Electric Kool-Aid

A Tale of Vegas in the '70s

by Brumby McGehee

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Every spring, after the lifts close in Aspen (Colorado) and Sun Valley (Idaho), a large number of the "locals" head out to mostly warm climates for their own off season vacations. During the years I lived in Vegas, many of my friends would come through on their way to Lake Havasu or their favorite place south of the border.

One April I got a call from Rusty and Lee Ann who had been my guests for a night on other spring or fall trips through Vegas. They were heading south from Ketchum/Sun Valley but as they approached Vegas their VW bus was running badly. Rusty and I had worked and skied together at Tahoe and been friends for years. During my only winter in Sun Valley while I lived in a cabin at Warm Springs I had often enjoyed an evening at their house in Ketchum, which is actually the town that is just a bridge over the Wood River from the ski lifts, River Run and the bottom of Bald Mountain.

This was the early '70s and most of us were experienced with the variety of the psychedelics available. That winter I never knew a time that Rusty didn't have a jug of "electric Kool-Aid" in his refrigerator. All their friends knew not to drink the Kool-Aid unless they wanted to take a very colorful trip. One eight-ounce glass was all it took.

I was delighted to have them visit while their bus was being worked on. I had to work swing shift at the casino that night and Rusty and Lee Ann just rested up from the drive. The next morning we left the bus at the VW dealers. A floorman (pit boss) from work who was a good snow skiing friend of mine kept a ski boat at Lake Mead. We invited a couple of cocktail waitresses and six of us went out to spend the day playing on the lake. It was quite a contrast for Rusty and Lee Ann coming from deep snow two days before. We returned after a great day sunburned, tired and happy.

Later that afternoon Rusty, Lee Ann and I walked up to the service window and as Rusty gave his name and I thought I detected a concerned expression such as you might have if you were looking at a terrible wreck or an injured animal. The cashier called for the service manager over the public address system. We were walking around toward the service bays as the manager approached Rusty. He was wearing Volkswagen blue-gray coveralls over his coat and tie. "Andy" and, underneath, "Service Manager" were sown into his coveralls. From his furrowed brow and his hands held widely palms up in the manner of someone seeking mercy or confessing — a mea culpa! He was obviously very distressed. His facial expression was somewhere between that of a man facing a firing squad and a funeral director consoling the bereaved. The man was at a loss for any way to explain a situation he had never dealt with before. Nothing in Volkswagen's training covered anything like this.

The manager tried to emphasize two of his best men had been working on the bus. Something had happened to the two reliable mechanics and one had left work saying he had to go watch the lights on a bank of slot machines at the Stardust until the lights came on along the strip. The other mechanic, whose coveralls name tag said "Ralph", was sitting on the floor in the middle of a few hundred engine parts with his ankles crossed and using the oil pan between his thighs as a drum. He was keeping time with a Grateful Dead album playing on the cassette. Drivin' that train, high on cocaine / Casey Jones you'd better watch your speed. It was a hot April afternoon in Vegas. It seems Rusty had left a bottle of electric Kool-Aid in the bus refrigerator...

From the look on his face, Ralph was experiencing something like a heavenly rapture. Using wrenches as drumsticks he often reached out to his right or left for a ding here and a bong there while maintaining a rat-a-tat-tat on the oil pan in perfect time with the cassette turned up to full volume. Trouble ahead, trouble behind / and you know that notion / just crossed my mind. With a ding and a bong, the Dead crooned on!

Rusty had an extra day in Vegas and since I was off we went to see Elvis in the showroom of the Hilton Casino where I dealt craps. Before noon the next day a very apologetic service manager had Rusty's bus reassembled, washed, polished and looking better than I remember ever having seen it. Considering the delay and inconvenience there were no charges. We were back at my place before Rusty looked in the refrigerator and, sure enough, it appeared someone had pilfered at least a pint of electric Kool-Aid.

Rusty and Lee Ann had a great start to their off-season break and with an adios they were gone to some place south of Nogales in their perfectly tuned and sparkling clean maroon and gray VW bus.

That afternoon a couple of Sheriff Ralph Lamb's plainclothes detectives dropped by my house making inquiries about my recent guests. They knew Rusty was driving a maroon and gray VW bus and they had the Idaho license numbers. The detectives tried to be friendly and non-confrontational. They asked a few questions and were about to leave when, feigning indifference, as though they almost forgot they asked, "Where were your friends headed?" Of course I was happy to help out by telling the detectives they had gone north to Utah to see friends at the Alta and Park City ski areas around Salt Lake before returning to Idaho. I smiled at the thought of a bunch of Latter-Day Saints lawmen eagerly patrolling Interstate 15 while the godless miscreants were enjoying a colorful trip through Old Mexico.