ramen and pickles

science, technology, and medicine served up with some tasty noodles

Secret History of the Menlo Park VA

Electric Kool Aid Acid TestThe Menlo Park VA has a Veteran’s Hospital and is the site of the Willow Clinic and currently the Arbor Free Clinic.   The Arbor Free Clinic is staffed by volunteers from Stanford’s Medical School, and I’ve spent hundreds of hours working there.   Although it is likely that the Arbor Free Clinic will move in the next year to new outpatient facilities being constructed at the newly renovated Hoover Pavilion (the original Palo Alto Hospital), Stanford students still spend a considerable amount of time at the Menlo Park VA, and most are unaware of the important role of the Veteran’s Hospital in psychedelic and literary history.  It was the crucible in which much of the counterculture of the 1960’s was formed.

The Stanford alumni magazine gives some background:

http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=38411

In 1958, rebellious young student Ken Kesey came to Palo Alto to pursue postgraduate study in creative writing.   Although I’m sure he learned a lot in his educational program, it was his experiences at the Menlo Park Veteran’s Hospital which seem to have had a much more strongly catalytic effect on his life.  For extra money, he began to work at the VA as a night attendant and also volunteered to take part as an experimental subject in the CIA’s MKUltra studies on psychoactive drugs.   His experiences with the psychiatric patients at the VA, along with the drugs he was receiving, particularly LSD, inspired him to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which became wildly successful and led to the 1975 film, staring a young Jack Nicholson and swept that year’s academy awards (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay), Golden Globes, and BAFTA’s.

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The money gained from the success of this novel supported Ken Kesey’s new interest and activities which included massive parties where he gave other people access to the psychedelic drugs he had discovered and the new style of music from the Warlocks/Grateful Dead.   In the most famous example, he collected a group of friends, “The Merry Pranksters”, who travelled across country exposing people to their drug fueled psychedelic ethos, contributing a big part of what led to the hippie movement in the United States.  This period was chronicled in the 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe, which itself proved to have a very strong influence on the counterculture of the late 60’s and early 70’s.   Their adventures are also profiled in the 2011 film, Magic Trip which was composted of old footage from their journeys.

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An important member of the Merry Pranksters was Stewart Brand, who went on to create the Whole Earth Catalog.   Given the important influence that this had on Steve Jobs (Steward Brand conceived of the expression “personal computer”), might attribute a lot of the way we interact with computers to those early experiences of Kesey at the VA hospital.  So, from the simple confines of the humble Menlo Park VA was spawned one of the greatest films of all time, a whole American subculture and aesthetic that continues today, and even a genre of music.  The next time you see a dayglo tie-dyed t-shirt or a MacBook Pro, think of Menlo Park, CA.

Stay hungry.  Stay foolish.

Whole Earth Catalog



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