Woodstock: I Was There

Answers to questions about what it was like:

I was twenty years old in 1969. I was a seminary student for the priesthood and on summer vacation in the summer of 1969. I was a loner, a peripheral man on the fringes of both the counterculture and society at large.

It was a turbulent time in America with wars raging on both the foreign and domestic fronts. With assassinations of our liberal leaders, civil unrest, discrimination and the questioning of all authority, The institutions of this country were being rocked to their foundations. In this environment the counterculture took on added appeal.

My favorite group was The Doors. I had a record player that played single 33rpms. The only record I owned was “Riders on The Storm” (The first choice for my book title) which I played over and over. I also liked the later Beatles, Temptations, Dylan, Lovin Spoonful, Rascals, Kinks etc. Aside from the Temps and Four Tops, which were, feel good groups; the other music acknowledged underlying feelings of alienation and angst.

The Hippie movement was more than bell bottom pants and long hair. It was a state of mind. A world view. A philosophy and lifestyle. It was so pervasive that it crept into and finally overran the mainstream culture. We were all part of it to some degree. We shared common values such as basic human rights for all people, the sanctity of life, the search for truth and a better world, the power of change, a distrust of those in power.

Civil unrest was the first wave of change to sweep the country. Demonstrations quickly turned violent Hatred and division ran rampant. Then women rights and the counterrevolution. The “hard hats” (Middle America) and government were terrified and struck back. Black people were beaten and hosed in the streets. The student protesters were savagely beaten by Mayor Daley’s police at the 68 Democratic Convention. Our fellow young men were being brought home in body bags by the thousands. Daily bombings of Vietnam and Cambodia. Assassinations of Presidents and Civil Rights leaders, all of the above brought to us in living color each night on the 6 o’clock news.

The Vietnam War was evil. Perpetrated on a foreign people by industrialists and government determined to advance their capitalistic and political agendas with total disregard for human life.

The drug scene was a way out (not a real good one) of the day to day oblivion and despair many of us felt. I began riding motorcycles, studying philosophy, visiting a friend in the town of Woodstock regularly, riding the subways of Manhattan alone late at night and spending time in Greenwich Village.

I attended the Woodstock Festival in 1969. I was involved with student sit-ins at Lehman College during the Cambodia bombings.

I was barely twenty years old. I followed a girl I had met the week before in Tarrytown N.Y. She was in a Camaro with her girlfriend and two guys. One looked like Jimi Hendrix, the other like Lynyrd Skynyrd. I followed on my motorcycle, with ape hanger handlebars and a sissybar to which was tied a very large duffel bag.

I stayed the three days. Pretty much. I was a loner but followed a car with four people in it. One was a girl that intrigued me.

I wasn’t a protester but I was a seminarian questioning my vocation. I was on vacation and went spur of the moment. No-one knew what was in store for us up there. I didn’t get injured but the person I ended up with did.

I lived in Sleepy Hollow, i.e. Tarrytown, New York. I was single and in the seminary as I stated. I also went to Woodstock 79, 94 and 99. At Woodstock 69 I did a few things I shouldn’t have. At Woodstock 79 no one was there. At Woodstock 99 I went around telling the young people to be careful.

Here’s the best Woodstock story ever told. I was barely twenty as I said. I had my motorcycle against the curb on Beekman Avenue in Tarrytown when a pretty girl pulled up in a new Mustang. She noticed me admiring her car and asked me if I wanted a ride. I said yes if I could keep my helmet on because I didn’t rust female drivers. We drove around Tarrytown for two hours and became friendly. She invited me to follow her and her girlfriend up to Woodstock the following week. I met her and her girlfriend and the two guys I mentioned above at the foot of the Tappan Zee Bridge that Friday and we headed up the New York Thruway. When we got within 15 miles the traffic began to back up. The girl jumped out of the car wearing only jeans, a top, and no shoes. She made me throw my gear in the trunk of the car and we rode along the edge of the highway into the festival site and waited for the car to catch up. It never did. All the cars came to a stop and we realized we would not connect with our friends. I turned to her and asked if she had any money? She had $60 which was a fortune in 1969. I told her that the rules of he road dictated I watch out for her the entire weekend but she would have to split the dough. She agreed and jumped back on the bike and we got a bottle of wine and rode into the Festival. She was barely seventeen. So there I stood on the edge of the grassy oval with this pretty girl with hair down to her waist (she looked like the girl on the Mod Squad TV show) a bottle of wine and my bike surrounded by 400000 soul mates. It doesn’t get any better! Then we watched as a tractor drove along a cleared portion of earth (all the grass was trampled and the mud and 500 years of cow manure were coming to the surface) I watched as the tractor ran over what appeared to be a mound of earth as a human hand flung out. It became evident that a person had been in a mummy sleeping bag and had been run over. I ran to the trailers and banged on a door until the doctor came out. I told him he had to come and help because someone had been run over. “What do you want me to DO!” he said, explaining that thousands of people were overdosing, having babies etc.

“Are you kidding?” I said “I’ll knock you out, damn it!”

” I’m sorry,” he said “but I will call a medivac unit.” The helicopter flew in and removed the young man already dead. It was like a replay of the 6 o’clock news with all my fellow young Americans coming back in body bags from Nam.

Then the rain came. We were cold and wet and found refuge in other people’s tents was we slept briefly an hour at a time. We sloshed around together the entire weekend, listening to the music and taking in the scene. My friend stepped on glass and cut her foot. She got help in on of the medical tents. In between the music played and everyone got along- no assaults or murders. People loving each other. Saturday night Sly and The Family Stone came on stage and sung “Gotta Get Higher” and 500,000 young people shouted the lyrics at the top of their lungs.

By Sunday I was sick and thought I had pneumonia. So I decided not to wait for Hendrix and took my friend home. Riding down the Thruway in torrential rain I had a premonition of a crash. Just then the memory of my roommate from the seminary entered my mind to remind me he worked in a camp in the Catskills. I turned off the road and stopped at a store and asked if they heard of St. Vincent’s camp. It was just down the road! I pulled in to the camp with a full beard and leather jacket, a big knife strapped to my waist on my black bike. The young girl on the back was literally in tatters. The old Irish Catholic nun at the gate was mortified when I told her I was seminarian. My roommate identified me and was let in. I slept under ten covers in a big log bed while news reports about the disaster area we had just come from played on the TV.

The next day it was sunny and clear as I dropped my new friend of on a corner in Tarrytown, Tears welled up in her eyes as I explained I was headed back to the seminary. Once back at school in my vestments whenever I opened my prayer book the picture of that sweet girl with tears in her eyes would appear. I put up with it for three months before I cranked up the b
ike and rode back over the Throgs Neck Bridge to tell her I might be able to see her once in a while. PS: thirty two years later we are still married! A very true story.

There was no police harassment at Woodstock that I observed. Just the opposite. They left everyone alone and were friendly.

I felt a camaraderie with the downtrodden and oppressed. I was poor, strong willed, and a fiercely independent thinker. I was a philosopher and an existentialist. When I ultimately decided to leave the seminary (I had studied since age 13) I underwent a religious and moral crisis. It was a time of deep emotion and psychological soul searching.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever be selling luxury automobiles thirty years later!

I think a lot of us became disillusioned back then just after Woodstock, Altamont and Kent State. We all went on with our lives and buried our ideals. We became jaded and cynical. We ultimately matured (how horrible!). But there is a reawakening, a resurgence beginning to sweep the country, I feel. A lot of us including myself are beginning to look back to those times and question the paths we have taken. (That’s part of the reason I wrote my book). We are trying to recapture the magic and the light we left behind.

The experiences of the past were both liberating and dehabilitating. Many of us who experimented with mind-altering substances for instance, may have actually changed who we were, the very makeup of our own brains and personalities. There is something sad in that I think. Maybe that explains the comical situation I put myself in at the twenty-fifth reunion at Woodstock in Bethel were I walked around at night telling young people smoking pot that “you really shouldn’’t be doing that”.

Being a parent now myself (a grandparent actually), I wished I had taken it a little easier on my own parents. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I went all the way and became ordained. How many people would I have helped?

To borrow a phrase, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. I have enjoyed the fruits of my labors to some extent in my adult life. Although I bought my first house at age 25, and drove fancy cars most of my life, I never became a slave to money. But I did become a slave to the retail business. A workaholic, putting in 12 hour days for thirty years. I took few vacations, and smelled few too many flowers. Yet for what, I now as others ask myself.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!