Still Trippin’

Original Merry Prankster Ken Babbs stops at Miami University

OCT 5, 2011 8 

What a long strange trip from Miami University and back it’s been for 1958 graduate Ken Babbs. 

He returns to Miami, where he graduated in 1958, at 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday for two Sixties Extravaganza free public events at the school’s Leonard Theatre in Peabody Hall. On Monday, there’s a screening of the new documentary featuring him — director Alex Gibney’s Magic Trip, about the fabled 1964 cross-country bus journey by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters that virtually created the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s, especially after Tom Wolfe chronicled their adventures in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. (Babbs and the late Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, were best friends and early devotees of the mind-expanding qualities of LSD.) 

And on Tuesday, Babbs will read from his long-gestating novel Who Shot the Water Buffalo? Now 76, he finally this year published the raucously ribald work inspired by his experiences in Vietnam as a Marine helicopter pilot. It is his first solo novel — he wrote it in the early 1960s, set it aside and in recent years rediscovered and revised it. He lost his original version in all the tumult of the 1960s; a Marine buddy who had a second copy sent him a replacement.

“My model for this book was MASH (published in 1968) or Catch-22 (1961), in which I would use the setting to write a good adventure story about these guys and what they’re going through,” Babbs says from his Oregon farm. “My job was to make it as interesting and exciting and readable and good as I could. As a reader myself, and as a fiction guy, I know what I really like and that is what I tried to do in the book.”

When the Mentor, Ohio-born Babbs arrived at Miami in 1957 he loved basketball and was interested in writing and literature. 

“I was really glad I did,” he says. “I not only played on a great basketball team, but I also had great teachers in the English department.”

He played on two conference champion teams — one of which, led by future-NBA great Wayne Embry, was eliminated from the NCAA Finals by the subsequent victor, University of Kentucky. And, studying with the highly regarded Prof. Walter Havighurst, he became so interested in creative writing he enrolled for post-graduate studies at Stanford University under Wallace Stegner. 

There, in 1958, he met fellow writing student Kesey. A bond ensued and lasted even when, in 1959, Babbs joined the Marines to fulfill the requirements of his ROTC scholarship. After training, he went to South Vietnam in 1962-1963 as one of the first soldiers deployed by President Kennedy to help the government fight the Viet Cong. Once there, he started writing an early version of Water Buffalo via letters back to Kesey. 

By then, Kesey was enjoying the celebrity of publishing his first novel. He had also “liberated” LSD from the local Veteran’s Hospital, where it had been used in government-sponsored experiments that he participated in, and was beginning to turn on an ever-widening group of others.

Kesey shared Babbs’ letters with those in his writing circle, since he still lived in the area. One was Ed McClanahan, a Brooksville, Kentucky native who also had graduated from Miami, revered Havighurst and gone on to Stanford’s writing program in 1962-1963. “Kesey would read them to us,” says McClanahan, during a phone interview. “They were hilarious, and much of that stuff has made it into the novel. I didn’t think anything about Vietnam at the time.” 

McClanahan, an accomplished fiction and non-fiction writer, currently teaches at UK. His best-known novel is 1983’s The Natural Man. He will be at Miami with Babbs — on Tuesday evening, he will read from his latest collection, I Just Hitched in From the Coast: The Ed McClanahan Reader. It was at his suggestion that Miami invited Babbs, since he’s been following Water Buffalo’s progress over the decades. “It’s really good,” McClanahan says.

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