Ed McClanahan and the Merry Prankster Bus Reunion Tour

Michael Hilleary

[13]Ed McClanahan (1932- ) is the author of two books, The Natural Man (1983) and Famous People I Have Known (1985). He currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky. In 1962 the native Kentuckian received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship to teach creative writing at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. He remained in the San Francisco Bay area for the next decade, teaching and becoming absorbed in the growing counterculture. Ken Kesey, the mind behind the Merry Pranksters, was a close friend of McClanahan during those years.

McClanahan is an uncommon link between the 1960s California hippie experience and a Kentucky lifestyle. His writings reveal a unique and humorous blend of insights based within both of these worlds. He is also part of a small group of writers which spanned both the end of the Beat movement and the birth of the new American counterculture. The author's diverse experiences as a student, professor, and writer range not only from the 1950s to the present, but also traverse the United States as well. Ed McClanahan is a distinctive voice within a crucial generation.

Today McClanahan remains in contact with the other voices of his generation. In 1990 Ken Kesey staged a reunion tour for the Prankster bus "Further" and invited his long-time friend McClanahan to join the trip. The following is an excerpt of an interview I conducted with McClanahan on September 22, 1994, in which he describes Kesey's latest prank.

It was a totally crazy project. About five years ago the Smithsonian started talking to Ken [Kesey] about how they wanted to get the original Merry Prankster bus for their collection--they literally wanted the whole bus. But the original prankster bus has been sitting in a swamp out behind Ken's house for years. It had grass growing in it; it was totally immovable. So he [Kesey] said, "Well, the original bus is in ruinous condition." And the Smithsonian replied, "Don't worry, we will renovate it; we will bring back to what it was." So Ken explained, "Why if you're going to do that you would have to renovate it aU the way back to yellow, because originally it was a yellow school bus!" And there is also the fact that there is no original bus in a sense that it was changing all the time. They would paint it wildly psychedelic one day and then go paint it black the next day if they had one particular event they wanted to have a black bus in. And immediately they'd go paint it wildly psychedelic again. There were places on that bus where the paint was literally over an inch thick. So Ken told the Smithsonian that "there is no original bus." But they kept insisting on it. So he went and bought a "new" bus; it wasn't at all new, though. I think the original was a 1939 International, and the "new" one was a '47, I believe. It looks pretty much the same, except that it is smaller, and very much in better shape than the [14] old bus ever was. It was a nice, tight, ready-to-roll little school bus that had been pretty well maintained. Ken redid that particular bus. And they did just an exquisite paint job on this version of the bus. It was truly beautiful inside and out--it had an astonishing sound system--all the stuff. So Ken did this, and did it secretively. And he pushed the old bus even further into the swamp and covered it with camouflage cloths, and declared to the Smithsonian that he was going to bring them the bus. This was all a hoax. It was all meant to--well, it was a giant prank. The Smithsonian very emphatically declared that it didn't want a reproduction; it wanted the original bus. Ken declared that despite that fact, he was driving the bus across the country for one last trip and intended to present it to the Smithsonian. And they kept saying, "We don't want it!," and Ken kept saying, "It's coming anyway!"

By the time he got ready to go, he'd gotten so much media attention--it had been in the newspapers and Time magazine, it had been on television, Hard Copy or something--and the word was out that a whole new Kesey bus trip was about to happen. Knight-Ridder newspapers sent a reporter who himself was an old Prankster from back in the sixties, an old buddy of mine named Lee Quarnstrom. And they sent Lee to do a whole series of columns that were syndicated all across the country in Knight-Ridder newspapers. Wherever we took the bus, there would be flocks of reporters, television crews, and people taking photographs of the bus--we were even on "CBS Sunday Morning."

We took it down to California and hung around San Francisco for the better part of a week. We drove through Haight-Ashbury, which was wonderful--people cheering and running out of buildings crying "THE BUS! THE BUS!" When I first got out to Oregon to begin this trip I said to Ken, "Are you really going to give this bus to Smithsonian?" And he said, "Listen, giving this bus to the Smithsonian would be like putting your balls in a golden box and sending them to the queen it would be a nice thing to do, but it would be a mistake!" Of course he had no intention of giving the bus to the Smithsonian.

So the idea was, Ken had this speaking engagement in Stockton, California, at the University of the Pacific. So we went to Stockton and he parked the bus out in front of this big lecture hall, and of course there were mobs of people around the bus--it drew people like flypaper draws flies, you know, it's just amazing. Then he goes inside to give this lecture, and everybody who was outside went inside too, leaving the bus. We had dreamed this prank up over several days of plotting. While we were inside and Ken was giving his lecture, three of the guys who were sort of the "crew" of the bus trip took the bus, drew an outline of it on the sidewalk where it had been, and wrote "Never trust a Prankster!" on the same sidewalk in chalk. Then they spirited the bus away, out to the edge of Stockton. Ken's place in Oregon is almost literally in the shadow if this mountain called Mt. Pisgah, and they painted it all over with water-soluble, church-bus blue paint, and on the side of it they wrote "Mt. Pisgah School for the Dumb." Then they drove the bus back to Oregon.

Meanwhile, Ken and the rest of us came out of the auditorium with this great huge crowd of people and the bus was gone! Kesey declared that the crew had mutinied and taken the bus and probably gone to Vegas. And of course there could be no trip to the Smithsonian because we didn't have a bus anymore. All that got in the papers, too. It was a world of fun, a giant prank, a typical Kesey enterprise.