The name Al Hinkle should be familiar to most readers of Beatdom, and if it isn’t then they’ll most likely know him by one of the names Jack Kerouac gave him in his novels: Big Ed Dunkel, Slim Buckle, or Ed Buckle. Hinkle and his wife, Helen were good friends of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady, and feature frequently as characters in a number of Beat Generation texts, including many of Kerouac’s, and also John Clellon Holmes’ Go.
Hinkle is known as the “Last Man Standing”, a reference to his position as the only male character from On the Road who remains alive today. In that novel he was Ed Dunkel, and his wife, Helen, was Galatea. In the original scroll, Hinkle is one of the people to whom Kerouac refers as “they” in his most famous quote, which begins, “they danced down the street like dingledodies…” He was one of the people who Kerouac followed, who inspired Kerouac, who taught Kerouac, and therefore a primary influences on the creation of one of the most significant pieces of mid-twentieth century American literature.
The Hinkles remained friends with Kerouac and Cassady until their short lives ended in the late sixties. Today, Al Hinkle maintains a website (www.alhinkle.com) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Big.Ed.Dunkel), and speaks at events to help maintain the flow of information about the stories behind Kerouac’s classic novel.
He was kind enough to speak to Beatdom about his life, and also the forthcoming On the Road movie, with the assistance of his webmaster and biographer, Teri Davis.
How did you first meet Neal Cassady?
I first met Neal in 1939, when we were both 12. It was summertime, and I wanted to join the Denver YMCA. I didn’t have the money, but since hardly anyone did, they were pretty loose about membership. Both Neal and I spent a lot of time there, and we became good friends.
Neal and his father lived on Skid Row. Neal Sr. was an alcoholic, and spent a lot of time in the Denver jail as a trusty. The jailers would get his barber tools out of hock so he could give them, and the cons, free haircuts. Between Neal’s situation and my lousy home life, it was no wonder that we both wanted to be away from it as much as possible.
The Denver Y had a program come in called “Gym Circuses” that trained people to do circus acts. They chose Neal and me to participate, so we spent about 6 weeks practicing and tumbling. At age 12, I was almost 6 foot tall (I eventually ended up 6 foot 6), so I was the bottom man in the pyramids and the high wire act, and I was the catcher in the flying trapeze act. Neal was the flier; he would swing on the trapeze and do a somersault, and I would catch him. There was a net, but we hardly ever had to use it.
Life intruded after that summer, and we didn’t see each other again until a mutual friend reintroduced us when we were 19. Because of our shared experience, my little inside joke with Neal was that after all these years, I was still trying to keep him from falling!
An interesting side note: Recently Teri Davis, the woman helping me write my biography, was doing research on the Internet. She found a website – www.aerialartsfestdenver.com, which talked about the Denver Y’s trapeze and how it got there. Teri left a message on their site asking for more information and received this reply from Lynn Coleman, the founder of Aerial Fabric Acrobatics:
“My father was one of the trapeze flyers at the [Denver] YMCA when he was in college in the 1940’s. Our family learned circus skills and performed on the road as a result…
One reason that Kerouac came to Denver is that my Great Uncle Haldon Chase was from Denver. He is one of the characters in On the Road. He no longer is living…”
Isn’t that something? I never knew that our friend Hal Chase’s family got involved in those gym circuses too, and ended up becoming professionals. Small world, huh?
Tell us about Luanne Henderson.
Luanne! I fell in love with her the first time I met her. She was a beautiful, blonde 16 year old, outgoing and confident. She wasn’t forward with men, but she wasn’t shy, either. Luanne wasn’t a “quirky” girl; she was very down to earth and got along with everyone.
Neal had such complicated relationships. I remember us pulling in to the drive-in diner and being introduced to Neal’s beautiful little wife when she came out to take our order, then going to Pederson’s pool hall and meeting Jeanie, Neal’s girlfriend. It kinda shocked me.
I know Luanne was in love with Neal all her life. I could see that, even at 16, she felt that she was a married woman, not a child. She was the one that found the way to make all of Neal’s crazy plans work – she worked for money (or stole it), found rides, made sure she took care of her man. Even after he divorced her to marry Carolyn, Luanne made herself available to Neal whenever he asked, and I think she always felt that she was still his wife, even though they both remarried. When BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) first opened in the 70’s, I would take a ride from San Francisco to the last stop on the line – Daly City, and I would walk up this enormous hill to Luanne’s house and visit with her every week. I always had good feelings about her – she had earned her place in our gang and was fun to be with. I know she had gotten into heavy drug use later, in her 40’s, but she went to rehab in Colorado and came back to California clean and sober.
How did you first meet Jack Kerouac? What were your first impressions of him?
Jack was a friend of Neal’s, and one of the reasons for the “OTR” cross-country trip we took was to pick up Jack in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. That was not the first time I met him, though. Jack had come to Denver a couple of years before that – in 1946. That was right about the time that my father, his wife and my grandparents took a two-week vacation to California, and we partied hard in their house while they were gone. We didn’t have permission, of course!
When my father returned, he found out about us using the house. He’d done a little investigating and he’d talked to several people, and some of those girls we’d been partying with at his place were underage. I was in deep shit as far as he was concerned. He decided to get me out of town. He said, “You are not going to stay here in Denver and maybe get sent to jail. You’re going to go to California and get a job on the railroad with your uncle.”
Obviously, there was a lot going on with me at that time, and I really didn’t have a chance to talk to Jack very much.
After we picked him up in Rocky Mount, I finally got the opportunity to know Jack a little better. I thought he was a true intellectual. He had a great shyness and a quiet intensity about him, and I felt that primarily he observed and internally recorded everything he experienced, filtering all through his own unique lens. I felt that his friends were all intellectuals as well and, having dropped out of school in the 10th grade, that gave me the impetus to further my own education. We became lifelong friends, and I sure miss him.
How did you and Helen feel about her stay with the Burroughs family in New Orleans, 1949?
I think I’ve mentioned before that the Burroughses weren’t all too happy to have had Helen ‘dumped’ on them. As a matter of fact, when Helen first got there, Bill wasn’t happy and began writing letters to Allen (Ginsberg) in New York telling him to tell me to come and get her out of his house, it’s not a hotel! When we finally got to their house, which was actually in Algiers, LA (across the Mississippi River from New Orleans), Bill and Joan welcomed us. Helen had made herself indispensible in the three weeks she had been there, caring for both the Burroughs children (Joan’s three year old daughter Julie and William Jr., who was an infant at that time); she bathed them, fed them, and generally kept them out of their parents’ way. Bill and Joan actually asked Helen and I if we would stay with them – he had a room all ready to fix up for us! But Helen wanted out – she couldn’t believe how they lived, how little care they took of their children; never mind the house, which was dirty, with lizards running around everywhere.
Helen was appalled by Joan’s use of the Benzedrine inhalers – she would open them up and swallow the cotton. Joan would send Helen to buy an inhaler almost every day. Once Helen mentioned to Joan that the pharmacist told her he would happily sell her ten inhalers at a time because he knew she was not the type to abuse them, to which Joan replied, “So, where are they?” And Helen never figured out that Bill was using heroin – she just thought he was stoned on marijuana all the time (which he was, on top of the heroin). It was all just a little too crazy for Helen, and she was glad when we turned down their offer of a room and found ourselves a room in New Orleans, where we stayed for about six weeks. It was a low-budget adventure, but we did get our honeymoon and we enjoyed it immensely.
Those three weeks you spent in New York with Kerouac, Ginsberg, and others: How accurately were they depicted in On the Road and Go?
I would have to say that John’s account in GO! is probably the more accurate. Jack spent some of the time with us, but he also spent days at a time at his mother’s house in Queens, where he’d do all his heavy writing. Neal, Luanne and I went out every day and partied almost every night, and John was with us pretty much all of the time. We also spent a lot of time at John’s house, though we had to leave by 10PM because his wife, Maryanne, worked and needed to go to bed.
You know, Maryanne had worked and supported both of them while John went to college. She put up with a lot – John was out every night, or had people in the house all the time, partying and smoking marijuana – and I never saw her upset or complaining. But, once John got his $5,000 advance for GO!, Maryanne told him, “You have money now, you can stand on your own. I’m leaving.” And she filed for divorce. I guess all that partying got to her after all! Maryanne was the love of John’s life – he never remarried.
How did you feel when you first read On the Road?
My favorite book of Jack’s is On the Road. It was such a wonderful surprise to read! After reading The Town and the City, which was classic American literature, I read On the Road expecting more of the same, and instead it totally blew my mind. It was amazingly different, like nothing I had ever read before. It was brilliant.
Jack had just moved to Berkeley when On the Road came out in 1955. Neal, Luanne and I drove over to see him, and he had just received some advance copies of the book. He tried to hide them from us, but Neal grabbed a copy and started reading parts of the book aloud, whooping and jumping around with excitement. It was very exciting to read about our adventures, something written by our friend, something tangible that you could hold in your hand.
Jack was worried that we would be mad at his depictions of us, but we loved it. He was very relieved because, as he told us, “I have seven more books ready to go!”
In On the Road, Kerouac wrote, “and Al Hinkle would outlive us all telling stories to youngsters in front of the Silver Dollar.” How has your life played out since then?
I think that I have had an enjoyable life. I had a job that I loved, riding the rails; I would have done it for free. I achieved my goals, and despite being a high-school dropout, I graduated from San Francisco State with a Bachelor of Arts, and from Stanford with a Masters. I spent time as an Executive, and I worked for the Union as President of the San Francisco Region. I traveled to many places around this great world of ours, and I had 46 wonderful years with the love of my life…
I think the most important thing I’d like to let people know is that I’ve lived a grand and interesting life, full of good adventures, good times, good luck and wonderful people. I love having lived my life with liberty and freedom. I guess Jack was right; here I am today, 85 years old, the “last man standing” as they call me, only with my own Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Big.Ed.Dunkel) instead of a bench outside the Silver Dollar, telling my tales to a whole new generation of “youngsters” from all around the world who understand and respect what the Beats stood for. I am honored to be a part of it all.
What are your thoughts on the upcoming movie version of On the Road?
I think they stayed pretty true to the book and the message. I got to meet some of the young actors in San Francisco when they were shooting there, and later got to know them better at a party thrown for the cast. I fell in love with all of them! It was so satisfying to see how all of these young people took the story, which was written over half a century ago, to heart and showed it so much respect. They were all dedicated to doing the movie right. I just saw the trailer, and I’m really looking forward to the movie; I really think it’s got a shot at the Academy Award!
This interview originally appeared in Beatdom #11.