It was a late night in the mid-1960s. I walked into my cousin Nick’s bar out at the nine-mile on Butte’s Harrison Avenue. The joint had a larger crowd than usual and I quickly knew why. Bobby Knievel was there. By then he was becoming Evel Knievel, had performed a half-dozen motorcycle jumps and was negotiating for permission to jump the Grand Canyon.
I pushed through to the bar and, putting my arm around Knievel’s shoulder, I retrieved a newspaper clipping from my wallet, kidding him about the headline: “Knievel to Jump Grand Canyon.” He smiled, reached for his own wallet and took out his newspaper clipping with a headline that read “Pat Williams to Run for Legislature.” Lifting his shot glass to signal a toast, he said, “If you can jump the voters in Butte, I can jump the canyon.”
Bobby and I had grown up as kids together in Butte. His mother and mine were sisters. In our earliest years we often played and rode and romped around our grandmothers’ homes – they helped raise us.
Even through a child’s eyes, I knew that Bobby wasn’t like the other kids. The young Bobby was always in motion, never passed up a dare, was very smart, eager, funny, determined and, yes, he was a rascal.
I remember, now, being struck by how coordinated and athletic he was – able to run faster, jump higher, and throw a baseball harder and further than the rest of us. We were in the first or second grade when he showed me how he could do hand stands. He practiced until soon he could jump forward, land upside down and walk away on his hands.
After the middle grades, Bobby and I hung out only occasionally. But, by the way, you haven’t lived until you have ridden on the back of a teenage Knievel motorcycle careening over and around the mine dumps in Butte, Montana.
I watched my boyhood pal from afar as he made 75 truly death-defying jumps between 1965 and 1981. He was almost killed trying that now infamous jump of 115 feet over the fountains at Caesar’s Palace. Knievel was in a coma for a month after that memorable, spectacular, but near fatal crash landing. As always, he recovered and soon after, before 80,000 people in Wembley Stadium, jumped 13 double-stacked London busses, a feat for which he received $1 million. In September of 1974 he received an astonishing $6 million to jump the Snake River Canyon. I had both wonder and pride about who and what my cousin had become.
He and I enjoyed our occasional, but almost always brief, visits during those 20 years. We reminisced about how divergent our paths had become: Bobby to his newly self-defined world of extreme sports and me to the United States Congress. We wondered together, trying to imagine what combination of inherited DNA had fueled us.
When a family member called me with the news of Knievel’s death, I was surprised, even though he had told me how sick he was. But I was even more surprised at another reaction. To me, it wasn’t the daredevil Evel who had come to his end. It was the kid, not the character, who was dead. The ever-smiling, rambunctious, non-stop Bobby had died … and I’ll miss that kid ‘til my own end, just as I always have.
Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West
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