It was a fitting night for a Prankster’s wake. Halloween jack-o’-lanterns glowed in the windows of farmhouses draped with American flags; plastic tombstones leered up from the dark lawns. Exactly the way Ken Kesey-if not my Uncle Sandy-would have staged it.
As the mourners poured into the Stewart Murphy Funeral Home in the quiet upstate New York town where Sandy spent his last years, I felt as if we were burying not only my uncle, but also the time he’d come to represent.
Sandy was my father’s younger brother, a man with a fierce brilliance marred by a lifetime battling manic depression and drug addiction. For readers of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test , Tom Wolfe’s 1968 classic about Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, Sandy is memorialized as the troubled sound engineer who, on an LSD binge, thought he could unpaint the Day-Glo bus with his eyes.
As Mr. Wolfe’s primary source for the book, Sandy spent hours walking through Central Park with the writer, describing the bus crew’s fantastic LSD trips and their rebellion against post–World War II social convention. Sandy was the one who had trouble staying “on the bus,” as Kesey referred to staying in tune with the “group mind.” To Sandy, that always really meant Kesey’s mind. His character has now been romanticized along with the Pranksters’ experiment, but it was not a character he was proud of, because he spent most of the rest of his life trying to escape it.
At the age of 20, Sandy ran to Ken Kesey’s new American psychedelic family as a way to set himself free from his own broken family and mental illness. In the summer of 1963, he’d been diagnosed with his first major depression and checked himself into Bellevue. On one of his first nights in the hospital, his older brother Carl-who for a period lived near Kesey’s acid den on Perry Lane at Stanford University-invited him to leave for the night to go see the opening of the stage version of Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest . After the show, Carl introduced Sandy to Kesey. Sandy never went back to Bellevue, though he would spend time in other institutions over the years.
A week after the World Trade Center attack, Sandy entered his most severe depression, though he didn’t know anyone directly affected. A month and a half later, he suffered a pulmonary embolism at the Graymore Monastery, where he and his wife Freddi had gone to pray for those who had been lost. He was 59.
He was no longer a rebel. Ten years earlier, he’d moved to the quietude of the country to gain control over his drug addictions and mental illness. There were no traces of Day-Glo at his wake-just his family, members of his church and A.A. group, and his therapist kneeling over his well-groomed corpse, which had been dressed in a pressed gray suit.
A large black-and-white photo next to his coffin showed a blond 20-year-old with a devilish grin, a photo taken when he first joined the Pranksters. Sitting next to it was an album with photos that few had seen: the uniformed Army cadet and a Polaroid of Sandy in prison blues, taken at Rikers Island after his arrest for assault and battery. Underneath the photograph in his own handwriting were the words: “I don’t feel as a bad as I look. The sun was in my eyes and the wind was blowing in my hair.” There was also a wedding photo of the manic groom dancing with a cigarette and holding the hand of a bride who would be his wife for only six months. No one could remember her name.
Then there was a series of Sandy as a toddler in war-torn Berlin. One showed him coddled by his mother, who would soon leave him behind after the breakup of her marriage.
In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test , Tom Wolfe describes a night when Sandy was so high and paranoid on LSD that he climbs to the top of a ravine ” screaming incoherently about jumping off the cliffs; until the police come.
” The Monterey Police held him in the jail in Monterey until his brother Chris could get there from New York ,” Mr. Wolfe wrote. ” Chris ran into Kesey at the jail. We’ve got to get him out of here, said Kesey. What do you mean? We’ve got to get him back where he belongs, with the Pranksters. Chris took Sandy back to New York for treatment. It was a long time before Chris knew what in the hell Kesey had been talking about. “
In the funeral home, my father talked about that night. He said that he had received a call from the chief of the Monterey police asking him to come get his brother, saying that Sandy didn’t technically do anything wrong, but that he had him in protective custody. When my father arrived at the police station, Kesey was there draped in an American flag. “There was no love between Kesey and me at that moment,” my father said. “I was thinking, ‘You asshole! You’re not going to help him; the police are.’”
Sandy’s therapist of 10 years, a small man in a brown tweed coat, said that Sandy revealed that during the Monterey LSD trip he had a flashback to when his mother abandoned him in Berlin. The only other time he had that flashback again was just after the World Trade Center attack, he said.
The life that defined my uncle was not about pushing his mind to the outer limits. It was a painful, daily fight to stay within the limits. Yet Sandy managed to become a leader in Sullivan Country’s recovery community. Everyone called him “Duke,” and his pastor would seek out his advice. As he found mind-stabilizing drugs, sobriety, a good marriage and a church, he discovered that Kesey’s amped-up American dream was empty. For him, Kesey was not an American hero, but a self-indulgent cultish leader who made a lost young man more lost.
But he still obsessed about Kesey. His wife Freddi said that the last 10 years of his life had been a battle between God and Kesey. She said that Sandy wrote dozens of e-mails to Kesey that were never returned. Apparently Kesey was mad at Sandy for shaping the Pranksters’ tale for Mr. Wolfe.
Ken Kesey died two weeks after Sandy. The timing was eerie. But while Kesey was buried surrounded by young fans and graying Pranksters, Sandy was buried with an American flag on a hillside surrounded his real found family and bright jack-o’-lanterns.
As I stood over his body to say goodbye, I realized that my uncle died much more a symbol of today than of the psychedelic dream he long ago abandoned. In the final years of his life, he had found the freedom to be devilish on his own terms. That was his last, and best, prank.
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