The Devil at Your Heels
by Ryk McIntyre
In the early 1600s, Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes gave the world the character of Don Quixote, and forevermore, the rest of us had a ready thumbnail sketch of to describe people who become obsessed with a dream that makes the rest of us want to say “...um, but that’s a windmill, dude...” And this will also easily serve as an introduction to Ken Carter, the man who would jump the St. Lawrence River.
Born Kenneth Gordon Polsjek – sometime in 1938 – in the working class slums of Montreal, Ken quit school after only the 4th grade in order to work. He became interested in stunt driving and when he turned 16, he joined a team of touring daredevils. Eventually Ken struck out on his own and established himself as a performer so daring, he was dubbed “The Mad Canadian.”
Watching this documentary video one can see why. This is a special style of stunt driving, in which the object seems to be not so much to actually jump the line of cars, as it is to make an impressive crash when you come down right into one - usually at speeds of 50 mph or more. In this bastard brother to demolition derbies, rocket cars and funny-car theatrics, the impact is the thing. Walking away from the wreck is nice too, but it’s no surprise, and only a small setback, when that doesn’t happen. Sprained ankle? No worries, he’ll be back tomorrow, folks.
The documentary focuses on the five years, between 1976 and 1980, when Ken Carter wanted to pull off the greatest stunt-jump ever: taking a rocket-propelled car and jumping it for a mile over the St. Lawrence River Seaway. To hear Ken describe it is a marvel of understatement as he acknowledges that overshooting the landing spot and crashing into the trees behind “could be a problem.” You know, tree-limb-through-the-chest sort of problem. It is a story of high hopes, a man with an unbeatable spirit, setbacks, setbacks and setbacks. In the face of all of it, Carter maintains a composed and optimistic front, even as everything goes wrong and then goes wrong again.
To hear Ken talk is to watch someone totally committed to their dream. He is honest about his disinterest in making successful jumps. No, he wants to give the crowd a good crash for their money. In one scene, he expresses his confusion and dismay over why anyone would want to do something as stupid as going over Niagara falls in a barrel. That makes no sense to our Ken.
Narrated by the sonorous phrasings of fellow Canadian Gordon Pinsent, the documentary follows the struggles and ultimate failure of trying to bring this stunt to life. It would be accurate to call the whole enterprise Sisyphean, as sadly, the stone of building a ramp some 1400 feet long and 85 feet high and building a rocket car capable of the feat, is never successfully rolled up the proverbial hill.
We meet many of the giants of this world as Ken Carter brings in experts like Dick Keller (maker of the Blue Flame – the rocket car that established a 1970 world record for attaining a speed of 640 mph) to help build the car, or “funny car” star driver Lew Arrington to teach the neophyte Carter how to drive a rocket car. In a wonderful scene of “Well, let’s see if I can do it!” optimism, Ken tries out Lew’s rocket car “Captain America” and goes 260 mph. Previous to this Ken had never driven over 90 mph. The minor wry humor of the description “funny car” (which really means “human missile on wheels”) is trumped by the sight, first of Ken trying work his 6’, 200 lb frame in to Lew’s 5’10” 160 lb sized safety suit, and then of him trying to leverage said large frame into the car which was custom-built to Lew’s size. Still, nothing stops the Ken and he performs just fine.
In fact, no matter what the snafus, obstacles and bad luck storms that fall his way this punishing regularity, Ken Carter maintains a “We’re gonna do this!” sense of optimistic determination, even as jump after jump is canceled, financial backers come on board and then withdraw, and even as the weather never seems to give him a break. In a particularly difficult passage we see Ken being questioned by Evel Knievel – who was sent to investigate by a nervous ABC which had sunk $250,000 into the project. A clearly unimpressed (maybe jealous) Knievel can’t find enough things wrong as he speaks in a monotone while stepping all over Carter’s dream. Jeez, Evel, just because Snake River Canyon didn’t work out for you, you gotta be all down on someone else’s vision?
Carter never gives up, although his later interviews attain a weird vibe as he talks about the relationship between Kenneth Gordon Polsjek – who does the fundraising, the booking and all things business – and Ken carter who loves to drive and crash cars. Maybe we’re seeing the beginnings of personality fracture, or maybe he always kept the two apart, just as Vince Furnier and Alice Cooper did in their career relationship.
I won’t give away the ending, although – to bring us back around to Don Quixote – the documentary reminds me of another windmill-tilting effort, that being Terry Gilliam’s effort to bring The Man of LaMancha to the screen, experiencing similar problems and eventual... well, maybe you should watch the movie. Maybe you should watch both movies.
The biggest lessons to find in the 1 hour, 42 minute film are that you can’t kill a dream when there is still one man who will not disbelieve it could happen; and that life is as much of an adventure as you choose to make it. To quote another driver “My momma said if life is boring, then risk it.” And for Ken Carter, like Don Quixote, life was never boring and the dream remained worth it, every step of the way.
Ryk McIntyre is a Multi-Hyphen sort of person. Poet, critic, performer, workshop facilitator and co-host at both GotPoetry! Live (Providence) and Cantab Lounge (Cambridge,MA). He's been living in RI for the past 6 years, with his wife and daughter. Ryk has performed his work at Boston's ICA, NYC's New School, Portsmouth, NH's Music Hall and Lollapalooza, to name just a few. He has toured the US, performing in countless Poetry open mics and festivals. He turned down Allen Ginsburg once.