I was 19 the summer of the Woodstock music festival and lived less than 275 miles from the Bethel, N.Y. site of the concert that shaped my generation.
So, it is important to note, as the 50th anniversary begins today, that I did not attend Woodstock.
No freaking way.
I had my chance to go and I turned it down. I am not part of the 3 million or so who have claimed over the years that they were there.
That was a rough summer for me. I had just spent my first year of college dedicated to two things: avoiding mandatory ROTC classes and playing rugby. No surprise to anybody that I dropped out of school.
Since my high school days, I’d been leading the life of a “troubled youth.” Three arrests, one conviction. Anti-social tendencies regarding the military and Vietnam, draft avoidance. Issues with authority figures. Anti-intellectualism.
Today, it would all be cataloged under “white boy privilege.” I was allowed to make mistakes. There was no shortage of teachers, football coaches and other kids’ parents willing to publicly shame me and rehabilitate me for my unseemly behaviors. There always seemed to be an avenue forward, no matter how stupidly I behaved.
That summer I took a job with a moving company in Pittsburgh. It was hard work but I needed that. It was actually harder than I ever imagined. I must say, at certain points in my life — when I needed to turn things around — a job like this always appeared to motivate me. The prospect of spending my life loading trucks with lumber, furniture or rolls of fabric served as a reality check felt like a “scared straight” program. These jobs provided perspective and the prospect of a life of manual labor seemed far more onerous than getting a formal education.
I decided it was time for a long weekend after a particularly grueling hot and humid road trip in a big 18-wheeler loading, hauling, unloading furniture from Pittsburgh to Kokomo to White Plains to Long Island and New Jersey and back to base in Pittsburgh.
I took off on a Thursday morning and hitchhiked the 90 miles north to Brookville, my old hometown in north-central Pennsylvania. I had no agenda in mind, other than Brookville always provided a stabilizing force in my life. It never changed. The people never changed. And I needed to see that from time to time.
My family owned 22 acres of largely untouched forest on a river up there, the classic cabin in the woods, which was a great place for getting your head together.
I had a ritual upon arrival of walking deep into the woods to a large open circular patch that never seemed to support anything other than meadow grass. To me, it had mystical qualities. The trees grew densely around it but against their nature, seemed to leave the circle untouched. I have sat there meditating and become aware of deer entering ever so cautiously from the opposite side of the circle. As if it were some sort of spiritual neutral zone.
All I wanted to do on that dark and rainy Thursday was to reach my circle.
On the several rides it took to reach Brookville, every radio station in every car was obsessed about this thing called Woodstock which was about to happen — or not — in New York. I’d not heard of it. But it was mesmerizing to hear the radio newsmen talk about the coming Armageddon — the highways were at a standstill, the rain was coming, food was scarce and drugs were plentiful. Thousands and thousands of unsuspecting youths were riding and walking toward disaster.
The last ride dropped me off at the main intersection in Brookville, Main and Pickering. A couple of doors down from Main, at the pizza shop where a big-hearted cop took me and several pals for coffee to sober up on a wanton Saturday night, I spotted some of my old pals.
They had a convoy similar to the ones we used to form for trips to the Watkins Glen raceway for the Can-Ams and Trans-Ams and permissive drinking laws of New York State.
They were headed for Woodstock.
“We’ve got space,” said an old high school buddy.
Still damp from getting caught a couple of downpours and dogbone tired from hauling furniture, I gave it a quick thought.
“Nope. Sounds fucking crazy, if you ask me.”
Not the last unfortunate life decision that I’ve made, but probably one of the bigger ones. I guess. Who is to say?
Attending Woodstock might have ruined my life just as much as it might have changed it for the better. Sometimes, when I watch people at MAGA rallies screaming “Lock her up!” and “Build the wall!” I wonder how many of them once identified as part of the Woodstock Generation or maybe even went to Woodstock. I wonder if anyone has ever studied Woodstock attendees to see just how many kept those Aquarian values.
I didn’t know it at the time but I had several more years of wandering in the desert ahead of me before I found my true calling. And I loved those “lost years.” I’m grateful for every one of them and the beautiful people I met along the way.
I can’t even recall now what I did that weekend while my friends stewed in the rain and traffic, limping toward Woodstock.
I know I somehow made it out to the family property and made it out to my circle in the woods to meditate, reflect, recharge and rejuvenate my waning spirit. I probably hiked a lot through that old woods, clambering over massive ancient rocks like I did as a kid.
The serenity of solitude has always been my saving grace. Give me enough time by myself and I can make it all right with the world again. And again.
I do know I went back to Pittsburgh and did more hard time loading and unloading households full of furniture in the smoldering summer heat. During that time I got a mailing tube from Cleveland. It contained a brief but flowery note about the impossibility of time and distance and the urgency of youth — and my high school ring. Another one of those great-while-it-lasted moments. Years later, when the price of gold seemed insane, I sold the ring. It felt more like an exorcism than a financial decision.
And when everyone else headed back to school, I moved to Washington DC, just ahead of my local selective service board’s draft notice.
During the next several years as my own life crisscrossed in and out of the so-called hippie/alternative lifestyle movement, I never once met a single person who went to Woodstock.
Now they seem to be everywhere.
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Ever wonder what Woodstock was like? You can experience it in real-time starting today, August 15, on Philadelphia radio station WXPN. The station will be broadcasting the massive
“At exactly 5:07pm EST … Thursday (August 15), WXPN, which airs on 88.5 FM public radio, will run through the entire original recording of 1969’s Woodstock, featuring every performance, set breaks and stage announcements,” according to NME music magazine.
A just-released box set from Rhino Records, Woodstock — Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive, makes the broadcast possible. It is a chronological compilation of the entire festival, a work of staggering tenacity and effort that took 14 years to compile from myriad sources. The sold-out mega-box contains 38 CDs, 432 tracks of which 267 are previously unreleased, and all of the ambient sounds, announcements, and ennui between acts