Pubdate: Sun, 18 Nov 2001
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA)
Copyright: 2001 Richmond Newspapers Inc
Author: Mark Holmberg


"Writer Ken Kesey dies at 66."

The headline rocked me last Saturday night when the page proofs for 
Sunday's paper came off the newsroom's printer.

Not that I remember meeting him. But there's a tenuous physical link, along 
with a lasting spiritual one.

In the early '60s, when I was just old enough to pay attention, my Marine 
Corps father bought a house in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., down the street 
from a fellow Marine, Ken Babbs.

Babbs, a fearless helicopter pilot in Vietnam, was something of a renegade. 
His house frequently hosted members of the Merry Pranksters, the legendary 
troupe of psychedelic explorers.

Kesey, a Prankster and lifelong friend of Babbs, visited regularly.

But the only thing that registered with me back then was the time my older 
brother went camping with the Pranksters (mom was not happy) and the black 
cat, Lucifer, we inherited after they moved.

Years later, when I was a drifter in high school, I fell in love with 
Kesey's "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" during a creative-writing class.

The novel's rollicking, take-no-stuff, live-for-the-minute, 
fight-the-machine hero, Randle Patrick McMurphy, tromped right into the 
heart of this rebellious, hormone-deranged teen and stayed there.

McMurphy was soon joined by "never-give-an-inch" Henry and Hank Stamper 
from "Sometimes a Great Notion," probably my all-time favorite novel and 
movie. (More recently, and after a 28-year delay, Kesey produced another 
classic independent man, the laconic Ike Sallas of "Sailor's Song.")

Kesey's rugged, unfiltered, work-booted, 100-proof characters "were styled 
after a representation of what we felt the American man should be," Babbs 
said when we talked by phone Thursday.

These heroic anti-heroes went with me when I roamed through my teens and 
early 20s, hitchhiking around the country, getting in and out of scrapes, 
searching for adventure and savoring the insight and antics of real-life 
McMurphys and Stampers.

 From time to time I'd don the mantle myself, telling fellow bricklayers or 
pool shooters, "You may want to move back. When I go to exerting myself, I 
use up all the oxygen and you may suffocate."

Even after I "settled down" and became a writer myself, the fascination 
with those living on the edge - and those who fall off - never waned, as 
you may have noticed.

Kesey's blunt yet flavorful prose was about escaping the cradle-to-grave 
treadmill laid out by "the industrial-military complex," as Babbs called 
it, and the price exacted on those who refuse to follow the 
work-consume-obey template.

"That's why they lock up people who smoke pot," Babbs said from his and 
Kesey's Oregon office, where a post-funeral party was going on. "When you 
smoke pot, you question authority."

Was Kesey a big pot-smoker? I asked.

"Well," Babbs answered with a burst of laughter, "he weighed 220 pounds."

Kesey's work was also filled with dark humor and a certain maniacal energy. 
Antics were celebrated, softening and deepening his Quixote-like characters 
as they battled on.

And so it was as he lay dying in his hospital bed. One minute, Kesey would 
talk earnestly about how "we're at a real crossroads in America," Babbs 
said. "Are we going to be another Roman Empire and take over the world, or 
are we going to turn our wealth to helping other countries less fortunate, 
educating their children?"

The next minute, Kesey would raise hell because his false front teeth (the 
originals were knocked out years ago) had fallen out.

"So I glued them back in," Babbs said.

A day or two later, the teeth were gone again.

Kesey explained that they had come out while he was eating, and some 
orderly - perhaps one similar to those on Nurse Ratched's ward - apparently 
whisked them away with his food tray.

"I haven't seen those teeth since," Kesey told Babbs.

He was buried without them.

But Ken Kesey left us with plenty to chew on.
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MAP posted-by: Beth