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Fox now says Kaptain Robbie Knievel will jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle next Thursday on live television. The network said the same thing a few weeks back, pre-empting World’s Wildest Police Videos. But near the end of the hour, the young daredevil backed out of his “death jump” without even zipping up his leather jumpsuit. Beneath a sky so bright he needed sunscreen and shades, the Kaptain blamed the weather. I watched the fiasco from start to finish and thought: That punk ain’t a hair off his dad’s ass. Then I went to the Smithsonian.
I’d heard rumblings late last year that the august institution planned to unveil an exhibit devoted to the Kaptain’s father, Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel. Sure enough, in the Transportation Room of the National Museum of American History, I came across a beat-up Harley-Davidson hanging from the ceiling. Beneath it sat the photo displays and artifacts that make a strong case that Robbie’s dad ranks right up there with mood rings and Huggie Bear among ’70s icons. The evidence includes: a video cassette of Evel Knievel, a feature film starring George Hamilton as the original distance leaper; a copy of the novel Viva Knievel, later made into a movie with Evel playing himself alongside Lauren Hutton, Gene Kelly, Frank Gifford, Red Buttons, and Dabney Coleman; pictures of the disastrous Caesar’s Palace jump, which left Evel unconscious for nearly a month; a Marvel comic book with a motorcycle-jumping superhero; and, best of all, an electric toothbrush made from a scaled-down version of the X-2, the Skycycle that Knievel, with all of America watching, strapped himself into and leaptOK, jumped intothe Snake River Canyon.
Knievel had next to nothing to do with his personal effects and bike getting parked in such a swell spot on the Mall. Turns out a regular guy named Joey Taff got it done. In 1989, when he was interning at the Capitol, Taff took his visiting brother over to the history museum. What the place lacked left more of an impression on the Taff brothers than the exhibits they came across that day.
“I thought that Evel Knievel deserved to be in there,” Taff tells me, from his current home in Montgomery, Ala.
Taff became a devoted Knievel disciple when he was just 8 years old, upon meeting the daredevil at the George
Lindsay (of “Goober” fame) Celebrity Golf Tournament in Montgomery. They became pen pals and eventually buddies, although Taff never considered himself close to an equal of his hero.
“From the start, I was fascinated with him,” says Taff, now 35. “I thought he was the toughest guy in the world, somebody who was as famous as you can get, and somebody who is an absolute genius, who could do anything he set his mind to. He was the best role model I ever had, and I think he was a role model for a whole lot of American kids.”
On paper, it seems ludicrous that a relative commoner like Taff could persuade a prissy bureaucracy like the Smithsonian’s to devote floor space to a celebrity as lowbrow as Knievel. But Knievel always pushed on his fans the idea that nothing was impossible”Once he’s made up his mind/There’s nothing he won’t try,” sang John Culliton Mahoney in 1974’s “The Ballad of Evel Knievel.” That theme certainly resonated with Taff, who began lobbying the museum staff to do something for Knievel and refused to take no for an answer. He encouraged the staff to look beyond the gory crash footage and puffery that were such a big part of the Knievel legend, to see profundity in the daredevil’s risking of life and limb and significance in his incredible popularity. (Taff argues to this day that President Gerald Ford timed his pardoning of Richard Nixon to coincide with Knievel’s Snake River Canyon jumpboth occurred on Sept. 8, 1974so that the unwashed masses would be too preoccupied to revolt. Speaking as an unwashed mass, I think Taff is on to something.)
Taff kept up the fight after leaving D.C. and going home to Alabama to take a job with a public utility. After several years of calls and letters and meetings, his work paid off. In 1993, the Smithsonian agreed to house such an exhibit if Taff could come up with the hardware. He got the elder Knievel, who lives in Florida, to turn over a motorcycle, and Taff also donated a lot of memorabilia from his own personal collection. On Dec. 12, 1998, the Evel Knievel display formally opened.
Knievel was unable to make the grand opening. He’s been suffering from Hepatitis C for years; he allegedly contracted the disease during one of his many operations to repair broken body parts. He is now recuperating in Las Vegas from complications from a liver transplant he underwent in February. Though Knievel has yet to see his display, Taff says that his hero tells everybody about how honored he is by the Smithsonian’s gesture.
Smithsonian brass, meanwhile, now share Taff’s opinion that Knievel is worthy of scholarly exploration. Boy, do they. Curator Roger White has no trouble rationalizing the biker display.
“Evel Knievel preserved the great American tradition of local thrill shows,” says White. “And he pretty much invented the long jump: The motorcycle daredevils that came before him used standard stuntsthey jumped through a hoop of flame or ring of fire or maybe over one car. But he got the idea to jump over a row of vehicles. That was never [previously] done to our knowledge, and he kept going longer and longer distances. His personality, and his attitude’I can do it, be proud, be clean, be all-American’came out when he was on the screen. And there was a method to his image: He wore white leathers to be the opposite of black leathers; he didn’t want to be the ‘Wild Bunch’ variety of biker. He was just the opposite, like a cowboy in a white hat. He became a superstar in a field that didn’t even exist before him. Evel Knievel was the Irving Berlin of motorcyclists. He could have been a lyric to a Cole Porter song. ‘You’re the top…’”
During my visit to the Smithsonian, it was obvious that Knievel still has star power. When a family of tourists that could have come from anywhere rural stopped by the new display, the matriarch pointed to the X-2 toothbrush and began giving her two young sons a Reader’s Digest version of the Snake River Canyon jump. Neither Knievel’s profundity nor comparisons to Irving Berlin made the cut. “This man put these parachutes on to his motorcycle and then jumped over that canyon,” she lectured, pointing at the exhibit. “If it wasn’t for the parachute, he’d be dead….Oh, he was a real nut case.”
Yep, he sure was, I thought. And, unlike his balky son, he’d have jumped that Grand Canyon the first time out, ready or not.Dave McKenna