Evel Knievel and the
Saturday morning, I was at the LYS when a younger woman came in with a little girl in tow. The child, about nine years of age, had a face like a porcelain doll, with straight, shining hair the color of melted chocolate. She wore unsullied jeans and an immaculate hand-knit cabled sweater the exact same shade of pink as a white rabbit's ear. As her mother prowled around the shop, this demure little girl petted various skeins of yarn as gently as if they were newborn kittens.
When the mother had collected up her yarn and was ready to check out, the little girl approached her, held up a skein of fluffy magenta wool, and said, "Mom, will you teach me how to knit?"
Everyone within earshot did what every knitter anywhere does when we hear these words. We all turned to the child, like the Priestesses of the Lady of the Lake smiling upon the prepubescent Morgaine as she set foot on the shores of Avalon for the first time. We were thinking, "Welcome, child. Welcome to the sisterhood."
The mother looks worried. "I don't know," she said. "You can hurt yourself with knitting needles. You have to be really careful. You might fall down, or something. Maybe when you're a little older?"
The child's lower lip grows to the size of a portabello mushroom and disappointment fills her big green eyes.
We of the Sisterhood hold our collective breath, in awe of this earnest young acolyte. We glance at each other, trying to comprehend this mother's lunatic reluctance to teach her child to knit.
The mother crumples her eyebrows, looks at the LYS owner and asks, as though it is a perfectly normal thing, like she's asking the guy at the deli counter for a half-pound of salami:
"Do you have any safety needles for children?"
I am a child of the Sixties, when we applied clamp-on roller skates to our sneakers without adult supervision, sailed down steep levee access roads on skateboards, jumped on pogo sitcks, and rode bicycles ... all without helmets, kneepads, elbow pads and pinky-finger pads. We rode other kids on the handlebars and climbed pecan trees and built treehouses waaaaaay up there, out of scrap lumber and odd nails we found.
It's not that our parents didn't care. They cared a lot. In fact, they were damned strict, but they firmly believed that nearly all childhood doom could be kept at bay by cod-liver oil, Flintstones vitamins, booster shots, not running with scissors, staying out of the street, avoiding unfamiliar dogs, not talking to strangers, keeping a dime in your shoe in case you need to use a pay phone, lighting firecrackers on the sidewalk (not in your hand), and coming home the exact instant the streetlights came on.
That was it. Along with the all-purpose, "be careful," those were all the safety rules.
The problem is, they had no idea of the things we could think up while they had their backs turned washing the dishes.
They also did not know that kids could play Evel Knievel without talking to strangers, playing in the street, running with scissors or sticking a hairpin into an electric socket.
Let's get in the Wayback Machine and go to a crowded New Orleans neighborhood sometime in the spring of 1972. I am the world's tommiest tomboy. The only remotely girly thing I do is knitting, but I do not knit girly things. Knitting is cool because you can make hippie stuff out of Red Heart "Mexicali" yarn. I have also taught all of my guy pals how to make I-cord with a knitting spool, which makes far-out, psychedelic streamers to hang from your bike handlebars, especially if you put macrame beads on the ends.
It is a fine, cool, Saturday morning. I am hanging out with my guy friends -- Jack, Sean and Shelley (not that we had any Irish Catholics in our neighborhood or anything like that).
Scooby-Doo, the Monkees, and Johnny Quest are off the air for the morning, and we have all been urged by various mothers to Get Out of The House and Get Some Sunshine.
The four of us considered ourselves to be exceedingly "boss," which meant that we were cool indeed. We had seen Billy Jack at the movies. We had Beatles records and had discovered Led Zeppelin. We had slit fluorescent-colored drinking straws lengthwise, and slipped them onto our bicycle spokes, where they made a satisfying rattling noise. We had baseball cards and glow-in-the-dark Frisbees. We had snuck into the hippies' backyard on the other side of our block, and had seen their marijuana plants with our very own eyes.
Now, dear reader, think back on the young mother in the LYS. What do you think the odds are that the following little drama would happen today, at her house?
What Happens When You Play Evel Knievel
New Orleans Children's Film Studio
Copyright (C) 1972, all rights reserved:
Opening scene: Four kids (three rangy boys and a black-haired, pony-tailed girl in a Notre Dame sweatshirt and jeans), all about age twelve, in their play clothes, sitting on a small front porch, looking bored. The girl has an idea, and pops her head up.
Dez: "Let's play Evel Knievel!"
Jack: "That sounds boss! How do we make a ramp?"
Shelley: "Let's prop some plywood up on your Mom's garbage cans!"
Director's note: the O'Briens, being a large family, had big metal garbage cans from Sears.
Jack: "Neat! Where are we gonna get the plywood?"
Sean: "Grandpa has some plywood in the alley between our house and Shelley's."
A small parade of children snakes through the cluttered O'Brien family alley to appropriate a large sheet of warped, three-quarter-inch plywood.
Grandpa, alerted by the sound of his plywood bumping and scraping against the brick-paved alley, sticks his Brylcreemed head out the open kitchen window and hollers after the children without losing control of the Keep Moving cigar stub clamped in the corner of his mouth.
Grandpa: "Where y'all goin' with my plywood?"
Sean: "We're just gonna borrow it to play Evel Knievel, Grandpa..."
Grandpa: "Is he that fool with the motorcycle?"
Grandpa: "Okay, you just put it back where you got it, and watch out you don't get splinters!"
Sean: "Okay, Grandpa!"
Out on the sidewalk, the children prop up one end of the plywood on two metal garbage cans, which immediately tump over.
Jack: "The garbage cans aren't heavy enough."
Dez: "We need to put something heavy in them."
Shelley: "My Dad has a whole bunch of bricks and stuff under our house."
Sean: "Let's get 'em!"
The parade of purposeful children resumes, each child in turn hunkering down under Shelley's house to retrieve a couple of bricks, then crawling back out bearing a pattern of mud not unlike a soldier who's just elbow-walked his rifle through a swamp in Vietnam.
Like ancient Chinese peasants building the Great Wall, the brick-laden children scurry back and forth, depositing bricks into the garbage cans and returning to the gloomy recesses beneath Shelley's house.
While this is going on, a few passing adults walk around the strange construction project -- which is completely blocking the narrow sidewalk -- or call out from their porches while wiping their hands on dish towels. Each conversation goes something like this:
Adult: "What are y'all doin'?"
Child: "Playing Evel Knievel."
Adult: "Is he that crazy guy with the motorcycle?"
Adult: "Be careful, now..."
Once the garbage cans contain about a dozen bricks each, the plywood-and-can ramp stays up.
Now the children need things to jump over.
A rusty push-mower, a battered lawn chair and a barbeque grill are obtained from various neighbors' yards and storage sheds. All of these things are bristling with rusty appendages upon which the children could impale themselves, or, worse, put an eye out.
Adult: "Where y'all going with that?"
Child: "We're just borrowin' it to play Evel Knievel."
Adult: "You mean that guy with the motorcycle on Wide World of Sports?"
Adult: "Okay, just be careful, and put it back when you're done."
We insert a reminder that the adults in question do care a great deal about the fate of the children, and would forbid the children to do this on the spot, if only they could see the entire array of dangerous objects, and comprehend their intended use.
If only they were thinking like twelve-year-olds, and realized that the lawn chair was really a Cadillac, and that it would not be sat in.
It would be jumped over by a girl on a bicycle.
At last, the sidewalk proudly displays a jump-ramp, barbeque grill, push-mower and rickety lawn chair, all laid out in a tidy row. To any adult looking out from a living room window, this does not look like a glamorous and dangerous motorcycle stunt. It looks like the O'Briens are having a yard sale, or maybe, finally, cleaning out their alley. It would not occur to any of these adults that someone would try to jump over this still life of alley junk.
A tortoiseshell cat on a nearby porch stops licking her rump long enough to regard this spectacle with suspicion and disdain.
Director's note to camera operator: the camera angle, lighting, and cat's expression should all foreshadow a sense of Impending Doom. We want the audience to see the cat thinking, "Man, that looks dangerous. I'm staying right here on the porch."
Sean: "You think that's enough stuff to jump over?"
Dez: "Let's just pretend they're real big cars, like Cadillacs."
Jack: "Okay. I think that's enough to start with. If we can jump over that, we can find some more stuff."
Of course, knowing nothing of engineering terms like "rise-to-run-ratio" or "live load," when the children put the bricks in the garbage cans, they are thinking only of holding the plywood up. They are not thinking of holding up plywood and a ninety-pound child on a forty-pound bicycle charging down the sidewalk at the glorious speed of 14 miles per hour. Nor do they consider anything except the obvious fact that pretending your bike is a motorcycle is sufficient to arrive at enough speed to launch both one's self and one's bike over the obstacles in question.
Jack: "Who wants to go first?"
Sean: "Not me."
Dez: "I'll do it."
Shelley: "Bet you can't."
Dez: "Bet I can."
Director's note to camera operators and special effects: Zoom in on child as she climbs onto bicycle. Using 1960s fog-filter, fade in transformation of narrow, double-parked New Orleans street into motorcycle arena in California desert. Cue tinkly harp music, and transform purple bike with purple sparkle-vinyl banana seat and ape-hanger handlebars (with purple streamers) into purple metal-flake Harley-Davidson. Transform jeans, sneakers and sweatshirt into purple leather jumpsuit and matching helmet. Insert cheering crowd as child first does an Evel-style practice run around the jump ramp. Crowd becomes silent as steely-eyed child returns to starting point and assesses ramp.
Cue Howard Cosell.
Child pedals furiously, reaches ramp, hits plywood, pedals upupupupupupup.....
Director's note to camera operator: cut to extreme slow motion:
Garbage cans collapse. Bricks tumble to either side as bike hits barbeque grill, which topples onto push-mower and spills both child and bike onto lawn chair and sidewalk. Child goes elbows-over-teakettle. Bike lands on child, who realizes that her wrist is broken and she needs stitches on her knee because a brick shard is sticking out of it, but who fears howling out in pain due to fear of reprisal from grownups.
Camera: Close-up of "OH CRAP" look on child's face.
Cut to parents bundling child into Pontiac and racing to hospital emergency room, where mother hovers over bed while father stands silently, making his Chief Thundercloud face.
The following conversation takes place:
Child: "But I was careful!"
Mother: "I can't believe you want to copy that horrible man who says sacriligeous things about the Virgin Mary! What will people think?"
Mother: "You could have killed yourself!"
Child: "But I didn't!"
Mother: "Here comes the nurse with a tetanus shot."
Child: "But that's gonna hurt!"
Mother: "Well, remember that next time you get an idea like that in your head!"
Fade to bruised, bandaged, and exceedingly grounded girl, tucked into bed with plaid coverlet, upon which is curled the tortoiseshell cat from the earlier scene. A worried-looking border collie, sitting on the floor next to the bed, licks the cast on the child's right arm.
The anxious child can hear her mother in the next room, phoning the mothers of the other children involved in the debacle. From what the child can hear, they are all grounded, too, and their respective mothers have no idea how they got this Evel Knievel idea in their heads.
It appears that Grandpa O'Brien is in some sort of disfavor as well, having allowed the use of the plywood. Apparently, a certain amount of beer was involved in his decision-making process.
Cut to scene of Grandpa talking into O'Brien kitchen wall phone (with rotary dial):
Grandpa: "How the hell was I supposed to know they were gonna jump over anything? I thought they had toy motorcycles they were gonna roll around on the damn plywood, or something like that. Besides, I was listenin' to the radio -- I had five bucks on 'Mama's Boy' in the first race."
This is all the girl's fault. Closeup of anxious child. Fade to black.
Cut to schoolyard scene on Monday morning, where grounded friends assure girl that it wasn't her fault that they are grounded, and that grownups are just plain mean.
Camera: Fade to closeup of arm-cast being autographed by classmates with multicolored Flair markers, while a stern-faced nun frowns in the background.
Grownups have no idea how cool a broken arm is in seventh grade. It is so cool, it is worth being grounded for. Especially if you broke it playing Evel Knievel.
So I ask you, Worried Knitting Mommy: having read this -- exactly why don't you want your un-scarred, un-scraped, girly little girl not to handle knitting needles at the tender age of nine? It's self-evident that she doesn't do much running at all, much less with scissors or knitting needles.
Listen here. Just pick up those blunt-tipped plastic Red-Heart needles with the kittycat faces on the ends, buy the magenta yarn and do exactly what the nice LYS owner says.
You have no idea what that child might think up if you don't.