In October of 1997 I was taking an evening graduate level Arabic class at Portland State University. Sometimes I would stop at a small tavern and drink coffee (yes that is what I said, COFFEE) before heading home which was about a one hour drive north to Longview where I was working in the Longview Washington School District. One evening just before Halloween I dropped into tavern. While sitting there pondering my trip home a balding blondhaired man popped in and set up a slide projector that must have been 30 years old. I swear it was held together by duct tact. He introduced himself to the 5 patrons as Ken Kesey and began a lecture on his bus trip with the Merry Pranksters two years earlier. I was spellbound by this man who was a wrestler in a Eugene Oregon High School in 1952. He also grew up on a dairy farm in Oregon. These latter two points are childhood loves we both shared. Everything else he talked about was strange and and alien to me. His mind was so interesting though and he credited it to LSD. He was so evangelical about it although I never have had a desire to convert. I had briefly and from a distance attended a lecture at Stanford University in 1974 where Kesey gave a disjointed and rather silly speech about his student years at Stannford where he was a CIA medical test volunteer when LSD, cocaine, and other drugs were considered for use during the cold war. It was held at the auditorium at the Hoover Institute. He seemed to be mocking the military industrial complex. I could not make any sense out of his talk then. Here I was three years later in a tiny pub listening to an impulsive but thrilling talk.
I knew this was one of America’s great writers. He had studied under Wallace Stegner at Stanford where he wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It became both a play and a movie. He did not talk about it that night. I think he was using us to help frame and form something he was writing about the famous bus ride that Tom Wolf wrote about in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid test. Frankly, I do not think the straight-laced Tom Wolf was able to capture the cultural philosophy of the Hippie culture. I too was too straight-laced and a bit of a prude to understand it either until this night. This was an intellectual working at his craft.
I talked to Kesey after the presentation as he was packing up his clunky projector, mostly about wrestling and growing up on a dairy farm. We left about the same time and parted ways never to meet again.
I savor these encounters more and more with each year that passes. I followed Kesey over the years and shared in his many joys and griefs. His son who wrestled for University of Oregon in 1985 died in a terrible bus accident. I wrote a note of condolence to Kesey who lived in Pleasant Hill, Oregon at the time. He never acknowledged it but strangely I got a note from the wrestling coach Dale Thomas at UO who coached me in wrestling at summer camps. I don’t know Kesey couldn’t handle the greif and left it to the wrestling coach or if this was his designated way to handle too many letters.
In the late 1990’s Kesey started to show up at Grateful Dead concerts. He and Ginsberg were at the Seattle Bumpershoot festival in Seattle for a more formal presentation. Generally the impromptu appearances were the most common way he tended to show up.
Kesey died in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 attack. His final piece of writing appeared in Rolling Stone. I was saddened by his passing at age 66 from complications of an operation in Eugene, Oregon.
Today I have learned there will be a movie based on Tom Wolf’s book. This news has awakened memories of my past, those forces that have influenced me in ways I never knew until now.