Remembering Woodstock -- Part II -- 08/18/09

How many people were there? If you count everyone who came and left as some point over the weekend, perhaps half a million. How many were there at any given moment? Maybe four hundred thousand? Who knows? There were a lot of people there.

And yet... we kept running into people we knew.

We had been there less than an hour when we met the three friends who had stayed overnight at our apartment. Just think of how easy it is to miss someone in a large and crowded area, and yet we met up with each other without any pre-arranged rendezvous point, just happened to see each other while walking around.

Yasgur's farm covered hundreds of acres and I really saw only the main stage area and its surroundings. I never wandered off to explore where people were camping (except for some tents and trucks and campers along the way in and out), so I can't describe the entire festival grounds, only the areas where we were.

The areas close to the stage were filled with the crowd. We settled down (i.e., spread a blanket on the ground) far up on the hillside looking down at the stage. How far? Well, when Richie Havens began to play we were joking about not being able to tell which musician on the stage was Havens. Even if we'd had binoculars I don't know if we could have known which person on the stage was was him. Further up the hill, the slope of the ground leveled off and there were food and drink and souvenir stands. The only one I attempted to patronize was one that advertised watermelon slices and drinks (fruit juices, soft drinks? I really can't remember -- today we think automatically of bottled water but this was years before water bottles became ubiquitous) and I spent quite a bit time waiting to get served there (huge crowds of customers, as you may well imagine) only to give up when they sold the last of their watermelon. However, I had been entertained by watching two of their crew who were dressed to match much of the crowd -- one attractive young black woman wearing a leather vest and cut-off jeans, the vest open enough to show an extensive amount of braless cleavage (with an amusing and pointed verbal attitude not unlike that of the character Tara on Trueblood, especially season 1) and an attractive blonde who was wearing just a t-shirt and panties. (My close observation, of course, was purely for historical purposes, so that someday I would be able to tell you about it once the Internet was invented.)

And some distance beyond the food booths could be found a totally inadequate number of portapotties with a huge line of women waiting to use them. There was a self-selecting system where the women got the portapotties and the guys just wandered over to a section of fencing and seemed to designate a few hundred feet of fence as being an open air urinal. One of the women with us noted that she had found some trees beyond the portapotties to be more pleasant than the overused plastic booths and no standing in line required. (If the festival had been a week long I am sure that amoebic dysentery would have been widespread.)

I remember the sound as being pretty good. I would have liked it to have been a little bit louder -- if it had been a stereo or a TV I would have taken the volume up a couple of points -- but even as far away as we were, it could be heard. (Having since had my hearing blasted by over-amplified bands in various arenas and music clubs and by DJs at weddings, in retrospect perhaps I should be grateful for being so far from the stage.) And behind us there were thousands and thousands of more people settling down to watch.

Many local people of all ages came to the festival on Friday, many just to see what it was all about. We met friends of my in-laws there. Two middle-aged women (very traditional middle-class, one of whom was a doctor's wife), who had brought their teenagers there -- and then the teens immediately went off on their own, not wanting to be seen with their mothers. So when the moms found us, they settled down with us and shared the food they had brought. Yes, invoke all the stereotypes, but they had Tupperware containers with melon balls and other goodies like chicken, all of which they shared with us and with some of the people around us.

At one point a guy streaked through the crowd (and when I say "streaked" I mean ran naked through the crowd) and one of these ladies looked at him as he passed us and said "Well, at least he's not Jewish."

They left us shortly after that to look for their teenagers but we then saw one of my wife's brothers. She has three brothers, all younger than her, and this was Walt, the middle brother, who was about 15 that summer. He had been brought out there by his parents. So we went with him and found them. Okay, so that is all the friends and family that I can recall at this point having met there, but given that we were in this vast crowd of perhaps four hundred thousand people from all over the U.S. and Canada (assuming very few people flew in from Europe, etc. during this pre-747 era) and I met two of my students, the three people who had stayed overnight at our apartment, two friends of my in-laws, one brother-in-law plus my mother-in-law and father-in-law, just via random meetings. (Yes, there were many other local people there, none of whom we ran into, but still...)

Sex, drugs, and rock n' roll...

Yes, there were regular public service announcements between acts about bad acid, etc. and there was certainly a lot of pot being smoked all around. One of my fellow teachers worked as a police officer during the summer (when all of the local departments took on extra people to cope with the influx of tourists) and he had ended flying in and out of the festival by helicopter a few times. When we all ended up back in school in the fall he told me how the warmer air rising from the huge mass of human bodies made for very choppy and bumpy flying and also that in flying overhead they could smell sweaty human bodies (like walking into a locker room at half-time) and pot smoke.

There was one young couple near us who disappeared under a blanket that sometimes moved around a bit, but this was after dark so one could not be absolutely definite about what was going on (yes, but, I suppose, intelligent guesses could be made). However, before that, still at twilight -- but still not night -- the couple right in front of us -- who, I gathered from remarks they had made to others, had just hooked up together earlier that day -- was a bit less shy. Her head slid down his chest and then she drew a jacket over her head but in the course of movement the jacket slid off and anyone in the immediate area could plainly see that she was -- ummmm -- providing oral gratification without concern about being seen. (Of course they both seemed to be quite stoned.)

At some point during the night -- I think it was probably around midnight but by that time, what with pulling an all-nighter on that term paper, I had been awake since about six o'clock Thursday morning so that by midnight Friday night I would have been up and awake for about forty hours straight -- it began to rain. I don't mean a light drizzle (it had been doing that on and off for a while) I mean a steady rain... and they announced there would be a pause in the performances (I later read that the musicians were having real problems with getting electrical shocks from their equipment, so that may have been the reason for pausing). I had really, really wanted to catch Guthrie and Baez, but I was totally exhausted and it was raining and we had no idea if they were even going to continue the concert that night (although, as it turns out, they did resume)... so when my wife said she was ready to go home, I didn't ask if she was sure. Her friends opted to come along with us and we set off to my car.

I knew the way to get to route 17B -- which was, I think, only about a mile away -- and thought we could then zip straight to Monticello. In reality, it took about an hour to get to 17B (or, rather, to get to be something like the eighth or tenth car in line waiting at the highway) and then we sat and sat and sat for twenty or thirty minutes. The highways was in complete gridlock (cars stuck in traffic had run out of gas, cars were abandoned by their drivers, etc.) and eventually I woke up enough brain cells to realize we simply were not going to get home this way. So I turned around and retraced our path, ever so slowly. At some point I ended up with exhausted walkers riding on my front hood and my trunk for a mile or so until they reached their cars. Three or four miles away from the festival at three in the morning we were still seeing people walking towards it. It was well after four in the morning by the time I was actually able to shift above second gear and, although it was still before dawn, there was a definite lighter tint to the eastern sky by the time we finally reached Monticello.

It turned out that my teenage brother-in-law was left behind at Woodstock. We thought he had gone home with his parents. His parents thought that he was going to be coming home with us. Yes, of course, he was responsible for nurturing those misconceptions. (Have I mentioned that he grew up to be a lawyer? Yes, he actually did.) He got home late sometime Saturday evening.

All that weekend we could hear helicopter overhead, ones of every size, including massive ones belonging to the National Guard. The concert promoters had to charter helicopters to transport the musicians. The State Police and the Sheriff's department were flying helicopters. The National Guard was flying in food. All of the food vendors ran out of food on Friday and had no way of getting resupplied because of the traffic jams. (We knew someone who had a wholesale food business. He tried to bring in a truckload of food on Saturday -- it took him more than six hours to make the trip -- and that was with a police motorcycle escort.)

There was not a loaf of bread to be found in any store or supermarket in town. The shelves were absolutely bare. There were dozens of women at the Jewish Community Center making sandwiches, thousands and thousand and thousands of sandwiches. National Guard helicopters would land in the parking lot, load up with sandwiches, and fly to the festival. To this day, when I hear helicopters overhead (such as for the annual Quanset Air Show) I mentally flash back to that Woodstock weekend.

After it was all over, Tuesday afternoon I think it was, I had come back home from class at SUNY/New Paltz and just had to drive out to Bethel and turn in toward White Lake and swing by Yasgur's farm. The festival was gone. The hundreds of thousands of people were gone. There were a few last minute stragglers packing up to leave, but they were lost in this vast area. There were a few dozen workers, cleaning up incredible amounts of litter. On the way out I gave a lift to three tired looking hippies who were trying to get to Monticello.

"So, it's all over..." I said.

"Yes," one of them replied, "but it was something else."

Indeed it was.

The management of the race track were furious. They had lost an entire summer weekend's worth of admission fees and gambling revenue. There were some other businesses that had suffered due to the traffic jams that kept customers from reaching them. There were some people who went out of their way to be rude and to overcharge the kids, but there were far more who went out of their way to be friendly and helpful. People all along the traffic jams had brought food and water to people stuck in the gridlock, people who welcomed strangers to come into their homes and use their bathrooms. There were literally hundreds and hundreds of people who befriended wandering kids from all over the country.

Some of the local politicians who had thought gain votes by ranting and raving about "filthy hippies" suddenly shut up when a lot of people responded "Oh, they're just kids, they're okay."

As for Max Yasgur, well, he was not some leftwing hippy type. He was a very conservative hard-working farmer and businessman. In fact, he had supported both President Johnson and then President Nixon on the Vietnam War and was actually a Republican. However, he said he didn't like to see people being picked on. I believe he referred to Pastor Martin Niemöller who had said "First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist..." and continues step by step until "Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me." Max Yasgur is supposed to have said "Lets stop it while they're still after the hippies."

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