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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Encounters with Knievel leave lasting impression

Doug Clark The Spokesman-Review

For a split second the thought crossed my mind that Evel Knievel might just pop me one.

Things had been going so swimmingly, too. After rolling into Spokane Valley for an August 2004 appearance at a Harley-Davidson dealership, the old daredevil gave me a tour of his motorhome, which was only slightly smaller than the USS Nimitz.

Knievel proudly pointed out the custom touches embellishing his $700,000 (his claim) rig: mirrored ceilings, cut glass etched with the trademark “Evel on Harley” silhouette, the California king-sized bed.

I was more impressed by the Evel Knievel bobblehead doll mounted on the dash.

You know you’re hot stuff when you’ve got your own bobblehead.

Then I asked this innocent question: With all those busted bones, transplanted liver and fused back, I wondered how the poor soul managed to get around.

I think Knievel thought I had implied that he belonged in a nursing home.

Flash. All of a sudden those blue eyes looked about as warm as the water off Antarctica. Then I remembered: This infirm senior across from me is the same brute who once took a baseball bat to a writer who ticked him off.

“Because I’m the toughest S.O.B. on the face of the Earth,” Knievel finally barked at me.

Point taken, Mr. Knievel. Sir.

As tough as he was, not even Evel Knievel out-jumps The Reaper.

He died last Friday at age 69. Losing Evel Knievel is losing a major piece of our pop culture.

It’s easy to forget how big a deal he once was. In terms of sheer celebrity, Knievel in the late 1960s and 1970s was on a par with Elvis and Muhammad Ali.

There was a time when half the kids in America were toting Evel Knievel lunch boxes.

But that fame was defined more by the man’s over-the-top failures than his gravity-defying successes.

One edition of the Guinness Book of World Records lists Knievel for breaking 35 bones.

There was the Vegas wipeout at the Caesar’s Palace fountains in 1968. There was his botched 1974 attempt to ride a rocket-powered Skycycle over the Snake River Canyon.

Knievel’s ability to crash, heal up and then fearlessly face death all over again turned him into a living legend.

When it came to being a jerk, Evel Knievel could also be world-class.

Arrogant. Surly. Cantankerous. You name it. People around him either did things the Evel Way, or they could go pound sand.

“I created this character Evel Knievel,” he said. “I know just how to handle him.”

I had the good fortune to interview Knievel twice: once in 1989 and again three years ago.

The first encounter took place inside Flaherty’s bar across from the Ridpath Hotel. He was in a nostalgic mood that day. He told me about how in the late 1950s he was just part of Spokane’s working poor.

“I was just married and down-and-out when I moved here. I never had any money; I never had any credit. But my wife finally got a job in a hardware store up on Monroe, and Darrell Triber hired me on at his motorcycle store.”

It wouldn’t be that way for very long.

A day or two after I wrote the column, my home telephone rang. My son, Ben, picked up the phone and got this wide-eyed look.

“Somebody who says he’s evil is on the phone.”

I took the receiver. The voice on the other end told me that he approved of what I had written.

That’s certainly better than getting the ball bat critique.

When somebody big dies it has become standard to say, “Oh, there’ll never be another like him/her.”

In this case it’s no cliché. Evel Knievel was as rip-roaring original as it gets.

“I’m a very lucky man. I know that,” he told me back in 1989. “Your greatest competitor is death, and you lose to Him only once.”