Wednesday, February 01, 2012
My Day in the Cuckoo's Nest
"You can't go inside 'cause there's bees in it"
Further, the iconic conveyance of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters sat behind the barn with the llamas beside it and bees, in fact, in it. The little kid who was showing me around belonged to the girlfriend of somebody at the Kesey farm outside of Eugene, OR. It was 1987 and I'd met Ken the night before at a book event in town. I thought I was meeting Shakespeare. He thought he was meeting that folksy guy from Alaska he heard on NPR. Jesus Christ, I thought, he knows I'm alive.
I'd read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in high school and it was already a ten year old book then. Still, I remember feeling like I was the one who discovered it. Great books do that to you. Especially when you're young. Sometimes a Great Notion was even better, I thought, and probably the reading most responsible for my eventual migration west. I wanted to work for Hank Stamper. Or some notion like that.
My day on the Kesey farm was made up of a tour of the llama pen and the broken down weedy bus, then a trip with some canoes over to the river. The Pranksters Ken Babbs and George Walker joined Kesey and his son, Zane, myself and the kid and we paddled down the Willamette for the afternoon. There was no acid test. No drugs at all. In fact, my cigarettes annoyed Kesey and he asked me not to do it. He was a pretty clean-cut guy -- more interested in talking about his corn and hay than any of the questions I'd brought along.
I stayed the night and his wife, the legendary Faye, drove me to the airport the next morning. She tried to talk me out of inviting Ken up to Alaska to do some shows with me. "He'll do it." she said. "But it keeps him from home and the money doesn't usually make it back." I invited him anyway, but half-heartedly, and it never happened.
I saw Ken only one more time after that -- five years later at a reading in Portland. He was all grace and generosity, and once again invited me to join them. I couldn't do it then, but really wished I had. I wanted him to see I didn't smoke anymore. Or drink. He's the last guy I ever thought I'd want to show that off to.
I think of this today because of a story I heard on NPR this afternoon about the 50th anniversary of the publication of Cuckoo's Nest. They played clips of some old interviews with the now deceased Ken and I was struck, again, at the warmth of the man. And the depth. I was lucky to have met him. Even luckier to have read him. Go out and do it if you haven't already. Do it again if you have.