“I Don’t Jump Rattlesnakes No More”

Gilbert Rogin, the gifted fiction writer and legendary Time Inc. magazine reporter and editor, just died. What didn’t make it into Neil Genzlinger’s well-written New York Times obituary: the scribe’s often, um, colorful personal life, nor his true feelings about Vibe, the successful periodical he helped midwife (he was not a fan). 

In 1968, Rogin turned out a sharp Sports Illustrated profile of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, a Houdini whose trick was getting hurt, when he was dreaming of blowing up his career by flying a rocket over the Grand Canyon. Never allowed to make the leap at that locale, the Norman Vincent Peale devotee instead staged the pseudo-event six years later at Snake River Canyon, a feat shown live in movie theaters that was unsurprisingly marketed by wrestling promoter Vince McMahon Jr. Everyone heard about it, but few actually paid to see it, and all involved lost a mint. It succeeded, however, in making Knievel an even bigger household name. In his line of work—selling titillating trash to bored Americans—that was all that mattered. 

Among other tales, Rogin matter-of-factly relates the quasi-athlete’s horrifying story of his violent kidnapping of a 17-year-old girl who would later become his wife. An excerpt:

Evel Knievel, who says he is going to jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle next Labor Day, is having a glass of orange juice with John Herring, a songwriter, in the coffee shop of the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills at 3 a.m. Herring, who has composed such hits as “What Have I Got of My Own?” and “What Do You Do with an Old, Old Song?” has agreed to write a song about Evel Knievel—a name, by the way, that rhymes, being pronounced Evil Kahneevil. Herring tells Knievel he shouldn’t publicize their relationship. “It’s more admirable that someone was inspired by your jump and went and wrote the song,” he says.

In fact, someone was inspired—another songwriter named Arlin Harmon. Herring has already heard Harmon’s lyrics a couple of times, but Knievel, who is deeply affected by them, insists on reciting them once more:

“I want to tell you a story about a fella I know
That can make your hands sweat, your blood run cold….
He stands tall and straight, looks like a man you’d want to kiss.
To see him flirt with death is something you can’t afford to miss.
Because he’s evil. Because he’s Evel Knievel.
He’s going to jump the Grand Canyon in ’68.
Thousands of people will be there for that long-awaited date.
When he sits on that ramp and his engines start to roar,
He’s going to know how a hawk feels before he starts to soar.
It’s 3,000 feet to the bottom of that gorge.
His life will be hanging from a small ripcord.
And whether or not he heeds the devil’s longing call,
Everyone will know that Evel Knievel’s the greatest of them all.”

“Y’don’t want to put him in a “Big Bad John” bag,” Herring says. “Y’got to bring it up to a higher plane of thought where everybody can feel it, y’dig? He could be in business. He’s legitimate. What’s he want to jump that thing for? Some say he wants to make a lot of money. The more sensitive say he’s looking for something. He says, ‘Shove that noise. I’m going to jump this scooter.’ Y’got to get closer to an elevated message, like:

“When the roar of thunder fills the air,
And your heart begins to pound,
When 10,000 people rise to their feet [y’ understand?],
Then you’ll know he’s leaving the ground [or Evel Knievel’s in town].
“You give the effects. What you taste, hear, feel—dig?
“No use to worry about your tomato.
He didn’t come to town for tomatoes.

“He’s seeking something else. You got to give it a broad philosophical base. I never wrote a song that didn’t make money. I never will.”

Why is Knievel jumping the Canyon?

“To get to the other side,” he says.

If it can be said that anyone has the background to jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle, it is Evel Knievel. For the past two years he has earned his living jumping a motorcycle from one ramp to another, and he claims to have made $100,000 in 1967. “You might say I have a pretty comfortable living,” he says, “but it’s pretty uncomfortable.”

Among other things, he has cleared 16 cars parked side by side, and a crate containing 50 live rattlesnakes, with two mountain lions staked at the near end. Originally the lions were to be situated at both ends, but their owner was afraid Knievel would fall short and kill one of them. As it happened, he did not jump far enough. “I took the end right out of the box,” he says. “A couple of snakes wiggled free. I hit the dirt and sprained my ankle. I don’t jump rattlesnakes no more.” …

At various times in his life Knievel has been a motorcycle racer but he gave it up because there is no money in it. “I can’t eat handlebars, tires and batteries,” is one of his favorite sayings. Knievel also built a motorcycle racetrack and promoted races in Moses Lake, Wash., where he was a Honda dealer for two years. In that capacity, he offered $100 off the price of a motorcycle to anyone who could beat him at arm wrestling. When nobody was able to, he offered a free motorcycle to anyone who could bend his arm, with the provision that if the customer lost he would buy a motorcycle. “This farmer tied me,” Knievel recalls. “I beat him right-handed and he beat me left-handed, but I talked him into buying a 150 cc anyway. I’ve only been beat twice in my life—a little pig rancher from Idaho and a big guy from Spokane.”

In 1961 Knievel was a private policeman in Butte. This is somewhat ironic in view of the fact that, according to his own account, he had been for some years a card thief, safecracker and swindler. “I don’t like to play cards unless I can cheat,” says Knievel. “And if I had a $20 bill for every safe I peeled, I’d have a new Cadillac—and some of them didn’t have any money in them. I can blow them, peel them, beat them. Floor safe, round door, square door, vault. I can crack a safe with one hand tied behind my back. I always got a hell of a feeling out of drilling a hole in a roof. There’s no thrill like drilling a hole in the roof of some institution and dropping down a rope and looking around.” 

Knievel says he was perhaps even more accomplished at swindling. “I traveled with a man who was known as the greatest swindler of all time,” he says. “A judge in one of the biggest cities in the world made the statement and was quoted in the newspapers, ‘This man is one of the most brilliant criminals ever brought before me.’ I always thought there was one more brilliant. That was me sitting in the courtroom who was never caught. We swindled institutions out of $25,000 or $30,000 within a 30-day period. I brought forth some schemes that were really brilliant, that no one in this world will ever be able to solve. I can show you a scheme that can beat any bank in this country out of any amount of money.”

Knievel says he took part in an armed robbery only once. “It bothered me so much,” he says. “The guy wanted to be brave. Consequently he got the hell beat out of him by me. I felt bad to have to hurt an individual to take money, even though I was doing it for a living. His blood was all over me. I did it and I got away with it, but it’s not the right way of life. Why do it? Why beat someone out of money that they worked hard for, and not contribute anything to this country and what it stands for?

“There was only one time in my life I lost my sense of being able to cope with any situation. I was crossroading at the time. I was in Sacramento with a fella who had been on the 10 Most Wanted list and another safecracker who was on the verge of getting on the list. I thought of shooting myself. The pressure broke me. That was really the turning point. Either live the rest of my life with these people or…. A kid will never become a man until he looks in a mirror and tells himself he wants to become a man. I want kids and teachers to look up to me and the things I stand for. I got a letter the other day from a teacher in the John F. Kennedy Junior High School in Redwood City, California. She said the children took an interest in me and followed my jumps, that it made them more intent on learning to read. I love people. I want to be good to people. That’s why I changed my whole way of life. I felt if I really loved my wife and children, I’d try to make a contribution to mankind and society as they should be contributed to.”

Evel and Linda Knievel have three children—two boys, Kelly, 7, and Robbie, 5, and a girl, Tracy, 4. (Recently, the three of them were jumping off a bed. “I’m Batman,” said Kelly. “I’m Superman,” said Robbie. “I’m Evel Knievel,” said Tracy.) When Knievel was 20 and Linda 17 he convinced her of his love by Kidnaping her. Along with a friend named Marco, Knievel went to an ice-skating rink in Butte where he knew Linda was skating. “I hid behind a garage, put on my skates and went out on the rink,” he recalls. “She couldn’t get away from me. I drug her by the hair and threw her in the back of the truck. ‘Go, Marco, go,’ I shouted. Then we got her into my car and I took off. I was driving with my ice skates on. Try it some time. We went and hid in a church. I knew they’d never look for me there. The cops and sheriffs were after me. My dad’s friends took the cars off his lot and were looking for me. The Triple A basketball tournament was being played in Butte, and Linda was the head cheerleader, and she wasn’t there. We started driving. It started snowing. It snowed two or three feet. We got stuck in the snow and stayed there all night. As soon as it got daylight I called a wrecker from a farmhouse. When the wrecker came, I had Linda lay down and hide in the back. There was a warrant out for my arrest. The guy in the wrecker heard the all-points bulletin. When he got us out, he radioed to the police, I just pulled that kid out of the snow, but that girl wasn’t with him.’ Her mother was saying, ‘Oh, my God, he killed her and stuck her in a snowbank.’ The cops were out probing in the snow. I tried to get to Coeur d’Alene, but I didn’t have any snow tires and couldn’t get over the hills. I figured I better go home and face the music. I was stopped at a roadblock. They threw me in jail for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. My dad put up the $500 to get me out.”•