks like he didn’t hold onto the handle,” Bob says.
We are only seven minutes into the 32-minute broadcast. I’ll need another drink to see how they fill the rest of this time.
Now, the announcer uses Knievel’s original name, intoning ominously, “Robert Cray Knievel did not clear the sixteen-hundred foot Snake River Canyon. He has landed in the Snake River. However, we believe it is in the river, and not in the rocks.” Meanwhile, every TV viewer saw the thing prang itself on the rocks, and then roll into the river—pretty much a worst-case scenario in which you imagine Knievel being knocked unconscious and then drowning in the river.
A helicopter hovers helplessly by. And another.
Back up on the canyon rim, Knievel’s family is screaming and crying.
Announcer: “David, I am very scared.”
Suddenly we see a small red boat, with Knievel standing on the bow and waving.
Announcer: “I think at this point we can all say, ‘thank God.'”
The family is relieved, and hustled away to confirm the boat shot on a TV monitor and the announcer pronounces Linda Knievel, “a very happy woman.”
“Well maybe he didn’t clear the canyon,” the announcer intones, “and maybe his dream did not come true. But at least he’s alive and well, and he tried. I would imagine now Mr. Knievel is as limp as a rag.”
Now the legendary sports announcer Jim McKay comes abruptly on, wearing the then-standard mustard-yellow blazer of ABC Sports—this must be part of a later public broadcast, and not what the closed-circuit audience saw.
Taking this utterly imbecilic event every bit as seriously as the Olympic Games for which he was famous for announcing, McKay apologizes for an inferior camera angle because though there were three helicopters with cameras, “at the instant that [Knievel] started heading down the canyon, the Federal Aviation Administration—and we certainly think properly—ordered all aircraft to land immediately.”
Two thoughts on that: First, the time from launch until crunchy splashdown was 40 seconds. Not a ton of time for the FAA to ground three helicopters. Second: The fucking FAA? Knew of this caper, and not only allowed it to go forward but got involved in its operation?
McKay also clarifies that the “Sky Cycle” never actually went into the river. And now we see shots of Knievel receiving a hero’s welcome back at the launch site: “Looks like he has a bloody nose, and is bleeding from the eyes a little bit.”
“I don’t know what happened,” Knievel says, and then seems to admit that he caught a glimpse of the canyon wall—the machine rolled a little on takeoff—and deployed the parachute. He adds, “I couldn’t get my safety belt unharnessed and if I’d-a gone into the river I’d-a never gotten out, ever. … I don’t know what happened, I can’t say. I’ll just have to let Bob and the fellas examine it.”
“Are you going to try it again?”
“Well, I don’t know, I sat in it, and gave it my best, I don’t know what to tell ya, believe me.”
Now the grounds crew is taking the blame for. “It was our fault … we should-a done one more test.”
“And there you heard it, from Bob Truax,” says the announcer. “Evel did not deploy the chute himself. It came off on the pad, a mechanical failure.”
Evel gets a hug from his father, who is wearing a stuntman jumpsuit of his own, for whatever reason.
Clearly, this is all over but the shoutin’, but the shoutin’ looks like it’s going to take a minute. Fifteen of them, in fact.
“Bob, what happened?”
“Well this, right here, is the cover to the parachute canister …”
[And here we must remind you that this entire contraption—an inelegant solution to a problem that never existed—was invented by this unsupervised gang of circus performers.]
“… it obviously came loose much too soon, right on the pad. Because it was impaled on this part, which goes up the rocket nozzle.”
A brief shot of Mr. and Mrs. Knievel’s hugging reunion … and cut to Evel, in a custom blazer, now several days later in the studios of ABC’s Salt Lake affiliate with Jim McKay, and also ABC’s Science Editor Jules Bergman. Yes, ABC News flew in its science editor for this.
Knievel opens by bragging at how well he executed his part of the jump, and astonishingly attributes his precision to a life of sobriety: “You know, Jim, all my life, I have not drank any kind of booze or alcohol to any extent, and I have never taken a narcotic.”
That’s funny. Knievel was one of the great American boozers of the 20th century. In fact, his entry on Drunkard.com says: “He averaged a half a fifth of whiskey, usually Wild Turkey, and a six-pack of beer a day. Before every jump, he would knock back a shot of Wild Turkey. For good luck. Sometimes he would knock back more than one if he felt he needed extra luck.”
Now, McKay wants to ask Knievel some “personal questions, about Evel Knievel the man, how you feel and so forth. We’ll be right back.”
McKay asks the money question: “Evel, don’t get mad at me. But even after seeing what we’ve seen here, you know as well as I do that there are still gonna be people who say, ‘It was a rip-off.’ That you planned to do it this way.”
“Well, there’s some people—some newsmen included—who you could not please unless you hit the canyon wall head-on at 400 miles-an-hour, so then, there wouldn’t have been a rip-off. My body would have been ripped off.”
And now Knievel is back for one final segment, and he’s reading a speech. This is suddenly Robert Cray Knievel talking, and I offer it to you, unabridged:
I’d just like to make a statement to the maybe young daredevils in this country. Remember that being a daredevil sometimes puts me in a position that I don’t like to be put in. When I give my word about taking a risk, it could mean forfeiting all fame and fortune as well as my life. I say, ‘Don’t do it.’ If you like to race motorcycles, or cars, or jump—do it with years of practice, the best equipment and all of the best engineering and know-how you can gather. Be a pro. Practice. Don’t be a show-off. Become an artist. And always remember, it’s not how loud you can sing, how fast you can drive or ride, or how far you can jump. It’s how you go about it. In life, no matter what you do to become a success, or a superstar, in this world of big business and entertainment, you need a perfect wheel to spin straight forward, and the right direction to keep you on top. And the hub must be true, your spokes must be true, and the spin of the wheel must be perfect and correct to keep you moving. Without all of these things I’ve mentioned, your wheel will start to wobble, or flip-flop, and to reach your goal or destination is impossible. Only the luckiest people in life, when they get into that kind of a situation, can survive a crisis such as I did. And thank God that I’m still alive. You young daredevils of the future, remember: Success is achieved by those who try. And keep trying. And when you have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, if you’re successful, by all means, try. But I say to you finally: If you want to compete, or become a risk-taker like me, think carefully. Be a professional. And remember: To gain the world, and lose your life, is not worth taking any kind of a risk.
Science Editor Bergman has a final word: “I was here, and it was not a rip-off, it was not a hoax. I examined the wreckage myself. Evel and Truax—nobody could have staged that event the way it happened. It was a mechanical failure. People can say all they want about Evel, but the one thing they can’t say is that it was staged, and that he doesn’t have guts.”
“Like so many things in life, it was neither total triumph nor total failure,” McKay grandly concludes, “It was somewhere in between.”
Actually, the final word comes from every person I know under the age of 25 or 30: They’ve never heard of Evel Knievel.