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Standing Back Up


By all accounts, America in the late ’60s was embroiled in the greatest period of change the country had seen since the Civil War. Knee-deep in a politically-gray conflict half the world over and roiling at home with racial tension, the United States was sorely testing the resolve of the first half of its name.

Then along came a man.

A tall, reasonably good lookin’ guy sporting a loud leather jumpsuit—a western-bred Elvis Presley with a motorcycle instead of a guitar—Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel was an aimless ex-miner, ex-insurance salesman, ex-poacher, ex-hockey team owner, looking for a thrill and a spectacle, and suddenly realizing he could provide both himself.

He was a motorcycle jumper.

Today’s celebrity crop is rife with human detritus. For every Evel Knievel, there’s a dozen Tila Tequilas and Paris Hiltons.

Evel Knievel did something. He flew.

The man soared over lions and rattlesnakes and trucks and buses and rivers and fountains. He lit up the sky in his red-white-and-blue glory, fireworks exploding, reflecting off the moist eyeballs of legions of boys whose dads and uncles were in Vietnam. He raised the eyes and spirits.

And then Evel Knievel did something else. He crashed.  Spectacularly and horrifically, a sickening jumble of bouncing limbs and torn leather and twisted metal and burning rubber.

On New Year’s Day in 1968, Knievel jumped the fountains at Caesar’s in Vegas. As he landed, the back tire caught the edge of the ramp, and he vaulted over the handlebars, slamming into the ground and rolling forever. He spent a month in a coma and the next several  more recuperating. During those months, America burned herself from the inside out. Knievel crashed. So did the nation. In May of 1970, Knievel crashed at Yakima Speedway. In May of 1970, police mowed down students at Jackson State and National Guardsmen did the same at Kent State. In 1972, Evel Knievel crashed at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wa. Shortly thereafter, the USS Kitty Hawk erupted in a race riot. Evel Knievel crashed, time and time again. Vietnam dragged on.

And then, Evel Knievel did something else. He stood back up.

After every crash, when you were convinced he was done, dead, finished, crippled, lame and beaten, he stood back up. It might take weeks or even months. But he stood back up.

Though he broke every piece of his body multiple times, most laws, and plenty of hearts over his 69 years, his spirit remained intact, forged in a material harder than any known to man. And at the end of the day, as he makes his final jump, that spirit remains, bright, unblinking, flashing for the rest of humanity to see.
Evel Knievel was America.

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