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When I Was a Dynamiter! Or, How a Nice Catholic Boy Became a Merry Prankster, a Pornographer, and a Bridegroom Seven Times Paperback – November 16, 2014
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About the Author
Lee Quarnstrom has asked his wife to order just one memorial word on his gravestone – Beatnik. Born in a small Washington lumber mill town and raised for the most part there and in Chicago, Quarnstrom moved to the Bay Area in the mid-1960s in time to join the Merry Band of Pranksters, the acid-fueled crew aboard author Ken Kesey’s psychedelically painted bus with “Further” as its destination and a warning across its rear: “Caution, Weird Load.” With the musical Grateful Dead in tow, the Pranksters brought psychedelia to the west coast with their famed Acid Tests! Prior to his move to California, Quarnstrom was a young Chicago newspaperman in the final days of the Windy City’s old-time, “Front Page” journalism. Lucky enough to have read Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD before freeways replaced two-lane blacktop roads, he began years of wandering by sticking out his thumb and hitching rides back and forth and up and down around the country. Stops along the way included New York City, Mexico City, Seattle, a remote redwood canyon in the Santa Cruz Mountains, nearby Santa Cruz, and Los Angeles, where he was Executive Editor of the notorious smut magazine, Hustler. Quarnstrom did, in fact, spend one summer felling tall trees and blasting boulders as Assistant Dynamiter on an Olympic National Park trail crew. And the woman he’s asked to describe him on that tombstone is indeed his seventh wife.
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I loved how Quarnstrom paints little pictures of his life in non linear fashion, skipping here and there, breaking into a reminiscence before picking up the main thread again. It helps that he is candid and lived a life worry living in a time worth being alive.
My great regret is that I knew Quarnstrom in his Santa Cruz years, merely as a fellow reporter and I never took the chance to actually sit at his feet and know the man himself. He dropped hints as we stood around waiting for newsmakers to speak but I was too young and obtuse no doubt to see him for the fascinating raconteur he really is. Better to learn it late than never. A great book and a superb read. It will make you nostalgic for a time you were in lucky enough not to live through yourself.
A small town kid, originally from what was then a somewhat isolated Pacific Northwest, Lee became the editor-in-chief of his student newspaper at one of the best public high schools in the country. Though in years to come, he found his attention often diverted by one picaresque adventure after another, he never looked back, culminating his career as reporter, columnist, and editor of the San Jose Mercury News.
But it's mainly those diversions, those amazing adventures, that Lee looks back on fondly now, and that make his memoir so entertaining. As an early member of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, Lee describes the group's experimentation with LSD back before it occurred to the government to outlaw it. Dabbling in other consciousness-expanding drugs followed, and Kesey, Quarnstrom, and associates appear to have lived for several years in a psychedelic haze - surrounded by the comings and goings of aging "beatniks" like Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, by the ever-changing cast of the Merry Pranksters themselves, and by members of bands such as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and other Bay Area-based, late 60s musical groups - with occasional cameo appearances by the Hells Angels, for added excitement.
Lee lived in New York City, when Gotham was an edgy place for a blond, skinny, Scandinavian boy to hang out, and he lived in Mexico City during its brief period as a bohemian mecca south of the border. He did grunt work for news services. He delivered mail. He built national park trails. He worked as a self-proclaimed pornographer, editing Hustler magazine, hanging out with its owner Larry Flynt (and many Hustler "models") and with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
He's had seven wives. He lost his only child, an 18-year-old son, to a street shooting - a loss whose grief haunts many pages of the book. Lee's no drug-addled "naif." He's been around the block a few times. But he knew what he was doing. And he knows where he's been.
Despite his dabbling in numerous activities that might well raise eyebrows in Topeka, Kansas, Lee's often breathtaking stories are told in the voice of a decent human being. Although Ken Kesey's friends and hangers-on at times sound like frat boys in a long-running party run amok, Lee shows us the excitement and joys of his participation in the beat and hippie culture of those days, without losing his ability to stand aside on occasion with his eyebrows raised ironically.
"When I Was a Dynamiter" may be one of the best and most readable pictures to date of an important era in America's cultural and literary history, written by a man who recalls it first hand and has the ability to recount his recollections in strong, expressive English. The book also offers a fine picture of an unusual life - one lived wide open to experience and observed with unflinching self-awareness.
If I were teaching 20th Century American history I’d make Quarnstom’s book required reading. That’s because he not only has succeeded in putting together a fascinating account of his unorthodox, non-conformist, creative, and sometimes self-destructive life; this autobiography is a detailed, first-hand account of the most turbulent era of the last century when traditions, laws, morals, attitudes, and beliefs were challenged and never remained the same.
It’s a first-hand journey that begins in the small city of Longview in Southwest Washington and gives the reader Quarnstrom’s inside views and experiences during the last years of hard-boiled Chicago news reporting, the last years of Bay Area Beatnik culture, and life in the drug-infused, free-love world of author Ken Kesey, his buddy Neal Cassady, and their madcap exploits around the country as Merry Pranksters in Kesey’s former school bus with Cassady talking a mile a minute while at the wheel.
(Incidentally, though not identified, Quarnstrom is the glum-faced youth between Kesey, left, and Cassady, right, on the cover.)
Now in his mid-70s, Quarnstrom was on the ground floor of it all, including the golden age of porn when he became executive editor under Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler, “the country’s most-pornographic ‘men’s’ magazine” of the day. Many of his fellow porn writers, he found, were also former Catholics.
And there is much more. Quarnstrom also writes about his seven trips to the alter and their outcomes. After intensive therapy following several marriages, he came to the conclusion that the best advice for husbands is “Don’t be an (censored).”