I really don’t recall the first time I became aware of Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, or the hulking 1939 International Harvester bus they electrified for a trip across the country in 1964. Having arrived on this planet the year before that, I suppose it could have been any time after my first birthday.
Aside from the truly obvious signposts, we seldom see the thousands of connections that crisscross our lives as they happen; the people, events or decisions that carry us from there to here. That happens later, if it happens at all. You have to be open to seeing them. For example, when the Grateful Dead happened for me – this was in the spring of 1981, toward the end of my senior year in high school – a memory that had to be at least ten years old at the time came back to me. It was the flash of an enormous red, white, and blue “Steal Your Face” logo painted on a garage door in the Staten Island neighborhood we had left years earlier. Then I was in college, a freshman journalism major trying and failing to convince the powers that be that it would be really cool if we invited Hunter S. Thompson would swing by our conservative, southern university as part of his 1982 lecture circuit. I think they may have laughed at the suggestion.
I remember thinking “they just don’t get it,” so I went to the bookstore and a new paperback edition of Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test practically jumped off the shelf and into my hands. The snow-white cover and the big, hot-pink day-glo lettering may have had something to do with that. In any case, I sat on a bench in front of my dorm and started reading. The year after that a carload of friends and I drove to Hampton, Virginia for my first Grateful Dead show, the first of only three dozen or so, spread out over a decade. I never “toured,” though now I sometimes wish I did.
Did I believe, verbatim, the inspired adventures of the Merry Pranksters as Tom Wolfe recounted them? No, but I believed he was probably close to the mark, and I did believe in the spirit of joyous adventure, general silliness and unspoken community that these strange and wonderful people exuded. These, I knew, were my friends. These were the people who saw the world through at least some of the same strange and colorful glass through which I looked. On the inside, I felt like I was home and I smiled at my own good fortune. At some point between reading the book and seeing the Dead, I got on the bus. I knew right away that mine was a one-way ticket.
There’s an energy out there that still calls to folks like us. Maybe it’s Cassady’s air in the tires, or the booming echoes of Kesey and Babbs still bouncing around the wide and rusting body of the old bus, or maybe it’s the serenity and confidence of Mountain Girl pulsing from the floor. Whatever it is, it’s pure and it’s powerful and it reaches all of us in exactly the right way.— Jim LaFemina