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  • Between the Sailor and the Sail:The Faith of Ken Kesey
  • M. C. Armstrong (bio)

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"When God wants to get your attention, he always has to use blood."

-Ken Kesey


Ken Kesey was stuck on the tracks in his mother's old Pontiac, his daughter Shannon and his son Jed and his dog Pretzels in the car with him, when a train came through and "ripped away everything from the backdoor back and sent the rest spinning down West Q."

"Shannon was crying and bloody," Kesey wrote. "On the floor my little dog whimpered, her teeth through her lip. The train was stopping somewhere behind me. Where was Jed?"

Kesey discovered an eight-shaped wound in his own head. He found his son and carried him into the house of a neighbor. "He didn't look hurt anywhere," Kesey wrote, "but oh he was such a desolate heaviness in my arms. I sat down in a chair, holding him. And he sighed, a curiously familiar sigh though I'd never heard another like it before, and I felt the life go out of him." [End Page 29]

With his head bleeding, Kesey prayed out loud: "O dear Lord, please don't let him die."

He began to give his son mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Paramedics arrived and made no attempt to intervene. His injured daughter stopped crying to watch. "Finally," Kesey wrote, "Jed sighed again, the same soft wings except this time they bore the life back into its sacred vessel."1

I recently visited the Kesey home in Pleasant Hill, Oregon. The walls of the living room were painted red. There was a pitchfork on the west wall and a window the size of a small bus looking out on the lands to the north. I told Kesey's wife, Faye, that it was the most colorful home I'd ever seen.

"Not as much without him," she said.

Ken Kesey died in 2001. Faye, wearing a dark blue turtleneck, her sandy, shoulder-length hair just a shade darker than her University of Oregon sweatpants, led me up to his study on the second floor. A black cocker spaniel named Happy tried to follow us up the stairs.

"Happy was his," Faye said, carrying him for the final steps. The name seemed appropriate, with that constant curious smile some dogs have, the perpetual pant.

I looked around the room: psychedelic art next to prints of Vermeer, a sheep's-wool cover on the desk chair, photos of Kesey baling hay, two racks of hats in the back, one loaded with styles in straw, the other with more festive chapeaux: the Uncle Sam he sometimes donned at Grateful Dead concerts, the black sailor's cap he sometimes wore for readings. There was a cross on the wall.

I told Faye I'd heard her husband used to write in a building out back. She told me he had, but after his son died, he'd moved up here. "This used to be Jed's room," she said.

Ken Kesey was that rare hybrid of a man: he was both story and storyteller, the lightning and the rod. He was the author of a classic (One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest) and the hero of another (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), and that doesn't even begin to paint the picture.

Kesey was a cattle farmer. He was a fugitive from justice who faked his own suicide and was hunted down by the FBI. In 1960 he took part in the government acid (LSD) tests, and several years later conducted tests of his own, a series of public gatherings which led to the rise of the Grateful Dead [End Page 30] and perhaps the entire psychedelic movement. He was, according to Robert Stone, "The Prince of Possibilities."

Yes, Ken Kesey was a truly American phenomenon, but by the early 1980s it seemed he didn't want to be a phenomenon any longer. He hadn't released a novel in nearly twenty years. He'd retired the magic bus. He didn't appear to be interested in a second act. He'd...


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pp. 28-46
Launched on MUSE
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