Old Mack’s Tales

May 16, 2014

A Windfall

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ron McKinney aka "OldMack" @ 8:36 pm
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I was prowling through my wallet for the double sawbuck I had stashed in the secret compartment–my Mad Money, so to speak–and that’s how I discovered that my St. Pete Library Card had expired.  After locating the Twenty, I made a pit stop for a breakfast burrito at a shop on Ninth Avenue North.  While munching–I seldom skip breakfast, so by 11:00 AM I was about to faint and the tasteless burrito revived me enough to realize that the library was just up the street.  So I whipped in to renew my card.  I browsed the shelves of the Library’s discarded books and found “Who Shot The Water Buffalo,” a novel by Ken Babbs.  The price was one dollar–and so was the renewal fee for the new library card–so I came home and spent the afternoon reading.

The title is ambiguous.  In Army and Marine Corps jargon a portable water tank (towed) is called a Water Buffalo.  Most of the novel is set in  South Vietnam during the 1961-1962 period when American soldiers merely advised the South Vietnamese troops and hauled them around in American helicopters piloted by men like Ken Babbs.

You know Ken Babbs, of course.  You have read Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, of course, about Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters’ bus trip in Further.  What you may not know is that Kesey and Babbs and others, such as Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone were classmates in a graduate writing course at Stanford taught by Wallace Stegner.  Well, I knew that.  And yet I was surprised by Babbs’ unique style and voice–frankly, one of the main characters, Cochran, is a dead ringer for Ken Kesey, Ken Babbs’ old pal.  Babbs was one of the original “Merry Pranksters.”

Beyond all that, Ken Babbs and Old Mack have in common their service in the U.S. Marine Corps, and their training in the Naval Aviation Flight Program.  Cochran and the novel’s narrator both opt for helicopter pilot training instead of jet fighters because they knew they would never comply with orders to drop a Weapon of Mass Destruction.  Thus they wound up flying helicopters in Vietnam a couple of years before the United States committed to the 10-year war in Vietnam.  Old Mack didn’t crack a smile at passages other readers might find funny; the bizarre antics and attitudes of the Babbs’ main characters reminded him of the ROTC, Naval Academy, and other college graduates with whom he served.  Dubya would have fit in perfectly, but the book was written during the 1960s and only published in 2011.  The original manuscript was lost for fifty years and mysteriously found and published.

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