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Published: 2011/03/31
by Brian Robbins

Ken Babbs: Intrepid Traveler, Sky Pilot, Rookie Author

Up until now, it may have been the most famous unpublished novel of the 60s. I mean, talk about your pre-publication buzz: 43 years must set some sort of a record, doesn’t it?

And that 43-year figure is based on the fact that the first public mention of Merry Prankster Ken Babbs’ novel about the Vietnam War was in the pages of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which hit the streets in 1968. Truth be known, Babbs had completed his first-round manuscript years prior to that, which would mean the basic story has been on paper for the better part of 50 years.

But no matter – regardless of how long you want to say the wait has been, it’s finally over. Who Shot The Water Buffalo? is about to be released, making Ken Babbs (in his own words) a “rookie author at the age of 75.” (The faithful will point out that Babbs has co-authored a number of books over the years, but Water Buffalo is his first “solo flight.”)

Babbs served in Vietnam in 1962-63 as a helicopter pilot, returning home to a life-long tour of duty as the Merry Pranksters’ “Intrepid Traveler” – Ken Kesey’s can-do “Yeah! Yeah! Right! Right!” lieutenant. More importantly, Babbs and Kesey were joined-at-the-imagination kindred souls, sharing a friendship that extended beyond the miles traveled aboard the Furthur bus and even beyond their explorations of the uncharted galaxies of the mind.

In the years since Kesey’s passing in 2001, Babbs has lived a quiet life at his home in Oregon. Making use of the internet to keep the Prankster spirit alive, Babbs has established the Sky Pilot Club (you can find “Kapnken” on www.skypilotclub.com ) and doles out regular updates, missives, and observations of the world around and within us.

We recently had the opportunity to chat with the “rookie author” – a conversation laced with humor, insight, and the whole truth. Not only did we discuss his new novel and his Vietnam experience, but we also got the latest update on Ken’s chickens, a sneak peek at his next writing project, a little window into who inspired him as an author, and some helpful hints on how to handle commercial airline travel. It should be noted that the hardest part of transcribing a conversation with Ken Babbs is knowing when to use italics – the man speaks (and no doubt thinks) in italics a good part of the time. We hope this interview is as entertaining to read as it was to do.

Ladies and gentlemen … boys and girls … children of all ages … we present to you a few minutes of merriment and wisdom with the Sky Pilot himself – Ken Babbs.

BR: Hey there, Ken.

KB: Hi, Brian – how goes it?

BR: Well, it’s blowing a gale of wind on this end of the country today. You suppose this is the same breeze you had a few days ago?

KB: Oh, I bet. (laughs)

BR: I think you mentioned in an e-mail that the chicken coop took a beating earlier this week, but I wasn’t clear – were the chickens themselves okay?

KB: Oh, yeah – the chickens were fine. They escaped out of the opening as the coop blew over. I put it back together and they came right on back in. They were pissed, though. (laughter)

BR: You’d just gotten those chickens, right? That was quite a test for them right off the bat.

KB: (laughs) Yeah, well, we had it pretty easy – we only lost our power for three days. Some of the people around here had trees fall through their houses.

BR: Oh, man.

KB: Yeah …

BR: Well, on a more serious note than the chickens: I was going to ask you to say something about Owsley Stanley who died a few days ago, but then I just read that photographer Brian Lanker passed away this past week as well … I know he was a good friend of yours. I got to thinking that as we get older, we could spend a lot of our time paying tribute to all the family, friends, and acquaintances that we’ve lost … maybe we’ll just let Owsley and Brian go in peace with good wishes.

KB: You’re not kidding – that’s exactly right. The ranks thin … and the ones who remain have to keep carrying the torch.

I did put a little story about Owsley on the website today. And I’m writing one as we speak about Brian Lanker.

BR: Oh, great. I look forward to reading them both. We have a great picture of Ken Kesey taken in his later years; Ken’s in the foreground, looking at the camera and you can just make out the silhouette of the Furthur bus through the trees behind him. It’s actually a poster, with Ken’s “the answer is never the answer; what’s really interesting is the mystery” quote.

KB: Yeah!

BR: And I’m thinking that’s one of Brian Lanker’s photos, isn’t it?

KB: It sure is. Brian took a lot of pictures of Kesey. He was a good friend.

One time Kesey and I put together a Furthur calendar and Brian took all the pictures for that. I wish that calendar was still around, ‘cause it was an amazing thing. We wrote a little quote for each day of every month. I think it came out in 1981.

BR: Well, there has to be some somewhere …

KB: I don’t have one … I don’t know what happened to mine. (laughter)

BR: Jeez, if anybody should have one …

KB: Maybe Zane’s got one. (laughs) [Note: Ken Kesey’s son Zane operates Key-Z Productions, a source for all things related to Ken and the Merry Pranksters.]

BR: Well, look – I promised you I’d try not to let things stray too far off the intended course here, so we’d better get into talking about the book.

KB: Ahh – the book. (laughter)

BR: To lay a little groundwork, for those who don’t know, Who Shot The Water Buffalo? is set in early-60s Vietnam. I thought we might start by talking a bit about your own Vietnam experience.

KB: Sounds good.

BR: You joined the college NROTC program in what year?

KB: I think it must’ve been 1955 – the fall of ’55. I was going to engineering school – Case Tech in Cleveland, Ohio – and I couldn’t hack the math … I knew I had to get out of there.

I wanted to transfer and I saw this notice on a bulletin board about NROTC scholarships: tuition, books, and 50 dollars a month. I applied, got it, and went to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Went there for three years; had one year left on the scholarship, so I went to Stanford in Palo Alto, California and spent a year in graduate school in the writing program. That’s where I met Kesey.

BR: And this is where I’m showing incredible restraint by saying, “There’s a story for a different day.”

KB: Yeah – you’re not kidding. (laughter)

BR: I think it needs to be pointed out that at that time, the NROTC program was simply a way to fund your college years. You weren’t walking around with this weight on your shoulders, thinking, “Oh man – this is all well and good for now, but as soon as I graduate, they’re putting a gun in my hand and sending me off to who knows where …”

KB: Aw, no – this was in 1955 and there was no idea that there was going to be any kind of war. Not only that, but the draft was in full force, so everybody had to sign up when they turned 18 and go in as something. I thought, “Well, I’ll get my school paid for; I’ll go into the service as an officer; I’ll do my three years; and my obligation will be taken care of.”

BR: So when you graduated, you came out of the NROTC program as …

KB: Second Lieutenant.

BR: But it still wasn’t a sure thing that you’d be going overseas at that point, right?

KB: Oh, no – that was in spring of 1959 and it was, you know, a peaceful time. I took the physical and went to flight school down in Pensacola, Florida. I was there when Kennedy was elected in 1960 – the country was really riding a wave of enthusiasm at that point. After flight school, I was sent out to California to join a squadron. The orders to go to Vietnam came right out of the blue in 1962.

BR: And what did Vietnam mean to you at that point?

KB: Well, we were some of the first to go over as a complete unit; up until then, it had all been advisors going over as individuals. We were there to support the South Vietnamese in their struggle with the Viet Cong.

We weren’t really supposed to be participating in the war … not until they started shooting at you. (laughs)

BR: Yeah … I guess that kind of changes things, doesn’t it?

KB: Right, right. (laughs)

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