At my friend Norm's urging, and in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, here is my Woodstock story. Forty years after.
On August 15, 1969, my friend Norm said, "hey, there's a great music festival happening this weekend, let's go!"
So, Saturday morning August 16, three of us piled into Jim's car and got on the New York State Thruway at Rochester, NY, heading east. We were three college boys, named Norm, Jim, and Tom. We were all collegiate-looking: no long hair, no facial hair. Basically we looked a little like the Kingston Trio: short sleeve shirts, casual slacks. Norm and I had been friends for several years, and Norm knew Jim through a girl I didn't know. So Norm was the lynchpin connecting the three of us (I didn't know Jim from Adam). Norm and Jim sat in the front seat and chatted. Cars didn't usually have air conditioning back in 1969, so windows were cracked for circulation and it was a little noisy. After half an hour or so I gave up trying to hear the conversation and just relaxed in the back and listened to the radio.
A news announcement came on. The announcer said, "the New York State Thruway is jammed because of all the people trying to go to Woodstock. If you're heading for Woodstock, give it up and go home! The place is overwhelmed! It's been declared a disaster area!" or something like that. So I said to Norm and Jim, "So what do you guys think?"
"That news announcement."
"What did it say?"
"That the Thruway is jammed, the place is unpassable, the crowds are out of control, it's been officially declared a disaster area, and we should get off the Thruway and go home."
"Heck with that."
"Yeah, let's see for ourselves."
So on we went. Turns out Jim had cousins near Woodstock. So his plan was to reconnoiter with them, see what the locals had to say about it. We had no difficulty on the Thruway to the Bethel exit -- apparently the jam was on the eastern side (westbound traffic from New York City, the east coast, and the other New England states). But as we got onto the surface roads off the Thruway, we saw a sign of what the news announcer was talking about. Traffic was quite heavy. There was a police barricade blocking a road heading off to our right. Jim went on by it, and within a mile or so turned into his cousins' driveway.
His cousins offered us lemonade, and commenced kvetching. "We paid a lotta money for tickets to this thing, and now people are getting in for free!" We had every intention of doing the same if possible, but he'd said his piece. There was a fence, he said, but the crowd had knocked it down and was just walking right on in. Jim asked how we could get past the police barricade. "There's a way around. I'll take you." So we piled back into cars, Jim's cousin leading us back past the barricade, then he turned left up a dirt road. The dirt road curved left and before too long we were on that road that the police had barricaded. Jim's cousin drove home after pointing the way for us: right. We drove for a little ways, then hit a traffic jam.
The traffic was moving so slowly that the best thing to do was simply park by the side of the road and walk. So Jim made a U-turn and parked by the side of the road. We were in country, now pointed downhill. We started walking up the hill, in the direction the traffic was all pointing.
We hadn't gone 500 feet when all of a sudden a hippie appeared, shouting "Norm!" This guy had blue jeans with patches on them, a tie-dyed shirt, long dirty hair, mirrored sunglasses, and he knew Norm. Norm was a little taken aback: "Excuse me?"
The hippie said, "It's Howie!" I knew Howie too. We'd gone to high school together, and we'd been Boy Scout camp counselors together for a whole summer. I kept looking at him, not able to see the Howie I knew. Maybe he didn't recognize me because of my clip-on sunglasses, or because I wasn't wearing my Scout uniform, but anyway he'd recognized Norm and not me. Howie went on: ""It's poison there Norm, poison! Don't go in there!"
Norm asked Howie to calm down, and asked what was this poison business. "They're selling bad drugs! Horse tranquilizers!" Norm kind of sort of patted him on the shoulder and assured him we'd steer clear of the horse tranquilizers. Howie stumbled on away from the festival, and we continued on up the hill.
We were walking past standstill cars for a ways. The hill became a little tiring, and it was REALLY hot. Then a break in the traffic: the cars started moving. Along came a schoolbus with its door open. The driver shouted, "Wanna ride? Get in!" So we got in. The bus took us the rest of the way up the long hill. There was chatter of topless girls at the festival! So there was more to look forward to besides great music.
After the bus crested the hill, we were in Suburbia. On each side of the road was a line of cookiecutter houses, for a mile or two. Every house had tents and sleeping bags in the yard. At every house's garden hose spigot there was a line of people waiting to get a drink or fill a container. Well, maybe not every house. I think there were some houses where the owners had asked people not to camp or use the spigot, and the young festival goers respected the request. As we rode along, I just gawked. The newscaster on the radio hadn't been joking. The traffic slowed, then came to a halt again. Out the open schoolbus window, I looked longingly at all those folks in spigot lines, thinking how badly I could use a drink of water. Then along came a guy selling cans of Coca-Cola.
Back then I was a Pepsi man. I didn't like the taste of Coke; I still don't. Today, 40 years later, I'm a Diet Coke man, and to me Diet Coke tastes good -- just like Pepsi used to taste back then. But I was SO thirsty I bought a Coke through the open bus window. A dollar! (A can was somewhere south of 25 cents back then.) When I touched the can, it was hot. But I drank it, and it helped. We all got off the bus and just continued on foot.
It wasn't hard to tell which way to go. The direction the cars were pointed in; the direction the foot traffic was mainly headed. Up ahead we could see that the road cut through a line of trees, perpendicular to the road. I'd spent a lot of time in farm country and in Suburbia, and I knew that this probably signified a stream; land that couldn't be farmed or built on. And that was the case. So although there was relief from the sun's heat when we entered the shade of the trees, when it became necessary to head to the left (because that's the way the foot traffic was going), we found ourselves walking on a very muddy dirt road. At our right there was a high chainlink fence. I kept one eye on the fence, looking for an opening, but mainly I was looking to see those alleged topless girls.
And so we came to the place. The chainlink fence was on the ground. We just walked right over it. There was a long row of port-a-potties there. The ground was very muddy. A lot of the water muddying up the ground was leaking out of the port-a-potties. In other words, that water wasn't water.
The majority of people were walking up the rise behind the port-a-potties, so we walked that way.
And then we found ourselves on the lip of the largest natural bowl I'd ever seen, and it was full of people. Way down in the bottom of the bowl was a little stage, flanked by little speakers. Of course, if you were up close, the stage was quite sizeable, as were the speaker towers. But from up on the lip of the bowl, they looked tiny. But we could hear.
And what we were hearing wasn't music. It was announcements. Mostly safety announcements, stuff about the size of the crowd, and warnings about horse tranquilizers. We wanted to hear music, of course, because that's why we'd come.
Norm recalls a detail I've forgotten: "Hari Krishnas running around in their robes and bald heads with the pigtail or whatever. They were all over the top ridge (near the porta potties) and doing god only knows what. Selling their... flowers I would think would be a waste--no one had much money!"
We walked down just a little into the bowl (it got more crowded the farther down you went). We were going to have to just sit on the grass; we hadn't brought anything to sit on. We hadn't brought anything, period. We'd basically just walked in empty-handed. We didn't even have hats to shield our heads from the sun. A friendly couple offered to let us sit on their blanket with them. The guy lit up a joint and offered it to us; we all said, "No, thanks."
Norm asked the guy if he knew what bands would be playing. He had a copy of the schedule and showed it to us. We were hoping to hear Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who, Arlo Guthrie, Ravi Shankar -- the names who were playing on the radio then, and who we'd heard would be appearing at the festival. Well, we found out that none of the big name stars would be on until late that night. Looking at the schedule to see who was playing for the next few hours, we didn't recognize a single band name. One band was setting up to play. I'd never heard of them before. When they started playing, I didn't like their sound at all. I didn't recognize the song and so I just tuned them out. I also wiped their name out of my memory banks. The only reason I happen to know this was Quill is because Norm remembers.
It was only afterwards, when the movie and record came out, that I learned of and came to appreciate bands like Ten Years After, Canned Heat, Jimi Hendrix... And Norm became a fan of The Band, who were from right there in the neighborhood where the Woodstock festival took place.
So anyway, there we sat, baking in the sun, with some unknown music playing from the stage. I needed to go to the port-a-potty.
Norm recalls: "This was also pre-cell-phone days, so if you lost one of your pals, the chances you'd ever find them again were slim and none (unless you were a fellow grad from Monroe High, in which case, they'd simply walk up to you out of about a half-million people)." Accordingly, Norm and Jim stayed put while I went; we agreed to always maintain a base so as not to lose one another. So off to the port-a-potty I went. Suffice it to say, the only real benefit to having the port-a-potty there was that you were peeing with a closed door. The potty was quite full, overflowing, and all you were accomplishing was adding to the overflow. In real time.
From there I went in search of food and/or drink. I kept my eyes peeled for topless girls, but to no avail. I found a place selling pre-melted ice cream. I might have bought another hot Coke (I don't remember). And I found a guy selling commemorative T-shirts. I bought one, and still have it. A plain white tee, with a line drawing of a man smoking a joint or something (printed in blue ink).
I went back to Norm and Jim with my loot. Good news: some blessed relief from the sun: clouds came over! Bad news: it started to rain. Good news: Our blanket hosts had a tarp to pull over our heads. Bad news: it was really hot and muggy under that tarp. Good news: the rain stopped. Bad news: the sun came out and now it was hotter and muggier than ever. The next band started playing: Mountain. Also not what we wanted to hear. Finally the three of us looked at each other. "Had enough?" "Yeah." "Let's go home."
The Journey Back
Norm says now, "Of course, at the time we had no idea this would be some generation-defining moment. We would've had to wait a LONG time to see Crosby Stills & Nash, as I think they were helicoptered in and went on stage like at 3:00 a.m. or something. If we'd only known back then what we know now, eh? " (I think we still would've left. We were totally unprepared for staying longer than a few hours.)
So we walked back over the lip, past the Hare Krishnas and the port-a-potties, along the muddy road under the trees, then turned right at the paved road. I think we caught another schoolbus through Suburbia, down the hill, and back to Jim's car. Driving back out of there, the police were happy to let us through (they just weren't letting more cars in). Norm remembers that we avoided the Thruway on the way home, taking route 17. I don't remember; I was probably sleeping in the back seat.
So that was it. We were at Woodstock. It was historic, a high point capping the Sixties. We were really there. But it kinda sucked, so we left after a few hours. For us it was just a Saturday outing to hear a little music. Too bad we never saw any topless girls.
Postscript, 2011. Sadly, Norm passed away about a year after he helped me share this story. Even though we lived thousands of miles apart, and years sometimes went by without our getting together, I still think about him all the time. We had a strong bond during our high school years, and he influenced me greatly. The Woodstock story is just one of many stories I remember about him, and one of many he told about me. I do and always will miss him dearly.
©2009 Tom Sloper