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Published: 2011/03/31
by Brian Robbins

Ken Babbs: Intrepid Traveler, Sky Pilot, Rookie Author

BR: See, I don’t know what the mainstream knew about Vietnam at that point. It certainly wasn’t the scary thing that it became …

KB: No, not until 1965 when we put that big surge of troops in there. I think it was around 500,000 that got sent over at that point; they split the country up into the Marine area up north and the Army in the south.

Things started heating up and just kept getting worse and worse. And our government was just drafting people and throwing them over there. Which also meant that more and more families were involved; which meant there was more and more anguish here in the country; which in turn meant there were more and more people protesting in this country: “What the hell are we doing in Vietnam? They didn’t attack us …”

BR: And by the time there was mainstream awareness, we were already several years into it …

KB: Every time the military has to have a boogieman – and back then it was the Communists – the “Red Horde.” (laughs, then shifts into total “war hawk” voice) “If we don’t stop ‘em in Vietnam, next they’ll be in the Philippines – and before you know it, they’re in San Francisco, raping the women and having those little Commie bastards all over the place!”

BR: So we’d better nip it right in the bud …

KB: (still in war hawk voice) “You ain’t a’kiddin’, buddy: we gotta stop it right here before it spreads any further. And besides that, we can try out all our new toys!”

BR: Exactly.

KB: (in character, but overtone of disgust creeping in) “I mean, we’re not killin’ any white people …”

[His voice trails off and we sit in silence for a moment or two.]

BR: Goddamn … it really was the mindset for some, wasn’t it?

KB: (sighs) Yeah …

BR: How long were you in Vietnam?

KB: We went there in the summer of 1962 and left in ’63. At first, we were in the Delta down in the south part of the country; then we moved north up to Da Nang.

BR: And you were flying the H-34D “Dawg” that you write about in the book?

KB: Oh, yeah – walkin’ the Dawg.

BR: Now I’m going to jump ahead in time here, but I’ll fill in the gap in a minute. There’s that great scene in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test where Wolfe asks you what it was like in Vietnam. And you take him into the back of the garage where the Pranksters are working on Furthur and you point at this cardboard box full of typewritten pages sitting on the floor. “Lying there amid all the general debris and madness” is the way that Wolfe describes it. And you point at the box and say to Wolfe, “It’s all in there.” Now supposedly, that was the first draft of the manuscript for this novel – is that right?

KB: That’s true – and that was the first mention of the book ever in the world.

Not only that, but I asked him, “Here, you want to read some of it?”

And Wolfe said, “Well, yeah!” So I reached in, grabbed a chunk, and told him, “Here – you can have it.”

He said, “You mean … keep it?”

And I said, “Sure!” He couldn’t believe it. (laughter)

BR: And how many chunks did you give away over the years?

KB: (laughs) Well, that’s the only time that I ever did that … but I did have a Xerox copy that I sent to Gordon Gunter, one of my squadron buddies, because he wanted to read it. And it’s a good thing I did, because as time went on, I lost that original manuscript and the book was gone.

BR: No!

KB: (laughs) Yeah, but Gordon sent the Xerox copy back so that I’d have something to work with when I started to rework the book.

BR: We should all thank him – he’s the hero. So, to fill in the gap, when did you write that first draft? You must’ve tackled it soon after you came home from Vietnam.

KB: Oh, I’d been writing it in Vietnam while I was there and sending it home. When I got back, I went through it and put it together in what I thought was a book – a manuscript.

In the fall of ’63, I sent it off to Kesey’s agent, Sterling Lord in New York, who I knew. The following summer was when we took the bus trip to New York and while we were there, I met with Sterling. We went over the book and he told me what he thought it needed and gave it back to me.

I brought it back home, but by then we were so into making the movie of the bus trip and working on that … we’d kind of moved away from writing and were busy being movie makers. I just let the book sit.

Also, after making the trip and hearing the plight of the country, I didn’t think that anybody would want to read the book. At that point, there wasn’t any movement against Vietnam … it seemed like most everybody was kind of for whatever the government and the military did, you know? They were in charge; they knew what they were doing; they were making the right decisions.

I didn’t feel like the flavor was right at that point. It wasn’t until a little later that I did … a “little later” turned out to be about 45 years. (laughter)

BR: So when did you begin to retackle the book in earnest?

KB: About 3 years ago, I decided I’d better get on that thing … as I get older, there’s things I need to finish up or I’m going to run out of time.

BR: Why? Where are you going?

KB: Well … (laughs) I thought I’d take another little trip eventually. A road trip – a real road trip. (laughter)

BR: Don’t you be going anywhere, dammit. (laughter)

KB: You know, as you get older, the sand keeps running faster down through the neck of the bottle. All of a sudden you realize, “You better get goin’ here, boy!” (laughter)

And I’m really glad I did. It was a lot of fun going back and getting into it again … keeping that original 1962 voice of the narrator and all the happenings – keeping it all there so that it’s a period piece.

BR: When you first started writing the story in Vietnam, were you thinking in terms of a published book, or was it more a way of handling being there … of pumping the emotional bilges?

KB: (laughs) I like that – good phrase. But yeah, I always intended for it to be published … wanted to get into the “big leagues” of writing. (laughs) So now I’m going to be the oldest rookie in publishing – 75 years old in my rookie season. Satchel Paige was only 49 when he broke in with the Cleveland Indians … (laughter)

BR: Well, all right. (laughs) Of course, you know what the wiseasses are immediately going to say: “Well, this is all well and good, but what are you going to do next?”

KB: (laughs) Oh, I’ve already started my next book.

BR: Great! I wasn’t going to ask, myself …

KB: No, I’m gladly touting it. It’s about all the adventures that Kesey and I and the Pranksters and all our friends had together.

BR: Oh, man … if anybody’s going to write that book, it’s got to be you. That’s great.

KB: That’s what I figured – I’ve got to get this out of my system, too.

BR: Okay – I’m going to fight the urge to talk more about that. Let’s get back to the Water Buffalo here. (laughter) Were your two main characters – Tom Huckelbee and Mike Cochran – there from the beginning, when you first started the book?

KB: Oh, yes – all the characters were there right from the beginning.

BR: When I’ve written fiction, I always have folks asking me where the characters came from – was this one supposed to be so-and-so, or was this one a version of me or whatever. Should I even ask you about the inspirations for Huckelbee and Cochran?

KB: That’s a good thing to talk about, actually. Good writers create their characters. Look at all the characters Shakespeare had – you can’t say that any one of those was Shakespeare. So what you try to do is create characters that aren’t you, because you don’t want people saying, “Well, this is you … and this is you …” or the people in the book are this person or that person. You can have a lot of incidents and scenes that people you knew were in at some point … but they are not the ones in the scenes.

In this book, being there in Vietnam gave me the background and the actual place and the war and everything to put these characters into … but no, they are their own thing – their own people.

BR: Even before Huckelbee and Cochran leave to go to helicopter flight school, there’s that great scene with their landlords – Admiral Jenkins and his wife stivvering around the house, juiced to the gills in the middle of the hurricane.

KB: I love that story. (laughter)

BR: I do, too. That had to come from somewhere …

KB: Well, there was a hurricane that came through Pensacola while we were there. We had to fly all the trainers out of Pensacola – hundreds of ‘em – up to Memphis until the hurricane left. Then we flew them back again. (laughs)

BR: I liked the moment when the Admiral is trying to pin Cochran down with a “what if” scenario: he’s up in the air with a 500-lb. bomb, searching for an enemy ship. Doesn’t find it; is heading back to the carrier when he sees a hospital ship below him. Gets an order over the radio to bomb the ship, as it’s supposedly the enemy in disguise.

KB: Right!

BR: And the Admiral’s pressing him for an answer – and Cochran smacks his fist on the table and bellows, “I’d drop the bomb!”

KR: Right, right!

BR: And then he says, “But I’d miss.” (laughter) That was the book’s first instance of … of Prankster thought, I guess I’d call it.

KB: It’s the moment when you realize that these characters are different from just straight, following-the-orders, gung-ho Marines.

BR: And it was a great way of doing it – not out-and-out insubordination –

KB: No, no. (laughs)

BR: That’s also when Cochran sidesteps another “what-if” from the Admiral by announcing that he’s going to be flying helicopters rather than jets. It takes Huckelbee by surprise, but he immediately throws in with him. Did you know right from the beginning that you wanted to fly helicopters yourself?

KB: No, I never decided until after I was through basic training and into advance training that I didn’t want to fly jets.

BR: And why?

KB: I don’t know. We had the chances to fly them and try them out, but … I just didn’t care for ‘em. I’ll tell you: flying a P-28 prop-driven reciprocal-engine plane was the best ever. Jets were just … you just push the throttle and go, you know. You could do all kinds of maneuvers with them, but … I don’t know why. I just didn’t care for them.

BR: The scenes in the book when they’re flying and you’re writing about the handling of the helicopters –

KB: Uh-huh.

BR: There’s a passion there that could only come from someone who had been there and done it. I don’t care how much research anyone did – they couldn’t write like that unless they’d felt it themselves.

KB: Well, thank you. I’m glad that came through. I did love to fly the helicopters – they made you work; you couldn’t screw off.

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