In the 1970's, Evel Knievel fascinated me. His appearances on ABC's Wild World of Sports found my older brother and I glued to the television, watching Knievel's daredevil stunts while hypnotically dropping popcorn kernels onto our tongues. We relished seeing him successfully sail his motorcycle over ten buses, then ride victoriously back and forth in front of the thunderous crowd. We loved his red, white and blue costumes. And, as sordid as it sounds, we prized the adrenalin rush when Evel crashed, and the anxiety buzz over whether he would walk away from it.
After these events, we built colossal backyard ramps with plywood and cinder blocks. Eventually satisfied with our creations of actual and illusory danger, we drove our bicycles over the contraptions, bringing ourselves to the brink of destruction. Much to our mother's chagrin and our father's dismay, like our idol, we wanted to break every bone in our bodies at least once, too.
Evel's exciting scrapes with death gave us the sensation that despite brittle bones, he must have superhuman powers.
As Evel faded into the spinning disco lights of the 70's, Richard Simmons burst into the eighties, wearing glorified wife-beater shirts and small, tight, athletic shorts. He took that wardrobe, along with his bewildering afro and tireless enthusiasm, to the overweight of the world, and beyond. We tuned in to broadcast after broadcast, obsessively dissecting his panache and persona with youthful precision; not as exhilarating as watching a man drive off a cliff, but just as entertaining.
But the 90's brought television a new character and a new reality: Steve Irwin, starring in the Croc Files. For me, he was the Evel Knievel of the animal kingdom, handling fierce fauna like fangless feather dusters, with the energy and fashion sense of Richard Simmons, never seen publicly in anything but his khaki Boy Scout bit.
Nevertheless, for my kids, he was an unbreakable hero.
Each show inspired them to creep around the yard, yelling "Danger, danger, danger," bravely collecting hazardous specimens, which they held near vital organs while orating about the mysteries and menaces of each.
Much to my chagrin and their father's dismay, like the Aussie, they wanted to have scars of incisor incisions over every inch of their bodies, too.
In fact my sons had decided that when they got old enough to set out on their own, they would head straight to Australia, probably along with a million other impressionable young lads, and acquire jobs, as skilled critter wrestlers, with the Crocodile Hunter.
I never really worried about them actually going, however, because somewhere in the back of my mind I knew the guy had a pretty good chance of running out his Vegas odds before my boys hit independence. Yet, I never thought it would happen so soon, so bizarrely, or so agonizingly embedded in the childhoods of his own offspring.
My house has transformed into a mausoleum of mourning; a place where my children sit transfixed by reruns. How could someone so seemingly immortal fall prey to such a benign beast as a stingray? As one child aptly put it, "It wasn't a crocodile that got him? It wasn't a snake? . . . Are you sure?"
This brings me to another decade and another phenomenon: the 1960's and Elvis. And for my children, unwilling to relinquish the legend of their beloved reptile warrior, I hope upon hope that Croc Hunter sightings crop up all over the world, while conspiracy theorists start stories about him staging his death to disappear Down Under.
. . . 'Cause crikey, we're gonna miss that mate.