Remembering Woodstock -- Part I -- 08/17/09

Here, as recently promised, are my memories of Woodstock.

And, as I sit down to type, the first thing that occurs to me is how very long ago this all was as I realized the vast technological difference between then and now. Were the Woodstock Festival to be held today, almost every person there would be pulling out a cell phone to take pictures, and those who had more high-end equipment, such as iPhones, would be posting photos to their blogs, Web sites, Facebook, etc. and putting video on YouTube and Vimeo. (And this isn't counting the countless tens of thousands with cheap single-use film cameras and the many more tens of thousands with digital point-and-shoots and Flip video recorders and the still more thousands with higher priced digital cameras and high-def video equipment.) These days I rarely go anywhere more interesting than a grocery buying trip to a supermarket without my battered little Olympus FE-230 stuck in a pocket.

I have no photographs of Woodstock. I did have a camera, of course, and I enjoyed photography, but there was a very good chance of rain and I certainly would not want to have my camera ruined by getting it wet. Different era, different technology, different mind-sets.

Ah, but I have digressed before I have even begun...

I was twenty-six years old and living in Monticello, New York at the time. I was teaching in a nearby town and living in an apartment in Monticello with my wife (no, not Nancy, this was my first wife, Beth) and my son Adam (who would celebrate his first birthday that September). So, as those of you who know that area probably realize, the Woodstock Festival ended up almost in our backyard -- well, just a few miles away.

Their original idea was to build a recording studio in Woodstock, New York, a town that is fifty or sixty miles away from Monticello in a straight line but much further than that via roads (the Catskill Mountains being in the way). Then they decided they wanted to hold a music festival that could attract as many as fifty thousand people. The Woodstock area was not pleased at this idea so the promoters found a place over near Middletown, New York, about as far away from Woodstock as Monticello is. The Middletown TImes Herald-Record was the closest daily newspaper to Monticello, so we got to read their coverage of the reaction to the idea of fifty-thousand hippies showing up for a weekend of rock music. Just as it seemed the idea had been blocked, they found a dairy farmer in Bethel, New York, a rural town just outside of Monticello, who agreed to rent them a large tract of land on his farm.

This was so cool, this big concert would be so close! Of course I thought they would lose their shirts on this; there was no way they would get fifty thousand people to come all the way up to Monticello for a rock concert. And, having a baby to think about, I knew we could not attend the entire festival (not to mention that they wanted $18 for the entire weekend!) but I thought we could swing one of the days (for a more reasonable six dollars -- hey, this was when gasoline was less than thirty cents a gallon -- even in a resort town like Monticello). The Friday night (August 15, 1969) lineup included Richie Havens, The Incredible String Band, Tim Harden, Ravi Shankar, Melanie, etc., but the big draw for me was Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez. Besides which, I figured even if they did somehow manage to get fifty-thousand people to come all the way up from New York City, they would mostly hit town on Saturday when the featured groups included Santana, Grateful Dead, Credence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, The Who, and the Jefferson Airplane rather than on the more folk-oriented Friday.

So I went to the local ticket outlet -- and to my chagrin, they would not accept checks, so I then had to drive back into Monticello and go to the bank and get cash and then drive back to wherever it was that they were selling tickets. Digital cameras weren't the only difference between then and now. As I had noted recently, the very first ATM in the U.S. would be installed later that year.

I was also (as usual) taking a couple of graduate courses that summer and I had a term paper due on the 15th. Thus, Thursday night I settled down with my notes, a pile of books, and my manual typewriter to pull an all-nighter. Meanwhile, we had visitors -- an old friend of Beth's from when she was a kid going to summer camp plus a friend of her friend -- who were also going to attend the Friday concert. Plus, a former high school student of mine (who had graduated) was also staying over so he could get a better start at getting to the concert.

I finished my term paper before dawn and, as planned, I set out to drive our three visitors out to Max Yasgur's dairy farm so they could get there early and stake out a good vantage point for the concert. We went through town and turned onto route 17B (a local two-lane blacktop highway, not to be confused with route 17, the major highway running from the New York State Thruway, past Monticello, to the western part of the state). And there, just past Monticello Raceway (horse racing), traffic came to a standstill. Route 17B was a parking lot. Eventually (since I could not stay to wait for the traffic jam to get unsnarled -- we kept saying "There must be an accident up ahead.") my passengers got out there, even though they were at least five miles from their destination, determined to walk past the cause of the traffic jam and try to hitch-hike the rest of the way.

Back home, pick up Adam and my term paper, head off to New Paltz (about fifty miles, over the Shawangunk Mountains), slide my termpaper under my professor's office door, then about twenty miles to drop Adam off with my parents who were going to watch him overnight, and then back to Monticello (another fifty miles or sixty miles). On the way, listening to my car radio, I began to hear news bulletins about major traffic jams on route 17, traffic backed up for miles. Traffic was backed up for miles on the New York State Thruway from the exit for route 17. As I got closer to Monticello, the news stories grew. The governor was considering declaring a state of emergency. The New York State Police had officially closed all three Monticello exits because traffic was hopelessly snarled.

I picked up Beth and we took advantage of knowledge of the local roads -- headed up to Liberty, New York, and made our way down to Bethel over narrow winding country roads. Sullivan County is the area known as "Borscht Belt" or "The Jewish Alps" because of the many hotels and bungalow colonies that catered to Jews from New York City. Among them were a number of Hasidim, very very Orthodox Jews, some of whom also settled in the area. There were some Hasidic families along one of these country roads and some of the children (picture very Orthodox boys, black pants, white shirts, with payes, curly locks of hair in front of their ears) laughing and waving their hands with their fingers making the V shape of the peace sign. Obviously many "hippy" types had already been along this road.

There were cars parked here and there along the road now and young people -- male and female -- in their teens and twenties walking along the road. I suddenly recognized two boys -- students at the high school where I taught. I stopped and they got in the back. They had parked a mile or so back when they had begun to see cars left alongside the road. Over the next half a mile or traffic wasn't making much faster time than the people walking. I was guessing that we were less than a mile and a half from our destination, certainly less than two miles. I saw an empty space on the side of the road that looked big enough to hold my Chevy II and I managed to squeeze into it. We set off on foot, my two students picking up their pace to go on ahead of us. (No self-respecting teenager would want to show up a rock concert with their English teacher.)

A young couple stood on the side of the road attempting to scalp tickets but did not seem to be finding any customers.

It was on that walk along a country road to Yasgur's farm that it began to sink into my brain that this was something completely different. I think I had been expecting something that was a cross between a concert in Central Park and what a county fair might be if they were to hold one in Greenwich Village, except move it all to the country. No... this was Woodstock -- "An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music" ....

We came to an intersection where another small country road crossed ours. A State Police squad car was parked on the shoulder of the road and a State Trooper was standing in the middle of the intersection attempting to unsnarl the traffic. Sisyphus rolling the rock up hill. The concert-goers were flashing him the peace sign. He was giving them the same V-fingered sign in return. "Peace." "Thank you." This was not what I had expected. Some of the pedestrians were smoking weed and waving at the Trooper and he would smile and nod back at them as they passed.

A short way down the road we passed a group taking a rest, sitting on the side of the road, passing a jug of wine back and forth. One of the young women in the group was wearing a short-sleeved men's dress shirt... fully unbuttoned and hanging open... and nothing beneath it but her nicely-endowed self.

The word was now circulating through the crowd -- "The gates are down... it's been declared a free concert!"

We passed a farm pond with fifteen or twenty skinny-dippers.

And then we came to the concert venue... what would have seemed to be an impressively huge stage except it was facing a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people. More people than I had ever seen before nor ever would see again in one place. People, an ocean of people. The stage was flanked by towers holding lights and loud-speakers, but there seemed to be a lot of people -- concert-goers, not stage crew or technicians -- who had climbed up on the towers to get better views. And everywhere... people.

If Max Yasgur's dairy farm in Bethel were to be declared a city, it would be by far the second largest city in New York State.

to be continued...

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