Last week, I experienced the strange fortune of conversing with the mythical Merry Prankster, Ken Babbs. A living pioneer of counterculture, the "Intrepid Traveler's" improvisational spirit is, indeed, alive and well.
His new novel, "Who Shot the Water Buffalo?" reflects on hisservice as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, chronicling two fictional characters in a story of initiation into adulthood.
So, who is Ken Babbs, and why is he, along with the Pranksters' legacy, relevant today? The answer to this question is a complex and intertwined story, meshing reality with literature as perhaps never before in America.
In the late 1950s, Babbs met the aspiring writer Ken Kesey in Stanford's graduate creative writing program. Jack Kerouac had just published "On the Road," and the air brimmed with change. After Babbs left to serve in Vietnam, Kesey published the literary bombshell, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Once he returned from Vietnam, Babbs and Kesey reunited and helped spark what would become the fabled cultural explosion of the 1960s. As their activities at Kesey's residence in La Honda, Calif., gained attention, cultural icons like Neal Cassady began appearing to observe and take part.
Immortalized as Dean Moriarity in Kerouac's "On the Road," Cassady was a living legend at the time.
"(He) was the avatar. We were so lucky to have him as our guru ... Everything we were doing ... was all being made up on the spot, and this is why Kerouac was such a huge influence on us when 'On the Road' came out in
1957. It affected all of us tremendously. It was like 'Oh boy... Let's go!'" Babbs explained.
And indeed they went. In 1964, the Merry Pranksters set out in their bus, dubbed "Furthur," with Cassady at
the helm. This was no ordinary trip, in any sense of the word.
The cross-country journey took them to the World's Fair in New York City, and has now reached legendary status. The events that took place have been mythologized in various literary works, and are the subject of an
entirely different discussion: pressing on.
Perhaps one of the most admirable facets of Babbs' legacy will be his devotion to helping others, spreading compassion and a genuine willingness to talk with young people.
"It's fascinating and exciting, and challenging," Babbs said "... We're really depending on all you young folks to rise to
the front and take charge."
In true Prankster fashion, our conversation sped wildly from one topic to another — and back again — throughout some two hours of dialogue. Covering everything from space to mountaintop removal, I felt the vibratory pulse of what must have driven these individuals half a century ago. Quickly realizing that my succinct flow-chart of questions wouldn't cut it, I was pleased to have a recorder at my service. Thus, I'll jump right in.
In light of the recent cosmic activity — including asteroid fly-bys, the meteor nexplosion over Russia, the comet dubbed "Lemmon," and the end of the Mayan calendrical cycle I asked Ken to reflect on the state of our
"The bombastic, materialistic type of thinking, with everyone being 'out for themselves', is winding down," Babbs said. "We have a chance for a new start, in which we become more cooperative and more considerate of our fellow people, and willing to admit that this total dependency on the earth to make us rich — and full of cars, houses, and all that stuff — is winding down."
Meanwhile our conversation drifted toward modern culture and the population explosion seen over the recent century.
"The way the media portrays America is that everybody has to have health insurance, a car, a house. But that isn't true. Everybody doesn't have to have that. In fact we can't afford — the world can't afford, can't supply – all of that ... There has to be, and there is, a new model forming," Ken explained. He mused that, as times may seem tough right
now, they'll likely grow tougher.
"More people will be unable to live what the media calls the 'American Dream.' The American Dream is
not a dream of materialism, it's a dream of freedom, a dream of a happy life ... Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Everybody has to keep that in mind that these are the main things. That's my sermon for
the day," Babbs chuckled.
Thankfully he wasn't finished. Rather, he went on to share a myriad of thought-provoking ideas for over an hour.
With global climate change breathing down the neck of Earth's biodiversity, political issues — too numerous to mention here — impede any progress that might otherwise reverse this startling trend. And, for some reason, attention of the masses gets diverted toward relatively trifling matters of the "immediate" realm. At present, rampant global debt and mass extinctions are the result.
"It's gotta get worse before it can get better ... it's all based on debt," he responded. "Up here, we're on a
cash and barter basis, buddy."
Of course, this model isn't practical for some people, but its driving concepts have crept across the continent. The push to "buy local" has permeated its way into virtually every urban city in the United States. Likewise, many urban groups across the continent have established urban farms and co-ops.
Knoxville's own Beardsley Community Farm is a great example.
Naturally, the job market found its way into the conversation next. At one point or another, all college and high school students experience the pungent pressures of finding a job, and ultimately carving a slice for themselves out of society's pie.
"But that's all legitimate. I think that it has to happen, and people should continue to go on and try for it," he said. "But you've got to be ready and have a fallback if you don't get it. And to also realize you are not a failure ... realize you can exercise your creative genius in a way you maybe didn't previously know existed. This is part of the challenge."
College certainly isn't for everyone, and there's plenty of jobs out there where folks can work with their hands.
"But on the other hand, we don't wanna work in the mines! Forget that coal!" he added.
"Eventually, governments will be paying people to restore the soil," he predicted. "This is sort of the underground movement now, where people go to places where you can see needing work done. It's maybe not happy work, but it's about cleaning it up, it's about restoration."
Coincidentally, the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act, a bill to ban surface mining on ridges above 2,000 feet, was recently reintroduced in the state legislature. Opponents of the mining ban argue it would diminish jobs and block an easy way to extract energy.
"This has been the story of the world," Babbs explained. "The 'shysters' come in and convince the 'rubes' that it's a good deal. Once they've cleaned them out, they move on and leave the rubes scratching their heads, wondering what happened. Out here in Oregon, I like being a rube! We call ourselves God's own rubes ... and when the shysters come through, we just cackle and wait for the next band (of shysters) to come along."
The world's problems became humorous for a moment, but he quickly brought it back down to Earth. "All this stuff that happens, it's like watching a sitcom ... The realistic thing about it though, to me, is when you run into people suffering because of the way things are." With soaring poverty rates throughout our country, many do have it rough, creating vast expanses of imbalance and, in many cases, inequality. After a pause, he switched back to the positive outlook.
"I'll tell you where true equality lives: time," Babbs responded, seemingly out of the blue. "Every single person in this world is given 24 hours a day, and it's their 24 hours to do what they want with. You can sell your time or what have you, but still it's your time."
Furthermore, he offered, "I always say, 'Hey man, it's my time. You can pay me all the money you want, but I'm going to waste my time, on my time. I'm the one that owns my time. So, I go off and waste my time (cackles). People should be aware of this, it's all we have."
As the conversation winded down, Babbs continued to spew positive energy through inspiring words. We ended with some thoughts on America, its origins, and the opposing struggles between European and Native American mindsets during the new settlements. Arguably, at the core of any issue, these polar views of the world are still present today.
After a moment of considering these implications, I could sense his enthusiasm creeping to the surface, as it had numerous times throughout our talk.
"The only true value in one's life, Kesey used to say, is the value of the spirit. If your spirit is good, the money can come and go, you can be poor, but as long as the spirit is rising and high, you will be strong. Your life will be good. This basically goes against the traditional European mindset that came into this country and took over." This land, he explained, "being here all those millions of years," was compromised as they "put their mindset on the whole place."
He continued, "The beautiful thing about America is that the actual land, the actual place, exerts its influence on the people that live here. And if you live here long enough, and you let the land come in to your spirit, then you become stronger; you become a better person, (and eventually) the nation becomes a better place."
Babbs is currently working on another book, titled "Cronies," which will remember his and Kesey's adventures throughout the 1960s. Relying on his memory of the events, Babbs explained that he's taking a burlesque approach to explaining those real-life 'happenings.'
Sean McCollough, UT history of rock professor, summed up the significance of the forthcoming work.
"So many of our media images of the hippie generation are based on one-dimensional outsider perspectives – whether they be negative, romantic, commercial, whatever. I'm looking forward to this first-hand account from someone who was at the center of the making of the counterculture," McCollough said.
And, as Babbs explained to me, "This is from the horse's mouth; even though the horse is a little dingey."
Those interested in reading "Who Shot The Water Buffalo?" should check with Tsunami Books out of Eugene, Oregon. For $14, the novel, signed by Babbs himself, is shipped free of charge. For order details, email email@example.com or phone their shop at 541-345-8986. To follow Babbs' antics on YouTube, check out http://www.youtube.com/therealkapnken. And of course, watch out for the release of "Cronies."