Local Vocal: Goodbye, Evel Knievel

by Rick Farmer

It’s been said that children don’t know their mortality, therefore they take risks and perform stunts that most adults would never attempt. Recently I was visiting friends in Winston-Salem and was pushing their 6-year-old son on a swing behind their home. He kept begging me to push him higher. While I was standing there worried he might fall out, he completely startled me by jumping out and taking flight to the ground.

It’s the nature of boys I guess. I don’t know why they do these things. I just know that as an adult I no longer have the desire to experience bungee jumping, parachuting, hang gliding or even the thrills of amusement parks.

But long before Generation X made “Xtreme’ sports a near-mainstream, vertigo-inducing recreational pursuit, there was a man who somehow never grew up and was seemingly stuck in a pre-pubescent, fearless vortex where mortality is not known. Like my friend’s son in Winston-Salem, he challenged gravity without thought, threw his body into the air, and caution to the wind. And he was every boy’s hero and secret aspiration.

He was Evel Knievel, the motorcycle daredevil in the red white and blue jumpsuit, Elvis sideburns and hopped-up James Dean rebel-without-a-cause attitude.

Before BMX bicycles or motorcycle half-pipe ramp competitions became common on television, Evel Knievel was pulling off gravity-defying stunts with all the pre-event hype of a glam rock concert. Revving his motorcycle, taking his practice runs to the tip top of a ramp to stop on a dime and look out over a line of cars or buses, and then scooting back down the ramp, Knievel sped off into the distance. He’d turn around, rev the engine some more and shoot back toward the ramp at breakneck speed to launch man and engine into the air out over the void.

Sometimes Evel escaped unharmed. Sometimes he broke bones and punctured organs. But always he mesmerized a huge audience. We were sitting on pins and needles, young and old, our hearts in our throats, holding our breath as one.

It’s what’s called “mass culture,” a social phenomena in which huge numbers of people gather around the television set to watch a program as one entity. But with the advent of cable television, satellite TV and the internet, and with so many viewing options, today audiences have become so segmented that few can garner the huge viewership that once existed in the 1970s. That was a time when a bad boy like Evel Knievel could strap himself to a rocket and shoot out over the Snake River Canyon to a Saturday evening television audience of tens of millions, and become a living legend no matter the consequence. That was the time when a boy with an Evel Knievel stunt cycle was the envy of the neighborhood.

So here is to the red, white and blue. Here’s to the all-American youth: You who surf the big waves of Waimea in Hawaii and catch air off the lip in Greensboro’s 915 Skate Park. And to that unique, all-American thing that lives in my friend’s son, the thing that makes him hurl himself from his swing in his back yard. And Godspeed to you Evel Kneivel now that you made your final jump from this life to the next.

Rick Farmer lives in Winston-Salem, is employed by Alcohol & Drug Services and teaches sociology part-time at High Point University.