Review: Book recalls 1964 coast-to-coast adventure on a bus
“Cronies” by Ken Babbs (Tsunami Press)
Author Ken Kesey, full of cash since publishing ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ packed an aging, broken-down school bus with friends in 1964 and took them on a drug-fueled tour through America, later told in vivid detail. in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 bestseller, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”.
More than half a century later, Kesey’s longtime consigliere has weighed in with his own account of that momentous journey and many others.
“Cronies” is not Ken Babbs’ first book and perhaps not his best. But it will likely serve as must-read for aging hippies, Kesey admirers, and anyone wondering what happened to this group calling themselves the Merry Pranksters, whose members gave themselves nicknames like Stark Naked, Anonymous, Hassler, the Cadaverous Cowboy and Zonker.
Age, illness and death have caught up with some, including Kesey, who died of cancer in 2001. A few others have aged gracefully and, in some cases, with surprising success. All are remembered quite fondly.
Babbs, now 83, was Kesey’s second-in-command on this coast-to-coast adventure on a bus named Further that was painted from top to bottom in psychedelic colors and filled with copious amounts of marijuana and LSD.
While traveling South, Further was sometimes mistaken, writes Babbs, for a bus carrying young people known as the Freedom Riders, who risked their lives to register black voters. Alarmed Southerners often called local police, he said, and one cop advised the Pranksters to fly a Confederate flag for their own protection. Instead, they unveiled a banner proclaiming “A vote for Barry is a vote for fun,” a tongue-in-cheek endorsement of Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, who was running for president that year.
It also confirms Wolfe’s description of driver Neal Cassady as a driving maniac who terrified everyone on board with his high-speed maneuvers on tight mountain roads as he continued to chatter nonstop over a loudspeaker. on any topic that came to mind.
Cassady, the Pranksters’ most tragic figure, died in Mexico three years after the bus trip, after being found barely alive on train tracks outside the town of San Miguel de Allende. He had made a bet that he could run from town to town on a freezing winter night by counting the number of railway ties. His last words, Babbs says, included the number 64,968.
Wolfe’s book largely ends with Kesey returning to California from the bus trip, followed by a series of “acid tests” he and Babbs staged in which the Grateful Dead performed for people. under LSD.
Babbs’ book, like the bus, takes the adventure further, and the result is that some of the freshest and funniest stories are found in its second half.
Anonymous, the 15-year-old runaway who jumped on the bus in Canada and didn’t want to get off was eventually sent back to her family and, as an adult, moved to Oregon to be near Kesey and his wife, Faye, who had befriended her. Although Babbs changes her real name slightly, it’s not hard to confirm that she really lives in a small town in Northern California and has done little to hide her past.
Babbs, who lives in Oregon with his wife, a retired English teacher, goes into few details about himself other than to note that he was a Marine Corps helicopter pilot during the early years of the Vietnam War, a fact which, according to him, defused several tense situations. between the police and the pranksters. He met Kesey during a graduate writing seminar at Stanford University.
He makes little mention of his own novel, “Who Shot the Water Buffalo,” based on his experiences in the Vietnam War, or of the half-dozen thin literary volumes called “Spit in the Ocean” that he co- edited with Kesey.
Ultimately, this book isn’t so much a memoir as it is a fond recollection of years spent sowing hell with his best friend and taking others with him.
As he quotes Kesey, “I live, and we all live, to put our own special note into this world.”