By Hunter Ford
The death of Evel Knievel last week resurrected some precious childhood memories for me.
If you, like me, were a child of the 1970s you could never forget the legendary motorcycle jumps and crashes that made Knievel famous.
It was an era of larger-than-life folk heroes. In Alabama we had Bear Bryant. The world had Muhammad Ali, the Vegas Elvis and Evel Knievel. And us kidsâ€¦we had one of the all-time greatest toys, the Evel Knievel Stunt Bike set.
The set consisted of a toy motorcycle, a rubbery, bendable action figure with a removable helmet and the classic white jumpsuit with the star-spangled, red, white and blue, v-shaped design, a platform with a hand crank and assorted ramps, blocks and other accessories.
Man that toy was the absolute best thing I ever played with!
I loved the sound that came from the launching platform. You would put the rear wheel of the motorcycle into a slot on the platform. With an ingeniously designed handle and crank, you revved up the flywheel inside the platform.
When the desired torque had been built up, you pushed a button and the motorcycle took off, jumping ramps, busting through plastic blocks, doing wheelies down the hallway, or scaring the wits out of the family cat.
I used to line up my Tonka trucks in a row to re-create some of Evelâ€™s stunts.
Back before cable TV, Evel Knievel was a fixture on ABCâ€™s Wide World of Sports. After Saturday cartoons were over (we didnâ€™t have all-day cartoon networks) the best televised entertainment on the weekend was â€œThe thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.â€
Knievel jumped cars, busses, canyons, pools of sharks and boxes of rattlesnakes. Sometimes he made a clean jump and sometimes he ended up in a bloody, bruised heap
Knievel was a superhero type character to children of my age. He was not much different from Batman or Superman or Captain Marvel. He did superhuman things. He defied death.
I had not given much thought to the real life demons that plagued Knievel. After learning of his death, I did an Internet search on Knievel and was blown away by the manâ€™s story. Iâ€™m sure that much of the information about him has been embellished over the years. But, here are just a few bits of the Knievel legend:
*He got his name from a jailer. When Knievel was a youngster he was arrested for stealing hubcaps and was thrown in jail next to a local thug known as Awful Knofel. A cop at the jail joked that he had â€œAwful Knofel and Evil Knievelâ€ in his jail. Knievel legally changed his name years later and altered the spelling.
*He played minor league hockey and owned a semi-pro hockey team.
*He drank a potion of beer, whiskey and tomato juice that he called a â€œMontana Mary.â€
*His parents abandoned him when he was a child. Grandparents in Montana raised him.
*He once was a safe cracker for a gang of bank robbers.
*The toy I loved so much is credited by some as â€œsingle handedly saving the ailing 70s toy industry and grossing over $350 million.â€
Knievel had failed marriages, he burned his liver up with the â€œMontana Maryâ€™sâ€ and he squandered most of his fortune. When he no longer could experience the thrill of motorcycle stunts he turned to high stakes sports gambling for an adrenaline fix.
In many ways, the real Evel Knievel was an incredibly nasty man. He almost killed a business associate with a baseball bat when the man printed some unflattering things about Knievel in a book.
Before he died, Knievel publicly stated that he believed in Jesus and had converted to Christianity.
It could have been yet another publicity stunt from one of the most notorious self-promoters of the 20th Century.
Still, I have to believe there is a place in heaven for the man whose legend inspired the toy that gave so many kids the thrill of a lifetime.
I hope Robert Craig Knievel is popping wheelies on the â€œstreets that are paved with gold.â€
â€œPeople said I wasnâ€™t scared. That is (bull). I was scared. Iâ€™d have a shot of Wild Turkey whiskey before each jump just to calm myself. Iâ€™d get this knot in my stomach and this lump in my throat every time. And I love that feeling. People who go around with â€œNo Fearâ€ T-shirts these days are full of (it). Fear is high-octane fuel for success. You have to know how to handle it, how to harness it. If you risk your life, you have got to have fear.â€- Evel Knievel RIP