Military historians and literary buffs alike should be familiar with the name Ken Babbs. A former Marine Corps officer, Babbs served in the early years of Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. He was also a great friend of Ken Kesey, the author made famous by his works One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. Meanwhile, Babbs and his fellow Merry Pranksters came to life for most of America in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Ken was and is a writer of his own merit, and recently shared with me an excerpt from his upcoming Vietnam War novel, "Who Shot the Water Buffalo?" I found the excerpt riveting - funky and colorful, as you'd expect from a Merry Prankster, but written in a distinct, offbeat voice that Vietnam books have lacked up to now. I can't wait to read the whole book, and personally believe much critical acclaim awaits it.
Ken blogs at SkyPilot, and was kind enough to answer these questions I sent him.
1. Why write "Who Shot the Water Buffalo?" now? After all, it has been nearly fifty years since you served in Vietnam. Did it take that long to come to terms with your experiences over there, or were there other factors at play?
I first wrote the novel in '62 and '63, a long chaotic rambling mass of typewritten pages sent home from Vietnam while I was there in a Marine Corps helicopter squadron flying the H-34 D, the Dawg. When I got home I cobbled it all into a work of total fiction, giving it the verisimilitude of the places I'd been and the actions I was in while interjecting made-up characters and invented situations layered with salty language, persnickety relationships, shoot-em-up action, all done in what I hoped was an entertaining fashion. My agent, Sterling Lord, who was also Kesey's agent, had some great suggestions when we met in NYC in '64 on the famous bus trip described in "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test." But, sad to say, by the time I got home from that excursion, Kesey and I were into movie-making and I let the book lapse for a while. 44 years to be exact. I decided to dig it out and check it out, see if it had any potential after all those years. I found out the verisimilitude was still there but the book was a clunker, so I took it upon myself to rewrite the whole damned thing. Took a few years, but has reached a very satisfying conclusion, keeping the made-up characters, invented situations, salty language, persnickety relationships and shoot-em-up action, written in an entertaining fashion. As for coming to terms with my experiences over there, I've never had any problems with that. Took about six weeks to realize although our intentions might have been good, after all, those dirty commies were launching the dreaded domino effect and looked like it was up to us to thwart their evil intent, but what were we going to accomplish that in this sinkhole? Buddy up and cover each other's back and see if we can get out of this mess alive.
2. My favorite part of "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" is when you bring a serious dose of reality to the Vietnam War debate between Kesey and Allen Ginsberg, darkly and accurately pointing out that no one there but you had seen the ravages of war. How did Wolfe's report on these events match up with your memory of the experiences, both in regards to this moment and with his book in general?
Well, gotta admit I haven't read EKAT since it came out but I get all kinds of questions about it, particularly when I speak to high school classes, for it is a book that continues to resonate amongst young people and you have to give it its due, it's been in continual print since 1968. Wolfe was on top of his nouveau bonzo writing game at the time. As for how his report gibes with my memory I have to say, what memory? Remember what Leary said, "If you can remember what happened then you werent' there." But I do have fond memories of Wolfe when he was around, very dapper, smart guy with a photographic memory, could recall whole conversations and put them down on paper. I'm looking forward to his take on WSTWB. Not much of an answer but I'm not inclined to dip back into EKAT. I'm waiting for the movie, gonna be made by Gus Van Sant. Everybody should see the job he did on "Milk."
3. It seems like over time, the message of the Merry Pranksters has been lumped into that of the Hippies, but I've always felt that you all were a different entity entirely. How do you want the Merry Pranksters to be remembered?
Kesey and I fell in the crack between the beat generation and the hippie era. Too young for one and too old for the other. But we were revolutionaries then and still are. Under the asphalt, emerging into the light occasionally for a bombast, then retreating to dirtville, who was them masked men, Martha? Psychedelic warriors, toiling in anonymity, not chasing the fantasies, wrestling the exigencies. Hippie is not a dirty word and the unwashed masses bleed the same color red. When the bell rings its summons we slip into the phone booth, slip off our mild mannered docile accoutrements and assume the mantle of harbingers, deftly side slipping the in your face shouting toe to toe contenders for the championship belt of true righteousness, necks stiff as a pole whacker's dick; for we know there is a force afield that wants us fighting with one another, getting us to take our eyes off the ball long enough we are fleeced out of our very pockets emptied of the pitiful small change saved for that so-called rainy day, it is up to us to demonstrate another way, not one of contention but one of kindness and cooperation and roll up the sleeves and get the real jobs done, clean up the oil spill, house the hurricaned homeless, put everyone to work on their neighborhood blights, plant gardens in vacant lots, fresh food stalls on the corners, free Wi Fi for all. Get that done we can slip back into obscurity, rest up till the next round. It's not about being remembered. It's about getting something done in our miniscule feeble way. As Jerry Garcia once said, "Somebody has to do it. It's just pathetic that it has to be us."
4. You still live in Oregon, with many of the other Pranksters. How does Ken Babbs spend his days and nights now? And what's next for you, both in writing and otherwise?
A 4:45 reveille blows up the dreamtime revelry and the dog jumps on the bed and washes Ken Babbs's face, the bladder is pounding, the floor is cold but it's outside to take a leak along with the dog and back in to get the fire going in the woodstove while the teakettle sings on the stove, come make coffee, come make coffee, wait till Ken brushes his teeth, please, morning mouth is strong enough to kill whatever flies try sleeping on the cutting board, blow them away, Ken loves to kill the morning blahs swilling the java eating the toast making the tea arousing the wife making her lunch, now with dog bounding alongside, a quick sprint to the road, breaking rhythm on the bridge as taught in the military manuals, get the paper out of the box, back to the house, doggie treat for Ken, pissing off the dog but it's a trick, he gets one too, the old one two punch line never fails to garner a laugh and it's out the door to go to work as a high school English teacher and department head, not Ken but his wife, pat her on the po po, bye now, Ken must do the dishes, the laundry, vacuum, tidy up the mess around the TV from last night's nachos and drinks and damned cat still sleeping, up up up outside, no need to crap in the litter box, just another thing to clean up, then all quiet, do the email to warm up before getting to work on the next book now that the old Vietnam novel is in the hands of the publisher, a short lull before the editor contacts me with his lists of refinements,it's noon already and Ken Babbs is fixing his lunch and racing the dog to the mailbox and finally getting dressed, into his workaholic uniform, old tattered and patched set of Marine Corps utilities, to go out and tame the wild expanses of the six acre spread threatening to overrun the house, must beat back the intruders, impossible to wipe them out, pacification program full bore with time left to cut and split firewood even though it is may and may day has come and gone and the may pole is forlorn in the yard with wilted flowers hanging on the lines that were wrapped in a ring around the maypole dance Ken Babbs did in the rain cavorting happily in the nude how else he gone git dirt and grime removed, but enough of the dilly dallying, time now to prepare supper and hopefully Ken remembered to take something out of the freezer in the morning so he doesn't have to do the burn it up in the microwave thing trying to thaw out the artichokes, but per usual, after following the mandatory 2 glasses of wine while cooking instructions in the manual, supper arrives on the table in time to chow down, tell one another our adventures during the day, feed the dog, clean up the cooking supper mess, and hit the couch for Seattle Mariners baseball, no more basketball now that Portland Trailblazers are out of the playoffs, boo hoo, two big chunks of oak in the woodstove will keep it going all night and a few pages of reading Philip Caputo's new book, his Vietnam book, "A Rumor Of War," was a good one as was "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien another good one, eyelids getting heavy, Ken Babbs is going to sleep.
Former Army officer and Iraq veteran turned grad student/writer. Now living in New York City. Working as the senior writing manager at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). Likes include Wake Forest basketball, Guinness, and Volkswagen buses. Once dropped the F-bomb on C-SPAN2. Thoughts and opinions expressed on this blog are my own.
"Precision Targeting in a Modern Counterinsurgency" - essay published in Armor Magazine, September 2009
"Above all, Kaboom is about the day to day travails of a typical platoon set smack among thousands of disillusioned and war-weary Iraqis ... without a trace of sentimentality, Mr. Gallagher draws the reader into the everyday complexities of leading soldiers from every strata of American society."
"[Gallagher's] exceptional narrative technique makes the soldier in-group cant both believable and coherent; his relentless pursuit of sanity in the midst of a chaotic storm of IEDs, policy changes, sheiks, civilians, and baffling missions makes this blog-based memoir an exciting read reminiscent of Anthony Swofford's Jarhead."