Sports

Hanging with Evel Knievel on jump day in 1974: A dream come true

An advertisment in the Twin Falls Times-News, promoting Evel Knievel’s jump. The cutout is a part of Marcus Prater’s scrapbook on Evel Knievel.
An advertisment in the Twin Falls Times-News, promoting Evel Knievel’s jump. The cutout is a part of Marcus Prater’s scrapbook on Evel Knievel. Courtesy of Marcus Prater

The day was Sept. 8, 1974 — I remember it well because it may have been the most fantastic day of my life.

It certainly was for my little brother.

My parents barely remember, except for the part about being kidnapped by Hells Angels.

As longtime Idaho residents know, Evel Knievel made us famous (or infamous) by attempting to jump the Snake River Canyon. It happened at a launch site about 1.4 miles north of my boyhood home in Twin Falls.

Needless to say, it was a big deal for a 12-year-old boy who worshipped Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, anyone who played basketball at the College of Southern Idaho and the greatest stuntman to ever live.

That day, a day already gift-wrapped in thrills and excitement, was made better by my own Learjet excursion up and down the canyon that morning.

That led to a chance meeting with Knievel just hours before his jump.

FLYING HIGH

I watched the jump itself from a family friend’s rooftop near the canyon rim — only because my mother wouldn’t let me or my brother anywhere close to the chaotic scene on the canyon’s south rim. For whatever reason, she thought bikers, drunks and topless women would be a bad influence on a small child.

And at the end of it all, I don’t remember sleeping for days, only dreaming of a day that I knew I’d never forget.

It all started with a surprise phone call from Bill Kibbie. Yes, that Bill Kibbie, the same regional businessman who gave $300,000 to the University of Idaho in 1974 to help build what is now the Kibbie Dome.

He and my late grandmother were close. Not sure how close, but close enough that he’d take the family for rides in his Learjet. The morning of Sept. 8, he thought it would be a cool idea to take two of his favorite Twin Falls boys for a spin up and down the canyon.

We jumped in the plane with his pilot; I think his name was “Bones.” My brother, Marcus, who was 9 at the time, and I felt like the Rolling Stones being whizzed around the world VIP-style. We took a few laps, gasping at the sea of people and craziness below.

“I see all these little ants (people) on the canyon rim and it was amazing,” Marcus recalled.

My dad feared we were going to crash because Bones was flying low and slow, probably because his two child passengers were begging for a closer look. At one point, we were told we had to “clear airspace,” according to my mother.

HERE COMES EVEL

We returned to the Twin Falls airport, which was quiet and serene, as usual. Mr. Kibbie had connections, apparently, and was told that Knievel’s plane was about to land. He made a few arrangements, and suddenly there we were, my family, solo on the tarmac waiting for the one and only Robert Craig Knievel (my brother and I knew everything about the man, and he has the thick scrapbook to prove it).

The plane was easy to spot — Evel Knievel’s name was emblazoned on the fuselage.

My brother and I were having heart attacks.

It took forever for the plane to land and for that door to open.

I had met Knievel before, at a neighborhood party put on by one of his sponsors, but this was different. This was the big day. Would he make spectacular headlines? Or die? Would he be in his famed red, white and blue jumpsuit? Would he be nervous and cranky? Would he sign the small piece of paper that my brother clutched in his hands?

Knievel eventually popped through the door, as smooth and as cool as could be. He looked great, with perfectly wavy and silvering hair. He looked confident and brave. And he was open and friendly.

Marcus, a daredevil himself who built ramps and jumped old-fashioned metal garbage cans on his bike, was the first person to greet him and got the coveted autograph.

I, who would jump one garbage can as opposed to my brother’s six, was fascinated by two things beyond the man himself: He was with at least one of his kids, and I thought to myself, “How cool would it be to have Evel Knievel as your dad?” Sorry, real dad.

LIQUOR CANE

Fascination No. 2: The cane that Knievel always carried. It was black and blinged out, and for whatever reason that day, I kept staring at it and thinking it would be a cool addition to our expansive Evel Knievel toy collection.

Later, I found out Knievel not only used the cane to help his feeble body but also to store his personal stash of booze.

Booze: That vice, and others, came up a few minutes later after Evel and his family walked away, not to be seen again until the iconic video of him arriving at the jump site.

There was at least one reporter, maybe more, stranded at the airport. For whatever reason, on the biggest day in the history of my tiny farming and ag town, this guy thought it would be easy to hail a cab. No such luck, buddy.

The reporter made contact with my mother and begged her to drive him to the canyon rim. He offered cash. He offered a press pass and close-to-the-rim access. He probably even tried to sweet-talk us kids.

Mom said no, which we knew would be the answer, despite our desperate pleas for a yes.

Mom wouldn’t let me work my lawn-mowing jobs that week because of all the “riffraff’’ in town. She was afraid we’d be kidnapped, drugged, taken away forever by the scary-looking guys on motorcycles.

Of course, there was plenty of debauchery going on in my sleepy town. Of course, my brother and I had no clue and wanted to be as close to the action as possible.

Didn’t happen.

Off to the roof of the family friend.

UP ON THE ROOF

Sitting on that roof, with a great view of the ramp, I remember thinking Evel and I were best friends. He was going to think of me and my family as he strapped himself into that rocket.

I was worried for my new best friend.

I was frightened that Evel might be in for another rough ride. Crossing the 1,600 feet from one canyon rim to the other wouldn’t be a problem, but how was he going to land that sucker?

I was scared. Nobody wants to see their sports heroes die.

We sat for what seemed like hours on that roof, with no media, no internet, no warning of takeoff.

Then it happened.

A rocket sighting. Lots of steam. And a parachute?

Marcus and I studied jump strategy, and a parachute right off the bat wasn’t a part of the plan. Or was it? A debate for another time.

But there it was, the glorious red, white and blue skycycle touching the sky of my hometown, carrying the man I idolized for a decade.

The rocket, obviously, eventually drifted below my horizon. I waited. And waited. And waited. I don’t think I knew what happened until later that night while watching television news, or reading newspapers the next morning.

At least he was alive.

And so was a dream that still hasn’t ended after 42 years.

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