The evils of worshipping Evel Knievel

Editor John White reflects on that time he and his friend followed in the steps of Evil Knievel and... didn't die.

Ah, springtime… When a pre-teen boy’s thoughts used to turn to semi-random outdoor mischief.

Considering it’s been nigh on 35 years since I was a pre-teen, I can only speak in terms of the late 1970s.

My friends and I were obsessed with Evel Knievel. We would gather around the console TV in each other’s smoke-filled living rooms to watch live as the motorcycle daredevil would attempt some kind of crazy jump over 20 buses, or a tank of sharks, or the Snake River Canyon. These are all real things. Go ahead, Google them, I’ll wait here.

We all owned the Evel Knievel Scramble Van and motorcycle with action figure. We tried to think of creative ways to send l’il Evel flying off of his bike and into the air. Often, it involved the family dog, or the basement stairs, and sometimes both.

Much like the man himself, l’il Evel was nearly indestructible. He once went hurtling off of the roof of the garage and actually landed on his bike and kept riding. It was miraculous. In retrospect, this may have given us a false sense of safety when we inevitably mimicked our hero.

My best friend, Randy Barker, and I made a pact: If either of us was lucky enough to score a dirt-bike-style bicycle, we would immediately pedal over to the other’s house to start our careers as Young Evels. These bad boys came with springs in the back and shocks in the front, as well as thick, stubby tires and a long, flat, padded seat. They were perfect for jumping over garbage cans with throw-together ramps made of a 2×12 and three cinder blocks.

I should interject this feel-goodery with a note: My mom was very clear when she and my dad lifted that beauty out of the trunk and onto the driveway. “There will be no Evel Knievel or you’ll be grounded.”

Cut to later that afternoon in the back lane behind my friend Randy’s house…

Because we were so safety conscious, we decided to jump over old tires instead of actual garbage cans. We measured out the width of a garbage can and realized it was two for every truck tire. So we tried a few warm up jumps, and the board seemed to stay on top of the stacked cinder blocks. (Wow, hindsight has me stunned to still be alive.)

So we upped the ante to eight garbage cans, or four truck tires. We had a small landing ramp propped on the edge of the last tire. Randy went first. He peddled as hard as he could, and then hit the launch ramp.

He had great speed, but he neglected to pull up on the handlebars to create a landing angle, and clipped the edge of the last tire with the front wheel of the bike. It grabbed the bike, stopped it cold and lurched him forward. His left arm was caught under the handlebar, and he was being dragged along the pavement.

He slid for what seemed like 100 feet. His forearm was stripped of its skin. It was awful, awful stuff.

He ran into the house, got it washed off and his mom put a bandage on it. He also came out with his hockey helmet for us to wear, given the ferocity of his crash. Somehow I thought that made sense, and strapped it on for my turn.

There was truly no science involved. Ramp angle? Whatever a 2x12x10 feet propped on top of three cinder blocks created. Optimal launch speed? Bah, go as hard as you can and hope for the best. Launch angle of the bike? Pull up on the handlebars at launch, hard.

Off I went, peddling like a boy possessed… I hit the ramp dead centre, pulled up on the handlebars at just the right time, and flew. I soared, really. I somehow managed to drop the back tire perfectly on the landing ramp, and the capacity crowd (Randy and his two brothers) went wild. I was pumping my fist and screaming with joy. You could not wipe the stupid grin off of my face.

I rode home the conquering hero. I buffed the scratches off of the left handlebar, hoping my parents wouldn’t notice the carnage.

A week went by and I’d assumed I’d gotten away with it.

There we were at a house party celebrating Canada Day. Randy’s mom was sitting next to my mom and they were having a great time. Randy’s mom told my mom some kind of story that initially had her laughing, but eventually frowning and shaking her head. Something about skin grafts and infection and repeated hospital visits.

My mom handed me a lit sparkler and said, “you’re grounded for two weeks, but this will be our secret,” knowing full well my dad would force me to give up the bike, and I’d be grounded for more like two months.

It was many years before I was able to tell this story to my dad. Even though I was likely 18 by then, I still feared the worst. His response?

“Nice job landing it.”