There was that one night when Timothy Leary threw himself into my arms— literally— and over and over again, too.
It was spring term, 1988, and I was working hard on writing the poems to finish up my MFA thesis. But Kesey’s novel class was in the revision stage, and things were getting pretty intense, as was my relationship with Ell. The scene around the class was hard to resist. It was easy to get distracted from my poetry, from my half-time single parenting, and from my still-new job of teaching composition. I was teaching a night section of Writing 122, 3 hours long, once a week, and though it wasn’t the most interesting part of my life, it was paying the bills. So I was more than a little frustrated to find out Timothy Leary was coming to town, and his presentation at UO would take place during my class.
Leary was among the most fascinating pioneers of the psychedelic frontier to me. I first read about him in Electric Kool-aid Acid Test in high school. The contrast in style and message between him and Kesey, and the antagonism between them that the book portrayed, intrigued me. I’d read some of Leary’s writings, which I have always found incoherent, often silly, and yet dotted with profound phrases and ideas that struck me deeply. “Set and setting.” “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” His S.M.I.I.L.E vision of the future appealed greatly to me as a sci-fi buff. And I was impressed by his athletic escape from prison and subsequent world-wide adventures, which I first learned about in Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger. Living in San Francisco, I’d had the chance to see Leary speak a couple of times, and I just loved his darting wit, his multi-layered humor, his endless punning. Listening to him talk made me laugh out loud, very much like the laughter that comes from a good hit of nitrous oxide. There’s an amazing feeling of relief and surprise that accompanies the revelation that the world really is a cosmic joke, and an outburst of irresistible laughter often releases itself at that moment of insight and discovery. They call it laughing gas for a reason.
The first time I took acid, my senior year of high school, Kenny Fisher and I had driven around in his VW bug for an hour or more, waiting for the windowpane to take hold. We just didn’t feel high, at least no more than usual. Finally we drove over to a bar outside the base, where the GI Kenny had scored from worked nights. We walked in and sat at the bar. When his friend, the bartender, came over to us, Kenny said to him, “I think we need some more. It’s not working right.” His friend took a look at us, shook his head from side to side, set green bottles of Rolling Rock in front of us, and said, “Just wait.” So we sipped our beers and waited. It didn’t take long. Kenny looked over at me, then around the barroom. I looked around the barroom, then over at Kenny. We met eyes. Some instants last a lot longer than others, and that instant of recognition lasted pretty damn long. Then, simultaneously, we both burst out laughing like maniacs. We couldn’t help it, and we couldn’t stop. You know that mutual hilarity, which feeds off the other person’s laughter. The bartender listened for a second, then ordered us into a booth in the furthest corner of the room. We were blowing his cover, and that wasn’t funny. We finished our beers as fast as we could, trying futilely to repress the burbling, bubbling laughter, until we finally fled out into the night, to the familiar seats of Kenny’s VW and the wailing of Led Zeppelin from his eight track that had never sounded so good before.
Watching Leary speak had a similar effect on me, gave me that same kind of hilarious contact high, and I wanted to see him again.
When our class took its field trip to the coast house at the end of the fall term, I’d ended up riding out with Kesey. He and I were in the front seat of a big, American sedan, Ell and Meredith in the back. Somehow, Leary’s name came up. Kesey told us Tom Wolfe had over-dramatized any conflict between him and Leary, that they were great friends though they didn’t see each other often. I blurted out that I’d seen Leary speak, that I thought he was the funniest person I’d ever heard, like a hit of nitrous. Kesey looked over at me a little strangely, almost confused, and I knew it wasn’t because of the nitrous reference. Kesey understood nitrous better than anyone. But then I realized how much pride he took in being funny, and I remembered how competitive he was. I knew these things, just forgot them in making my quick comment. I thought for a second that he had taken offense, but instead he started telling jokes and funny stories, and he kept it up non-stop until he got all of us laughing. Kesey could be one of the funniest people I’ve known. Have you ever read the monopoly scene in Cuckoo’s Nest?
The night of Leary’s presentation, I just couldn’t cancel my class. I would have been canceling a whole week, and papers were due. So I went through the motions, perhaps a bit distracted, collected the students’ essays, listened to their various excuses for not having them ready. As soon as class ended, I jogged across campus to the EMU where Leary was speaking. It was over. The crowd was pouring out of the room. I just stood there as they streamed past me. Then Jeff and Bennett came out and came up to me. “How was it?” I asked. They said great. Then Jeff said, “Ken says Leary’s coming over to the house, and we should all come and hang out.” Now, that was cool. So I ran back to my truck and drove up to Ell’s place, which we were basically sharing when I was in town, to see if she wanted to come. She didn’t. Ell was already a writer, but she had never been anybody’s psychedelic flower child. She didn’t care to hang out with Tim Leary, whoever he was. So I stuffed a film canister with some of my best buds and drove back down to campus, grabbing a cheap bottle of French white wine from a little store along the way.
I walked up to the house on 15th with my bottle in a brown sack. When I got to the door, Faye took the wine to put in the fridge, and Kesey, just leaving, put a big hand on my shoulder. “Come with me, Zimmerman. Leary’s at Jo Fed’s.” We climbed into the convertible Cadillac and drove, with one or two others, down to Jo Federico’s, a music and dinner club on 5th street. We were ushered up to the balcony, where Leary was already sitting— eating, drinking, and talking with several students from the Student Activities group which had sponsored his presentation.
Kesey and Leary greeted each other with hugs. The two men were a total contrast. Kesey was big, solid as a wall, loud. His voice boomed out from his barrel chest; his thick arm engulfed Leary’s thin shoulder. Leary was small, wiry, hyper. He seemed to be constantly moving, poking with his hands, his narrow face whipping from side to side, his lower jaw jutting forward. He was loud, too, but spoke in short, fast, associative bursts of thought so you had to listen close to catch his meaning. Almost every phrase Leary uttered was followed by laughter, high-pitched and slightly wheezy.
Some tables got pushed together to accommodate the growing crowd. Kesey sat at one end of the resulting long rectangle. I was at the other end, on a corner of the table, and Leary was sitting next to me on my left. The table was full, and a couple people stood leaning against the balcony railing. We all got drinks. Talk and laughter bubbled and grew in volume. Kesey and Leary started a conversation with each other that went on all night long, an undercurrent that ran below a constant stream of questions from the students and jokes and more serious comments to the whole group from the two of them. They were the stars, and I didn’t have much to add, sitting there at Leary’s elbow. His back was turned to me as he leaned toward Kesey down the longer stretch of table to his left.
Then, abruptly, Leary twisted his chair around, looked me up and down, locked eyes with me in a startlingly direct way, and grinned his patented grin. “Want this?” he said. Without waiting for an answer, he shoved his half-eaten plate of Alfredo noodles with ham in front of me and turned back to the main conversation. I shrugged and nibbled on noodles for a few minutes, though I wasn’t really too hungry. I remembered hearing Leary say at a talk once, when asked if he was a vegetarian: “I try to eat whatever’s available in the local environment.” I figured I’d do the same.
It seemed like several conversations were going on at once around the table. Leary and Kesey kept up their running dialogue, much of which meant nothing to the rest of us. Sharing history, catching up. At the same time, the two of them were answering questions from the students and pranksters around the table. Whenever Leary would answer a question, Kesey would start joking with the people closest to him. When Kesey started talking to the whole group, Leary would look around the table, pick someone who seemed disengaged, and joke or prod them into joining in. He was constantly winking, nudging, needling people he picked out of the crowd. Making individual contact. I interpreted this as part of Leary’s psychology training. He knew how to run a group, and how to keep everyone included.
I was at the corner, though, and in my usual stoned and distracted way, I wasn’t really participating, just listening and soaking things in. I was out of Leary’s head-turning radius, and he wasn’t able to speak to me easily. But then— without any warning— in the midst of answering someone’s question and laughing loudly, Leary just threw himself backwards in his chair, toppling over towards me. Holy shit! I had to reach out and grab the back of his chair to keep him from falling to the floor! I caught him, and pushed him back upright. He hadn’t even interrupted his sentence, and he didn’t say a word to me. He just laughed, childlike and delighted with himself, and glanced over at me. Some people’s eyes actually do twinkle.
A few minutes later, he did it again.
During one of those strange conversational pauses, those moments of silence that pass through even the rowdiest bar crowds, again with no warning, he threw himself backwards in his chair, spreading out his arms as gravity took him. I caught him again, levered him back upright, and this time everyone laughed. I had to keep paying attention, because he did this several more times before the dinner broke up, and we all headed back over to Kesey’s house to carry on. I never let him fall.
Carry on we did, through most of the night. I rode back to the house with Kesey and Leary and a couple others in the Cadillac. The long conversation between them never stopped, full of first names I didn’t know, acronyms I didn’t recognize, and metaphors and allusions that just barely eluded me. A kind of code-talking, it seemed. As we were walking up to the door of the house, Kesey said something about one of Leary’s wives, asked how she had ended up. Leary said he wasn’t in touch with her anymore. “You know,” he said in a tense whisper to Kesey, “It turned out she was FBI the whole time we were together. The whole fucking time!” Kesey didn’t have much to say to that except, “Damn,” or something to that effect. It was like a little shadow passed over us. But then Leary laughed again, as if genuinely amused. And more loudly, turning a little toward me to include me in on the statement, he said, “Oh, but she was one hell of a woman!”
Quite a few people had gathered in the living room: a bunch of us from the novel class, a few of Kesey’s prankster friends, and the last hangers-on from Student Activities. Kesey said, “Let’s try Zimmerman’s wine.” I found the bottle and poured out glasses, but that cheap bottle was so bad! Ell had been training me up about decent wine, and I felt a little embarrassed, but no one seemed to care. We washed it down with sips of Schnapps from the red fuel bottle Kesey always carried around. More wine and beer appeared. And the doobies I twisted up out of my film can were the kind. The jays circled the room, and the conversation went on and on and on into the night. Leary was excited about computer technology at that time, and painted an amazing picture of a psychedelic digital future. Kesey was all about the computer thing, too. He had wanted to set up the class to have us all write at separate computers, feeding into the same document. But the technology just wasn’t there. Leary continued to impress me, using his trick of aiming a comment or jibe toward each of us in turn, especially anyone who seemed disconnected, keeping us all included, involved, and feeling part of things. There was a lot of laughter all night long.
Late, late in the evening Meredith stood up to tell a joke. She looked pretty good in her spring skirt, and she told some long, funny, and very sexy joke that made everyone a little sweaty. After the punch line, Leary leaped up to his feet (he was nearly seventy, but thin and spry). He smiled and shook his baggy pants out by the belt loops. He made it clear that her joke had raised an erection, and he was very pleased. “Thank you, thank you so much,” he said, shaking her hand with both of his. “You don’t know how much I needed that.” He was so funny and natural about it that she didn’t seem to mind a bit.
Sometime past three, the party finally broke up, and I clambered back into my truck and drove up the hill to Ell’s place, crawled in beside her. She woke and murmured, “So how was it?” “It was okay,” I said, “But a little awkward, because Timothy Leary kept throwing himself into my arms.” I don’t think she heard me. She was already moving against me in the way she knew could always stop me from talking.