Archive for Thursday, April 18, 1991

HIPPIE TALES

April 18, 1991

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They didn't pick the title and they don't much like the cover, but the editors of the newly released "Cows Are Freaky When They Look At You: An Oral History of the Kaw Valley Hemp Pickers," say they're satisfied with the content of their book of tales from Lawrence's counter-culture days.

As former Lawrence hippies themselves, "Cows Are Freaky . . ." editors David Ohle, Roger Martin and Susan Brosseau share a personal connection to the era they aimed to chronicle by way of oral history. They were here.

Brosseau came to town in 1964, Ohle and Martin in '68.

In the '60s, they write in the book's preface, Lawrence was the ``hotbed of Kansas hip.''

``Nothing was forbidden. This was the social contract of the Kaw Valley hippies. Those who signed on agreed to treat life as a laboratory and themselves as an experiment.''

DRUGS HELPED with the experimenting that went on. The local marijuana trade gave rise to the Kaw Valley Hemp Pickers, the dope harvesters' organization named in the book's title and the subject of an infamous "60 Minutes'' spot.

Now braced with the perspective of more than two decades, the editors themselves find some of the tales amazing.

Martin said he was "startled about how funny the stories were.'' Also "entertained, shocked and astonished."

He said he found a kind of "hard-headedness'' in the stories. And overall, he said, the stories are grimmer than the book's cover (a back-to-nature scene of hippies, cows and farm fields) leads a person to believe. The cover art, by the way, has drawn a complaint of sexism a woman is naked, the man with her isn't.

INSIDE THE book, a string of characters (real names aren't used) give their versions of life in the '60s

"It was really an intense and interesting time to be alive," says Martin, who edits and writes for "Explore," Kansas University's research magazine.

Drugs have a leading role in this part-fact, part-fantasy reminiscence. The stories, with titles such as "Hippie Fathering,'' "A Twice-Saved Soul,'' "Kansas at Woodstock,'' "Major-League Police Ugliness'' and "Dirge for Two,'' progresses somewhat chronologically.

Chapter one opens: "We dropped acid in the Flint Hills near Emporia. Driving home, along Highway 50, a debate ensued as to whether the car was moving. . . ."

Before book concludes with tales of death and body theft, there are stories about skinny-dippy, encounters with the law, group marriage and group sex, the death of Bobby Kennedy, "Hugo's'' campaign to be elected Douglas County sheriff and an annual hippie picnic-party called the Big Eat.

THE AUTHORS don't vouch for absolute truth.

The book's title comes from a story in chapter two, "Close Encounters of the Worst Kind," which touches on the more mundane hardships of rural hippiedom.

The idea for the book came in the mid-'80s.

Ohle, a writer whose novel, "Motorman,'' was published in 1972, credits Chester Sullivan, a Kansas University associate professor of English, with the idea of recording the hippie tales. Sullivan approached him in 1985, and Ohle soon began to work on the project with Brosseau, his wife who also is a writer.

"The process of reliving all these stories was fun," he said.

Brosseau added they often had groups in for dinner and had them share their memories around the dining room table with the tape recorder running.

EVENTUALLY, Sullivan dropped out of the project while Martin joined in.

Wayne Propst the raconteur identified as "W. Prop" in the book played a key role in helping gather the tales, they said.

Ohle said that Propst, who like Brosseau arrived in Lawrence in 1964, had "been on the scene from the beginning'' and was ``a keen observer of it."

Propst said he himself had been recruited by Sullivan to help with the project, and did a few interviews, but ultimately was more involved identifying people with good stories to tell and sharing tales himself.

While Martin preferred one-on-one interviews, Propst said he thought the dinner-table gatherings brought out the best tales.

The only drawback, he said, was that some stories would have to be pieced together over several hours of tape time, which made the transcription process grueling.

FINDING STORIES didn't pose much of a problem. Many people, Propst said, "were anxious to talk about their experiences." They seemed to feel that America today "has become such a complacent, compliant, conforming place."

Propst now says he doesn't think the '60s were all that wonderful, but in comparison to today, "at least in Lawrence, it was a more dynamic period."

Everyone interviewed was promised anonymity, the editors said. It's up to each story-teller to decide whether to reveal himself or herself now that the book is out.

Some, Ohle said, have become "prominent citizens" of Lawrence and might not want to be identified with the stories they had to tell.

Others, like Propst, have no such concerns.

One story-teller, "Deputy Dawg," is Randall Pine, a fourth-generation Lawrence native who worked for Sheriff Rex Johnson as a deputy in the '60s. Pine said he had no reason to keep his identity secret.

WHILE OTHERS interviewed were "of the hippies,'' Pine was of "The Law," and his tales show him with a somewhat benevolent perspective of the hippie culture.

In a way, Pine said, he thought officers like himself were trying to protect the hippies as well as "the rednecks," but neither hippies nor rednecks seemed to see it that way then.

He said reading "Cows Are Freaky . . ." brought back a lot of memories.

"I was captivated by it," Pine said. "I was trying to figure out who was who."

His reaction to most of the tales, he noted, was `Gawd, this is really outrageous behavior,' and then he realized he got pretty outrageous back then too.

"I became a cop and a student. I don't know if you can get more outrageous than that.''

AS THE story-tellers read the tales, Ohle said, he expects them to experience a "full range of emotions, but I doubt boredom will be one of them."

Pamela Gilford of Kansas City, one of the women interviewed, said she thought the book was "a project that needed doing for a long time."

Oral history, she said, was a neat way to go about it.

"I'm not sure Lawrence wasn't special," Gilford said. She spent some time on the West Coast in the '60s and thinks Lawrence hippies always seemed "different," with more of a sense of community. And Lawrence, she said, always had more of a sense of community, as well as a predisposition to tolerate people's differences.

"We just added a little psychedelic twist to it," she said.

Although not all the old crowd survived the times, Gilford added, those who did continue "to make an effort to hang on to some of the enthusiasm we had" then.

"IT WAS PRETTY excessive, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world."

Ohle said a friend, James Grauerholz, who works for writer William Burroughs, became their agent and handled arrangements with the publishing house, Watermark Press of Wichita.

The fact that Gaylord Dold is Watermark's managing editor didn't hurt, Martin said. Dold is a KU graduate who lived on Oread Avenue in the '60s, next door to a famed hippie hangout, the Gaslight tavern.

Grauerholz said, "The book to me is not only about all the characters . . . but about an oral tradition of creating our own heros."

Martin said he and the other editors had wanted the book titled "Blown Away," but a profile of one of the Rolling Stones was published last fall under that name.

"That blew us away," Martin said. "It was a freak."

Instead, publishers came up with "Cows are Freaky. . ," which seems too long and sweet to Martin.

Burroughs, the beat-generation writer who now lives in Lawrence, wrote the forward for the book, which went on sale last week in local bookstores.

His forward is something of a lament. The tales to him bring back memories of a '60s vision that failed. Society didn't really change.

"Cows Are Freaky When They Look at You'' is a collection of wartime tales told in postwar voices,'' Burroughs writes.

"Let us listen."

A signing party is planned from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on April 23 at the Free State Brewery, 636 Mass., at by The Raven bookstore, 8 E. Seventh; April 26 and 27, at a time yet to be announced, another signing party is planned at the Oread Bookshop in KU's Kansas Union.

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