Woodstock Memories, Belated Thanks

My recollection of Woodstock has the clarity of a sepia-tone photo exposed too long to light; dull, faded foreground washed out and bleeding into the background, key details obscured. It’s akin to piecing together a dream. You remember what woke you and little else. After all, I was only a boy, just turned 16, on a lark; no eye for architecture or interiors, foggy recall even of the musical perfomances. I guess I most remember the downpours, the crowd and a few personal peaks, anthills on a mountain.

It was mid-August 1969 in Bethel, N.Y., a hole-in-the wall hamlet south of the Catskills that could easily have been somewhere in the Appalachians or Arkansas. There, on Max Yasgur’s Farm, an iconic, “Summer of Love” music festival attracted up to a half-million flower children who rocked the nation and put a bold exclamation point on the Sixties. That I remember well, not every little detail.

The first image that always appears when I think back to “being there” is my arrival at what should have been the festival’s entryway on the other side of a town center you could have missed by blinking. I recall a bar, maybe a package store, probably a gas station and five or six small modern homes, no more, maybe less. I was walking toward the concert in a swollen current of humanity that pulled me to a gate trampled flat with the attached, eight-foot, chain-link fence erected along the festival’s perimeter. It was obviously a free concert at that point, not a soul around to take a ticket if you had one. I did. Eighteen bucks, as I recall.

Standing side by side, perhaps 20 feet from those flattened symbols of law and order, along the edge of a road, I think dirt, were two New York State Troopers wearing Smokey Bear hats, arms folded across their chests, handguns holstered on their hips. They were big men, well over six feet, and they wore a timid expression unlike any I had ever witnessed on uniformed lawmen. The smell of pot and youthful bliss was overwhelming in the hot, muggy air as the throng milled aimlessly about like people at a country fair; festive, happy, totally free and uninhibited; a yell here, a hug there, no one directing traffic or ordering people about. Positioned right there within conversation spray of the cops was a thin, pony-tailed kid wearing shorts, sandals, an untucked T-shirt and the type of straw hat you’d see at a political rally. I think they call them white skimmers. Well, on this day, at this historic event, in front of those neutered cops, what would have been a red, white and blue band reading NIXON ’68 at the Republican Convention was replaced by a crude cotton strip with “LSD $1” written in red Magic Marker, front and back, bold and brazen, cops ignoring it and the buyers. I knew then that law had been suspended, Woodstock Nation ruled, the cops just along for a rain-drenched, three-day ride that could have turned ugly had Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller sent in the National Guard as threatened on TV and radio. Some called it anarchy, others nirvana. Count me among the latter. It’s too bad cities and societies can’t be as harmonious and peaceful as the mob at that mud-splattered concert, one that changed me and the way I view the world forever; truly a difference-maker for an impressionable, rebellious, 16-year-old caught up in the movement, well aware of Vietnam protests, Chicago Seven, Eldridge Cleaver, assassinations.

My arrival at that “gate” to a kinder place is just one of the indelible images rooted deep in my memory. Another recurring scene is the one that unfolded well before Bethel while traveling the Interstate that had been closed because of the unexpected large turnout numbering in the hundreds of thousands. My Aunt Ricky, a nurse, had a dashboard medical pass that got us through the state-police roadblocks, helicopters whirling above, abandoned vehicles parked both sides of the road, three- and four-deep on the median strip. A young, tie-dyed army was marching peacefully to the festival, determined not to be deterred by authority. Some carried infants, other supplies in their backpacks, probably 10 or more miles to trudge. How could I ever forget that sight or the adrenaline rush that came with anticipation that I was about to experience something exciting and unique, surreal and historic?

We drove along slowly with that streaming pilgrimage all the way to Bethel, through a slim patch of woods, past a muddy swimming hole, and into the center of town, where my Uncle Ralph dropped us off; me, Cousin Cindy and two of her girlfriends, all a year older than me. We unloaded our supplies, lugged them past the cops and hallucinogen hawkers, and headed for Yasgur’s Farm.

It was Saturday morning and we couldn’t get closer than what seemed like a mile from stage. The crowd was immense, unlike anything I had ever experienced anywhere, even at the New York World’s Fair. We finally found a tight opening to squeeze into, laid down our blankets and coolers, and sat in awe of the spectacle. People were everywhere, music at the faraway base of the hill, rust-colored mud underfoot, strong smell of pot, cigarettes, urine and body odor spicing the wet air. Everyone seemed friendly, willing to share and chat, while others danced in another orbit, spaced out of their gourds. Yes, quite a sight for teenage eyes. I’ve seen it described as a 15- to 25-year-old crowd. I guess I was on the low end.

When the first hard rain soaked us, I became adventurous and walked to the bar in town, quite a novelty for a soon-to-be high school junior. Little did I know that would be the final time I saw my female companions. It was impossible to find them in the sea of humanity on that crowded hillside overlooking the music. I was on my own, sweet 16, traipsing with the flow, back and forth to town, to the bar, down to the swimming hole. I actually slept by that swollen pond the first night with someone kind enough to share a makeshift tent draped over a sturdy pine bough. What an adventure; wet and wild, lightning bolts dancing through black sky. I’m still proud that I held my own against more worldly guys five and 10 years older. Somehow I figured it out, found shelter from the storm; just a kid, certainly no milquetoast, hardly innocent.

I bumped into one person I recognized during my travels. His name was Robert Ferriter. He was from Conway. We passed near the flattened fence, I headed in, he out to town. Ferriter was a couple years ahead of me at Frontier. We greeted each other, shook hands, spoke for a moment about the multitude and continued in opposite directions. What a coincidence. All those people swarming around, and I found someone I knew. A miracle. You had to be there to understand.

I remember a shortage of food and drink, a serious shortage at that; way too many people to feed with the Interstate closed. Back then a six pack of Genesee Lager cost 95 cents. Not at Woodstock. Refrigerator trucks from a local distributor would pull into town throughout the day and the drivers would open the back doors and sell beer for 2 bucks a six, $8 a case; highway robbery, cash, going like hotcakes. Looking down the road from the trucks to the bar, homeowners across from the bar were selling water from outdoor spigots for 10 cents a Dixie Cup, a dollar a canteen. The lines were long; Main Street cashing in; the American way. I wonder how much those people raked in that weekend? Probably paid their mortgages.

On my first tavern stool, I ordered whiskey and ginger, kid’s stuff, and paid with a $20 bill, half a week’s pay on a tobacco farm back then. When the barmaid gave me change for a 10, I objected but she wouldn’t budge. Luckily, three dirty, denim-clad Hells Angels from New Jersey were sitting to my right. The one bumping elbows with me — bearded with long, scraggly black hair — told her it was a 20. He saw it. She didn’t argue, just went to the till, sprung the money drawer, pulled out a sawbuck and placed it on the bar in front of me; frontier justice. I offered to buy him a drink. He thanked me but declined. Since that day I have always had a soft spot for biker dudes. The guy didn’t know me from Adam but stuck up for me; had a conscience.

My first priority from the minute I arrived at Woodstock had been to see Jimi Hendrix perform, but his gig kept getting delayed. Little did I know my aunt was treating him for an overdose, heroin, I think; she working Dr. William “Rock Doc” Abruzzi’s triage tent, a busy place that weekend. Stubbornly determined to see Hendrix, I stuck around and caught the buzz circulating about him. It seemed everyone was waiting for Jimi, the Stratocaster master, and rumors were flying like gnats. Some even claimed he was dead. He wasn’t, finally appearing late, I think the final act. It was predawn Monday and the crowd had thinned, enabling close access to the stage. I wasn’t within spitting distance but not more than 100 yards away, either. It was pretty ripe down there. Fetid runoff had settled at the base of the hill behind the stage every time it rained, and the stench was awful; human and unhealthy. I heard Jimi play his defiant Star Spangled Banner and split. He was OK, not great; very disappointing. He’d had a tough night. Me, too. But I had to start thinking about getting home. I was pushing it, defiantly tardy.

When my Uncle had dropped us off, he said he’d pick us up at the same spot on Sunday at 10 a.m. I didn’t make it. Nope, nearly a day late. As I approached the designated spot around breakfast time, there he was standing by his car, searching, people passing on both sides. He had already taken the girls home and returned for me. When he spotted me, he yelled my name and warmly smiled. I was surprised. I expected rage. He was more understanding than I could have ever imagined, even seemed happy. But I still dreaded the trip home; figured it would be tense; silent and unpleasant. I was wrong. He was genuinely interested; wanted the whole rundown. Did I have a good time? Where had I been? Why hadn’t I gone to the medical tent to find my aunt? Did I remember the pick-up time? How could I stand the rainstorms, the lightning? Had I eaten anything? He was glad to see me, feared me lost. Truth is I was, in my own way. But we didn’t go there. Forbidden fruit.

A generation later, I remember sitting at my uncle’s funeral. It was at the Congregational Church in Charlemont. I was with my parents, maybe a sibling or two. During the service, my uncle’s friends — fellow teachers and coaches, skiing buddies — stood one by one to say a few words, pay tribute. I sat listening, restless to stand and tell my Woodstock tale; how I showed up a day late and he was there, seemingly unperturbed, amiable for the ride home. But I never rose from that hard wooden pew, never said a peep. There had always been family friction, none of it my doing, and honestly, I’ve never understood it, probably never will, but it silenced me; bad vibes in stifling holy air.

I do wish I had sung his praise, paid my respects. It still eats at me. I think I owed it to him. He deserved it. I resent the petty family dynamics that precluded it. Wrong, no matter how you spin it. I had no cock in that fight. I just wanted to share a poignant anecdote about a forgiving uncle who had let slide my youthful disobedience at a fascinating American event? He must have understood. Although a day late, I was years wiser. My uncle, the teacher, deserved my posthumous gratitude for being one of the few educators who ever taught me anything worth knowing.

Because of him, I was there, a young and grateful witness.

Now, I have spoken.

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