Flushing, New York — Summer 1975
All the kids stupidly try to emulate Evel Knieval’s death defying stunts on their bicycles.
He is a source of fascination for all of us kids in the neighborhood. Whenever he performs one of his stunts on Wide World of Sports, everything stops, and there we are glued to the television to see whether or not he’d make it. Most of the time he does. Sometimes he doesn’t and when he doesn’t it’s usually a sight to behold. In fact, they show a clip reel of all his failures, something we enjoy as much as his successes. It was said at that time that he had broken every bone in his body except for his neck.
Regardless of the gruesome images of him crashing and falling off his motorcycle time and time again, this never discourages us from trying to be him. Time and time again we fashion some makeshift ‘ramp‘ — usually out of discarded wood or a piece of panel that wouldn’t snap — set up some garbage pails and off we go, emulating our hero. Sometimes we make it. Sometimes not. Luckily, none of us ever get seriously hurt.
This particular weekend he isn’t performing any stunts but this doesn’t stop us. This time we use my cousin’s bicycle, which is ‘Frankenstein’ of mixed parts. It isn’t the greatest thing in the world, nor the safest. It’s barely holding together.
We’re in front of our aunt and uncle’s house. We’re trying to set up a jump despite being told by our parents time and time again that they didn’t want to see us ‘doing Evel Knieval’. We never listen, of course, and do them anyway, always out of sight, usually at the schoolyard or some other spot where they couldn’t see what we were doing. For some reason we decide to be a little daring, try to set something up in front of the house. Everyone is in the backyard. They can’t see a thing.
There isn’t a ramp or any items to jump over so we decide to utilize a broken slab of concrete which acts as a natural ramp. The idea is to see how far we can go before landing. Whoever lands the furthest away wins. Simple enough. This way we can do things clandestinely, in the event that one of our parents decided to come out to front of the house and see what we’re up to.
We do this all afternoon, each of us taking turns. Everything goes smoothly. No one is the wiser.
I ride the bike to the top of the block and give it my all, pedaling furiously down the sidewalk as I head towards the ramp. I hit the ramp, pull the front of bike up. I’m soaring now, gliding through the air a good two feet off the ground. I land a good yard from the ramp, speeding towards the end of the block. Then, out of nowhere, my uncle’s next door neighbor appears.
He’s an old man, well into his eighties, and I’m heading straight towards him.
I’m unable to stop the bike. The chain slips from it’s gears so there are no breaks. The last thing I see before careening directly into the old man is him swinging his cane at me.
The next thing I know, I’m at the end of the block, stopping the bike with the heels of my sneakers. I turn around to see my mother and father, my aunt and uncle helping the old man up off the sidewalk. I pedal back, apologize profusely. ‘It was an accident’, I tell them. My father kicks me hard in the ass, slaps me across the back of the head. My cousin’s fate is far worse.
The old man is okay, thank God, but I’m grounded for quite some time. Bikes are now off limits for the foreseeable future.
A few weeks later I regain my bicycle privileges, with the explicit promise that I no longer ‘do Evel Knieval’. This promise lasts about a week before I attempt another ‘stunt’ and wind up breaking my arm in two places, one of the bones nearly bursting through the skin. I’m out of commission for two months and it gives me a lot of time to think about the stupidity of my actions.
One night, while lying in bed, having trouble sleeping because of the awkward configuration of my cast, I contemplate everything that led up to my current predicament. I can’t help but think that I could have very easily killed that old man. What would I have done had I actually done so?
How would I have gone through the rest of my life with that on my conscience, knowing that I had killed someone’s father, husband, brother, grandfather? How would that have impacted the rest of my life, how I grew up, how I interacted with the world? How would I have lived with that?
To this day, it still gives me chills to think about it.