Greatest Hits: You Stay Classy, AmericaOctober 5, 2009
Just the other day, I was having yet another conversation with Mr. Jalopy about the halcyon days of our shared youth. Sure, the seventies always gets a bad rap; in many respects, deservedly so. Just forget about the gas lines, rampant inflation, and polyester, and try to remember the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, fiberglass-bodied Chevy Vega funny cars and Evel Knievel.
Our conversation began (as it almost always does) with a discussion of the glory days of drag racing, reflections brought on by the purchase of the book mentioned in the previous post. Truly, giants stomped on MOON aluminum accelerator pedals in those heady days, ten-foot-tall, mutton-chopped gladiators whose driving skills were matched (indeed, sometimes exceeded) by their reckless, uninformed-by-focus-groups-style and showmanship. “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Connie “The Bounty Hunter” Kalitta, Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney, “Jungle Jim” Liberman, (and his bodacious muse, Jungle Pam!)
These were our bellbottomed gods and goddesses, coming down from the shag-carpeted comfort of Mt. Olympus in their metalflaked chariots to feud and fight for the entertainment of we mere mortals. The giants all went away eventually, and real drag racing went away with them, with the last example of the extinct species left in the person of motormouth pitchmeister John Force, bless him.
Drag racing was not the only place these sideburn-sporting titans battled with the fickle forces of Horsepower. From Formula One and Indy, all the way down to small-time demolition derbys, it seemed like our American birthright was finally being realized in a select group of crazy bastards willing to strap themselves in behind (or in front of) a Very Bad Idea and throw themselves at danger like flinging a water balloon at an electric fan, their only reward a shiny trophy, a can of Old Style, and the admiration of some sweet young thing with Farrah hair and a tube top.
Of course, if the subject under discussion is that of heroes dedicated to commiting acts of complete insanity involving internal combustion, lack of concern for life and limb, and white-toothed, white trash showmanship, then you need go no further than the apotheosis of the breed, Evel Knievel. He is the end point of the evolutionary line, the Tyrannosaurus Wrecks that tests the sustainable limits of the ecosystem. After he is gone, only small furry rodents remain.
It would be hard for someone born after 1980 to understand the hallowed place Evel held in the imagination of a kid back then. Forget fakes like Superman and Spider-Man, we had a real-life superhero to worship, a hero who dressed like a star-spangled Elvis, rode a Harley, smashed his bones like brittle Ortega taco shells, and who, in his ultimate act of insanity (and some would say of hubris) climbed into a red-white-and-blue rocket and shot himself over the gaping chasm of the Snake River Canyon. Like Icarus, he didn’t complete his flight; missing the far side of the canyon, he plummeted to the canyon floor, narrowly avoiding drowning in the river below. I can still remember witnessing this event on ABC’s Wide World Of Sports. just as I can instantly recall his painful slo-motion Caesar’s Palace crash, the Zapruder film of my generation. As a kid, I had all the Evel Knievel toys, of course, and later tried to jump drainage ditches on my dirt bike in imitation of Knievel, earning a broken collarbone for my troubles.
Yes, Evel was perhaps the ultimate example of the madness of the seventies, and held an honored place in the kid pantheon alongside Fonzie, Catfish Hunter, and those fat, minibike-riding twins from the Guinness Book of World Records (the book we couldn’t wait to order every year from the Scholastic catalog.)
This wasn’t meant to be merely another empty exercise in nostalgia-humping. As fun as it might be just to blather on about all this stuff, the more important question is this: what happened? Why did these giants vanish from the earth, only to be replaced by bilious actors, slutty anorexic debu-tarts, and insolvent vulgarians with orangutan hair-hats? When will the giants return?