Seeking Ken Kesey, Part 1

Fred Haefele discusses his connection with Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Prankster, Pass By

by Fred Haefele

In August 1964, I was idling away the afternoon at a Quaker country day school in Alexandria, Va., where I had a job life-guarding for a summer-camp program. It was a particularly tiny pool. I was 20 years old. I’d flunked out of two pretty good colleges and didn’t have a clue what was next. For this reason, I’d decided to become an author, consoling myself with the notion that my pratfalls and tomfoolery were but a means to gain the “real world” experience a writer needed. That afternoon, the pretty tennis coach with whom I’d shared these aspirations padded barefoot across the deck to hand me a copy of her favorite book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

By that time of day, the kids had all gone home and there was no one poolside but a pair of leathery old Quakers, quietly discussing the Mississippi Freedom Rides. Just nine months past JFK’s assassination, it’s fair to describe America at that time as a bewildered and edgy place, one keenly suspicious of the exotic and getting more so all the time. Against this backdrop, I sat back in my deck chair and began one of the most influential books I’d ever read. There were no Siddharthas, no Holden Caulfields, no epic soldiery. Unlike the Shaw, Jones or Mailer I’d read, the battle unfolded in a microcosm; between a fanatically repressive psychiatric nurse and an ungrammatical working tough of Promethean daring. Beyond this, the writing had a depth and richness that stemmed from a rarity at that time: an educated writer so comfortable with his blue-collar roots that he effortlessly called up poetry from them.

A Midwestern kid from a white-collar background, I decided there was nothing I wanted more in life than to possess this same ability, and for the ensuing 40 years, Ken Kesey remained an influence I couldn’t shake ― part inspiration, part spirit guide, part cautionary tale.

My hunger for “real world” experience didn’t preclude a lateral career move or two. A year later, I found myself living in Boston, a 21-year-old husband and father to be, working days and going to school nights. With its quotidian routine of fatherhood and academia, my life seemed less Kesey-like than even my kiddy-pool gig the year before. Since I hadn’t thought to separate Kesey from his characters, it was sometime before I learned that, like me, Kesey had been a scholar and father, too. A guy who, to make ends meet, did what any family man would do: He hired himself out as pharmaceutical guinea pig.

In autumn of 1965 the term “cultural upheaval” didn’t exist yet, but even if you managed to tune out the murders in Mississippi and the mounting Vietnam disquiet, you really couldn’t miss the urban riots. A psychic temblor traveled the mantle of this country, a troubled, antsy feeling of a force gathering strength and mass.

I’d been too busy to think much about Kesey until I read in Esquire that he’d left writing to become master of revels for the Merry Pranksters, a kind of ecstatics-without-borders performance group. With much of their act a complete hallucination, the Pranksters were unlike anything America had seen, traveling the country in a schoolbus called “Further,” just to goof on what they saw. To be part of this Zeitgeist Express, to be “on the bus” with Kesey, I thought, I would gladly give up everything I had.

Meanwhile, my friends and I made do with our own LSD experiments, but without the West Coast production values. We found that, except for the fact it lasted 12 hours and you never knew where it might take you or leave you off, it was a pretty good time. But it scared my wife badly. In fact, it scared me more than I liked to admit, and I fretted this would lessen my Prankster prospects significantly.

Like most marriages I knew of, my own failed to negotiate the ’60s. After the divorce, I abandoned my graduate studies in a funk, found myself unceremoniously without family, career or clue. By 1969, the landscape was bleak. Kesey was in jail, and after the Tet offensive and the King and Kennedy shootings, most people were glad to see the flower-power deal was over.

For a grad-school dropout and part-time lifeguard, the job market wasn’t all it could be. I moved from our Back Bay apartment to a cheap Cambridge studio, across the Charles River. It reeked of scorched rice and hashish oil. A band called the “Glass Bead Game” co-habited overhead, and in the course of an increasingly futile job search, I picked up Sometimes a Great Notion and read it a 20-hour sitting. Besides the fact that it featured a grad-school type even more clueless than me, there was a terrific scene with Leland’s half-brother, Hank, high in a Douglas fir top, rigging it for a tail-spar. When I finally put the book down I thought: If only I had a job as a Cambridge high-lead logger, I’d never take any shit again!

In yet another lateral career move, I found work at the necktie and cravat counter in the MIT Coop men’s department, where, at the very height of the counterculture, I was actually required to wear a jacket and tie. I recall thinking that if the characters in Great Notion were forged in a crucible of the Pacific Northwoods, the kind of character forged in the Coop menswear section was probably one I didn’t want to know.

In February 1969, a furious Northeaster blew in off the Atlantic, pummeled the coastal forest, broke the great shade trees of Boston into matchwood. The next morning I woke to the high and predatory wail of a chainsaw under full throttle. Badly hung over, I peered east into the spring sunlight to see a bearded, bare-headed guy in a canvas jacket climb 60 feet up the big sycamore next door. I could see the cloud of his breath as he belayed himself off the shattered top, then swung around to the front of the stem so his belly was to its curvature. He tested his rigging, planted his feet. Snow pockets sparkled in the crotches above him as he raised his saw, cut a bold, deep notch, right in front of his face! It appeared he would shortly cut himself out of the tree, but he swung niftily back to the other side, re-belayed to make the back cut, sending 500 pounds of broken sycamore to the pavement. He paused there to smoke a cigarette while I tried to make sense of what I’d seen. It was bolder than even Hank Stamper. A man who could do that, I imagined, could do anything.

When I finally caught up with Kesey, he was shorter than I’d imagined, soft-spoken, almost wistful, in that way people get when they take a bath in LSD. It was 1978, and I was a tree climber in Boulder, Colo. There was a rumor he’d finished a Great Notion sequel, and so it was SRO at Naropa’s Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. In honor of the occasion, I chose to wear my climbing duds, Wesco boots and a pair of Lee “88” logger’s jeans, in the belief that from my outfit, any fool could see I was the real deal, not another hyper-educated Boulder pseud.

He didn’t read from a Great Notion sequel, he read a nonfiction piece set on his family farm near Eugene. It began as a story about basic animal husbandry, in particular, a fated Aberdeen seed-bull named “Abdul.” Then, like all good stories, it spun off into something ever larger. There was nary a mention of caulk-booted loggers, so that gradually I felt uncomfortable in my woodsman’s drag, liked I’d shown up at Easter all dressed for Halloween.

I thought to approach him afterward, but there was a thicket of admirers surrounding him and I had a paralyzing attack of shyness. Really, what did I have to say but that his books made me badly want to resemble his fictional characters? By this logic, I should now turn in my Lee “88s” for bib overalls and manure boots. I’d entertained the boneheaded fallacy that you became the character in order to “earn” the story, and up to this moment I’d not been able to see it. I retreated to the men’s room, so distracted by my revelation that I mistook a stock-tank style wash-trough for a urinal. I’d just unbuttoned my “88” jeans when a gruff old gent strolled in, took one look and blanched. “Hey!” he finally sputtered. “You can’t piss HERE!”

While I spent the 1970s climbing for every piratical dingdong who ever made a buck off a tree, my University of Montana M.F.A. classmates were fresh-faced and unsullied. They were better read and had actually written stories. Mmost of them cared little about the life of hard-knocks I’d bet the farm on. . A few older writers, however, did. Now in our 30s, we vetted each other’s authenticity, embraced the style known as “dirty realism,” writing stories about hard-living tradesmen, ’Nam vets and guys who didn’t take any shit. We thought it dishonest to write of things purely imagined, rather than things we’d actually done. Possibly this came from a suspicion that contemporary fiction was dominated by bloodless aesthetes whose privileged lives made them contemptuous of the world as we knew it. Or possibly it was just a hedge against the limits of our talent.

Throughout it all, I maintained the belief that my connection to Kesey was unique. Had he not, after all, transformed me from a lowly cravat salesman to a genuine hard-nosed high-climber? I was surprised to discover how many of my writer friends felt a similar connection, and it took me a while to understand that this was one of his gifts.

But as the ’70s rolled into the next decade, we weren’t hearing much from Ken Kesey. We worried over his lack of output, but since he was also a tireless explorer of inner space, we were ready to cut him that slack. There could be no way of measuring this, but he and his friends likely got higher than any human beings ever had, and accidentally oozed through the membrane between this world and the ineffable. Some of us speculated that Kesey might have outgrown writing. I mean, after you’ve been “Further,” where do you go from there?

Eventually, my fiction professor, Bill Kittredge, mentioned the Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford. The lucky recipient got a free year of writing time with stipend, with a move to San Francisco thrown in. Kesey and many of my favorite writers had been there, so I applied as a lark and forgot about it, was, in fact actively pursuing my real-life business with trees when Stanford called with the news. My God, I thought, this changes everything!

I’d followed Kesey into the trees, followed him west, followed him into writing. Now I was lucky enough to follow him to Palo Alto. It pleased me to think that he more than most would appreciate the Stanford arrival in my rack-bed Chevy dump truck.

Fred Haefele received his MFA from the University of Montana in 1981. His stories have appeared in Epoch, Missouri Review, Prism International and other magazines.  His essays have appeared in Outside, the New York Times Magazine,, Wired,  Big Sky Journal,  Newsday, American Heritage and others. He has received literary fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, the NEA,  Sewanee and Stanford University.  He is the author of the award-winning memoir, Rebuilding the Indian (Riverhead Books, 1998, Bison Books, 2005). Haefele has taught creative writing at Murray State University,  the University of Montana and at Stanford, where he was a Jones Lecturer. He lives in Montana with his wife, the writer Caroline Patterson, and their two children.

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