I read an entertaining blog post over at Insidethelifeofmoi in which Amanda makes a compelling and comprehensive case for the awesomeness of growing up in the 1990’s. It was an eye opener, because I spent most of that decade well off the mainstream culture grid, my free time pretty much absorbed by either hiking and camping, drinking in dingy bars, or writing a succession of uniformly inept novels and short stories. I rarely watched television, didn’t go to the movies much, and there wasn’t much internet to speak of–nothing like the internet of today, with it’s “30 Celebrities Who Totally Rocked It This Year” lists (29 of which I never heard before). Judging from Amanda’s colorful tour of her childhood, I missed a lot.
Which got me to think about my childhood, and current culture, and the obviously imminent collapse of western society. Kids today don’t have a chance, especially boys, when their biggest cultural role model is a pint-sized douchebag called Justin Beiber. Now, apologists might argue that Beiber is a symptom, not a disease, a product of our coarse and vapid culture, and that may be true, but if that’s true he’s like a Patient Zero, carrying disease wherever he goes, gleefully and callously spreading his sickness to everyone he encounters.
It wasn’t that way when I was a kid, and we have one man to thank for it: Evel Knievel. That’s right: it’s a real name. Okay, maybe his real name was Robert Craig Knievel, but it’s the nickname–er, knick-kname that counts. Who was Evel Knieval, you ask? Well, he was a barnstorming motorcycle daredevil, a back room brawler, an alleged bully, self-proclaimed bank robber and safe-cracker and an iconic cultural phenomena who mesmerized the nation and inspired the absolute coolest toy of the 1970s.
And what exactly did he do? He jumped his motorcycle over stuff–cars, trucks, and school buses mainly. He crashed. A lot. The guy was infamous for all his broken bones, for his comas–what kind of genuis promotion makes a guy get more famous for being in a coma? Every boy in America wanted to be this guy who rides motorcycles and jumps over stuff. In a cape. The seventies were an amazing time.
If you watched Napoleon Dynamite and laughed at the scene with the bike ramp jump, and you’re younger than 40, you really didn’t get the whole joke. See, while the punk ass kids of today are sitting around taking selfies and waiting for that twit Beiber to Tweet something interesting, we were in the alley behind our garages, building ramps out of old cinder blocks and pillaged lumber so we could crash and burn our old Free Spirits and Schwinns, our banana seat and ten speed bikes, in an attempt to be like Evel and grab some sky. This was long before mountain bikes, and even before BMX bikes became widely commercially available.
Try to imagine the bubble-wrapping parents of today allowing their kids to run off and jump bikes off home-made ramps with no supervision. These people call the police on mothers who dare to let their ten-year-olds play in the park unsupervised. At that age I was not only jumping ramps, but wandering yard sales to buy old bikes for exhorbitant prices–sometimes as much as a dollar–and, with the help of older kids, cobbling them together to make “jump bikes.” So, when I was launching myself into a very low, very brief orbit I was doing so on a frankenstein bike thrown together by a mechanically inept kid–me. And I never broke a bone. Most everyone else did, though. Evel broke nearly all of his, or so it seemed.
For a while, Knievel was justifiably considered the most famous man in the world, a fact made all the more interesting because no one realized at the time that he was pioneering the entire “extreme sports” subculture that would, twenty years later, captivate millions. Kids carried his lunchbox to school–it was one of the more popular ones for boys, and played with his toys and action figures. That’s right, action figures: not bad for a half-crazy barnstorming daredevil on a motorcycle who, I am convinced, drew audiences which didn’t really care if he succeeded or failed. A success might be exhilarating, but a crash and burn is pretty interesting, too. His wind-up motorcycle was the bell-weather of my childhood. All the kids I admired had one, and I desperately, achingly, wanted one. I could only imagine the thrill of cranking that baby several times–it was made to sound like an approximation of an engine revving–then flicking the release and watching Evel tear down the sidewalk. My mom thought it was stupid, of course, like all the toys I wanted.
Evel got old and, after a failed attempt to launch himself across the Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho, he slipped from the public eye, but it’s my understanding that he continued to do his stunts on a smaller stage until his body eventually gave out. He died a few years ago, mourned by pretty much every American man in his mid- to late-40’s.