Meeting Ken Kesey at the Barricades
by Albert Drake
In 1961, I had grown a beard, a rare thing in those days. I was an older undergrad in a graduate, novel-writing seminar at the University of Oregon. One evening the professor, James B. Hall, announced that class was cancelled and that everyone was invited to his house where an ex-student, Ken Kesey, was meeting with a New York agent regarding a novel he recently completed.
This was a big deal: no class, going to a professor's house--which was almost unheard of--the possibility of good booze, and of course, the opportunity to meet a writer. Those things are probably unremarkable today, but in 1961, I felt as though I was stepping across a vast chasm. I had never met anyone who had published anything until I got to UO, where I came across work by James B. Hall in a little magazine. The act of writing was, for me, as fantastic as a man walking on the moon; the act of publishing was beyond belief.
I felt giddy as my wife and I jumped on my Vespa scooter and zoomed across campus, arriving at the house ahead of the mob. Hall's wife, Elizabeth, greeted us and led us into the large front room where several people held thin-stemmed glasses and studied the paintings. I recognized a couple English department professors who were talking to a man in a severely tailored black suit. Two other guys in identical suits were talking to a big guy in a buckskin jacket with fringe on the sleeves.
The three guys in suits were literary agents, I assumed, and the guy in the fringed jacket was Kesey. I had never seen a photo of him, and all I know about him came from Hall. Hall liked him because, in addition to his writing ability, Kesey had attended UO on a wrestling scholarship, but had been a theater major, and when he graduated he had gone on to Stanford on a Stegner Writing Fellowship. In that rigid caste system of 1961, a guy could be a jock or a social type or an egghead, but few crossed over.
By the time the mob arrived, I got something alcoholic to drink--also remarkable on a dry campus--and was trying to appear casual. Then Kesey loomed before me, a friendly grin, his big hand around a glass. He said, "How come you have a beard?"
I've had 40 years to come up with a good response, something that would sum up the 1960s and all that followed; something about writing and freedom, about being an Oregon writer. But what I did say was, "How come you have that cowboy jacket?" I do not remember anything said after that.
Modesty Before Fame
by Chuck Palahniuk
"The second time I met Kesey, we were both reading at a fundraiser to reelect Bill Bradbury as Secretary of State. Governor Kitzhaber shook our hands but didn't stay to hear us. After the event, I wanted to talk with Kesey. A lot of people wanted to talk to Ken, and to me. And after I got the last book signed, he'd been standing, waiting for the chance to say hello. Kesey waiting for me... I was dumbfounded. We talked about the Olympic wrestling trials, and his son's death. He said he'd been paid a flat $5,000 for the movie rights to Coocoo's Nest, and he wanted to film a re-make. He asked me to come down to Pleasant Hill and visit his farm. You always think there's going to be time for that next visit."
Memories of Kesey?
by Kassten Alonso
The first time I saw Kesey, I was with a high school friend in '86 or '87. I think it was at WOW Hall in Eugene, though Shawn says University of Oregon. I think Timothy Leary was there, too, but Shawn says Tom Robbins. Tom Robbins? At least we agree Kesey was there to introduce that night's true guest, Abbie Hoffman.
A month, a year later, I went with my mom to hear Kesey on a panel. There was a feminist on the panel, or a lesbian, or a feminist lesbian. Kesey kept calling her "he" or "that guy." My mom found him obnoxious. Whatta jerk, she said. My mom doesn't remember one word of this, but she says to tell the story anyway.
When I graduated college, I fired off a copy of my first book to Kesey, but instead of Mr. it was Mrs. Kesey who read it and wrote me a one-page critique. She said some nice things, though the only thing I remember now is "a little swearing goes a long way."
Some years ago, Kesey came to Powell's to read from his cowboy book. For the signing afterward, he used splashy day-glow pens. One fan approached with a first edition, pleading with Kesey to use a normal pen. Gimme that, Kesey said, and proceeded to vandalize the book with fluorescent swirls and starbursts.
Years earlier, I visited Kesey's farm in Pleasant Hill. I saw the Bus, but Kesey wasn't there. I'm not sure if I was even there. I went with the neighbor girls and their dad, which makes no sense. Why would I go with them? I hated those girls. In the end, details get hazy, but that's okay. What makes a man into a myth is when no one can keep the memories straight.