Babbs lets sparks fly in Buffalo
- Stephen Alexander
- Portland Tribune - Features
10 Questions for Ken Babbs
Though he is considered a giant in the world of literature, Ken Kesey wasn't the originator of one of his most famous sentences. It came from his best friend Ken Babbs.
While Babbs was in the Vietnam War, he and Kesey were exchanging letters with pages from the books they were working on. While reading a page in 'Sometimes a Great Notion,' Babbs read Kesey describing the new frontier as a place 'for a man to be as big and important as he feels it is in him to be!'
'I wrote back and I said 'Hey, that's my line,' ' Babbs says. 'But, I was just kidding. I didn't care.'
When 'Notion' was published there was as an asterisk at the bottom of the page that said 'Courtesy of Ken Babbs.'
'I went, 'Oh no, he didn't have to do that,' ' Babbs says. 'You don't break up the narrative of a novel to stick something like that in there. I was kind of miffed at him. But, later I realized it was a real brotherly thing.'
Though Babbs was a founding father of the Merry Pranksters and co-wrote 'Last Go Round' with Kesey, it seemed Babbs would forever be remembered as a footnote.
That changed this spring, when after more than 40 years of working on it, Babbs published 'Who Shot the Water Buffalo?', a comical and heartbreaking novel of the friendship between two helicopter pilots in the Vietnam War.
While Babbs, who lives in the Eugene area, wants readers to find out for themselves whether the famous line shared by Kesey is in the novel, he grooved to the Tribune about war, writing and why sparks fly up.
Portland Tribune: Ernest Hemingway said that war is a good subject for a book because it packs the maximum amount of human experience into a short period of time. Did you find that was true?
Ken Babbs: War is very intense, particularly when you're in the shooting end of it and people are dying and you're killing people. Time gets totally distorted. It expands. What normally seems to happen in an instant seems to take forever. It's a psychedelic experience without drugs. Hemingway was pre-psychedelic, but experiencing that psychedelic sensation. There are other experiences in life that are just as intense. I can't imagine what it would be like to have a baby. But, it is a good thing for him to say and it is true also.
Tribune: Do you ever wish people would stop looking at you as a legend?
Babbs: It's a double-sided coin. I like that people look at it both ways. We have to live with ourselves and what we've done in life and who we are. The whole Prankster/Kesey myth is growing all the time. And I love the way it grows. There are now thousands and thousands of people on that bus (named 'Further') in 1964. I just accept it all.
Tribune: Would this novel have been as good if it didn't take you as long to write?
Babbs: No. When I wrote it in 1962 I was 25 years old, writing with great gusto and enthusiasm. But, also with total chunkiness and idiocy and crudeness. I (kept that) quality because it's a 1962 time capsule. This is the way it was then, this is the way people talked, this is the way their attitudes were. But, I was able to use my experience in writing over the years to really just polish it up.
Tribune: Would 'Water Buffalo' have been worth writing even if it had never been published?
Babbs: Definitely. But, there are all kinds of different writing. If you like to write, write whether it gets published or not. But, if you write with the idea that you do want to publish, the publication becomes an even greater satisfaction. This book is the culmination of what I started and it makes me very happy. I've been playing in the minor leagues for 50 years and now I'm getting a shot at the big leagues. I'm going to be the oldest rookie ever at 75.
Tribune: In the psychedelic movement, drugs were about enlightenment. How do you view drugs today?
Babbs: Drugs have always been an escape mechanism for people whose lives are not good. But the drugs they get (now) are usually downer drugs. LSD was about enlightenment. It wasn't a party drug, per se. Drugs today are party drugs, getting high, having fun. I'm not one to bad mouth drugs. But, I would discourage anybody from taking heroin, coke or meth.
Tribune: How much did you learn about writing when you wrote 'Last Go Around' with Kesey?
Babbs: That was what I considered our final exam together. We had collaborated on many works over the years. But, this was one that we sat down together and (worked) back and forth. It was a lot like when we were exchanging letters from Vietnam to California. Working with Kesey, who was a master, really helped me a lot. He was totally open and sharing with everything he knew.
Tribune: The Merry Pranksters were viewed as seekers. What were you looking for?
Babbs: Kesey always said, 'Our goal is nothing less than saving the world.' How to go about that is tough. The world is not going to change overnight. It's going to take eons. Still, you keep doing it. The most important thing is going through the trials and unhappiness and the tragedies and the highlights and continue to groove on what you're given and really dig life and to make the most of it in a happy way, an artistic way, a sharing way, a kind way. Kesey said, 'The only true currency is the spirit.' So the spirit must continue to soar and not be brought down by anything. But, to always burst through the bounds of materialist complacency and boredom and prison and soar. We were meant to soar and we will soar. So don't ever stop doing it no matter how discouraged you get.
Tribune: You've been around so many great people and seen so many stories. Is there one story that you would never want lost?
Babbs: The story of how when the '60s movement surged, people dropped back from a materialistic, consumer, greedhead look at the big gold life and saw that the only way we were going to keep the world together and have a happy life was to buddy up and share our knowledge and our goods so that everybody is comfortable and warm.
Tribune: How good of a place is Oregon to be a writer?
Babbs: For me, it's perfect. Oregon, with its oceans, its valleys, its rivers, its mountains, its people, its desert, it's a beautiful place. But, I can see where other places would be as good. This just happens to be the place I like the best.
Tribune: The motto of the Merry Pranksters is 'Sparks fly up.' What does that mean to you?
Babbs: That comes from the Bible, Job: 'Man is born into sorrow and sparks fly upward.' That is on Kesey's grave. It's a spiritual thing. Even in the worst of times, the sparks are flying upward, reaching for the stars and the heavens. It's a good image. From fires. We are being consumed in the fire of life. But, as we are being consumed, our sparks, our spirits are flying upwards.