Wednesday, December 9, 2015
A Slice of Cultural History
Last Thursday night, Linda and I went to Bookshop Santa Cruz to hear Lee Quarnstrom read from his memoir When I Was a Dynamiter, or How a Nice Catholic Boy Became a Merry Prankster, a Pornographer and a Bridegroom 7 Times.
As one of our local journalists put it, there probably isn’t anyone else alive who could have written a book with that subtitle.
My interest in going was personal. I knew Lee not as a dynamiter, a Merry Prankster, or a pornographer, but rather as a newspaperman, and a very good one at that. When I joined the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian as a cub reporter in 1972, Lee was covering county government for the paper, which he did through mid-1978. He once said that if it weren’t for the low wages, he wouldn’t have worked anywhere else.
Eventually, a better paying offer drew Lee to Hustler magazine in Los Angeles, where he rose to the position of executive editor before leaving to finish his career as a reporter with the San Jose Mercury.
Remembering the Pranksters
I could write an entire blog post (and maybe two or three) about Lee’s exploits as a newspaper reporter, but those days took up a small part of the memoirs. The book actually came out at the beginning of the year, and I bought it then and read (and enjoyed) it in February.
Lee was one of the people who fell into the orbit of novelist Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and his Merry Pranksters in the mid-1960s. Their experimentation with psychedelics and alternative living was immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s Book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Their home base was La Honda, a small community nestled in a redwood-shaded canyon about 30 miles north of Santa Cruz, where the book reading was held. A number of people from what is now commonly referred to as the hippie scene of the sixties are still around, particularly in Santa Cruz. It occurred to me that he should have a large built-in audience for his book reading, if only they could stay up past their normal bedtimes.
Those Were the Days
I shouldn’t have worried. When I got to the bookstore 20 minutes before the start of the reading, every seat was already taken. I was able to talk to Lee for a couple of minutes, then was able to grab a chair when the bookstore staff started putting out some extras. It was still standing room only, and I was sitting behind some of the standees, so I could hear the reading, but not see the author.
Over a period of a bit over an hour, Lee read sections from his memoir about why he was a skinny kid (his mom was clueless about cooking), how the Merry Pranksters were raided by the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department, and what happened when one of the employees of Hustler went out to buy a live chicken as a wedding present for Publisher Larry Flynt. Don’t ask.
Being with Kesey and the Pranksters, Lee was an eyewitness to a distinct moment in American cultural history. It’s still up in the air how important a moment it will turn out to be, but in his book, Lee captured quite a bit of it for posterity. As he read from that book on a rainy late-fall night in Santa Cruz, all of us in the audience had a rare opportunity to be there with him.