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Robbie Knievel has big memories to live up to in Twin Falls

Evel Knievel  prepares for his attempt to leap  the Snake River Canyon in his Sky-Cycle  in 1974.  (File Associated Press)
Evel Knievel prepares for his attempt to leap the Snake River Canyon in his Sky-Cycle in 1974. (File Associated Press)

Thirty-six years ago, Evel Knievel turned Twin Falls, Idaho, upside-down.

Now his son says he wants to do the same thing – taking on his dad’s unfinished business with a jump over the Snake River Canyon.

For those of us who grew up on big, adoring doses of Evel Knievel nonsense, the idea is immediately appealing. Knievel, who swaggered around the Northwest for years jumping motorcycles, drinking in bars and fistfighting his critics, was front-page news for weeks back then. He was a hero to kids of all ages – those who were young and silly, like me, and those who were old and rowdy, like many of those who showed up to watch him try to jump the canyon in a steam-powered “Sky-Cycle.”

But for people like Juanita Qualls, who watched the whole thing unfold in 1974 out the window of her home near the canyon rim, the prospect of a Knievel sequel is a different matter.

“I hope to God they don’t let him do it,” the 79-year-old Qualls said Monday.

It’s not that Qualls didn’t think Knievel was a nice guy – she did, though he liked the booze a bit too much for her taste. And it’s not that she minded the campers who paid to stay on the Qualls’ land in that circuslike week before the Sept. 8, 1974, jump. Most were perfectly polite, she said, unlike the image of unruly packs of wild bikers that has persisted.

Over time, these reports have been boiled down, as they were in Tuesday’s Twin Falls Times-News, to these concerns: bikers “rioted” and Knievel stiffed a lot of merchants and agencies in town.

Qualls said that stuff has been overblown, though it must be said that violence and deadbeatery tracked Evel all his life. Her issue was simply all the commotion and crowds – she’s not a people person, she says. After her family leased the land to Knievel’s promoters and allowed campers in, she felt trapped, she said. She recalls not being able to get in and out of her driveway. When the big moment came, she watched out a window.

“I didn’t want to be out there with all that commotion,” she said. “I had a good view of it.”

I grew up near Twin Falls, and it would be hard to overstate the level of hype and B.S. that preceded the jump. In those days, Evel was on TV seemingly every Sunday jumping this or that – landing triumphantly or crashing like a sack of unhinged bones.

Before the canyon jump, he made outlandish promises about money: “I’ll buy everybody all they want to drink. Not just for one night, but for a whole week.” Columnists mocked him as foolhardy. Evel proclaimed his chances of success at 100 percent. Jimmy the Greek gave him a 50-50 chance of survival. Local merchants fretted about biker gangs. Evel scuffled with a TV photographer, then declared: “I don’t ask for your respect. I demand it.”

The New York Times came to town and sneered: “Evel Knievel’s show is not the biggest event in Twin Falls this week. The county fair opened Friday outside of town and is expected to draw 60,000 people by Sunday.”

Oddly enough, the nation seems not to have formed vivid memories of the Twin Falls County Fair of 1974. And yet the image of this jump persists, at least for a lot of us: the Sky-Cycle zips off the ramp only to slow and then sink into the canyon as the parachute pops prematurely, a miracle of anticlimax.

Evel was OK. The crowds surged and fought, knocked a teenage girl off the cliff edge, though she landed safely five feet below. A news crew fled because it was scared of “a lot of spaced-out idiots there with knives.” In the end, Gov. Cecil Andrus suggested Knievel would not be welcome to return.

Time has not dimmed that feeling for many. In 1999, on the silver anniversary of the jump, Jim Munn, a deputy who later became sheriff, said: “It’s a day we should try to bury. He never did anything for Twin Falls.”

Knievel died in 2007, and his son, Robbie, may get a different welcome. He wants to finish the old man’s business on the Fourth of July weekend, 2011. He met with local leaders in Twin Falls on Monday and emerged with some tentative support. If he can set people’s minds at ease with regard to parties and rowdiness, merchants would be ecstatic for something to get the cash registers ringing. In addition to the county fair, of course.

Robbie Knievel is carrying on his father’s tradition, jumping as Kaptain Knievel. He’s also picked up the old man’s self-serious sense of grandiosity, saying: “I’m his son. It was meant to be.”

As of now, the only real reminder of the jump is a mound of dirt visible on the canyon rim as you drive into town. Qualls’ family sold their land, but she still lives where she did in 1974. Her husband, Tim Qualls, died 13 years ago. Evel gave her a call of condolence.

Over the years, lots of people have stopped by to see that pile of dirt, which supported the ramp for the Sky-Cycle. Qualls never let them in. Too much liability. Too much risk.

“It’s a long way down to the river,” she said.

Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.

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