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What goes up
By Lane DeGregory / Times Staff Writer
If I make it. How many times do you think Evel Knievel has said those words?
Usually he did make it, piloting his motorcycle over cars, snakes, sharks, buses. But we remember him just as well for the times his cycle came up just a teensy bit short. Knievel scattered pieces of himself at Caesars Palace, in Wembley Stadium, in San Francisco's Cow Palace.
He was the first Jackass.
His aim was uncertain, but his timing was exquisite. In the mid 1970s, America was booing its returning soldiers and booting its president. In vroomed Knievel, wearing a red, white and blue leather jumpsuit, a hero's cape and a showoff's thick gold chains.
"Evel was the king of bling," his friend Bill Rundle says. "And they didn't even know what bling was back then."
He gave Americans someone to cheer for, or at least provided a welcome distraction. Twelve days after Richard Nixon resigned, Knievel jumped 13 Mack trucks. On Oct. 25, 1975, more than half the country watched him leap over 14 Greyhound buses in Ohio - more than watched the "Thrilla in Manila" fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Knievel had money, fame and - he doesn't mind telling you - "oh God, more than 1,000 women."
And now here he is, struggling just to breathe. White wisps are all that's left of the thick hair that once spilled from his helmet. After weeks in the hospital, his golf course tan has paled. Gone are the gold chains, the diamond pinky ring, that swagger.
If life delivered neat endings, Evel Knievel would have gone out in a flash of glory, at the far end of a row of buses, or maybe in the bottom of the Snake River Canyon, which he famously failed to clear in 1974. Instead, after two marriages, four kids, a liver transplant, lung disease and a couple of strokes, the old daredevil sees this year's annual Evel Knievel Days as his ending. It will have to do.
"He was such an icon," Rundle says. "You don't believe icons can get old."
- - -
His wife, Krystal, 38, calls him by his given name, Bob.
They live with two spoiled Maltese in a modest Clearwater condo. You have to punch in a code to get through the lobby. The name above their code is an alias. When it said Knievel, drunks kept coming by late at night, buzzing their number.
An oil painting of Evel dominates his front hallway. A bronze statue of him stands on a bookshelf, surrounded by photos of his 11 grandkids.
The dog is snoring in Knievel's lap. Another chef is yelling on TV. Evel turns to a visitor and says, "Why don't you get up and get yourself a beer?"
It's 11 a.m. The visitor declines, thanks him. Knievel barks, "Then why don't you go get me one?"
"Christ almighty," he grouses when he finally gets his Michelob Ultra. He takes a swig.
"Forgive me," he says, "for using the Lord's name in vain."
- - -
"Okay, ask your questions. Hurry up. I don't have all day."
He doesn't want to waste whatever time he has left repeating things everyone already knows. For God's sake, people have written books about him. George Hamilton played him in a movie. The Bionic Woman wrapped her arms around his waist on an episode of her show.
He is tired of people pestering him, asking stupid questions.
What kind of questions? "That's a dumb question."
What was your favorite jump? "Jesus. Any jump I landed was my favorite."
What does it feel like to crash? "What the hell do you think it feels like? Christ almighty. It hurts."
Why did you do what you did? "Because I could. I could do the impossible. And it sure beat selling insurance."
Was it worth it? "What kind of stupid question is that? I'm still here, aren't I?
"Now hurry up. I'm running out of air."
- - -
From the time he could pedal a bike, Robert Craig Knievel wanted to fly.
He was born in 1938, in the desolate mining town of Butte. His parents divorced before he was 2 and left him and his younger brother to be raised by grandparents. "Bobby" was 8 when he got his first wheels. He taught himself to ride, then jump. By 12, he'd totaled four bikes and moved on to motorcycles. Everyone around Butte knew Bobby. He'd race through flower beds, leap curbs, pop wheelies through parking lots.
He wanted to be as flashy as Liberace, as brave as Roy Rogers, as beloved as Elvis. The legend goes that when he got tossed in jail for - what else? - reckless driving, a judge nicknamed him Evil Knievel. Later, Evel changed the spelling so he wouldn't seem so bad.
He worked as a hunting guide, then sold insurance and Hondas. If you beat him at arm wrestling, you won a free motorcycle. Some say he scammed people with a security guard business.
"A lot of Butte people really resent him to this day," says Mike Byrnes, who went to school with Knievel and now runs Butte Tours. "He's the most famous guy to come out of Butte. But we don't have any Evel sites on our tours.
"We've got a T-shirt, though. 'Butte, Montana: Birthplace of Evel Knievel. We apologize.' ''
Knievel was 27, married and a father, when he set out to become a professional daredevil. He did everything: built the ramps, booked the venues, promoted the show. Pay him $500 and he'd jump two cars.
Then sponsors began upping the ante. Think you can jump six cars? We'll give you $1,500. Try seven - we'll make it $2,000.
Soon Knievel was coming up with his own stunts. How much would you pay me to jump buses? Sharks? The Grand Canyon?
"He always figured he'd at least try," says Rundle, who traveled with Knievel's entourage.
"This one time at the Cow Palace, he knew his bike wasn't getting up enough speed to make the jump. But Evel would never back down. He jumped anyway. That one broke him up pretty good."
Rundle was with Knievel in 1974 when the federal government said he couldn't jump the Grand Canyon. So Knievel had to settle for the Snake River Canyon. Promoters promised him $6-million.
For a week before the jump, ABC showed specials on how the stunt could go wrong, why the "Skycycle" - more rocket ship than motorcycle - wouldn't make it.
"They kept going over all the ways he could die," Rundle says. "And I don't think Evel thought he'd make it, either. But you know he'd just sit there watching all the reports and he never said anything to anyone. He never seemed to react. It was eerie."
- - -
Knievel needs oxygen. He lifts the dog from his lap, heaves himself out of the recliner.
He shuffles across his living room in white socks, past the Evel Knievel light-switch plate in his bedroom hall, past the photo of his second wedding, at Caesars Palace, where he once crashed so badly he spent a month in a coma.
Knievel opens his closet and pulls out the tubes that tether him to a tank. He flips on the machine, drinks in the air.
On the way back to the living room, he passes a table piled high with fan mail. A guy from St. Paul, Minn., sent an old photo of Evel leaping in front of a Ferris wheel. "I'm just wondering how you're doing," the man wrote. "You're extremely brave. I respect you." Knievel answers every inquiry - as long as he gets a self-addressed envelope, with postage.
"I never thought the empire would last this long," he says, easing back into his chair. He closes his eyes. The shadow of a smile seems to tug at his mouth.
Then he looks up, confused. "What year is it again?"
- - -
In the winter of 1976, Knievel wiped out after jumping a tank of live sharks, crushing both arms and his collarbone and suffering a severe concussion. He also smashed into a cameraman, who eventually lost an eye.
He did a few exhibitions after that - some with his son Robbie, now a grownup daredevil - then quit. He spent his time on golf courses and in casinos, gambling on everything, sometimes $100,000 on a football game.
Years later, after the IRS took some of his homes, Knievel cruised the highways in his custom RV, visiting car dealerships and Harley shops, towing a trailer filled with his past: the rocket he'd ridden into the canyon, five motorcycles, a skeleton illustrating the 35 bones he'd shattered. His appearances helped sell cars, put money in his pocket.
Then came liver disease and the strokes. Knievel can't go on the road anymore. He still does a few endorsements: Mini Coopers, a slot machine, a line of custom motorcycles. Last year, Evel toys were re-released. Even so, money is tight now; Knievel is trying to sell his custom RV.
These days, he says, he doesn't need an adrenaline rush. "The most joy I get now is waking up and wrapping my arms around my wife," he says. "But sometimes she sleeps way over on the other side of the bed and it's hard to get to her. Especially with the dogs between us."
More and more, he thinks about the life after this one. He says he knows God has a place for him. "My grandmother who raised me, she lived to 103, she'll be there waiting for me. And I hope she'll forgive me for all I put her through," Knievel says.
"She'll point her finger at me and say, 'I told you so, Bobby. I told you everything you wanted to do in life, you could. You can fall many times, but as long as you keep getting up, you'll never be a failure.' ''
- - -
Evel Knievel needs a nap.
It's a couple of hours into the interview and he's talking about a stunt he never got to do. He wanted to jump out of a plane without a parachute and land in a haystack.
"They never let me do it," he says. "That's the only . . ."
He nods off. Ten seconds go by, then 20. The dog licks his hand.
When Knievel wakes and sees the visitor still sitting there, he gets angry. He's embarrassed, frustrated, in pain. "You have to go," he says, narrowing his eyes. "I have been known to have quite a temper. And I'm taking medication to stop it. But now I've got to get some sleep."
He's yelling now, pointing a crooked finger. "You gotta go. NOW!"
As the visitor exits, Knievel waves. "Thanks for coming," he calls. "Maybe I'll see you in Butte."
- - -
A couple of weeks later Knievel makes it to Montana, but barely. Instead of staying with his daughter or in a hotel, he checks into an assisted living facility because he's weak and having trouble breathing.
"He's not doing very well," says his old friend, Bill Rundle. "But he says he'll hold on, at least long enough to lead the parade."
Rundle created Evel Knievel Days in 2002 as a way of honoring his buddy. The event brought bikers from across the West. Rundle hired stunt cyclists and built a dirt ramp in the middle of town and even got Robbie Knievel to be there for his dad.
Last year, about 30,000 people packed Butte for Evel days. More than 100 paid $100 each to dine with "Himself," as the program calls him. Organizers had sold tickets to this year's event long before Knievel had the stroke.
The day before the festival, Rundle is concerned. "We had a tearful two-hour conversation last night," he says. "Evel says he's not going back to Florida. He's going to get through this last show. Then he wants to die right here in Butte."
- - -
Late Friday afternoon, more than 1,000 cycles - Hondas and Harleys, trikes and choppers - fill the street in front of the Finlen Hotel. A white pickup is parked at the head of the pack. It's striped with red and blue, sprinkled with stars. Even the leather seats are custom Evel. This is his ride.
Soon Rundle slides into the truck. He looks tired and worried. Are those tears in his eyes?
The bikers follow, revving their engines. The ground seems to tremble.
"Where's Evel?" people in the crowd keep asking.
Four teenagers climb into the painted pickup. Turns out they're Evel's grandchildren. The truck pulls forward, without Knievel.
Evel misses his own parade.
- - -
That night in the hotel banquet room, Evel images are everywhere. Plastic place mats show a blurry Knievel in his Skycycle. A mannequin in his jumpsuit is propped by the bar.
The head table is empty.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Rundle says. "Welcome to the Evel Knievel social." He pauses. A few people clap. "Evel wasn't feeling too well tonight. They had to take him to the hospital to find out what's wrong.
"But you know him. He just called. He's already checked out. He's on his way back here to join you," Rundle says.
"He doesn't want anyone saying they want their money back."
The salads have just been served when Knievel limps in, leaning on two friends. He sits down gingerly, then waves. The hospital band is still around his wrist.
"Everyone, please, let's enjoy our dinner," he says. "I just had a little spell with blood pressure. I think it was too much heat and overexertion on my part. But I'm okay now. Let's eat."
Breathing heavily, pausing between bites, Knievel shovels salad into his mouth while people walk up to shake his shaking hand.
After the entree is served, Knievel summons one of his helpers. He pushes back his chair, leans on the handle of his oxygen tank. "Thank you all very much. I had a tough day," he says.
He unfolds a small square of paper, thanks his doctors and his sponsors, says he has a new custom motorcycle company and there's a rock opera being written about him. It's like that time at Wembley Stadium, where he crashed and broke everything and got up and talked to the crowd anyway.
"I hate to duck out right now," he says. "But I just have to. Thank you so much for coming to see me. God bless all of you."
When he stands up the audience does too, clapping and chanting “Evel, Evel, Evel!” Forty-two minutes after he arrived, Knievel makes his way to the door, propped up by a friend, but still standing.
I brake for Bobo
By Lane DeGregory / Times Staff Writer
We'd been on the road for almost eight hours. Me and my two boys. We were driving home from my cousin's wedding in Atlanta. Well, I was driving.
Ry, who's 6, and Tucker, who's 4, were strapped into their car seats in the back seat.
It was past 10 p.m. It was raining.
I was riding the right lane of I-75, about 11 miles north of Brooksville, figuring we had about another hour to go.
Then Tucker starts screaming. "EEEIIIAAAK! EEEIIIAAAK!" Out of nowhere, he starts screeching like he's been shot or something. "EEEIIIAAAK! EEEIIIAAAK!"
"What's the matter? What's the matter?" I shout, gripping the wheel with both hands. I turn down the radio. Look up into the rearview mirror. Tucker is thrashing around in his car seat, straining against his seat belt, beating his fists against the car door. "EEEIIIAAAK! EEEIIIAAAK! EEEIIIAAAK!" So Ry starts screaming, too. Both of them, in stereo, wailing and railing in the back seat.
There's nowhere to pull over. No exits in sight. In the darkness, a metal guardrail is rushing past on my right. Semis are speeding by on my left.
"What's the matter?" I cry, almost in tears myself. "Please, boys, what's wrong?"
"Mommy!" Ry whines. Then he chokes on his sobs. "Mommy," he tries again. "It's horrible! You won't believe it!
"Bobo just flew out the window."
Bobo is a stuffed elephant. He's about 10 inches tall, almost as wide. He wears plaid pajamas, which have faded from all the washings, and a white bow around his neck. His stubby front feet are lined with white satin. So are his big, floppy ears. His pale blue face is made of terry cloth, like a soft towel.
His trunk is almost bald from too much loving.
Uncle Mark sent Bobo to Tucker as a baby present. When I brought Tucker home from the hospital, Bobo was waiting in his crib.
Whenever Tucker is upset, or tired, or scared, or even sometimes when he's really, really happy, he squeezes Bobo tight and rubs that terry cloth trunk against his nose. Bobo has been thrown up on, colored on and had almost every imaginable kind of juice spilled on him. Tucker wipes his nose on Bobo, wipes his hands on him. Uses Bobo to dry his tears. He talks to Bobo, sings him songs, tells him secrets. He slides Bobo down the slide at the playground, feeds him Teddy Grahams during snack time, takes him to Grandmom's house, to the grocery and McDonald's. Every morning when Tucker goes to preschool, Bobo goes with him. Tucker kisses Bobo "bye" at the door and tucks him into his cubby, until nap time. Tucker can't fall asleep without Bobo.
And now that little blue elephant is lying somewhere on I-75, with the rain splattering down, the headlights streaming past and the semis whizzing by at 80 miles an hour.
And there's no place to pull over. Only darkness, now, on my right.
And I don't know what to do.
By now, Bobo is miles behind us. He has probably bounced down the embankment. Or been crushed under an 18-wheeler.
"He's probably scared," Ry says.
"Is he in heaven?" Tucker asks through his tears. "Do they have Teddy Grahams in heaven?"
Now I see the blue sign. There's a rest stop ahead. A mile later, I pull over and park between a silver Airstream and an old Winnebago. I try to think things through.
"Are we going back for Bobo now?" Ry asks.
"I don't want him to go to heaven!" Tuck screams. "Is he already in heaven?"
The way I see it, here in the dark, on the side of the highway, I have two choices: I can go back and look for Bobo, maybe become a hero to my kids. Or I can tell my boys I'm sorry. Bobo's gone.
Maybe that way Tucker would learn a lesson. After all, hadn't I told him umpteen times to roll up that window? Not to dangle Bobo out in the wind?
And even if I find him, I probably won't be able to get to him. I couldn't find a place to pull over before. What if we see him again, then have to let him go?
And what if I do stop the car? And climb out, into the rain, into highway traffic, and try to fetch the would-be flying elephant? And what if, just then, a semi whizzes by and, God forbid, I get crushed?
"Maybe Mommy can buy you another Bobo," Ry offers, trying to console Tucker.
But Bobo is extinct.
Two years ago, Tucker's great-grandmother got worried about what would happen if Bobo ever got lost. So she called Playskool, the company that manufactured Bobo (not his given name), and asked to order three more. The Playskool official told her that particular stuffed elephant had been discontinued. There might be one more in stock, somewhere, the official said. But that was it. So Tucker's great-grandmother bought the last blue elephant wearing plaid pajamas in America and sent it to Tucker, as an extra, just in case. That Bobo lived in the top of my closet for months. Then, just before we moved to Florida, while we were riding bikes around our old neighborhood, while Tucker was riding on the back of my bicycle, he dropped Bobo into a storm drain. We had to abandon the elephant. I raced home, got the other Bobo and stopped Tucker's sobs.
So now there's no backup Bobo.
Over the ages, across the cultures, how many Bobos (or teddy bears or dolls or blankets) have been dropped out of windows? Left in Wal-Marts? Lost along the way?
Teach a lesson . . . risk your life . . . be a rescue hero: What would you do if you had to make that call for your kid?
I can't sit here all night.
I drive back onto I-75, still heading south. A sign says the next exit is 10 miles ahead.
At Brooksville, I take the exit and turn around. Pull back onto the highway, heading north this time. Eleven miles and I pass another rest stop, on the opposite side of the road. Then another mile to the place I think Bobo might have fallen. Another mile past that and I finally find another exit where I can turn around again.
"Are you going to get Bobo now, Mommy?"
"I don't know," I tell Tucker. "I'm going to try."
I pull back onto I-75, heading south for the second time. I flick the headlights onto bright. I squint through the downpour, scanning the skinny shoulder.
"Help me look," I call over the back seat. "See if you can see Bobo."
I'm going about 55 miles per hour, about as slow as seems safe on the interstate. I drive over a bridge, down a slight incline. SUVs, pickups and semis keep speeding by. We pass Burger King bags, shreds of blown-out tires, lots of skid marks.
But no Bobo.
"I bet he's having apple juice in heaven right now," Ry says.
Another 2 miles. Another two dozen trucks. Then we reach an overpass and a long metal guardrail starts rolling by on my right.
"There's Bobo!" Ry screams. "I see him!"
I see him, too. A small blue blob, wedged against the guardrail. But I can't pull over. The shoulder is too narrow.
Tucker starts shrieking again. "At least we know!" he's crying. "At least we know now, Mommy. He's not dead! He's still there! You can get him!"
I don't know how.
I drive on, heading toward Brooksville _ again. I'm thinking about the last time we lost Bobo, when Tucker left him in Subway, and he got locked inside the sandwich shop, and I had to call the emergency, after-hours number on the door and get the manager to open it so we could get Bobo out.
And I'm thinking, as I'm driving, that I love that silly little blue elephant, too. That if we lose Bobo, my son will lose part of his childhood.
Without Bobo, he won't seem like such a little boy.
And I won't seem like I can help him with the one thing that matters most in his young life. And he might realize Mommy can't fix everything.
I exit at Brooksville again. Head north again, 12 more miles, past the rest stop and onto the next exit. Then I turn around. Again.
This time, I drive even slower. Maybe 45 mph, tops. When I think I'm nearing the overpass, I pull over onto the narrow shoulder. Those wakeup strips, or whatever you call them, are crisscrossing the asphalt every few inches, vibrating the tires, rattling my teeth.
At the north end of the overpass, I spy Bobo again. He's dead ahead. I stop the car.
The rain has slowed to a drizzle by now. I turn on the flashers. I try to open the driver's side door.
But each time a big truck rumbles past, our car shivers in its wake. Three times, I try to get out. Three times, I feel the wind of the semis and pull the door back shut.
"Don't get run over, Mommy," Ry says. "Don't die."
I slam the driver's door closed. I reach across to the passenger seat, throw my backpack and the cooler in the back seat, between the boys. I lean over and unlock the passenger door.
Slowly, carefully, I ease my way over the gear shift, climbing onto the passenger seat. I try to shove open the passenger door. But the guardrail is in the way. The door will only open partially. I squeeze out, turning my hips to clear the guardrail.
Bobo is waiting.
He's still stuck in the guardrail. A little soggy. But no visible skid marks.
I pick up that little blue elephant and squeeze him hard.
Driving back down I-75, speeding back toward Brooksville for the third time, almost an hour after we first went this way, I pull over at the now-familiar rest stop. I let the car idle. I'm still shaking.
"I just need a minute," I tell my boys. I just need to calm down.
I lean my arms on the steering wheel. Rest my head on my arms. Close my eyes.
"Mommy!" Tucker cries from the back seat. "Mommy! Mommy!"
He's thrashing around again, holding Bobo this time, trying to unbuckle his seat belt. "Mommy!" he's shouting. "Help me get out!"
"Give me a minute!" I scream. "Just give me a minute, here. Would you?" I've been on the road almost nine hours by now. I've been trying, so hard, to hold it all together. I feel myself starting to lose it.
"But Mommy!" Tucker wails. The tears start streaming again. "I have to get out!"
"Why?" I shriek, spinning around to glare at him.
Tucker clutches Bobo more tightly. He smears a satin-lined elephant ear across his wet cheeks. Then he looks up at me, his blue eyes shining.
“Me and Bobo need to give you a hug.”
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