Some people come into the world with a message for the rest of us. I learned this years ago, on a beautiful spring day in La Grande, my hometown. This was the day Ken Kesey came to town.
The story starts with my friend Mike complaining about the over-use of certain phrases, rendering them clichés. As it happened, the cliché in question was: “Don’t Drink The Kool-Aid.” The way I remember, this warning would never have surfaced had it not been for cult leader, Jim Jones’s, and the massacre he orchestrated. Stuff that doesn’t need retelling here.
Before this, anyone who said anything about Kool-Aid, and meant anything other than, well… Kool-Aid, was speaking wistfully of events recounted in Tom Wolfe’s book. Enter: THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST, and, Ken Kesey. Mike and I had read the book as had all our friends. But, “All,” in this usage is a small number given that we lived in small-town Oregon where ordinarily there wouldn’t be many counter-culture types. But La Grande was home to Eastern Oregon College, now EOU as the school has been granted university status. So, add our small group at the High School to the College population where everyone had heard of Kesey’s novels. Now you have an audience. This was about the time that Kesey’s second novel had made it to the big screen and few there were that hadn’t seen Paul Newman’s performance in Sometimes A Great Notion.
Where’s this going? On a whim, Mike and I decided to call Kesey and invite him to town. Audacious. Yes, for a couple of seventeen-year-olds it was a bold idea. But with the idea floating right there in the air between us we knew we had to give it a try.
Fortunately, those were the days of dial type phone books and operator assistance. With a little help from each, we found a number for his family’s business – The Springfield Creamer, East of Eugene, OR. These were more trusting days. The woman who answered gave us Kesey’s home number. Dialing, a little dizzy now – we must have been holding our breath – Ken picked up the receiver, and presumptuous as we’d already been, we plowed past the awkwardness of two kids calling a nationally acclaimed author.
As some may remember, prior to his appearance in Tom Wolfe’s book, Kesey had already written, “The Cuckoo’s Nest,” in 1962 and, “Sometimes A Great Notion.” in 64. The second of the two has made it to the big screen first, in 1970, and few hadn’t seen Paul Newman’s performance as “…”Great Notions,” Hank Stamper. All this added to Wolfe’s recounting of the escapades of Kesey and friends – Kesey was a Rock Star.
Our request was simple enough; Would Ken Kesey drive himself over to La Grande and speak at the High School? My guess is that on that particular morning he was feeling more like a bored farmer than a celebrated author. Apparently, Kesey was ready for a vacation from cow milking, hay hauling and all the rest that went with life on the farm, the dairy operation that supplied milk for the creamery. We just happened to be the best excuse for a road trip he’d received that week. So, the long and short of it – we invited, and Kesey accepted.
So far, all was shaping up well. No rumblings of decent -Amazing! Well, actually, not so amazing. The problem was that neither Mike or I considered, or were considerate enough to ask permission. I was president of the student body, so arranging assemblies was a regular thing. We’d invited this guy we knew of, and thought we knew something about – invited him to say a few words.
Never mind that our guest speaker was none other than the spokesman for the “Merry Pranksters.” As such, an infamous counterculture hero – one of the decades most celebrated and vilified psychedelic evangelists. Yes, we forgot to ask anybody. Simply slipped our minds. No, wait – we were only 17! We had yet to grow minds.
So we forgot – conveniently forgot right up till the point where we had to tell, “The Principle” – Dale Wyatt, that he needed to cut us a check for $250.00 in favor of, “Ken who?” Dale may not have known who Kesey was. But he knew Mike and I and knew trouble when he saw two of its local representatives standing in his office. We must have said something like, “Paul Newman starred in the movie version of one of his books! Ya, Mr. Wyatt, Paul Newman!” Whatever.
It was spring, just before graduation. I think Dale just rolled his eyes and figured he’d be rid of us in two months. So why not just wait and see what we were really up to. Part of me still wants to believe that the man found us entertaining – a source of variety and amusement in his otherwise predictable world. But that’s just speculation, something I’ll never know. “So long Dale… Hope your next gig has been more fun than this last one!”
If I had a conscience, I’d feel a little sorry about it all. Whatever he’d known or suspected, we had set out to fool a nice guy. Think about it. It was 1971 and Dale’s job was the social and academic care and feeding of several hundred kids. At which time, there was that war in S.E. Asia, and a related one in most homes in America.
Add to this mix – with the release of about a dozen albums, the Beatles had just ripped serious holes in six thousand years of recorded history, then walked off stage leaving the Stones – Jagger & Co, to mop up any resistance. In Dale’s mind, if not in fact – he stood on the front line, defending civilization. Representing the opposition – Mike and I looked him in the eye with the straightest of faces, assuring him that Kesey was coming to talk about writing and, “You know, good literature and…” So Dale signed the check. Yes! So much for feeling bad long after it makes a bit of difference. Add to this, on the “Bad Ass” scale, Mallory and I were the minor-leagues compared to what Dale had dealt with in his time.
It was one of those days. Spring. Warm. Blue sky and not a cloud of doubt that all was well in our world. I was driving my dad’s jeep back from lunch at Nell’s, a local N’ & Out, burger place. Up N, and a left on 8th, climbing the hill by the Admin. Building with a right turn on to K Avenue put us directly across from the Eastern Oregon College Library. This was back before the University thing.
Anyway, glancing out the driver’s side window, I spot two guys sitting in a funky looking beige sedan. A Ford, a Dodge… an ugly car. But the guy behind the wheel was Kesey. I guess he and his pal were thinking that he’d been invited to speak at the college. Or maybe it was the first place they’d found that looked academic enough to be their destination. A better guess is they weren’t thinking. I have evidence for this last idea.
Braking fast and pulling to the curb, I was out the door with Mallory close behind – both of us loping across the street to make introductions. Kesey wasn’t exactly friendly. He wasn’t unfriendly either – just unimpressed.
Smoke from the joint the two of them had been passing drifted and curled out the window. Which brings us back to why he was sitting in a car a mile from the location of his big speaking engagement, looking totally unconcerned about his shabby car, his two new acquaintances or where he was supposed to be for the rest of his life. The joint between his thumb and forefinger – there’s my proof of the theory advanced in the previous paragraph.
Kesey looked at what was left of their smoke and glanced up at me. Apparently inviting, but he wasn’t he going to say the words. So I asked for a hit and passed it back to Mike. Big mistake. Two lung-fulls apiece was all it took for Mike and I to realize that before that moment, whatever we’d been rolling was closer to lawn clippings than a federally controlled substance.
Fortunately, the onset of effects took a few seconds. During which time we delivered directions, time and… that must have been about it. Mike and I drove away. Finding ourselves inside the high school building tried our best to figure out what was supposed to happen next.
let’s fast forward, because I don’t remember how we got through the next class and on to the assembly thing… the pledge of allegiance and an introduction. But I know it happened. Mike assures me it did.
Time passed, and the effects of the smoke began to dissipate. But there was still one more twist scheduled for our heads that day. After the preliminaries, Kesey took the stage and the microphone. Within the first few minutes, he’d also taken charge of the minds of everyone in the auditorium.
What did he say? I’ve got only the barest glimmer of a memory, and none of it translates well into English. I remember feeling that we’d all been dropped into the deep end and nobody seemed to have the sense to paddle to safety. Something shifted. By this time, Dale must have known that he’d made a mistake, a big one. Maybe something was shifting inside of him too.
Some people are very smart – smarter than the rest of us. More to my point; there are people who come into the world with a message for the rest of us. Kesey was no man’s fool, but his message wasn’t about being smart. It was not about being, “all you can be,” at least not in any conventional sense. Instead, it was about really being alive, and not being afraid to do whatever it took to figure out what that meant.
Comparing memories with others, it’s clear that we all heard something different. Just as everyone reading the previous paragraph interpreted it differently. The thing is, when a person who knows something about how big the human spirit really is – knows how far beyond conventional wisdom or perception – well, when somebody speaks from experience, whether you fully understand what they mean or not – it makes a difference. The shift.
Something happened on a beautiful spring day in La Grande. Kesey was the catalyst. What that was – how it may still be resonating in the heads and hearts of those who were present is impossible to specify. A blessing and curse – though in fact we’re doing and thinking pretty much the same things – we’re all convinced that we are different. Looking through a kaleidoscope, the patterns are ever changing. Stand back and see what’s in our hands? It’s just a kaleidoscope. The temptation to make distinctions ensures that we’ll never look at the same thing the same way.
We love it. We hate it. Still, few ever stop long enough to see the obvious. Those who do, say similar things. It’s all empty, incomprehensibly spacious, safe and infinitely peaceful. And one more thing, it’s funny. Too funny for words.