End of a daredevil nation
Growing up in the ‘70s, I had an Evel Knievel lunchbox, an Evel Knievel action figure with a working stunt cycle, Evel Knievel comic books featuring “Evel Knievel and the Perilous Traps of Mr. Danger” and “Evel Knievel versus Ghost Rider.” I was even Evel Knievel myself for Halloween one year. Larger than life doesn’t begin to cover it. The guy was a walking, talking, honest-to-God superhero.
Working-class heroes were still real in the proletarian neighborhood where I grew up in the 1970s, and no one could beat Evel Knievel, a former small-time criminal from a broken home in Butte, Mont. Even Carl, the swarthy auto mechanic who lived at the end of our block, was a romantic figure to me. A kid in my class, whose father was a deputy district attorney, lied and told us his dad was a trucker.
Truckers were the knights of the highway then. And like Evel, truckers were to me the American quintessence, paladins piloting powerful machines across the great wide open. I remember sloshing, sans seat belt, in the way back of my mother’s Country Squire, pumping my arm frantically at passing Peterbilts, delighted when they answered me with a blast of the air horn.
My friends and I used to build these crazy bike ramps -- not half-pipes, mind you, but ramps angled to launch you and your Huffy Dill Pickle out into space. More than his spectacular successes, it was always the bone-shattering crashes Evel walked away from that inspired me. Even his Icarian Snake River jump taught me something about the nobility of failure. The outcome is irrelevant. Get back on that hoss and you’ve already won.
We got stitches and wore our casts with pride. This was before helmet laws, before seat belts became the measure of parental love, before they cut down our jungle gyms and replaced them with pathetic, padded playgrounds. My mother and the nuns at St. Mary’s were always telling me that I was going to crack my head open, but Evel seemed to be saying: “Hey, kid, it’s your head.”
In his quaint 1977 film “Viva Knievel!” Evel plays himself. He inspires a crippled orphan to walk, dukes it out with drug runners, rescues Gene Kelly from a Mexican sanitarium and cures Lauren Hutton of her feminism. The movie failed to perform. It was up against some science fiction thing set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Already, special effects were beginning to replace actual feats by real, working-class stuntmen like Hal Needham and Dar Robinson. Greenscreen death-defying would eventually supplant the real thing.
It’s fitting that 1977 was also the year the Supreme Court implicitly endorsed the lawsuit as a profit-making enterprise, when the high court declared lawyers’ rights to advertise the prices of their legal services to be protected speech. This decision is seen by many as a watershed moment, ushering in today’s lawsuit culture. Once ethically forbidden to foment lawsuits, entrepreneurial personal injury lawyers were now free to seek and goad their clients. Litigiousness was no longer a vice in America, and the era of the daredevil was at an end.
Now, the city of Los Angeles pays round-the-clock security guards just to keep neighborhood kids from cooling off in the Mulholland fountain, lest one of them slip. Diving boards are being dismantled all over the country. Swing sets will probably be the next to go.
We were once a nation of daredevils, certainly a region of them. The West was the realm of Kit Carson, Buzz Aldrin and Larry Walters.
We’ve since devolved into a nation of neuters and babies. Our own safety has become our obsession. We cower in gated communities and fret about the West Nile virus. Infantilized, we have little use for the freedoms we once cherished, and we’re happy to trade them for personal safety.
Rather than risk another terrorist attack, for instance, we would render this country unrecognizable, a fascist shadow of its former self.
Today, as we verge on destroying everything beautiful about this nation in the name of our own safety, we should remember Evel Knievel, who taught us that liberty -- not safety -- is what’s worth dying for.