Seeking Ken Kesey, Part II

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

(Read the first part here.)

Prankster, Pass By
by Fred Haefele

Part II

Amid Palo Alto’s palm-lined drive and red-tile roofs, bicycling to the 8,000-acre Stanford Campus felt like going to work at a movie set. Back then, creative writing was in Building 50, the big sandstone structure right next to the chapel. At the round table in Jones Library, a 40-year succession of emerging writers engaged in everything from point-of-view technique to a particularly asp-ish character assassination.

While I hadn’t imagined Stanford still pickled in acid, when I mentioned Kesey to veterans of those times, wariness flickered briefly. I got a sense that if the topic wasn’t quite taboo, it fell into the “been there, done that” category;  there was a suggestion that Stanford was now a more serious place, past the well-documented excesses of the ’60s. Or even the low-rent bacchanalias of the ’70s where, for example, Ray Carver might devour a whole birthday cake, or non-lactating women try their hand at nursing an infant.

The closest I came to the wild heart of those times was an ill-conceived celebration of my appointment as Jones lecturer. Festivities began at our apartment on Tasso Street, then moved on to a larger venue on Waverly, where the whole creative writing department would be in attendance. My party was a modest one; a handful of friends, a case of beer, a quart of Bushmill’s and a cache of psilocybin mushrooms, left thoughtfully open like a bag of Doritos. I came to assume the whole gang had eaten them, and that they couldn’t be very strong because nobody was acting particularly weird. In both cases, I was wrong. They were very strong, and the only other guy eating them was the lone party crasher. I watched him as he turned a brighter and brighter shade of red. I liked that about him, since I was turning red, too. We found this absolutely hilarious. Then everything was hilarious, so there was no real point in trying to stop laughing. We kept on goofing till my new friend wandered downstairs, out the door and off into the neighborhood, issuing regular peals of laughter, like a fruit bat sounding the night.

At this point I made the mistake of looking in a mirror. Not only was I bright red, there was something very wrong with my face. I began to get a feeling that, next party on, the laughs might get scarce. The department chair would be there, and maybe Stegner himself, who was known to frown on such hijinks. I’d need my fellow fruit bat if I were to pull this off, but he was half-way to Vacaville by now.

I was in a jam. I was lecturer, junior faculty and in it for the long haul. Arriving in the guise of a rubber-lipped maniac might well damage my credibility. At least, this is what I told myself.

I walked to the party, battened down the hatches as well as I could, but still managed to cause problems. To relieve pressure in my brain, I yawned and gulped continuously, like an airplane passenger at altitude. It totally freaked out the hot-tub crowd, who asked me politely to leave. Since I had no idea what might come out of my mouth, I dummied up completely, became so grave in aspect that a friend said afterward, “Wow, what happened to you last night, man? You looked like you were playing chess with Death.”

Of course the Pranksters were long gone. The ‘88 Bush landslide was enough to rain on any parade. The Loma Prieta earthquake broke up Stanford’s fabled archways while the orchard lands to the north were ground zero for the coming information juggernaut. The kids going to Dead Concerts were so young, they looked like animé happenings. It was a time when aging writers thought hard about career; how fierce the job competition, how bygone the days when you got by on charm and who you got high with. Oddly, there was another psycho-pharmaceutical revolution going on, but instead of the tried-and-true “systematic derangement of the senses,” people were taking Prozac.

My wife, Caroline, and I went to a dinner in Cupertino with a couple of Knight-Ridder newspaper fellows we’d befriended. We’d brought a good bottle of wine to share and were surprised to find, in a company of journalists, that there were no takers at all. When we asked them why, they confided that since they were now completely “at ease” with themselves, they no longer felt the need to “self-medicate.”

In our last year in Palo Alto, I started to read Kesey’s Sailor Song, but it seemed painfully dated, so I set it down and put things in perspective. At the very least, Kesey wrote two terrific novels. He was a great champion of the altered states and depending on who you talked to, he either invented a whole new culture or, like Charlie Parker 10years earlier, Kesey turned young artists onto serious dope, insuring their best work would soon be behind them. At the same time, he set me and others on the writer’s path. So what the hell else did I want ― to gain his blessing?

I’d heard Kesey had been ill, so I was not surprised to read of his passing. What’s more, in the fall of 2001, with the Millennium spectacularly unpromising, it seemed a better time than most to leave this earth. But for the first time in a while, I regretted I’d never met him. But mostly it made me recall a peculiar event near the end of my Stanford tenure.

My office was on the ground floor of Building 50, halfway between the east and west entrances. The main doors, 7 feet tall and sheathed in brass, stayed locked throughout the weekends. On a beautiful Saturday, in the spring of ’91, I was squirreled away there, working on my novel. I’d spent a lot of time on it, hoped to sell it before I left, and in this way make the kind of triple-somersault-style career move that would insure I never climbed another tree again. I was sitting at my desk, working my eyes red, when there came a sudden knocking on the west door.

A quick word about that novel: Not surprisingly, it was a book about guys who work in the trees. But while it started out as a sprawling long form, I worried more and more that my material was not that interesting. The more I mistrusted it, the more I tried to soften the book’s grittier aspects with an increasingly distilled language. I spent hundreds of hours cutting and buffing, till the book was barely a novella. And through it all, I’d placed a secret reference― my ace in the hole, you could say. I’d cunningly spun through every chapter a silver thread, I imagined. Without going in to detail, it was a reference so obscure, so perfectly hermetic, that unless you happened to be a scholar of early Celtic nature poetry you might wonder why someone bothered to write it.

Meanwhile, the racket at the west door had gone from a knocking to a pounding to a full-out fusillade you’d associate with Barbary pirates or an ATF flying squad. Whoever would make a racket like that was not someone I wanted to deal with. Once again, I battened the hatches down, kept plugging away.

In the next morning’s paper was an oddly familiar picture of a 1939 International Harvester schoolbus. Painted every color known to man, its destination window said “Further.” It was the bus, the one you were either on or off! And next to it was Kesey, Babbs and the gang, in town for some Prankster retrospective. The racket in Building 50 almost had to have been them. In a turbo blast from the past, the ’60s had come back for me! But how could I know this for sure? I stewed over it a long while before deciding it was best not to know. If I was right … well. In the annals of literature, since Gabriel Conroy took Greta’s reverie for a booty call, no one had ever blown it worse.

Eventually, my novel became so rarified it actually vanished into thin air. Bought by a small Texas press, it went all the way to galleys, only to be tossed, mysteriously, to the void. It’s hard to know what happened, but I suspect that someone finally read it. Meanwhile, discouraged with my attempts at suitably transcendent prose, I turned to nonfiction, for which I seemed to have more knack.

Sometimes I wonder, was that actually the Pranksters, tripping down the Santa Cruz mountains just to bang on the Building 50 doors? And what are you supposed to do when the dreams of your youth come calling 30 years late?

I think now that even if I’d known, I’d still have second thoughts about opening that door. I’d already followed Kesey about as far as I could, and the last thing I needed was another man’s flying circus. I always wanted to tell him my story, if I could ever make it good enough, but it was time to make or break it on my own.

A month after Kesey’s passing, I emailed Ken Babbs and recalled the dates for him.

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, we were around campus about then. You know, come to think about it, that just might have been us.”

“So what were you guys doing, banging the door like you lost your minds?”

“How the hell would I know?” he said. “That was all so long ago.”

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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