I sat back on the banana seat of my Huffy three-speed and gazed down the steep slope of the trail in a way that I thought resembled the way Evel Knievel sat and looked down at the rows of buses lined up between his ramps before a jump. I had ABC's Wide World of Sports theme music playing in my head.
In those days that dramatic music and that famous motorcycle stunt rider in the leather red-white-and-blue jumpsuit must have inspired many a young man to change their career choice and say, I want to be a daredevil when I grow up. Usually I wanted to be a writer, but that afternoon must have been on a weekend and I had been watching a TV sports special about Knievel and I was all wound up and looking for a thrilling life of fame and danger. I revved my imaginary motor and started down the hill.
The trail on the hill behind the high school back then was more like a dusty rut worn by the footsteps of countless kids trekking up and down. It was long before the junior high was built and the area below was a grassy field beside swampy brush and bordered at the base of the hill by a steep bank that dropped off severely the last six-to-ten feet. Normally I would navigate around it, but that day I stayed off my brakes and let my speed increase as I got closer to an earthen ramp that I imagined would launch me in an rainbow arch over the mucky little stream that seeped along muddily below. I envisioned a graceful rolling landing in the mowed field where we practiced midget league football.
I have read of instances where individuals were so driven by depression and doubt that they jumped off bridges that turned out to be not quite high enough to end their life. The strange similarity in many of such situations is that after being fished from the waters below many of the jumpers told of a last minute change of thinking, just after the moment when it was too late, in which they lingered in the air a long thoughtful second and realized how terribly wrong their decision had been.
And time does slow down as the human brain tries to process every pertinent detail in circumstances of danger or great bodily harm and there was a brief fraction of a racing heartbeat where I knew that my plan was a bad one and my physics were all off.
Evel Knievel is in The Guinness Book of World Records, not for how many buses he has jumped, but for "most broken bones in a lifetime." His most spectacular stunts were his spills. I guess that we liked it when he hit his landing smoothly and took victory laps around the arena while the announcer talked up the feat, but it was the replays of the wipeouts that earned my fascination.
Slow-motion replay: a small clump of sod breaks off and dirt rains down as the young daredevil's front wheel leaves the bank and leads lad and bike off the earth and into the air. The wheels spin and with both feet off the pedals and legs extended outward in a way that lurches him awkwardly off the seat the boy's eyes widen in a look of fright as he sees the height he has achieved and realizes the total lack of control he suddenly has over his momentum. (This was the point where time seemed to stop and I had the sudden realization there, hanging in the air, if I got to grow up, that I did not want to be a daredevil and was much more suited for the role of writing about daredevils.) His front wheel does not raise and his trajectory is not an arch, but instead the handlebars drop down and launch him into a slow somersaulting free-fall. And though a wheel does hit the ground first, it only does so slightly before the boy's chin does. From there it is a skidding, tumbling, bouncing mess of bike, tires, limbs and little boy until the wreckage stops rolling and the only sounds are birds chirping and the kid gasping for the wind that was knocked out of him.
Lying on my back and looking up at slow moving clouds I felt a little blood trickle down my chin and onto my neck. There was no crowd of fans, quieted, yet murmuring in mass concern. There was no emergency crew to come and carry me off on a stretcher. There was no announcer consoling viewers and telling people to stay back. There was not even a friendly janitor from inside the school to come out and say, Hey kid, are you all right? Yet there was a voice.
It was again the voice of Wild World of Sports. But the music had stopped. Like a faint mocking echo knocked loose and drifting out of my memory I heard the famous words of the show's introduction – "Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport... the thrill of victory..." But then seeming as real as the swelling in my wrist the taste of dirt in my mouth I then heard it's famous end, in my own voice I recited along: "…and the agony of defeat."
I was that guy. I was no daredevil. No Evel Knievel. I sat up and picked some gravel from the palms of my hands and then I picked up my bike and tried to straighten the handlebars. Then I pushed it home, not yet knowing that someday I would write about it all.
(Staff Photographer Roger Vogel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)