WOODSTOCK Remembered-40 Years Ago
Forty years ago I was working in a paper mill in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It was a summer job that paid incredibly well and was secured for me by a family friend who was a vice-president at the plant. I was a floater who filled in for vacationing employees. It was interesting to learn the paper making process. I started off in the carpentry division making wooden pallets which held the huge rolls of paper. I was then transferred to the late night shift where the pulp was actually created in the giant, twenty foot deep, blender like vats filled with raw pulp, chemicals and nylon bonding elements. It was a tough, hot and filthy job.
I was an amiable yet argumentative type with one year of college under my belt and very long curly hair. I think I annoyed these working class guys because as naive and friendly as I was, I also worked my butt off. My ability to work hard and drink beer along with them after work only perplexed them more. As my varying job assignments sent me snaking through the plant, the work got increasingly more difficult (my pay increased as well). I began to think they were turning up the heat just to get me to quit or at least teach me a thing or two.
The mill was located on the Connecticut River and one could go to the under level of the building and see the ebb and flow of this major river up close. Huge rats were not an uncommon site as was the milky latex water that spewed endlessly into the river from the rubber coating division of the paper mill. I would watch the milky plume float downstream from the windows above. This was before the greening of America. Lady Bird Johnson was still planting flowers and picking up litter. And the Vietnam war was raging. The humidity was typically New England summer and the heated rollers that dried the pulp as it moved from oatmeal consistency to dry, rubber coated two-ton rolls of paper, increased the heat to well over 110 degrees. To have the temperature in the roller room reach 115 degrees was not uncommon. It was even warmer for those of us who had to crawl under these giant rollers and guide or cut the newly made paper. The men that worked here every day for all their lives worked hard. Yet they were racists and as opinionated in their realm as I was in mine. We argued and debated endlessly about the plight of Blacks, the creation of the underclass, the Vietnam War and other socially prominent issues. Because of my long curly hair they called me "spear chucker"; a clear reference to the "Afro" they thought I sported. Nothing to them was a greater insult. I was armed with a year of college knowledge and fought back intellectually the best I could.
It was to these men that I announced that I would be taking Friday, August 15th off to go to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair as it was formally and originally named. I do not remember what time Larry Uman and Michael Goldman and I, along with Eileen Smith, a friend of ours needing a ride to the concert, piled into my marroon1963 Classic Rambler, 4-door sedan, with the front seats that reclined for sleeping or partying. Sometime that afternoon the four of us headed up the Massachusetts Turnpike for the New York Thruway. We did not have tickets since we had become experts at gaining entrance to concerts for free.
We were the furry freak brothers with beards and extremely wild hair. There were only four of us (Eileen was tagging along for the ride) because my parents would not allow my brother Steven to go. He was 12 years old and they felt he was too young for this adventure. As we cruised up the freeway the traffic grew more and more dense. Announcements on the radio warned of impending closure of the roads and immense traffic jams. That made us only more determined to continue. I remember the crazy people in front of us, driving an old convertible, singing loudly with a tambourine, "It's a bummer! It's a bummer!", over and over again, like this chanted mantra would dispell the traffic. As the sun set and the clouds rolled in I remember not an ounce of depression seeping into our fun times. Let it rain. We found the town of Bethel, which we thought was near the concert sight, located a parking space and headed for the nearest deli for salami, bread and cheese. After all, we were in the Catskills and Jewish deli's were not difficult to find. Eileen went off to find her boyfriend and the three of us got out our sleeping bags, divied up the space in the car and slept through the rains. We would skip the Friday night concert and avoid the rains. The next morning was beautiful and off to the farm we trekked and trekked and trekked. The parking space was a good two or three miles from the concert site. There were thousands of kids marching along the road. We passed ponds filled with skinny dippers, outfitted vans with sound systems, Persian rugs on the floors and book cases lining their walls. The first well organized travelling types I would get used to seeing. When we turned the final corner we could see that the entry gates to the concert area along with the fencing had been trampled and mushed into the mud and that no one stood guard to collect tickets. Another free concert! The mud was deep and naked guys ran as fast as they could in order to slide into the mud like a runner going into second base. So many people were just playing and parading in the mud. We thought we'd get a jump on the crowd so we headed down to the center stage area right up front.
The sun was getting warm and I decided to hike up the hill to buy something to drink and eat. It was an easy climb since not many people had arrived yet. More mud bathers and a steady flow of carnival types I imagined only existed in famed Haight Ashbury danced back and forth on top of the hill. I succeeded in getting some food and decided to return to my friends. I turned around to head back down the amphitheater like bowl and was confronted with an amazing sight. Every bit of space was filled with concert goers. I inched and weaved my way back to where I thought our home base had been. No friends in sight. I searched for what seemed like hours; stopping periodically to listen to Canned Heat, Country Joe and the Fish, Mountain and every announcement reflecting on the quality of hallucinagenics available at that moment. I decided to simply sit down and enjoy myself. After all I had the keys to the car . So what if I did not have my shirt? I'd get another at the car later in the day. So I sat down right then and there and looked to my right. There sat someone from my home town of Longmeadow, Massachusetts. They shared food and water and we reveled how I managed to pick this very spot to stop. "Karma", they said, and all 500,000 people agreed.
As the evening came closer I began making my journey back to my car to retrieve my shirt, put on some shoes and grab my sleeping bag. The music played on but the scene was as good as the tunes. I climbed atop a water truck with hopes of hitching a ride to my car. So did the swarms of others loaded every which way on the stainless steel truck. As the vehicle inched forward I heard a booming voice yelling my name. Down below was my good fried Mike Reily from college. "Jump!", he yelled with outstretched arms. I jumped. And he caught me. His campsite was right near us and he invited me to join them for the remaining time. I returned to the car for the shirt and things, returned to my friend's site and settled into a peaceful concert listening evening. Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Who, Sly and the Family Stone, and as the sun came up revealing all the burned out people and camp fires Jefferson Airplane played Wooden Ships. A serape skirted woman with long blond hair played the flute in the campsite next to ours. The sun rose and everyone collectively woke up. The Hog Farm was spread out on the knoll above us serving a breakfast of brown rice and vegetables. We were all exhausted but it wasn't that different than any other camping trip we'd gone on. Just a whole lot more people and a lot better music.
The rains came again but we were already heading home. Jimi Hendrix would have to play without us. When we arrived in Massachusetts the turmoil and rumors propagated by the government entities and the media had distorted the entire experience. Though we were covered in mud and in a general state of filthiness our spirits were soaring from the collective experience of a grand weekend. Though my mother and father were awed by the level of mud about me and my car they were really surprised to hear how much fun we had had. The reports coming out of Woodstock were so hysterical and untruthful that they had feared for my life. It was such a blatant example of disinformation that even my father began to doubt the veracity of the news and The War in general.
Woodstock was a one time event. I think it was the exclamation mark at the end of a brief, naive sentence. Like the sexual revolution this window of naivete would soon close because of the harshness of other realities. Forty years later I am wise enough to say that this is the way it always has been. Certain special moments flare up and soon are smothered by the weight of the common, ordinary world. Certain special men of that time (and women)? like Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy flare up and are smothered by a more negative reality. These greater moments can happen anytime; the result of a higher energy entering our ordinary world. Collectively we embrace the periodic infusion. Peace.