BUTTE - As two Butte police cars, lights flashing, led the hearse carrying Evel Knievel's body and the rest of his funeral procession down Montana Street here Monday, I briefly kicked around a lead for my story - something about it being the first time the cop cars were out in front of the motorcycle daredevil instead of chasing him.
Problem was, it couldn't be true. There had to have been police escorts to many of the increasingly bizarre stunts he attempted in the 1960s and '70s, not to mention a parade or three here in his hometown where flashing lights preceded, rather than followed, Knievel.
That lead wasn't the only thing that didn't make it into Tuesday's paper. Evel tales flowed as fast as the alcohol could be poured at joints around the city, from the M&M, to the Met, to Muzz and Stan's Freeway Tavern.
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People started gathering to swap Evel stories on the evening of the day Knievel died in Clearwater, Fla., on Nov. 30, and they were still going strong 10 days later, the night before his funeral at the Butte Civic Center.
"Put him in the ground," one tired bartender said Sunday night. "I've had enough."
Make no mistake, you can find people in Butte who don't have a good thing to say about Knievel, the bombastic, hard-drinking, flagrant self-promoter who grew up - often south of the law - as Bobby Knievel in this mining town.
But you can find many more ready to pass on the stories that - true or not - made Knievel a legend in Butte long before he became world famous.
There's the story that, after dropping out of high school, Knievel found work in the mines but was fired after he popped a wheelie on an earth mover, crashed into Butte's main power line and sent the city into several hours without power.
There's the one about how he allegedly stole $100,000 - or was it $120,000? - from the courthouse - or was it city hall? - after enlisting a Butte cop - or was it two Butte cops? - to serve as a lookout. You cannot imagine how funny it is to listen to his old pals Bob Kovacich and Paul Riley argue about the details of the alleged caper in the Met on the night before Knievel's funeral.
And there's the one about how, after one of his big paydays, he came back to town, gathered his old entourage and proclaimed a mission: to spend $1 million in Butte bars in one night. Whether it's true, and whether he managed to, hardly seems to matter.
A high school dropout and juvenile delinquent, Robert Craig Knievel, by his own admission, probably could have spent the bulk of his 69 years in the Montana State Prison.
Instead, he became the world's most famous motorcycle daredevil whose success, oddly enough, heightened with each succeeding failure. The more Knievel crashed, the more bones he broke, the more concussions and comas he suffered, the more interest there was in his next stunt.
That interest grew to epic proportions in 1974, when Knievel attempted to jump the Snake River Canyon.
Knievel said he came up with the idea while drinking at Moose's Saloon in Kalispell in 1966, where a picture of the Grand Canyon was displayed on one of the walls.
"The drunker I got, the littler that Grand Canyon looked," he explained.
The Grand Canyon was out for any number of reasons, including the U.S. Department of Interior's refusal to have anything to do with such a ludicrous idea.
"So I bought my own damn canyon," Knievel said - actually, he leased land on both sides of Idaho's Snake River Canyon - and set about planning the jump, which would result in a $6 million payday for either himself, or at least his heirs.
It was the ultimate reality TV, decades before the phrase was ever coined.
The hype for the event was not unprecedented - just a year earlier, Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King had squared off in "The Battle of the Sexes" on the tennis court, a man vs. woman made-for-TV match that garnered worldwide publicity.
But it was unlikely either Riggs or King might die during the tennis match, unless a meteor crashed into the court.
Just how much danger Knievel was in at the Snake River Canyon jump was open to debate. The motorcycle he vowed to ride over the canyon evolved into a specially made steam-powered rocket called the "X-2 Skycycle" that, granted, had two wheels sticking out of its belly.
But if all went well, a parachute would deploy from the Skycycle on the other side of the canyon and the cycle would drift down and actually land on a pogo stick-like device located in the nose of the rocket before tipping over onto the earth.
"The second they shot the rocket, I said, 'There goes the chute,' " said Boyd Taylor of Butte. "I saw it flutter as the rocket took off."
Standing a few feet from the large granite tombstone on display at Knievel's funeral Monday, Taylor and his wife Robbie - she used to practice figure skating on one end of the Butte Civic Center ice in the 1950s while Knievel practiced hockey at the other - recalled the canyon fiasco.
"We hit town, and the place was packed with people," Robbie said. "There were buses from Butte everywhere, and so many motorcycles. Every place was so crowded you couldn't turn around. We woke up at the motel the next morning and people were outside sleeping in lounge chairs and brushing their teeth in the swimming pool."
At the jump site the night before, crowds rioted because of excessive prices at the beer and concession stands. Chain-link fences separated 12,000 people from the lip of the canyon, and from the folks from Butte who were given the best "seats" in the house just a few feet from the launch pad.
"They had Hells Angels guarding us, and as it got closer to being time for Evel to jump, the crowd started tearing the fence down," Robbie said. "I'll never forget the look of amazement on the faces of the Hells Angels. The poor Butte High band and drill team were trying to perform during all of this."
The Hells Angels, said the Taylors, told the folks from Butte to get ready to take cover under trucks or buses if the fence came down, because there was no way they could protect them from the mob.
The rocket took off, the parachute deployed prematurely, and the Skycycle drifted back into the canyon and disappeared from view.
And then, the fence did come down as 12,000 scrambled to see what had become of Knievel.
"We thought he was dead," Robbie said of Knievel, and the Taylors may have thought they were next. They did what the Hells Angels had instructed them to do and crawled under a vehicle as the crowd stormed to the edge of the canyon.
This bravado of Knievel's, this derring-do, attracted a wide assortment of people to the man who was now Butte's most famous son.
Many of them were women, and some of the stories on the eve of his funeral included the names of some famous ones Knievel allegedly slept with. Even his son Robbie, himself a motorcycle stuntman, joked about his father's womanizing at the funeral, telling his mother Linda, who was married to Evel for 38 years, and Knievel's latest wife, Krystal, they were the only two women Knievel had ever said "I love you" to.
"For more than a day or two, anyway," Robbie Knievel added.
Men were equally engrossed with the daredevil, his stunts and wild lifestyle, and Knievel once said, "Kids wanted to be like me, men wanted to be me and women wanted to be with me."
"We go way back," said former world heavyweight boxing champion "Smokin' " Joe Frazier, who became friends with Knievel in 1968 and flew to Butte for the funeral. "I thought I was a slightly black Evel Knievel."
They met in Las Vegas, Frazier said, where he noticed the flamboyantly dressed Knievel and asked someone, "What does he do?"
"He drives motorcycles," came the answer.
"His job and my job are tough jobs," Frazier said, explaining the friendship.
Knievel got him on a bike several times, Frazier said, and he pointed to several scars he said came from those times, and not from the boxing ring.
"I tried to be the black Evel Knievel, and I got messed up every time," he said.
Asked if he knew where Knievel's cojones had come from, Frazier said, "That has to be a mom and dad thing Š somebody down a generation or two who was even tougher than him."
Knievel and his brother Nic were raised in rough-and-tumble Butte by their grandparents, Ignatius and Emma Knievel, after their parents divorced when the boys were toddlers. Both Robert and Ann Knievel left their sons and Butte behind to seek new starts after the divorce.
Knievel supported his own family in a variety of ways - from insurance salesman to safecracker, he'd say - and his first official jump came when he worked at a failing motorcycle dealership in Moses Lake, Wash., and attempted to fly over a caged mountain lion and some crated rattlesnakes out in the parking lot in an effort to lure in customers.
The back tire landed on some of the rattlesnakes, the crowd oohed and ahhed, and Knievel smelled money to be made by flying bikes off ramps.
Within two years he had - by hook and by crook, if the stories are to be believed - lined up the jump that catapulted him into fame: an attempt to soar over the fountains at Caesars Palace.
Like many of his landings in the coming years, this one was a bad one, and after ABC's "Wide World of Sports" replayed it later, Knievel somersaulting over the handlebars and bouncing down the pavement, Evel's name was etched in the minds of the American public.
According to Doug Wilson, a "Wide World of Sports" producer and director who spoke at Knievel's funeral, out of the top 10-rated programs in the show's long history, Evel Knievel jumps hold seven of the spots.
When Robbie Knievel, following in his father's footsteps, attempted the same jump at Caesars Palace more than 20 years later, Evel was nervous.
"I'd never seen my dad afraid before," said Evel's other son, Kelly. "His lower lip was quivering before Robbie jumped. He kept telling me to 'keep it together,' but I think he was talking to himself and blaming it on me."
Kelly said he had never seen his father so proud as when Robbie successfully completed the jump that had hospitalized Evel for a month.
Robbie and Evel were estranged for many years, but patched things up as Evel's health declined in the last 10 years.
"He called you the greatest motorcycle stuntman he'd ever seen," one friend of Evel's told Robbie at the funeral.
"I am absolutely not the greatest daredevil in the world," Robbie told the thousands in attendance later. "I am the son of the greatest."
Now the greatest is gone. Evel Knievel, who cheated death so many times in his prime, rode life out until disease, not a motorcycle wreck, killed him.