In June of 1969, I reached two major milestones: my 18th birthday, and the end of my high school days. Last month was my 50-year class reunion back east, and a good time – I heard – was had by all. Unable to attend, I did enjoy looking at pictures of classmates that, like me, had gotten older in the last five decades, but still looked the same in my eyes.
A few months after the aforementioned milestones, this know-it-all, mature 18-year-old decided to attend a rock concert called “Woodstock.” My parents didn’t want to give permission, but I was “an adult,” and could decide for myself.
Six of us piled into my friend Harvey’s car on the 12th of August, hoping to beat the predicted traffic up to White Lake, NY, which was 140 miles away. The concert was set to go from the 15th until the 17th, and featured every major rock star and group at the time. Although only 100,000 were predicted, over 400,000 people attended.
Legendary singer, Graham Nash was recently quoted: “If everyone who came up to me claiming they were at Woodstock was there, the earth would have tipped over.”
Carlos Santana called it “ground zero for the peace and love movement.”
So, what actually did happen? After 50 years, there are indeed still-fuzzy parts of my personal recollection, but I can share what I do remember.
When we arrived in Bethel — a part of White Lake — it was already dark and somewhat confusing on where to park. Harvey pulled over to an open area that was not lit up at all. We decided to put our sleeping bags down and venture out at first light. (This cracks Grandpa up since, now, my idea of roughing it consists of no room service and feather pillows!) When we woke up, we were in a cemetery, and I had been sleeping on Little Jimmy Smith, who had passed away in 1898!
We left the car there and hiked to the stage area, passing many people wearing flowers in their hair ... and little else. The air was filled with marijuana and talk of the upcoming music. The farm we were on — owned by Max Yasgur and his wife — was filling up with kids from all over this country, and beyond. Those first two days before the show was great fun. The rain had not yet started.
There were announcements about the New York Thruway being closed due to the enormous influx of cars, but in truth, the NY State Police only ended up closing off two exits to prevent even more people from going to the concert, while the actual Thruway remained open. Traffic delays exceeded eight hours, so some of the groups had to be flown in by helicopter, leaving the lineup order out of whack.
Acoustic guitar in hand, folk singer Richie Havens had to open the concert, ending his set with the amazing rendition of “Freedom.” He later described it as terrifying, but he had played for almost two hours.
With dark clouds looming overhead, the concert continued, but when the rain began, it soaked everything, including us. I remember people bathing in the nearby lake, trying to get some of the mud and grunge off, but it was fruitless. Throwing common sense to the wind, we decided mud sliding was more fun than dodging raindrops, or — by then — nonstop torrential buckets of water.
The music was halted a few times, which led to the performances continuing on well into the night and early mornings. Everyone I wanted to see was there and, even though we were elbow-to-elbow in a sea of humanity, I enjoyed every note and performance. We danced in the rain, we shared food and water and anything else we had. Strangers became family. When we ran out of food, they had the Hog Farm where you could get cooked rice and anything else they dropped down from helicopters. Nobody grabbed or stole from others. Everyone shared and made sure people were OK. The lines for the portable toilets and pay phones were endless, but again, nobody cared too much.
Since the acts were backed up, Jimi Hendrix — who was last to perform — didn’t get on stage until early Monday morning. By then, the crowd had dissipated to approximately 40,000 or so — including my friends and me. His set consisted of several hits and ended with his infamous rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” His performance also lasted for over two hours. He protested the Vietnam War as he used his guitar to make the sounds of planes coming, bombs being dropped, explosions, people crying and machine guns. It was bone-chilling.
The stories go on and on. My mom even tried to get a friend of a friend with access to a helicopter to fly over to check on me. He graciously declined. She told that story dozens of times and it cracked me up then and still does to this day. She was a hoot! There will never be another Woodstock, at least for this old hippie. My friend’s baby was born and two people died, but there were no fights or anger among the enormous crowd. The respect, love and human kindness is a memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Marla Luckhardt is a Brentwood resident who works with several local senior care and advocacy groups. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.