BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Douglas Brinkley, author of “The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey,” what's the "Yo" generation?
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, AUTHOR, "THE MAJIC BUS: AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY" The "Yo" generation is, recently you've probably noticed there have been a lot of articles talking about the difference between the baby boomers and the people born after the baby boom, which is 19six 1 -- there's been a book called Generation X which has been out recently and people are calling them “thirteeners” or “boomerangers.” It just means that as a professor you notice that the young people at universities today, let's say in their twenties, early twenties, they have a different view of America than their parents, that is the baby boomers, and that view is one of cynicism in many ways -- cynical about their future, about America's future, or about higher education, and so, "Yo" is a slang saying like in musical television and, "Yo, MTV rap." So, "yo."
And kids, instead of saying hey to each other, they'll say "yo." That puts you on the defense. And, it's an aggressive posture, which I think is also connected to rap music, grunge rock out of Seattle and punk music. There's an aggression underneath it all that we're getting screwed because they've inherited the five or four trillion dollar debt. They've inherited the unemployment rate. They've inherited, you know, these huge loans they take out to go to university, and when they get out with a liberal arts degree from these universities, there are no real jobs for them. So, there's resentment and I've just got one point in the book for thinking of a term myself. That word "yo" is alien to me, I'm born on the cusp. I'm born in 19six 0, so I'm sort of inbetween these two generations that have been written about recently. "Yo" is alien to me, but for all of these kids, "yo" is a code word for, you know, that they connect with each other.
LAMB: Here's the cover of your book and here it is, The Majic Bus, what is it?
BRINKLEY: The Majic Bus is the bus that we got, I should say it's a company called Majic Bus Company. It's really a man named Frank Perugi who has a bus. It's an old New York City Bus that's been gutted out. Bunk beds were put in it, a shower, a refrigerator, CD player, a computer. I brought my students to live on the majic bus for my class that I taught at Hofstra University called American Odyssey: Art and Culture Across America. So, the book, The Majic Bus, is the bus meeting up with my class. There's a whole chapter about the bus driver who has a fascinating life; he's a former truck driver, and the way this is all combined, where The Majic Bus became our home.
I'm taking my students this spring with two majic buses, Majic Bus 1 and Majic Bus 2. The name itself, The Majic Bus, came from the singing group, the British rock group, The Who song, "Magic Bus," but, this is with a "j" instead of a "g" for copyright and legal reasons, for the bus fellow. He didn't want to rip off the name of the song, so he stuck a "j" in there and we have a lot of fun with the name.
LAMB: Where's Hofstra University?
BRINKLEY: It's in Long Island, Hempstead, Long Island, which is, you know, not too far out of Manhattan, but by train, 50 minutes.
LAMB: What do you teach?
BRINKLEY: I'm a diplomatic historian by training, and I try to usually teach my U.S. foreign policy type classes. I did my doctorate at Georgetown and last year, in 1992, I had two books come out, one a biography with Dean Acheson and one I wrote with Townshend Hoops on James Forrestal. So, I teach the history of the Cold War, history of American Foreign policy, the Kennedy Presidency. But, I was feeling very pigeon-holed in that.
I mean, one of the things I don't like about this over-specialization in the humanities is that sometimes you can't always just teach other interests, other things you like. What I like is American history and I got into this business of teaching as an American historian and I love American literature and American studies, American culture. So, I was able to teach a class on Jack Kerouac, a seminar, and it was in that course that we of course read “On The Road,” his famous book from 1957 which we could talk about if you like. But, from that book, reading that, and the notion of rediscovering Walt Whitman's America, I brought my students to Kerouac's home in Lowell, Massachusetts and we visited the commemorative park they have there at his birthplace and Kerouac's Lowell which is in many ways like Faulkner's Oxford or Edgar Lee Masters' Illinois or something. It's a locale which means something and we, also on that journey, visited Walden's pond and other things.
And that trip, although it was just field trip to complement a seminar class at the university, got our group so close and so tight together that a Russian immigrant student I had in my class said, you know, "Professor Brinkley, why don't you teach us history on the road?" And I've always wanted to do that because I've travelled the states myself since I was a young boy and I love visiting historical sites across America whether it's presidential libraries or writers' homes or civil war battle fields etc., and I thought, "Boy, that would be great if we could actually read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” out on the Mississippi River, if we could read Willa Cather and visit her home in Nebraska and see Nebraska, if we could read Jack London and then visit his ranch in California, if we could discuss Jimmy Carter and then visit his library and meet the director or somebody associated with the administration."
And, you know, all of that started coming together and I hammered out a proposal and my dean at my university, he contemplated it, and it seemed a little bit different, but he saw the great educational value in that. And we decided, you know, let's do it and at that point it was a matter of the nightmare of the logistics, anything from having the students sign the typical health forms to just finding out how much it would cost students, to really get a low-ball figure for them so we could really make it affordable, and to find transportation. And I started looking for buses and I came up with The Majic Bus which was just the ideal match for the course.
LAMB: Some simple things. How big is Hofstra University?
BRINKLEY: Hofstra is 10,000 and it is a liberal arts school, it is private. Founded in 1935.
LAMB: How long have you been there?
BRINKLEY: I've been there, this is my fourth year.
LAMB: And when was the student, the Russian student that said to you, what time frame?
BRINKLEY: Just a year ago. Just a year ago.
LAMB: A year ago, twelve months ago.
BRINKLEY: It would have been in the fall, so yeah, a year, eighteen months past.
LAMB: When did this trip occur?
BRINKLEY: The trip occurred last spring, the spring of '92. We left in March of '92 and we returned in May.
LAMB: How many students went on it?
BRINKLEY: About 17 students. There was an administrative assistant and Frank, our driver.
LAMB: How did you choose the students?
BRINKLEY: Well, the criteria has changed. Originally we said a graduating senior, 3.0 and above, but as word of the course started coming around we, my office, became a virtual wailing wall of students wanting to discover America and, slowly I tried to find ways to get some of these other students that were below a 3.0 because their enthusiasm was so high. But, essentially it was graduating seniors, 3.0 and above. I brought a freshman for a particular reason, brought a couple of sophomores. It was half men, half women. And so, the criteria changed as we started looking into it because some of ... The main thing I was looking for was enthusiasm, and no complaints, no whiners.
LAMB: And, what did it cost them?
BRINKLEY: Well, that's one of great parts of it. They had to pay their, they got six credit hours which is, we're on a quarter system really at New College at Hofstra University, and so, they had to pay their normal six credit hours as if they were right there at our University. In addition to that, they had to pay a thousand dollars which got refunded to them due to their dorm fees. Because they are paying their dorm fees, I got them pro-rated and I got the meal plan pro-rated, so that came back, and that extra 1,000 dollars went to the bus driver, Frank, to pay for all of their diesel. And, they slept on the bus. So, it virtually cost the students no more to spend all this time across America than it would have been if they stayed at the University -- short of the fact that they have their own spending money and they'd be spending more in San Francisco or Chicago than they would if they were staying back in their dorm room. But for spending money, I had a student that spent $400 you know, the whole time, extra money. There were also kids with credit cards that were charging up souvenirs in every museum we went to and they may have spent a thousand and some dollars, so that varied.
LAMB: How many credit hours?
BRINKLEY: Six credit hours, so it's two courses.
LAMB: And, did you grade them?
BRINKLEY: I did grade them. Their first mid-term was held in a casino in Los Vegas. Their second mid-term was in a motel in San Francisco. Or exams, I shouldn't call them mid-terms. They submitted a detailed journal with day-to-day entries on what they saw, what they thought about America, trying not to focus on themselves, but to look at the country, look at the historical sites, literary sites and people they were visiting. And, in addition, I had them do special projects which related to interests. A student who loves creative writing, I would have them work on poems and short stories and submit them to me. If there was somebody who wants to be a photographer, which there was, I'd have them do whole photo shoots and submit the photographs when they got back. You get the picture.
LAMB: Grade range: Did you give anybody an "F"?
BRINKLEY: Absolutely not.
LAMB: A "D"?
LAMB: A "B"?
LAMB: And how many "A's", how many "B's" out of 17?
BRINKLEY: The majority were "A's", majority "A's".
LAMB: And if you got an "A", what did you really, what can you say about the reason?
BRINKLEY: This was an experiment and things changed for me. I started realizing that the grading part of it became less and less important. This was an incredible rush of experience happening and I saw what they were learning and enthusiasm was so high that it almost pained me after all this that we were going through together to say, "OK guys, test time." But I did want to keep them reading and keep them on it. But they did such a marvelous job. One of the problems that we did have, which is one I didn't anticipate, is that we had a reading list of 12 books. That's a lot while we're doing other things, and some students couldn't read while we were in motion. And I can, so I forgot to take that into consideration. So, it was hard for me when a student said, "I can't read, I'll get sick." We're driving down the great American open road and I can't read, so we had to make some, you know, variations on the reading list, a little less reading, trying to make the whole thing work.
My main goal was that we all come back together as a group. I looked at it from the beginning not as me as professor and them as students and Frank's the driver, but we're one unit, we're American Odyssey, we're trying to rediscover America, including me, and we're going to come back as a unit and be united as a unit. The greatest accomplishment is the warm friendships that we formed and we really didn't even want to get off the road when we came back.
We were having the time of our life and that was what excited me because the point is, literature is fun, history is fun, poetry is fun, education's fun, the liberal arts are fun. It's not meant to be something that you have to get all nervous about like your exam on Walt Whitman. My God, Walt Whitman is something I want them to have, keep with them all their life, to read on the road, to study on their own, and I wanted to spark that interest, spark my enthusiasm for these writers and for our country and our history and if I saw that spark happening than it was a success, because students vary.
I had a student, well we'd visit the writer William Burroughs in Kansas for example, this student wouldn't just read Burroughs' famous book “Naked Lunch,” he'd buy everything Burroughs and read everything Burroughs ever wrote all the while during this period. Another student, who now works for an auto center and has graduated, never read. He was a great guy, but just didn't like books. He'd go to movies, wouldn't read. Well, to get him on his own to start buying Jack London novels after he'd got excited about Jack London, and for him to tell me he'd just read a book on Jack London -- he may have only read one or two extra books on his own, but that was new for him, to realize that reading is fun. And if I could kick down that door, that opens up authors to him, he could move forward.
And many of the writers I picked for this course are ones that I think young people today respond to. It does not mean that they are what everybody would like. Some writers are considered sort of out of the mainstream, but young people like that. Hunter S. Thompson, you know, his crazy “Gonzo" books, when we were in Las Vegas we read “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, an assigned book. Well, they loved it, they absolutely loved it! They read that and then they're in Vegas and it all kind of hit, clicked in. Well, there are people who say, "Why are you teaching a book like that in a University?" Well, you know, I think the point is to get them reading, to get them excited. I also think it is an important book.
LAMB: Starting over here in the Long Island area, briefly show us, what track did you take? You started up here in Hempstead ...
BRINKLEY: We started in Hempstead, went down to Washington, DC -- I was mugged there …
LAMB: We can come back and talk about any of this stuff. Let's just talk about the trip very quickly.
BRINKLEY: The trip very quickly: Asheville, North Carolina; Cherokee, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Montgomery, Alabama; Biloxi, Mississippi; New Orleans; Clarksdale, Mississippi; Oxford, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee.
Then we went straight up to Chicago, down to Springfield, Illinois; St. Louis; Independence; Kansas City; Lawrence, Kansas; Oakley, Kansas; Cheyenne Wells, Colorado; Denver and Boulder; Rocky Mountain National Park; Central City; Grand Junction and Telluride.
Then down into Cortez and Mesa Verde National Park; Santa Fe; Taos; Albuquerque -- went white water rafting there are on the Rio Grande; Gallup; Flagstaff; Grand Canyon; Williams; Las Vegas; then to Santa Barbara, north through all the great coastal towns, up Highway 1, spending some time in Carmel; Monterrey into San Francisco, and then north of San Francisco to the London ranch and then Glen Ellen; Mendocino; Ferndale; Fortuna, where we were hit by an earthquake.
Eureka into Oregon; Pleasant Hill where we with Ken Kesey and took his psychedelic bus Further around the Oregon countryside; into Portland; Mount Saint Helens; Seattle; Spokane; Missoula; the Crow Agency where the Little Bighorn Battlefield is; Medora, North Dakota, which is the Theodore Roosevelt National Park; down the Deadwood and South Dakota which is Mount Rushmore; Rapid City; and then we beelined it home from there. On the map there it says Mitchell, and Sioux Falls and Cleveland, but those were just little stories I told about our mad race home, back to Hempstead, back to New York City.
LAMB: You did not go to the Northeast?
BRINKLEY: Not at all, kept New England completely out of the picture. Many of the students had been there before and we just couldn't do everything. I also was sorry not to have been able to go to Texas because I think the Alamo is, of course, a must site, along with many other parts. I love Texas a great deal but we didn't make it. But, we'll rectify that on a future journey.
LAMB: Let's take a look at this cover, because on this cover there are a lot of different things to talk about. Who's this person?
BRINKLEY: The great Walt Whitman, the great American poet, our American bard. “Leaves of Grass” is just a book everybody has to read, just has to read his poems.
LAMB: We're going to keep looking. We've got the Chicago Cubs there, but below that ...
BRINKLEY: Martin Luther King, Jr. We visited his center in Atlanta and had a wonderful day there; Jack London, who was my boyhood hero...
LAMB: Let's go across here, you've got Route six six .
BRINKLEY: That's Route six six which, of course, is shut down and I write about Route six six ; President Truman; the psychedelic bus Further of Ken Kesey; above that is Bessie Smith, one of my favorite pop vocalists; an older picture of Jack Kerouac...
LAMB: Which one, up there?
BRINKLEY: Up there, looking like Bill Murray a little bit.
LAMB: And where is he now?
BRINKLEY: Jack Kerouac died in 1970, I guess he died in 1971.
LAMB: Over here is an obvious face. Did you go to ...
BRINKLEY: I'm sorry, he died earlier than that, 19six 8, I think or six 9. Abraham Lincoln ...
LAMB: You went to his grave?
BRINKLEY: Yeah, in Springfield, Illinois; Willa Cather; Elvis Presley...
LAMB: You went to Graceland?
BRINKLEY: Yeah, I'll talk to you about that if you want.
LAMB: Sure. Cross the page and see what else we've got.
BRINKLEY: That looks like, down there's a buffalo because we saw a lot. We went cattle branding -- a picture of that; Mount Rushmore; there's Mark Twain, there's Frank Perugi our driver next to General Custer because we used to tease him he looked like Custer. You can see there in the photo he does. President Carter, and I'm writing a biography of Carter right now, and up above that is the ox of Paul Bunyon which we found along the roadside in California, Northern California, and there's just a crocodile and that's it.
LAMB: The book: How much is it?
LAMB: Who gets the profits?
BRINKLEY: It's a non-profit book for the author. I'm giving away all my author royalties because I never planned on making any money on any of this and I'm a believer in the 90s -- that we should really start trying to do some things. So, it goes to groups that mean something to me. One's the Franklin Eleanor Roosevelt Institute's "Better Schools Project" in New York City which helps high schools and elementary schools, particularly elementary schools. It goes to the Delta Blues museum, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, to help a man there, Sid Graves, save the blues. I'm a great rock and roll/blues fan and I think it is important to save things and to cherish the blues. You have the Robert Kennedy Action Corps which is doing a lot of work to help schools in the inner cities in the United States. I'm also giving some of the money to the Sierra Youth Corps -- college kids who work with the Sierra Club and do wonderful work, and also the Theodore Roosevelt Association because even though I'm a liberal Democrat I'm a great admirer of many Republican presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt. And, I'm a member of the board of directors of the Theodore Roosevelt Association.
LAMB: After this was all over, was there anybody at Hofstra or people that you know that think that this was a dumb idea?
BRINKLEY: That's a good question and I don't know really yet, but yes ... I tried to write this book as a populist book , a book of my love for the country. I point out things that I see going wrong in America in the book. It's not just a book about our trip, it's a book about America in 1992. It really has the spirit of people like Carl Sandurg, to the book, historian, poet. That I like because I love fiction and poetry and I admire Carl Sandburg a great deal.
To answer your question, yes. I think there are many people that think this is just ridiculous. I hate to classify them as being an older generation because it's not true, but I would say that there are some small-minded people, some close-minded people that would think a trip like this is extravagant or that a trip like this is unnecessary. But I would say that they're a minority. I haven't met anybody that doesn't like it that's not an academic, the academic world. There are some people in academia who raise an eyebrow about programs like this because they are breaking the rules, they're innovative, and any time you innovate anything or try to do something different you're going to have some crows calling. And I caught a few of those, but I just let them roll right off me.
LAMB: You came to Washington and you went to the Francis Scott Key Bookstore, where you spent the night in the bookstore?
BRINKLEY: Yes, I thought that was important because I love books and I love bookstores, and I wanted the students to sleep on their sleeping bags in a bookstore their first night on the road to let them know that books are fun. And, even bookstores are fun. However, I got robbed at gunpoint in front of the bookstore. Yeah, that's a group shot of us in front of the Francis Scott Key Bookstore. That was our first day, actually the morning after.
The first evening there I got robbed in Georgetown which was just a fluke thing, but I write about crime in Washington and the problems we have in our cities with crack. They took my money, my wallet, but I survived. And it changed my attitude a little bit too. When somebody makes you lie on the sidewalk and puts a gun in your forehead, you start thinking about a lot of different things. Besides the education of this, I wanted these students who I cared a lot about to have a great time. I want, when they're 80 years old and looking back on their lives, that the American Odyssey and The Majic Bus will stand out as one of those exceptional moments that they will never ever forget. At that point I think I said it wasn't going to be a trip on Bill Moyer's America. We were going to get crazy. We were going to rock and roll. We were going to have some fun on the roads. I mean, that's what youth should be about.
LAMB: Were you allowed to drink?
BRINKLEY: Well, they were not supposed to. People would do what they, depending on what their age was -- I would let them do whatever they wanted to do if it was legal.
LAMB: On the bus?
BRINKLEY: No. Alcohol drinking was not allowed on the bus, although there were times when beer cans or something would inevitably surface. We had very strict rules against no drugs and that they be thrown off if it was ever spotted and it did not turn out to be a problem. And sure, we all, you know, I mentioned in the book that sometimes we'd pull into a place and we'd hit, we'd celebrate a birthday in a bar in the middle of New Mexico and have pizza and beer and yeah, that was part of the trip too.
LAMB: Were they allowed to smoke on the bus?
BRINKLEY: No, the rules for the bus were by the guy who owns it and he was a stickler about his bus. That's his. He rebuilt this bus and you can imagine it's his baby. And no smoking was allowed, although again, we'd have to scream at them because you'd see a window cracked open and smoke coming out of the back. Well, this year as I said, we have two majic busses and the rules are about the same -- mainly no drugs and no complaining and we don't pick up this year. Last year we allowed some extra people to come on, time and again. This year we're not going to allow anybody who is not a member of the class to board the bus.
LAMB: Are you going on this next tour?
BRINKLEY: Yeah, I've been killing myself to work on it and actually we leave next Thursday.
LAMB: This is being taped so its going to be the last week in March.
BRINKLEY: It will be the end of March. And we're leaving. A whole new group of students. And we've expanded from 17 to 27.
LAMB: On the same bus?
BRINKLEY: Two busses.
LAMB: Follow one another?
BRINKLEY: They will both follow one another. We've got CB's, we've got video cameras, and we're going to Alaska, the last frontier. We're reading 12 books, most of them different than the books last year. We have a different route, some of the route is the same, but most of it's different. We're meeting a lot of different writers and poets across the way. Our kickoff party is in New York City in a place called The New Eurekans Poet Cafe which is in the lower east side. And we have poets like my students reading their own poems on stage, along with people like Amer Beracca, Alan Ginsberg, Ann Wallman and a host of others. And we have rock bands. I have a street permit to have bands that play on the street and we're throwing an American poetry party in New York City before we leave. That will be our goodbye to everybody. Parents can come, friends can come, people from the school ... I just think it is important for us to treasure our literature and I want to get the students to... I think writing poetry and writing songs and rap music and all this is wonderful, that creative energy of young America is what it's all about.
LAMB: Now how many students applied this time around to eventually get to the number 27?
BRINKLEY: We just had to turn it off. I took as many as I could because I hate turning away people. I'd love to take a lot more if I could. I really couldn't manage more than 27 due to space on the bus, so, once that filled up, that was it. I have people even today, at this late date, hoping there is some way they can make it on. I just tell them sorry, you know there's nothing we can do. You see, they register into this as a regular course and like you'd get a course booklet, they register in and once they're in, they're in. But, the problem is, everyone's fighting to get in.
We made a few exceptions. The Dean and I would talk about the students. They have to be in good standing at the University to go; no incompletes, no misconducts on campus. And so we screen a little bit in that type of way. There again, this year we've opened it up more. I've found it's good for freshmen and sophomores, not just graduating seniors, but younger people, because it will get them excited for the rest of their education when they get back. This is not ... this is simply a course. You can't run a whole university or college on programs like this. I mean this is a course which I think contributes to their education immensely. I firmly believe they can learn more in six or seven weeks in this course on the road then they do the rest of the time in university studying issues about the United States.
LAMB: What real evidence do you have of that?
BRINKLEY: I wish I could bring all the students here to tell you. They're the evidence and they'll tell anyone who asks them. And they are telling people. People have been interviewing them and without an exception the entire group will tell you that.
LAMB: It's hard to know where to start. If you've read the book as I have, there are all kinds of things I want to ask you about and we're going to run out of time before we get to them. But, let me just pick. These are at random.
LAMB: Graceland: Why Graceland?
BRINKLEY: Well, why Graceland? "Graceland, Graceland." (Singing). You gotta go to Graceland. It's the second most visited home in the United States, after the White House. Elvis Presley's not a joke. I personally am a great admirer of Elvis Presley. I think people that mock Elvis and make jokes don't understand Elvis Presley and know anything about him, his role. I wanted the students to try to deal with some of the issues Elvis raises. I mean Elvis Presley's a great figure to look at American social issues in the 50s, six 0s and 70s with. And, in the 1950s, Elvis was an unconscious revolutionary. I started a chapter with Elvis saying, "Aw, just do what you want to do." Elvis was able to not listen to what people told him and to play race records as people called them back then -- absorb black music, absorb blues, gospel music, Perry Como, country western, he sponged up all the American musical forms...
LAMB: Who's the other fellow in the picture?
BRINKLEY: That's one of our students. That's Tom Tolin. It's a funny shot. That's at Graceland with a portrait of Elvis and we were teasing him he looks like Elvis and the picture was evidence of that.
But, what I was trying to point out was that, Marcus in his book “Mystery Train,” for example, makes the point of how important Presley is. Because in the United States, what he said, Monday through Friday in the South is Calvinist workday, puritanical south of the 1950s, punching in the timeclock 9 to 5, Jimmy Rogers music, train music, workers music. Sunday was gospel music, the church, baptist culture where you are not supposed to drink alcohol. But, Saturday night people would go wild. That was the big party night -- drag racing down Main Street, going out on the bars and getting crazy. Elvis Presley told a whole generation of young people in America that rock and roll is not just a music, it's an attitude, a lifestyle. You can rock and roll on Tuesday, you can rock and roll on Wednesday, you can do what you want. You don't have to be tied to the constraints of what that culture and society holds for you.
And that explodes in the sixties with the music rebellion, the cultural rebellion, where it's really the kids of America of the sixties then, against their parents, which is generational. You know, like the Bob Dylan song, "Something is happening here, and you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?" You know, that was about the parents or the establishment. However, Elvis Presley in eastern Europe during the Cold War and American rock music, to play Elvis you'd get arrested by the police -- you know, the jazz police as they're called by the totalitarians. And so American pop music, and Elvis Presley is what those young people behind the Berlin Wall in Eastern Europe, that's what they wanted. They weren't interested in Richard Nixon and Voice of America and these sorts of things. They wanted rock and roll and Hollywood. It expanded later to MTV and videos and albums or the Beatles or something. All the Beatles are are Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley and American roots music, particularly jazz.
And so, if you start really looking at it, Elvis Presley becomes a much more significant and important figure, and I just wanted to make, I wanted to make that point here because he's still laughed at some. People don't quite take Elvis seriously as I think that they should. The other side, and then I'll end this, is they also got to see crass American commercialism: How you take a pure product like Elvis and how he gets exploited and used. Colonel Parker, who managed Elvis forever, and got 50 percent of all Elvis Presley box office -- if Elvis did an album, movie, etc. On the day Elvis Presley died somebody asked him, "What are you going to do now, Mr. Colonel Parker, now that Elvis Presley's dead?" He said, "Well, I'm going to keep on managing Elvis." And there's that side to American consumer culture that you can see at Graceland also.
LAMB: Who is this woman?
BRINKLEY: Which one? Oh, that's a truck driver that we met along the road, I tell a little story about her. The picture's included in there. Throughout the book I tell about the people. The big thing we found is the great generosity of the American people. We were invited into, you know, we were given free hotel rooms and people fed us and everybody loved the idea and we met all sorts of people, you know, of all walks of life, from real green, green environmentalists to right-wing cowboys and ranchers to factory workers to truck drivers to day clerks. I mean, we met and talked to people all over because the Majic Bus pulls into a town and people come out and look at it. We pull into a restaurant and dump into it. People catch our energy and our story.
We were picked up by the New York Times last year which ran a big story, picked up by the wire services, and we were on “Good Morning America” last year. They filmed us live at the Grand Canyon and all of the students, this whole class, we came into the studio when we got back and did “Good Morning America.” It created this energy wherever we went. People started recognizing the bus, recognizing what we were doing. They heard what we were doing and they started offering us free food, you know. The generosity of the American people was extraordinary.
LAMB: There's a picture here, and you can't really see the gentleman, but you write a lot about him. Why?
BRINKLEY: That gentleman is William S. Burroughs, who I mentioned before. He's, well, in many people's estimate, he's one of the really important American writers alive today. His book, the book he's most well-known for is, as I said before, “Naked Lunch.” Young people like Burroughs. Burroughs is what I was talking about with the "Yo" generation. In many ways in the fifties he was predicting a sort of virus such as AIDs. He was talking about, in a clockwork-orange style, gang violence in America and how violence is what rules America, and also about addiction -- how it's not just people that are junkies or addicts of dope but we're all junkies. You know, people who are workaholics are junkies. He called it the algebra of need.
LAMB: Where did you find him, by the way?
BRINKLEY: William Burroughs? Well, he's in Lawrence, Kansas now. He's written so many important books. He's the godfather of the really punk music and he's influenced people, even back in the sixties. The Rolling Stones just worship William Burroughs. U2, one of the big rock bands now, just paid homage to William Burroughs. He's one of the beat generation writers, along with Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. I like the students to understand Burroughs' vision of things because he's one of the great novelists and they love him. The thought that they're going to meet William Burroughs! Because he transcends literature. He's a pop icon and he's not somebody who's a hero, you know, he's not somebody to look up to and say I want to be like William Burroughs. He's a writer of an extreme power and perception on the darker sides of human character and it's something that a lot of the music today and the pop culture reflects.
LAMB: How did you line up these meetings like with William Burroughs? How far did you call ahead?
BRINKLEY: Well in Burroughs case -- as a great admirer of Jack Kerouac, that was some years ago in my college days, I went out to Ohio. I went out to Boulder, Colorado to the 25 anniversary of “On the Road.” I know some of the beat writers somewhat and I called a poet friend of mine, Jim McCrary and I said, "Hey, this is what we're doing and we want to come on out and meet William Burroughs." I had met him a couple of times. I'd heard him read and speak. McCrary worked it out and there it was. They said, "Great idea." Anybody we approached, once they heard about the idea of American Odyssey, said, "What a great idea, sure," even people that don't normally give interviews or don't like the press around. They love when a group like this is coming through Kansas. By all means, stop and visit William Burroughs.
LAMB: Did any other teacher call you and say, "I want to do the same thing?"
BRINKLEY: Oh, I've got hundreds of letters from teachers. A lot of high school teachers expressed a great interest. It's a great regret I've got that we can't take a bus program like this and expand it into our inner cities, into high school programs. I had some principals write me. I had high school teachers, grade school teachers, university professors, asking for my reading list, asking how they could set up a course like this, or just giving a general pat on the back, a congratulations. It was astonishing, the response that I got via the postal service.
LAMB: How much time? I think that one of the things that shocked me was how little time you had to write this book and get it out.
BRINKLEY: Cranked it out. I wrote it from ... began in August, started the writing in September and had it finished in January.
LAMB: Why did, is this Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich? Why did they get interested in this?
BRINKLEY: The New York Times ran the story, and it really was a very well done Times piece. It wasn't a little piece, it was about our departure last year. And I got my agent, my literary agent, as I said I wrote two biographies recently, she was contacted by publishers all over New York and out of all the publishers it was this one that expressed the most genuine interest to get the book out quickly and to go with it. And their enthusiasm. Enthusiasm means a lot to me and it's more important than anything. If the people want to do the book and do it right and I think they did a marvelous job at it, just the dust jacket and the "physicalness" of the book. It's an attractive book.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
BRINKLEY: I was born in Atlanta, Georgia and lived in Decatur, Georgia for a while. And then my father and mother moved to Perrysburg, Ohio, which is near Toledo. I went to Perrysburg high school, Ohio State University as an undergraduate and my masters and doctorate here at Georgetown in Washington.
LAMB: What do your parents do for a living?
BRINKLEY: Well, my mother was an English teacher at a high school in Perrysburg, Ohio for many years and she retired or stopped teaching because they moved to California. They lived in Laguna Niguel, California. And my father works with a health care company.
LAMB: Brothers or sisters?
BRINKLEY: I have one sister, Leslie Brinkley, who works for ABC news, as a reporter and in the Channel 7 ABC in San Francisco.
LAMB: Any relation to David Brinkley?
BRINKLEY: I'm asked that constantly and I hate to disappoint, but there's no relation at all.
LAMB: Any relation to Joel Brinkley at the New York Times?
BRINKLEY: No. Joel
BRINKLEY: no relation. Alan Brinkley I know somewhat and he's a historian, an American historian. He is the son of David Brinkley, Alan. So, that really confuses people because he wrote a wonderful book dealing with Huey Long and Father Coughlin some years back and people sometimes mistake me for him. But, there's no relation whatsoever.
LAMB: What kind of a student were you?
BRINKLEY: As an undergraduate, when I reflect back, I was not so good. I did okay. I pulled a 3.0. I read a lot. I read a lot on my own. If I liked Bob Dylan, I read biographies of Bob Dylan. And if I found out that Bob Dylan liked Lenny Bruce, I read a book on Lenny Bruce. Or, if I found out that Dylan liked Rimbaud or Baudelaire I'd start finding out about French symbolist poets. So I had interests and I'd follow those interests. I loved Woodie Guthrie and the IWW and the Labor Movement. So I read an awful lot as an undergraduate and I see now that that was important. And I got all "A's" in history and literature, but boy was I terrible at math and science.
LAMB: You say you're a liberal Democrat.
BRINKLEY: Yeah, well I'd say I'm a liberal Democrat. I'm a Clinton Democrat.
LAMB: What were your parents?
BRINKLEY: My parents are Reagan Republicans.
LAMB: Where did you decide that you wanted to think differently?
BRINKLEY: I don't know. That's an interesting question. I think when I went to college. I was influenced a lot the more I studied. You know, I intuitively admired people like Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez and Robert Kennedy, one of the people I dedicate this book to, even when I was in high school. Something about them, they really influenced me a great deal and my parents respect those people. I just tend not to like conservative politics in America in the recent years -- in the Reagan Bush years -- and my parents understood. I have never pulled a Republican lever in my life and I doubt I ever will. But I am a Democrat through and through.
LAMB: You and your parents still talk about this kind of thing? You talk about the differences?
BRINKLEY: Sure, we talk about it all the time. In fact, I learned a lot about politics from them. I mean, just because we do things differently, sometimes we agree on some issues. You know, I think, for example, on the environment. I'm a big, pro- environmental, I'd even call myself an environmental activist. My parents aren't that, but they are very concerned that we do something to preserve our parklands and to have sane environmental policy in the United States.
LAMB: On page 90, 69, you write, "I would refrain from imposing my political views on them," meaning the students, "and I would not try to make them adhere to overly strict regulations." How do you refrain? I mean, throughout this book, you are enthusiastic...
BRINKLEY: I tell them what I think and I'm honest with them. And I, we had a lot of Republican students on this thing, and we’d tease each other sometimes, and I would take it because there is nothing wrong with being a Republican. And I don't like professors who have views that they force on people. They're always trying to be politically correct. I'm sick of all the PC nonsense and always saying the right things. We all have passions. We all have interests. We all look at issues. The main thing is to engage and as long as they have reasons as to why they like, in this election year, George Bush, I'd say maybe even almost half the students were for George Bush, great, I'm all for it. Vote. As long as they get out there and vote and participate and understand that being a public servant's important, I'm not here to brainwash them to what I think.
I also let them know what I think too. You're too close not to and I'm not going to play coy games. Ultimately they know where you come down on issues and I let them know that. As for the strict regulations, I wanted them to have fun. I mean, I think it is healthy for young people to be a little wild. I don't want boring kids around. You know, when they're in Atlanta, go out and go crazy. I mean it's nighttime, you work hard, then you deserve to play hard. But, if you don't work hard then you can't play hard. And that was the way that we dealt with it. I mean, they may never be in New Orleans again, in the French Quarter, and I'm not here to say, "OK, you're going to spend your night in the French Quarter doing this ..." They should go out in the French Quarter and get absolutely crazy and dance in the streets 'til the sun rises. And that's what they did. And by God, they should do it.
LAMB: You change your mind on Billy the Kid.
BRINKLEY: I did change my mind.
LAMB: Who was he, first of all?
BRINKLEY: Well, Billy the Kid is someone I've followed for a long time and still he means a great deal to me. It's harder to explain exactly why in some ways, but I try to in the book. Billy the Kid is buried in New Mexico and when I was young I used to follow Billy the Kid a lot. I once went to Billy the Kid's grave and I tell about this in this sort of anecdote in the book. And I talked about Billy the Kid with the students, but I'd been thinking a lot about violence in America. I had sort of worshipped Billy the Kid, collected Billy the Kid objects and I started trying to deal with the fact that he's in American folklore, an American folk hero, that he's really a cold-blooded murderer. There's a Billy the Kid society that if they see this they're not going to like me saying this about him, but ultimately he was, he was a thug. He was defiant and he was a rebel and that's what I liked about him growing up. That's what everybody likes about Billy the Kid. There've been 50 some movies done on Billy the Kid. But when you get down to it, when you start thinking about the violence in America today, and connect it to Billy the Kid...
I wrote a little bit of an essay, I hope a heartfelt essay, on that and the fact that there's connections here between violence on television and in the movies, and the John Wayne's, and the "shoot anything that moves" and the "guns and God made America great" type of mentality. I think the National Rifle Association's views are just insane and in my view are wrong on just about every issue they weigh their lobby group in on. And, with that said, I don't want to come in here and say Billy the Kid doesn't mean much to me, 'cause he still does. I got rid of a medal in this book, a medallion I used to have with a picture of Billy the Kid on one side and Saint Christopher on the other, but I still keep my Billy the Kid postcard.
LAMB: How did you keep track of all this trip yourself? In other words, how were you able to write this book?
BRINKLEY: First off, I have a good memory for things, and secondly, I took notes. The memory, the notes, I had the advantage of student journals and I also had the advantage of student memories. I was able to call them up constantly and ask them questions, triple check things. But also, the book, as I've said, it's not just the journey. It would be be misleading to think this is just about us going across America. When I'd say we went to Graceland, and I do a little in the book, there's pages on Elvis Presley. When we visit Theodore Roosevelt's, in the western town of Medura, I write an essay on Theodore Roosevelt. I write an essay on Bigfoot in the book. I deal with Paul Bunyon in an essay. So, it's a lot about America and who we are in 1992. And that's what I tried to, that's really what the book's all about.
I used our trip as a vehicle to tell my views about the country and what I think's happening. And the good news is I see America, with all of our problems, being very very strong and I don't see America in decline because American morals are not in decline. And we have some serious problems, but if we attack them, we can fix them and we can solve them. So, this is an affirmative book about the country recognizing the real problems that we have.
LAMB: I just remember you saying you woke up and you realized you had driven past the Eisenhower library, or Eisenhower's hometown, Abilene, Kansas, I guess. what happened in that? That's one you missed.
BRINKLEY: Accidentally. I mean of course, you're on the road and living in this sort of ... We treated this trip like we were a bunch rock and roll gypsies, or we were more like truck drivers going across the country. And we missed some. I mentioned I admire President Eisenhower both for his service during World War II and as President, and to visit him in Abilene, to go to the Eisenhower library was something I wanted to do. But I fell asleep that evening and the driver drove past it. We did visit the Carter library, presidential library, and the Truman library in Independence, Lincoln's Springfield, all the sites in Illinois, and also, as I said, Theodore Roosevelt in North Dakota. That was our focus, on those presidents.
LAMB: Tom Jefferson?
BRINKLEY: And, oh, Thomas Jefferson also, We visited his home in Virginia and we also went to the Gateway Arch, the Jefferson Expansion museum, also.
LAMB: When did you find students getting the most excited? Can you remember them exploding over this and this?
BRINKLEY: There was one time that was incredible. I'll never forget it. And that was when we went to visit Ken Kesey, the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,” and “Sometimes Great Notion” and a brilliant new book called “Sailor's Song.”
Kesey took us out in Pleasant Hill, Oregon to his farm where he lives with his family. And there he has the psychedelic bus which Tom Wolfe wrote about in the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. And he fed us hot dogs and baked beans and chips and pickles and then we put on day glo jumpsuits and we loaded up the double psychedelic bus, the psychedelic bus Further. Many of us were up top and we were hooked up. Kesey drove the bus and he drove all over the Oregon countryside talking to us about sites in Oregon and we picked up Ken Babs and some of the Merry Pranksters from the sixties who live in Oregon. We went over to Babs' house and it was just a day of pure Kesey magic.
And the students ... you're riding on top of this crazy psychedelic bus, blasting out, you know Bob Marley and Neil Young, and listening to music and feeling there was a little bit of mist in the air in the Oregon countryside, you know the forested lands around there. What a time, what a time. And then we came back and Kesey showed us videos and did magic tricks and talked about writing his novels and literature and how much he was influenced by a writers like Sherwood Anderson and Nelson Algren. Just a delightful man, Ken Kesey, a brilliant novelist. And it was a time we all just were feeling tremendous.
LAMB: There's a picture here of someone you saw down in Atlanta, I believe. Who is that?
BRINKLEY: Well, one of the things we loved is all across America, in the cities we were in, there are street entertainers and they'd come looking for a handout, you know, a dollar or so, or more than that. And this is somebody outside of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, which is Martin Luther King's church in Atlanta, who sang beautiful gospel songs to us, including the great song by the impressions, Curtis Mayfield, you know, "People Get Ready" which is a great line: "people get ready there's a train a comin', Don't need no ticket, you just get on board." And then he ended by singing the song "Abraham, Martin and John" which is the song that was very popular in the sixties – I think Dion did it – which was a tribute to the three slain civil rights leaders: President John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. That's one example, but I also write about the folk, you know, here you are in the middle of a western town in Montana and there's a guy there singing "Home on the Range" on guitar.
The music of America is so wonderful: our folk music and pop music and motown and jazz and blues and bluegrass and rock and roll and rockabilly–you can go on and on–and punk and grunge and rap. We love it all and it's America and it's great American art and it's important and it just lifts the spirits up. American music. And we celebrated all of these musical forms along our journey.
LAMB: All right. Now you get the impression when you read your book that music is playing all the time.
BRINKLEY: We played, all the time.
LAMB: Is playing throughout the entire bus all the time?
BRINKLEY: It depends and it isn't really all the time, but it's a key. It's really a key because music sets the mood. It sets the tone. And I played an awful lot, but sometimes we'd get tired of it, and of course at night we'd sleep and there'd be no music on.
LAMB: How did Frank, the driver, drive? It sounds like he's always driving. Did he drive all through the night?
BRINKLEY: Yeah, he'd drive all through the night while we'd sleep. So we'd be sleeping on the bunk beds. We'd be crashed out. In my case I slept on the floor in a sleeping bag. And he would drive through the night. And then when we would go, let's say we'd arrive in Santa Barbara and we're camping out, he would sleep the day away, part of the day away while we would be sightseeing or swimming, or doing things or having lectures or meeting people. And so he was the night rider, the midnight rider. I'd call him sometimes Midnight Frank Perugi. He just loves driving. Well, he was a former truck driver and likes driving the highways at night.
LAMB: You start the whole book with a whole chapter devoted to Frank Perugi. How come?
BRINKLEY: He was a great counterbalance, you know. Frank is someone who did not go to college and has worked hard. His dream has been his Majic Bus. He worked day and night, double shifts, to save enough money after he sort of had a spiritual revelation about America on a greyhound bus when he was a young man. And his father, I mean his mother and his two brothers, had been killed in auto accidents. And, Frank, to escape his mother's death, went out to the Mojave Desert and sort of found himself. And decided he wanted to, in a sort of Christian spirit, wanted to do something to help people. And he decided he wanted to show people this great country. And he's worked so hard for what happened -- what culminated in this book -- to get this bus and to get it rebuilt and then make it this type of bus and then to connect with someone like myself and to bring students to show them America . It's a wonderful story and Frank's throughout the bus, because the driver is key.
Ken Kesey knew that when he took his prankster bus and he had the driver Neil Cassidy who's Dean Moriarty, the hero of On the Road. There's a lineage to this book from Walt Whitman's “Open Road” to the Kerouac history, to Kesey history into this Majic Bus history. It's conscious because it's a strain about celebrating highways and the open road and that's what this book does.
LAMB: There's got to be somebody listening out there who says I want to do that, not necessarily a student, and I want to do it for students. What do you warn them that they're going to run into that you didn't expect?
BRINKLEY: Having a lot more fun than they even began to anticipate. I mean, I'm being serious about that. It's a lot of work and you're on the job 24 hours a day and ultimately, if something happens to one of the students you're responsible.
LAMB: Did anything happen to any of your students?
BRINKLEY: No. I mean a sprained ankle here, bloody nose there, cactus, you know, bee sting, you know pricked by a cactus or stung by a bee, nothing serious.
LAMB: All right, nothing else goes wrong,
BRINKLEY: Broken down buses, off days...
LAMB: Did you have a bus break down?
BRINKLEY: Bus broke down when we blew a flat tire. We detoured down a dirt road in Kansas to see a place called Monument Rocks and we hit some flint rock and we popped a tire you know, the middle of nowhere, and had to find a big bus tire, and we did not have a spare...
LAMB: Did you run out of money?
BRINKLEY: Students ran out of money. One of the students lost his money in Las Vegas gambling and we had to front him money because he spent what he had allotted himself for the whole time and that was a bad sign.
LAMB: Did anyone get homesick?
BRINKLEY: The love calls home and missing Mom and Dad and missing boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, but not homesick with a capital "H", but a small "h". Missing loved ones, but I would say almost all of us would have loved to continue. We felt it was ending too soon.
LAMB: You do have a father though who you thought was in trouble. He later died. How did you stay in contact as you moved around?
BRINKLEY: Pay phones. One of the things is, these are adults. They might be young people, but when somebody's, you know, to me, 21 years old, they're an adult. And they have to call home. They call their parents. Their parents got our itinerary and they knew where to reach us, and that was it. I mean people would make their own phone calls. I wasn't responsible for calls home. They'd have to pay for them themselves and do them themselves.
LAMB: Is this going anywhere else, you going to franchise this whole idea, make a movie out of all this? You going to write another book on your whole trip to Alaska?
BRINKLEY: No, I don't plan on any of the above right now. I am taking detailed notes of my journey to Alaska. I'm thinking about doing a book of essays that talk about America in the spirit of this book, but not following our route, doing things. For example this year when we're in Seattle on our way to Alaska. I want to go to Bruce Lee's grave, who was a great Asian-American and a hero from the movies
LAMB: Are you driving to Alaska, by the way?
BRINKLEY: We're driving. Well, from Seattle we're going up Vancouver, then we're getting on a ferry boat which gets us to Scagway, and we're driving up to Alaska and we're driving back all the way through Canada, you know, the Yukon, down to Edmonton, hitting back with the states in North Dakota.
LAMB: Was there a doubt, I hate to keep cutting you off, but you've only got a few seconds left, and I want to get it all in. Is there a Doug Brinkley in your life?
BRINKLEY: Is there a Doug Brinkley in ...
LAMB: Was there a Doug Brinkley in your life? Was there that teacher back there in high school or college that you could?
BRINKLEY: Well, to a degree, yes, a fellow named Warren Van Tyne who was a labor historian at Ohio State University who sometimes would take us out of the classroom and say, "You don't have to sit between four walls to learn." You know, and we'd sometimes meet outside on the quad or at a pub and that left a memory with me.
LAMB: How long can you keep this up? You're 33?
LAMB: How long can you keep it up, how many years? Do you think you can do this every year?
BRINKLEY: Well, I don't know, I'm taking it one year at a time and we're so soon leaving and there are so many details to work out before this trip. This is the hardest part, getting ready to go. You wonder why you're doing it again sometimes, because of the workload. I'm taking a lot on. I know for sure when I come back, or more than likely when I'm back in May, I'll wish that I'll be ready to do it another time.
LAMB: We could talk about this for a little longer I think, but we are out of time.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1993. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.