They say if you remember it you weren’t there. Well, I do, at least most of it, and I was definitely there.
My friend Jay and I had been sitting on the boardwalk near our rental in Wildwood, New Jersey, in early August of 1969. We were tired of the heat, of the summer, of the crowds and drugs, and I felt drawn to the event being touted as the “biggest music festival of the year” in Woodstock, New York.
“So, wanna go with me?” I asked him. We’d hooked up for a bit, but now we were mostly just hanging out together.
“Really? You wanna go? You wanna drive up there?” he asked.
I looked at him, his brown, shoulder-length hair all wavy, rhinestone earring, barely a moustache and beard, thin, wiry frame, and knew he’d be a good travel mate. He didn’t talk much and was pretty easygoing, no tension between us. And I had already mentioned this trip to other friends who had hastily declined. “Too far!” they’d said. “Too crazy.”
“My car should make it fine.”
I glanced over at my ’62 Chevy Impala convertible. It was turquoise with silver and white trim, a new white roof. Shortly after I’d bought it second-hand earlier in the summer, the old black roof had to be replaced. I had parked it under an apple tree and in a bad storm, and a few too many apples were blown down onto it, leaving four or five small, round, cookie-cutter holes in the fabric. Sun rot. It set me back a bit, but this was my dream car. I’d been able to buy it after many hard waitressing and cleaning jobs.
I was ready to get out of town. About to start my senior year in college, I was a little nervous about transferring for my last year to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The summer had been crazy. Not just in Wildwood, everywhere. Nixon had begun the long-promised troop withdrawal from Vietnam after a year of national conflict over the war. Charles Manson had gone mad and killed all those Hollywood people just as movies like Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider documented the cultural distance between long-haired youth and Middle America. We were still in mourning for Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy (and Ted Kennedy had just been given a pass on the details of Chappaquiddick), and we feared more riots like those that had rocked D.C. the previous spring and summer. College students threatened campus building takeovers and protests, with SDS and Black Panthers fanning those fires.
Apollo 11 had just put two men on the moon. Most everyone can remember where he or she was when that historic moonwalk took place. I was in a motel room in Wildwood. I sat with my sister Bryan and several other friends, stoned, watching it on TV. The moment before Neil Armstrong made his famous comments, live on the air, watched by millions the world over, the door to our room opened and a man we’d recently met stepped into the room, raised his arm, aimed, and fired a gun at Bryan.
The echo left a silence, a stark chasm of disbelief—an unfathomable interruption. I looked at Bryan, saw her eyes wide, jaw dropped, both hands pressed to her chest. The room froze, for how long I’m not sure, likely just a second, but not one of us moved.
Then the guy laughed hysterically. “They’re blanks! You’re fine. It’s just a joke!” He turned and left. I heard the news announcer saying something like, “This is history in the making.”
Somehow, the moonwalk was forever diminished for us. When people later asked me, “What were you doing when men landed on the moon?” I could think only about my sister getting shot at. Neil Armstrong couldn’t hold a candle to that. I didn’t try to explain it to people very often.
With several friends from school in Charlotte, I was renting a small, musty, three-bedroom basement apartment in Wildwood for the summer, only a block from the beach. Our landlady was mean, and she lived in the top part of the house. She was always sitting at her window, the curtain pulled aside, as she frowned at our comings and goings. We could only ever see part of her face; it looked like gray clay with a gash smeared with red lipstick, a bit of a lumpy cheek and nose, a glint of light reflecting off one lens of her glasses. She wouldn’t let us park in the driveway, though it stood empty most of the time, so we incurred parking tickets all summer long. I had to go to court for those tickets and thought it would be interesting to take a hit of LSD before answering my summons. Once in court, reality hit me.
“Bryan, Krissy,” I ever so slightly nudged them in the ribs. “I think we have to leave.”
Their eyes were wide with concern. “Why?”
“Because, see those guys up there along the wall?” They looked up, then back at me, and nodded. “They’re plain-clothes pigs!” I whispered. They nodded again. “Ready?”
I led the way and kept moving; we were out of there before they got through the first case.
Driving back to the apartment, I safely dodged all the parked cars that kept moving into the middle of the street right in front of us even though there was no one in them.
Bryan joined us at the shore despite my parents’ disapproval. I had just turned twenty-one, and she eighteen, just out of high school. The plan was to work and save some money. It started out well. We got cleaning jobs at a mid-priced, two-storied motel a few blocks from our apartment. It was very white, almost dazzling, with its pebbly, shining stucco surface and neon lights that burned day and night. It was fairly appealing to tourists, I guess, as it was usually full. We were the maids.
“So, you want jobs for the summer?” the owner had asked.
“Yes,” all four of us said.
“And do you have any experience cleaning?” She obviously hadn’t read the applications where we’d all described our experience: cleaning our houses well, keeping our rooms at college tidy, cleaning latrines at camp. How hard could it be? My mother had tried to train us to clean house until the bathrooms and kitchens sparkled, and make beds with the linens pulled tight into hospital corners.
“Will you stay for the whole season?”
A chorus of agreement, whatever it took to get the jobs. And right then we did intend to stay through August.
I learned how much I hated cleaning other people’s bathrooms that summer. This was the motel we were in when the moon landing occurred, and I was sick of the place. Drugs were everywhere. You know that song “Under the Boardwalk”? Well, that’s where all the dealers hung out, and pot, LSD, and speed were easy scores. We bought our share, and though none of us were newcomers to this scene, we definitely expanded our horizons. I really needed a change of scenery.
So, with Jay in the passenger seat, on that hot August 14th, 1969, we headed for Woodstock. At the last minute, I decided to make a quick stop at my parents’ house. We drove up the Garden State Parkway over to the New Jersey Turnpike, west on Route 22 to Clinton. Five miles further west, I turned right at Johnny’s Truck Stop onto the familiar back roads to R.D. (Rural Delivery, or cow country) Hampton.
“What’s that smell?” Jay said. I laughed. The farmer on the right had just cleaned his barn, the manure’s familiar ripeness flaring my nostrils as we drove by with the top down. I breathed deeply. I liked that smell; it was earthy, country, home. The air got fresher, and it felt cooler as we left the interstate’s fumes, heat, and whine of the semis, and drove more slowly past familiar farms, neighbor’s houses, the one-room schoolhouse I’d attended for kindergarten, up the last hill past the little Norton Methodist Church whose graveyard abutted our yard and was a favorite playground for hide and seek.
Both cars were in the driveway when I pulled in just after dinnertime, and a few of my younger sibs were out on the patio jostling over a pogo stick. They immediately dropped it when they saw me, and they came trotting around the corner of the house.
Bruce, eleven, and Bernadette, ten, one of our two sets of “Irish twins,” reached me first. “What are you doing here?” they asked. “Can we have a ride in your car?”
“Hey! How are you guys?” It was good to see them, although, truth be told, I hadn’t missed my family all that much since I’d left home for college. The whole scene was difficult for me, for many of us. There were so many, and my parents were always tired, tense, worried about money. And, it seemed, they had decided I was bad, their “trouble” child. I was glad to have moved out when I did.
“We’re going to a concert in New York, and this is on the way,” I said, hugging them. “Where’s everybody else?”
“Inside.” I headed that way, Jay in tow. I suppose I thought he’d be a buffer—not fair to him. He soon bailed.
“Hellooo?” I said just inside the door. I heard cleanup noises in the kitchen. Two of my younger sisters, Blake and Brett, were at the sink and looked surprised to see me.
“Hey, hi Bon. What’re you doing here?” they asked, smiling at me. More hugs.
“Hey guys, this is Jay. We’re going to a music festival. Wanna come?”
“Yes! Really? Yes! Of course!”
“Where are Mom and Dad?” I asked.
“Down in the basement. Good luck,” Blake added, rolling her eyes. We’d all discovered in our own ways that our parents were not very comfortable with teenagers.
I headed out of the kitchen towards the basement stairs. Jay hung back, then said, “I think I’ll wait outside.” He must’ve sensed some of the tension our arrival brought with it.
Years later, my brother Jimmy asked me, “Why did you always have to make trouble?” I didn’t mean to make trouble–that’s just where my parents and I were with each other then. My dad was a conservative Republican prison guard, and I was a Democratic anti-war pacifist. He had been at Nixon’s inaugural ball while I was marching in protest. I smoked dope. He drank alcohol. I had long hair, wire-rimmed glasses like John Lennon’s, wore embroidered blue jeans and revealing shirts. He wore a uniform. I hated the “military-industrial complex,” and had told him so after a recent protest on my campus in support of the Black Student Union. My mom didn’t trust me “as far as I can see you.” The previous summer she’d found birth control pills in the bottom of my dresser drawer under my clothes and thrown them at me and me out of the house.
We hadn’t really talked since they had “surprised” me in Wildwood with a visit on my birthday in June, and they’d found some locals, obviously stoned, in my apartment. I had just walked in a moment before, after my drive back from Atlantic County Community College where I was taking a summer course in math, which I hated. The point was, I didn’t know they were coming. I might have done things differently had I been warned.
“You’d better send your friends home, Bonnie,” Dad said. I was stung by their expectation of obedience from me, and their assumed right to control me in my own living space, in front of my friends. Unable to support me financially, they had basically washed their hands of me once I went off to college, yet now claimed to be in charge of my friends, my values, and my activities.
“No, I won’t do that,” I said quickly, in a small voice, my legs suddenly shaking. I had never blatantly disobeyed my parents to their faces. “I didn’t know you were coming. You should have called me.”
They had several of my younger siblings with them, and I was embarrassed in front of them. This was just a bad scene. I smelled disappointment, anger, pot. My other housemates made themselves scarce, going off to bedrooms or out the front door. Bryan faded into a distant corner of the room.
“Let’s go,” Mom said, giving me one last look of disgust. She did tell me years later that she had been worried about me and wanted to “punch those boys in the face!” But at this moment, there was a huge gulf separating us from any caring that might have patched the gap.
They all filed out. Just like that, gone. I heard myself breathe; then my stomach muscles cringed. I stood there, unmoving, staring at their lingering images. Tears fell. After a few minutes, I said, “You guys should leave.” They did, without speaking. It was one of the worst judgments of my life; I had chosen smalltime drug dealers over family.
Now, back in their house only six weeks later, I was suddenly aware of my precarious position in the family. Before I could go down to the basement, both my parents came up, having been alerted of my arrival by one of my siblings. I had ten in all, seven of them currently living at home. My youngest sister, Brooke, was not yet two years old, a stranger to me, having been born during my freshman year in college.
“Hello,” my mom said, her face stony. I noticed her upper lip pressed down onto her lower one, an expression she often donned when not happy. “Why are you here, Bonnie?”
I turned to go back into the kitchen–a smallish room, smaller when we all squeezed in at the breakfast table–saying as I did, “I just wanted to stop in and say hello.”
I continued into the living room where there was more room, a window-filled wall, pine paneling around, big fireplace, many seats. I hoped to breath more easily in there, find more space. My parents followed me, as did most of my brothers and sisters. This was definitely a gathering.
My father lit a cigarette and sat on the couch looking down at his feet, just looking. He closed one eye as the smoke curled upward and into it after his inhalation. He held it a long few seconds before exhaling, then picked a fleck of tobacco off his lip.
“Bon,” he said, looking up at me. “I hope you’re not going to upset your mother.” Why did I come here? I thought as I felt heat move into my head and face.
“I hope not too, Daddy. My friend, Jay and I, Jay, he’s outside somewhere,” I turned and peered out the windows, stalling a little. “Uhh, we’re going to Upstate New York for a concert they’re having, an outdoor musical festival, and, well, I thought, well, this was on the way, and I thought maybe Blake and Brett might want to go with us to hear some good music. I’m sure it’ll be safe.” I looked hopefully at my sisters, who were fifteen and sixteen years old.
They said, “Yeah, I wanna go! Can we go?”
My dad closed his eyes, squinched them up tightly. Deep furrows appeared on his brow, and his head sank to his chest. He shook his head slowly and just made a grunting noise, a “nnh” sort of disbelieving sound, as he pushed out the breath he’d been holding.
My mom said, “No way.”
Dad laughed a little, opened his eyes, looked at me and said, “You’re kidding, right? Bon, don’t you know there’s no way I’d let them go up there with you and your friend, wherever he is. Is he one we saw at your house in Wildwood? One of those stoned hippies?” His voice got progressively louder as he went on, and I moved backwards a bit. “Not a chance!” Dad said. “With all that marijuana and free love? Then what?”
Mom sat there, her eyebrows raised, lips pulled in and tight, a straight line, her face quite ashen, long and drawn. Then she said, this time to Blake and Brett, “No, you’re not going. That’s all there is to it.”
I looked at my parents, my sibs looking at me, Dad studying the floor, Mom’s eyes now closed. I brought my shoulders a little closer to my ears, then waved to my sisters and brothers in one sweeping gesture, turned and walked out the door. “Okay, well, bye then,” I said, letting the screen door close behind me.
I stopped on the gravel path to the driveway and looked out at our yard, the vegetable garden at the far edge of the mowed area, my mom’s rock garden fading a bit with the heat of the summer, the pastures and pond beyond the fences, a part of me. I heard “Bye, Bon. Bye. Have fun,” come softly from an upstairs window, and looked up. I couldn’t see my sisters, but their voices came to me.
My parents needn’t have worried about my influence on them–most of my sisters and brothers got stoned and pregnant without my help. And there had already been one shotgun wedding and one abortion, the latter unknown to my parents.
Jay and I headed for Route 31 North and the New York State line without additional traveling “com-pan-yones,” as Arlo Guthrie would have said.
After sleeping at a rest stop somewhere near the Catskills, we arrived in Bethel, New York, early the next day, before the celebrated announcement, “The New York State Thruway is Closed!” was broadcast over the national airways that evening, and well before most of the 500,000 young people crowded onto Max Yasgur’s farm outside Woodstock, New York.
The paved road off the Thruway, marked by signs for the festival with arrows pointing “Woodstock this way” soon became a dirt road flanked by green fields. At the top of a knoll, we slowed; cars were parked along the road and in fields. We weren’t sure exactly where to go. Just beyond what appeared to be a possible entryway for the concert was a line of cars. We parked in a jumble of junkers, moms’ station wagons, and brightly painted vans. Parking was easy. Locating our car three days later was not.
With knapsacks holding a few essentials, Jay and I made our way up to the main entryway. We had tickets but couldn’t find anyone to hand them in to. Later we heard it had been declared a free concert.
Looking down upon the rolling fields, we saw the crowd had begun to gather in a grassy natural bowl in front of a black stage with massive scaffolding on either side. Rows of speakers rose toward the sky. Heading down the hill, we were able to get within seventy-five yards of this regal, larger-than-life centerpiece, close enough to see crew members setting the scene for what would turn out to be one of music’s greatest cultural moments, certainly, in our lives.
“Holy shit!” I said. “We’re here. We’re really here!”
“Yeah, dig it man, this is too cool.” Jay had a big grin on his face. We laughed. “Let’s put our stuff down and then go look around, check out all these freaks.”
We found a spot, spread our blanket on top of the tarp I’d insisted on bringing, and greeted our perfectly familiar stranger-neighbors, mostly college-aged students with long hair, bellbottom jeans with embroidered repairs, and muslin shirts, tanks and tees, no bras. The smells were enticing–patchouli, Dr. Bronner’s soap, and marijuana.
“Hey, man,” Jay said to a guy beside us. “I’m Jay. This is Bonnie. Can you believe this, man? We made it!” The guy introduced himself and his “old lady,” and the others in their group did the same. We shared a joint and small talk, asked them if they’d watch our gear, and went off to find porta-potties.
Waiting and watching the crowd swell was as exciting as the music soon to come. The stream of young people coming down the hill behind us lengthened and widened through the late morning and into the afternoon.
“Look at all of us–we’re growing!” I said to Jay. It was true–within hours of our arrival, the numbers climbed exponentially, and kept multiplying throughout the afternoon and night, and the next day and night.
Returning to our blanket, we watched a lot of scurrying up on the stage, long-haired techies coming and going, moving amps and wires. Soon, microphones were placed and re-placed around the stage. It was actually quite minimal for all the bands expected in the days to come. But these items too would grow in number over time. One mic was moved to center stage, and a plain wooden stool put behind it. Big drums—bongo types—and guitars were brought out and placed like props, part of the spectacle. Then, without fanfare, the music began.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Richie Havens.”
A cheer went up as Richie walked on stage, sat down, looked out at the crowd, and without more than a slight smile strummed hard on his guitar. He tuned up a bit, asked for more sound for the guitar, and then his familiar raspy voice broke out in song. He played for more than two hours. We later found out that the musicians who were supposed to follow him were late. They couldn't get through traffic on the Thruway and had to be brought in by helicopter. Richie had to hold down the fort. He sang every song he knew, so when called back for an encore, he improvised.
Those massive speakers filled the air with the sound of what is now, perhaps, his most famous song, “Freedom.” We were silenced by his cry for freedom. It was so quiet that I might have been alone on that hillside when he began. But as he wrapped up the last few chords, the sound of clapping built and a thunderous roar echoed over the hills. I felt like this was home. This was my family, my people, and I belonged here. I cried.
Richie Havens sang our message, charging the country to change or else. We were a powerful body, a threat, a movement not confined to Yasgur’s farm. We were bigger than these fields, but this felt like our official debut. We knew we could change things, free our country from the chains of the military-industrial complex and end this fucking war. It all seemed possible on that hillside that night.
Richie started it out right. But it’s Joan Baez I think of more often when I think of that first night. As the thunder and lightning threatened to silence the musicians and cancel the long-awaited gathering, she sang war protest songs to us with resonant passion, finished after midnight.
And then the skies opened.
“Oh shit, Jay, we don’t have any damned rain coats or umbrellas. And here it comes.”
I could hear the people all around us moving, huddling, scrambling for cover. Our neighbors to one side had a big tarp.
“Here,” the guy said, “come closer to us, get under this with us.” Grateful, we did.
“If we sit on our tarp and use yours over our heads, maybe we’ll stay dry,” I said. With some rearranging, we managed to combine our spaces using the two tarps and kept a good bit of the rain off us. The smell of wet, sweat and rain was everywhere, filling my nose, my head, the air. We stayed close, moving the tarp periodically when a small river of rain would course down a corner onto our backs, legs, or shoulders.
Then, we heard Joan’s voice, her brave voice telling us, “Stay calm, people, this is when you need your neighbor. Take care of one another, stay with me. We’ll be fine, we’ll ride this out.”
For the next few hours as the heavens doused us, Joan Baez kept “half a million strong” calm and in one place, huddled under our blankets, turning the mic on periodically and talking us through our psychedelic haze of fear that we might all be struck by lightning, or swept away by flood. Despite the “purity” of the LSD, most of us were scared shitless, sure we’d meet our demise that night. But for Joan Baez, we might’ve panicked and fled.
Such was the drama of the night, enhanced by the spirit of the packed masses clinging to one another and the drugs. But we were calm. We were very quiet, waiting, smiling at one another through our fear, waiting for the rain to stop. Jay and I held onto each other tightly, found each other’s strength, and tried to discern reality from the psychedelic surreal.
Joan told us they had to turn off the power, including the lights and mics, because of the rain, but not before another voice, a man’s voice, told us, “People, I hate to bring this on, but you need to know there’s some bad stuff going around. Don’t take the pink acid–it’s not good. Hear me, it’s bad shit. Stay away from the brown acid too. If you have taken it, go to the first aid tents immediately.” He went on to describe the whereabouts of those tents. Finding it would have been a near-impossible feat given the dark, the rain, the drugs, and the size of the crowd. I was relieved Jay and I didn’t need to worry–ours had been yellow, brought with us from the Shore.
Periodically, during the ensuing downpour, they somehow turned the mics on and a man’s voice came to us out of the darkness.
"People, please come down off the scaffolding! It’s way too dangerous with the rain and lightning. Please stay off the scaffolds. They can’t hold all of you.”
“Are there really people climbing up on the scaffolds?” Jay asked me.
“I think so. I think I see them. Watch when there’s a flash of lightning.”
We waited for the next bolt, and when it came we strained to see what was happening up on the structures that had grown larger and more frightening in the dark.
“Yes, look, did you see them?” I asked.
But, as another bolt lit up the sky, I was no longer sure those were people—maybe fragments of clothing snagged in the stark angles, fallen branches of trees clinging to the bars.
“It’s not people,” Jay said. “It’s weird stuff, like garbage, man.”
“No, I saw people, and I think they were yelling for help.”
“No, if anything they were laughing. I think they’re having fun up there. Maybe singing.”
“You’re nuts," I told him, none too sure he wasn’t right.
The same anonymous voice that applauded the calmness of the crowd assured us that the storm would soon pass. All those voices are still in my head–Joan’s, and Richie’s, and the others.
As the rain stopped, most people slept right where they were, having no place to go, really. I later saw many who had arrived after us set up tents on the periphery of the crowd. Smart. I didn’t own a tent. We settled in a heap with our neighbors, our newfound comrades, trying to find warmth through the dampness of our clothes. Luckily, it was a warm August night despite the rain.
The morning brought to light a dismal reality. We were wet and hungry and life was a mud field. There were not enough porta-potties, so people headed for the bushes. The concert producers had expected 200,000 and were grossly underprepared; food vendors were not to be found, sold out within hours of opening. People walked around looking dazed, seeking food and water. Seeing a gold mine, some local residents sold hastily procured wares for prices most of us couldn’t afford. Others, I heard later, were more generous.
People reached out to help those who were “having a bad trip” or were lost. Many wanderers lost their way back to their “spot” in the sea of music worshipers. Others tried to reassure and help them navigate. “What color is your blanket?” “What color shirt is he wearing?” “Were you on the right or left of the stage?” Markers sprang up–sticks found in the brush with shirts, bandanas and hats tied to them.
“Jay, I gotta pee.”
“Me too,” he said. We got up, stretched, realized our soggy state, and took off in search of the johns. Somewhere along the way Jay stopped to smoke with some people he’d met the day before. “I’ll catch up with you later,” he said.
I kept going until I found a porta-potty. Then I wandered down a dirt road into the nearby woods, and saw signs for “The Hog Farm.” I heard the music behind me fading only slightly as I made my way with others down the trail.
The Hog Farm was a fairly well known commune based in New York City that had been hired by the concert producers to provide security for the Festival. They dubbed themselves the “Please Force” and convinced the producers to allow them to set up a free food kitchen. They rode around the periphery on Harleys, flashing peace signs to all as they maneuvered through the crowds to aid and assist. Wavy Gravy, their leader, had become famous after a performance with Abbie Hoffman at the 1968 Democratic National Convention while presenting the Hog Farm’s candidate, a pig named Pigasus. When asked by the national press what they would use to maintain security at Woodstock, Wavy assured them that “cream pies and seltzer bottles” would work just fine.
As I walked through the food line, smiling young men and women greeted me. “Enjoy the food. Have a peaceful day.”
“Thanks. I will.”
“Take care of yourself. Namaste,” they said as they filled my plate with a rice-vegetable porridge-like mound.
This was a good sign. I had taken a few yoga classes, and had tried fasting one day, but failed by 11 am. I knew people who said “Namaste” were enlightened, and I understood I had a ways to go in that department. I was in good company here. “Thanks, man, this looks great,” I said. I was surrounded by smiles.
As I moved out of the food line, I saw a large white teepee set up in a clearing in the woods. It seemed to rise twenty or twenty-five feet into the air. A few Hog Farmers in long skirts with, yes, flowers in their hair, invited people into the teepee to warm up or dry out. I decided this seemed like a very good idea, damp and uncomfortable as I was, and followed the direction indicated.
Opening the triangular flap, I stooped only slightly to let myself in. I entered a very large, dimly-lit haven. There was a good-sized wood fire burning in the middle of the teepee, with five or six large logs set up in teepee fashion, embers burning red below, flames dancing a good foot above, and smoke curling slowly upward. I followed the smoke’s path with my eyes until I found its exit point, an opening in the very top center of the teepee held open by a long pole, supported by at least five, perhaps six, other large poles, the bones of the cathedral itself. I was in a holy place.
Twenty or so other people in this earthen-floored room ranged in age from fifteen to fifty, and, with the exception of what I determined were the few maintenance workers and me, they were all without clothing. It dawned on me that this was natural and practical given the circumstances, though I had never taken my clothes off in public before. Not even at home, in the bedroom I shared with five sisters; no, we dressed in the adjoining bathroom most of the time, or kept our back to the group area, or even stepped into our closets while hiding our private parts, as my mother called them.
There were ropes strung between the side poles of the teepee, and on these were hung, in orderly fashion, the drying clothes. The people were seated in a circle on benches and seats of all size and fashion around the perimeter of the fire, not very close to it though, as it produced an impressive amount of heat. Faces had a rosy glow in the dim light. Most eyes were fixed on the fire, savoring its warmth, its comforting crackle. The flavors of smoke and wholesome food filled the tent.
I set my plate down, and, as if it were commonplace for me, unzipped my jeans and stepped out of them, slipped off my shirt, and was at once as naked as the rest. As I walked over to the line to hang my clothes up, I hoped there was nothing stuck to my butt that shouldn’t have been there, and ran a hand across it nonchalantly to make sure. Reassuring myself that I also had nice enough breasts, I turned around. I was greatly relieved to note that no one was actually looking at me, at least not overtly.
I picked up my plate, turning first and doing a lady’s bend, then chose the nearest seat and sat down. I’m sure I sighed with relief. After a while I actually relaxed, subtly glancing at the naked bodies surrounding me, not too long at any one, and began to eat. I don’t remember any conversation. Perhaps no one talked. It didn’t seem important. We were in the inner sanctum; silence was perfectly acceptable and perhaps most appropriate. So were curious glances and friendly smiles. In the distance, I heard the music, now muted by canvas and trees.
When my clothes were dry enough, I, like the other sojourners, donned them and went back to our spot on the crowded hillside, feeling much more mature, a little more accomplished and perhaps a bit smug: I had been in the Hog Farm’s teepee–naked!
Things looked up. John Sebastian and his band welcomed the sunshine. Everywhere were loving, friendly people dancing, singing, laughing, and crying. The music played on. I found my way back to my “place” with no trouble. Around us people came and went; there was constant flux. You couldn’t just sit there for seventy-two hours straight.
In the moment, it was exciting and seemingly normal. Not until later, in retrospect, would we realize what an historic cultural moment we had been part of. These were the big name bands playing for us: Arlo in all his curly glory, with "Comin' into Los Angeleez, bringin’ in a couple a keys”; Sly and the Family Stone got the crowd singing; Canned Heat and Santana sort of run together in my memory, but one of them took us “higher, higher!” Imagine a half million in a sing-a-long! Country Joe and the Fish had the entire crowd singing about the Vietnam War. And it’s one, two three–what’re we fightin’ for, don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam! Of course, we did give a damn, and that was partially why we were here. “See our solidarity, Washington? Can you hear us now?”
Janis gave us “…another little piece of my heart.” The Who, having just released their smash hit rock opera, “Tommy,” played so long I fell asleep. I missed the Grateful Dead completely and never heard the end of it from friends. The Incredible String Band, Jefferson Airplane, The Band, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Ten Years After–this was the only time I ever heard many of these greats in concert. What did they play? I haven’t a clue. But I was there.
By Monday morning the farm looked like a landfill. Mud threatened to swallow garbage, lost clothes, sunglasses, cameras, pipes, sleeping bags, and here and there a still-sleeping body. Two deaths and two births occurred but no violence to speak of. I didn’t see crazy hippies fornicating everywhere as the news reports would lead America and my parents to believe. Granted, I wasn’t everywhere, and maybe I did see a few who should’ve rented a room, but most of us were there for the music, the experience, seeking community, as we tried to make sense of a world gone crazy.
And then it was over, or at least we were done. My body felt close to my bones, my stomach empty and taut, my teeth hurt from clenching, normal after taking acid.
“Ready?” I asked.
“I guess,” Jay said. “How did we get all this in the packs?”
We wandered up the hill in the general direction of our car. Our soggy sleeping bags were heavy. We kept walking, searching, straining to see over the rows of cars and the moving wave of people.
“I was sure it was right there,” Jay said, walking in front of me.
“I don’t think I can carry this stuff much longer, Jay.”
He looked back at me, then around us again, neck stretched. Things looked so different then, just three days and a million light years since we’d arrived.
“Wanna stay here with the stuff? I’ll take this bag and find the car, then come back and get you.”
“You sure?” I asked.
“Yeah. I’ll find it.” He looked not so sure in his mirrored aviator glasses, slightly askew from having been slept on.
I lay down right there, on the grass, up near a string of cars somewhere on the edge of a field next to a very tall telephone pole with heavy wires anchoring it to the ground. Slumped beside my pile of damp blankets and clothes, staring up at a brilliant blue sky, I’m sure I looked like the lost soul of my mother’s imagination.
I listened to Jimi Hendrix still playing back on the stage. His was the closing act that Monday morning, and we had walked off in the middle of it, agreeing we’d had enough. But now, I listened. I heard him, and it hit me. Lying there, listening closely to his rendition of the national anthem, I cried—for the America I’d known, an America before the Vietnam War, and America now.
Jimi wasn’t performing the national anthem; he brought to life the sounds of war, of planes flying low and loud, of “the bombs bursting in air.” They screeched from those towering speakers, over and over, explosions reverberating against my stomach, my heart, my being. I heard them whine and howl, saw them land on towns and villages in a small hot country far from us, on fleeing people who didn’t ask for a war. Jimi made his guitar scream for them, and in doing so touched the hearts of this half million strong and all the others who wanted to be in Woodstock, New York, that summer of 1969. He brought us the sounds of a country at war, a country divided and at war with itself. He played America’s lament.
We headed back to the Jersey Shore. Looking over at Jay, I noticed he had a little smile on his face, one that mirrored my own. He’d turn to meet my eyes, and we’d shake our heads and laugh, letting it all replay in our minds.
Many people have asked me, “What was it like?” I have a hard time finding words to describe Woodstock. Imagine an instant city, Woodstock Nation. I was changed, all of us there were. I usually end up saying, “you really had to be there. You shoulda been there.”