Ken Kesey, who died Nov. 10, may be best remembered for his acid-head hippie adventures: driving across the country in a fluorescent bus dubbed “Further,” turning on some, scaring the pants off others, and generally loosening up the tight-assed population of America.
He may also be remembered for two brilliant books: Sometimes A Great Notion, about the Oregon logging community, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, written while working the overnight shift at an Oregon mental hospital.
But I will remember him this way: I met my wife on Ken Kesey’s birthday. Kesey and fellow Merry Prankster Ken Babbs were doing a tour in support of their co-authored book, Last Go Round, a fictional remembrance of Oregon cowboy culture. They did it in a small lecture hall at the Los Angeles County Public Library, a massive art deco structure that made you think of L.A. Confidential and the city’s architectural glory days.
I remember Kesey’s entrance: Wearing a bright red shirt and a vest, he carried a businessman’s aluminum attaché case that had been painted with Day-Glo colors. Kesey and Babbs took turns reading excerpts from the book, but it seemed like Kesey didn’t really get turned on until it came to the children’s portion of the program: a reading of his kids’ story called “Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear.” Afterward, I met my future wife while we were standing in line to get our books signed. (We had lunch, she moved in with her boyfriend, and called me back two years later. But that’s another story.)
It was a typical book signing. Babbs and Kesey were seated behind a desk, and folks waited to share a few words and get signatures–a tedious process to be sure, and particularly slow this Sunday afternoon. It’s when I got to the head of the line that I noticed what was taking so long. Kesey and Babbs had a pile of rubber stamps, Day-Glo markers and pens arrayed in front of them. They weren’t just signing the books; they were elaborately festooning them. A cowboy hat with magic rays shooting out of it. A flying totem pole. Signatures done in broad metallic silver strokes.
I remember thinking how wonderfully peculiar it was: these physically big, barrel-chested men, messing around with stamps and markers. I remember Kesey’s enormous hand feeling like a giant bear claw as I shook it and said hello. And I remember that this particular Sunday was his birthday, the last day of his book tour.
Driving around Raleigh last night, I heard a public radio interview that Kesey had done many years ago. He was asked what he learned from all that messing around in the ’60s, and he replied, “There’s room. We don’t all have to be the same. We don’t have to have Baptists coast to coast. We can throw in some Buddhists and some Christians and people who are just thinking these totally strange thoughts about the Irish leprechauns. There’s room, spiritually, for everybody in this universe.”