Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Woodstock Chapter...an exerpt

In Celebration of Woodstock August 15-17, 1969 

An Excerpt From My Memoir

Soon after my return, [from my junior year in Italy] I got together with a couple of my college friends, Michael Buonanno and Wayne Chesney. Wayne, as I’ve mentioned before, was a bit effeminate despite his tales of womanizing, and Michael, a lanky bookworm-type with dark-rimmed glasses, was a self-proclaimed intellectual and free thinker.

Both were interested in attending (but Michael was the more eager) a concert we’d heard about that was scheduled for later that summer in nearby New York State. I was elected to get us all tickets for the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, which was to be held from August 15 to 17, 1969.

Since I was the only one of us with a car, I also provided limo services. I picked up Michael in Springfield and Wayne just outside of Albany and we drove down to Bethel, New York, to join a half million or so other young people who were gathering to listen to Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and dozens of other performers who had become icons of the counterculture that was sweeping the country.

We were hearing news reports on the radio about huge traffic backups on the New York Thruway and on rural roads leading to the music venue. Despite the reports about all roads being totally jammed, we decided we would try to get through. About twelve miles from the farm where the Woodstock Festival was taking place, we came to a dead stop. It was Friday afternoon.

Of course we were not the only ones. Cars lined the road and people, these so called hippies mostly, were sitting on lawn chairs or on the hoods of vehicles eating sandwiches, drinking Boone’s Farm, and smoking grass.
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Many of the concertgoers began abandoning their Volkswagens, Chevy vans, and beat-up pickup trucks along the side of the road and walking. Some were saying it was a ten-mile walk to the gate, others were saying more like twelve or fifteen.

Michael, not one to think about practical matters or miss out on something he had his mind set on, said, “I think we should walk. Everyone else is.”

Wayne, more cautious and a little out of shape, said, “I don’t know. I suppose if it were a mile or two. But they’re all saying maybe ten miles or more. I don’t think I can walk that far. Besides, that means walking all the way back to our car later.”

“Yeah,” I said, “if we can even find the car again.”

I was quickly coming to the conclusion that we were not the free spirits we pretended to be. “Well,” I said. “I’m not really willing to leave the car here. I’m really not as laid-back as all these freaks and potheads. What if a bunch of these guys on LSD decides my car is a spaceship or something and break in so they can return to the earth from whatever planet they’re on and save the universe?”

I had no clue what tripping might be like, but it was my car, and I had the last word. I convinced them it was prudent to return home.

“Yeah,” Michael said. “I guess you’ve got a point there.”

We dropped off Wayne in his upscale Albany suburb late that evening. Michael and I headed home. It rained hard overnight.

On Saturday evening we heard that the traffic jams around the concert had cleared and the roads leading to the festival were open. Michael and I decided to head back to Woodstock early on Sunday morning. We didn’t call Wayne because it would take too long to drive all the way up to Albany again.
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When we passed the gate, or should I say walked over the chain link fence, it was early Sunday afternoon. Most of the concert was over, but groups that had been delayed due to the rain and technical problems were still playing or waiting their turn.

What I remember most is the smell. The aroma of deep, dark, fermenting-hay-and-manure-enriched mud. And alternating whiffs of wood smoke from smoldering campfires and the unmistakable and ubiquitous aroma of cannabis sativa, pot. The combination created a sensory backdrop for the music of The Band, Blood Sweat and Tears, Crosby, Stills ,Nash and Young, and the other groups that played on through the night as we sat on a piece of plastic that we had found left behind in the pile of trash, in the middle of what had recently been a cornfield.

Michael said, “I’ll be right back. I’m going to try to find some grass; I want to get high for this music.” He knew I had never smoked pot and I declined his invitation to try it now, so he didn’t insist I join him. He wandered a few yards away and soon ended up talking to a group of guys and girls. He was laughing his odd, snorty laugh as he took a joint from some guy with long, unkempt hair and a barely discernible yellow bandana that, when he gestured, caught the glow of the campfire in front of him.

Michael took a deep drag and held his breath. “Thanks,” he must have said while trying not to breathe out too much of the potent smoke. Then I’m sure he followed with, “I’ll have another toke, if that’s OK.”

He was not shy about asking complete strangers for something he wanted. He sat down with his new friends until he was sufficiently high to enjoy the music and then wandered back to where I was sitting.

“After the joint, we did a bowl of hash. That’s some good shit,“ he said. “I’m really fucked up.”

We sat, Michael swaying his head to the sounds of Ten Years After. I was probably the only spectator at Woodstock who wasn’t stoned. We sat, me most uncomfortably, on our plastic real estate while others around us were so stoned or high or drunk that they didn’t care about mud or smells or being comfortable.

I was the one who had suggested coming here, but, even though I may have looked like one of the crowd, it was not easy for me to go with the flow. It was never easy for me to go with the flow. I’m not even sure I knew what the phrase meant.

Here I was at Woodstock, in the midst of America’s youth subculture, trying again to fit in. Three months before, I’d been wearing an Italian fitted camicia and hip-hugging black velvet pants at the fancy farewell dinner dance, sipping Sambuca at a trattoria and hailing taxis with feigned European sophistication.

Now, on a smoky August night, I sat with Michael as shirtless hippies made love to their women in the open air on sleeping bags or in sagging orange tents that moved tellingly with their sexual tempo. Rock bands I’d never heard of serenaded all of us into the night.

We’d been mostly awake for more than a day. The sun was rising. It was Monday morning. If I had nodded off at all it was a half-sleep, not dreaming, not fully awake, the music hypnotic except when the microphone squealed every time an announcement was made from the stage; the campfire and marijuana smoke and people walking by, talking, laughing, asking things like, “Hey, man, anybody got some acid?” or “Where are the Porta-Johns?” all wove their way into my sleep/wake dream.

The Porta-Johns, just beyond the field of tents, had evidently been overflowing for days, and entering one was pretty disgusting, even to pee. I was glad that circumstances had shortened the time we had to spend there, the free music not quite making up for lack of creature comforts.

The misty light of sunrise revealed the debris of what had been, for a few days, a small city of half a million people. Empty wine bottles, soda and beer cans, paper bags, blankets, clothing, trampled nylon tents, and smoldering campfires dotted the pasture.

We were too tired to be very hungry. We had eaten the chips and sandwiches we brought along and made a breakfast of some grapes, a package of peanut butter crackers, and a couple of warm Cokes. We wandered around the field taking in the sights—lots of shirtless, barefoot young men caught my eye—as we headed toward the gate.

“You ready to leave?” I asked Michael. “Or do you want to hear more?”

Much of the crowd had already deserted the venue during the night as even hippies had responsibilities that came with Monday morning. Neither Michael nor I had anywhere to be.

“Yeah, I’m ready to go. I hope we can find the car,” Michael said. “I think we came in from over there.” He pointed to the left.

We walked along the side of the road past a wooded area and a pond where people were swimming and washing up. There were a few naked guys and girls splashing around and I envied their freedom. I couldn’t see much from the road, so I also envied their up-close view of the activity.
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