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the day Tim Leary didn’t meet the Merry Pranksters

April 26, 2011

This is the last post of my meandering stroll through 60’s history, which, oddly

enough, is how I actually lived that decade.  Well, that’s not really accurate.  I

was in junior high and high school until ’64, then married and in the Marine

Corps from ’66 to ’69.  The Corps, as you might well guess, did not encourage

my creativity and self-expression.  Unlike the Army, it didn’t want me to be all

that I could be.

I’m fairly sure my point is that the 60’s influenced my subsequent meandering

through life.

Anyhoo, I saved the best for last: the day that Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters

showed up at Millbrook, Timothy Leary’s kingdom after he was booted out of Har-

vard. Millbrook was a mansion on an estate near Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Siblings Peggy,

Billy and Tommy Hitchcock, heirs to the Mellon fortune, secured the place for

Leary in 1963.

Luc Sante of  The New York Times described Millbrook as “the headquarters of

Leary and gang for the better part of five years, a period filled with endless parties,

epiphanies and breakdowns, emotional dramas of all sizes, and numerous raids

and arrests, many of them on flimsy charges concocted by the local assistant

district attorney, G. Gordon Liddy.”  Liddy, that paragon of virtue, would later

serve 4+ years in federal prison for his role in Nixon’s Watergate scandal.

As Millbrook rocked the counter-culture on the East Coast,  Ken Kesey was a rising

star in the West.  A champion wrestler out of Oregon, he was working at a veterans’

hospital in Menlo Park, California, in 1959 when he volunteered for a drug testing

program at nearby Stanford University.

It was Project MK-ULTRA, mentioned in my post about Captain Al Hubbard.  As

Kesey took CIA-supplied acid and talked to mental patients at work (sometimes

while tripping), he crafted the experiences into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,

a best-selling novel and Oscar-winning film.

After its publication in ’62, Kesey used his earnings to buy acreage in the mountains

south of San Francisco. He founded a group named the Merry Pranksters. Members,

who sometimes lived with him, included Neal Cassidy, Wavy Gravy, Stewart Brand,

Del Close and Carolyn Adams.  Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Hunter S. Thompson

and Tom Wolfe were supporters.  They’re all worth separate reading.

The Pranksters rode around California in a brightly painted bus with psychedelic

themes.  It was called “Further”.  In ’64, Kesey had to go to New York because of the

publication of his second novel Sometimes a Great Notion.  He and the Pranksters

piled into Further and headed east.  The bus and the trip got plenty of attention.

Much of it was from local law enforcement.  LSD, however, hadn’t been banned yet.

This excursion couldn’t have helped its legal immunity.

Since they were in New York, Kesey thought it would be urbane to pay a courtesy

call to Leary.  As Further lumbered up the driveway to Millwood, the Pranksters

were singing and throwing smoke bombs.  They were told that Leary was on a 3-day

trip and didn’t want to be disturbed.  According to Wolfe, they were even refused

LSD by Leary’s people.

Unfazed, Kesey and the gang cruised home.  They went on to organize the “acid

tests” in ’65-’66.  These were the drug-soaked parties that feature strobe lights,

black lights, fluorescent paint and the music of the Grateful Dead.  One of them

was in a Unitarian church.  Kesey couldn’t preside over all of them because he

fled to Mexico for awhile to avoid prison.


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