Ken Kesey dead?
Who they tryin' to kid?
That's not Kesey they wheeled away from the hospital Nov. 10, like hauling off a lobotomized savior in some movie. Kesey was much bigger than that. Younger. Louder. Handsomer too--like Paul Newman, some said, before Kesey lost his hair and that middle-age spread set in. And those hands--folded like doves' wings, no doubt, as some orderly rolled him away.
Kesey's hands were bigger than that. I knew those hands. They held worlds, man. They bled two novels onto the page that may never be surpassed. Read 'em and weep. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Sometimes A Great Notion." Brassy, voluptuous, yes, sometimes vulgar books. But subtle too. Subtle as new moons and heat lightning. Subtle as voices of doves. Ah, what Kesey could do with voice and perspective. He had gifts and notions that made him a writer's writer. Those books made you want to give up reading, except for the haunting idea that lightning might strike again. Read on. Write on. Further. You read his later books wishing Kesey had turned out more classics, but he had nothing left to prove after all. He attained immortality with those early works as well as with the movement he started. A movement that changed the world if the truth be admitted. Kesey dead? Yeah right. You may as well say Santa Claus is dead. Or Buddha. Jesus, even.
Those tepid descriptions in the media following his death can't be talking about the same man who cut giant timber and hauled driftwood logs up off wild Oregon beaches and mid-wifed dairy calves for most of 66 years. Such descriptions don't account for the hands after all. A wrestler's hands that grappled his way to a Big 10 crown and the role of an alternate on the 1960 Olympic team. Hands of a the man who turned one of his family's barns into a home for generations of Keseys and also a pilgrimage shrine, destination for seekers of enlightenment in the 1960s. Hands that dug a grave in 1984 for his own son, killed, understand, in a van accident while on his way to compete in a college wrestling match.
His were the thick but deft fingers of a wizard who could make coins disappear and who (take a deep breath) wrestled the wheel of a 1930s-vintage psychedelic bus back and forth across this country several times, turned a number of California warehouses into electrified palaces and conjured a revolution in music, fashion, art and thought. The hands of a man who clutched a microphone and talked the Grateful Dead and other bands into existence, and grasped the ladder of a train one day in old Mexico just before the authorities would have nabbed him in the middle of a desert. Those hands hauled his brawny hide out of harm's way more than once while on the lam for trumped up drug charges.
There's not space enough nor time to chronicle all the exploits of the man who, as a struggling grad student, hired on to take something called LSD for CIA-sponsored mind-control experiments at Stanford, then took the magic candy and ran, releasing it to the multitudes for better or worse. Asked once to define the nature of his revolution, Kesey said, "It started the first time a cave man picked up a meat-bone and handed it to a stranger to eat rather than hitting him in the head with it."
Kesey was always bringing people together. Hippies, bikers, bankers, ministers, writers, mountain girls. Read all about it in Tom Wolfe's 1968 new journalism classic, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." There's something of the real live Kesey captured there, though not the whole man, no more than any facsimile corpse with a bum liver is the real Kesey. Who they tryin' to kid?
Look, I met Ken Kesey one Indian Summer's day in Novmeber '79, while taking my own magic bus ride across the country with my wife, Jeanne, my sister Kathleen and a collie-shep dog named Lady, traveling this country for six weeks in a yellow 1966 VW van with split windshield held together on one side with a rainbow sticker.
A parade of wonders passed by those windows as we followed squiggly, multi-colored lines on a map that led us at some point to Pleasant Hill, Oregon, where we stopped to shake Kesey's hands. He showed us the barn-become-shrine with the white star shining in its peak. He let us climb on the Merry Prankster bus and took us to his writer's shed, where he shared stories and sacraments.
He showed us his wall-sized relief map of Oregon as some jet's sonic boom shook the walls. Later, outside, we watched him set his peacocks loose. How they hung back in the gateway, each posing with one claw held aloft on the threshold to freedom.
"They're testing the reality of it," Kesey said.
And so were we, unable to believe the generosity of this legend, when he suggested we stop at his ramshackle cliff-top beach house and stay a couple of nights. "I'd consider it a favor," he said. It was a treasure trove. Dozens of movie reels were stored on wooden shelves along walls adorned with photographs of Neal Casady, a.k.a. Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's classic novel, "On the Road." A hardcover copy of "Sometimes A Great Notion" lay on a table, and inscribed on the fly-leaf were these words from poet John Keats. "Then on the shore of the wide world I stand alone and think/ Till love and fame to nothingness do sink."
Kesey dead? Joined to eternity? Hey, he was joined to eternity in waking dreams and living imagery decades ago. Somewhere even now he stands on the threshold of some cosmic ocean, one foot poised to enter. Testing the reality of it.