My Woodstock Story
The light was more interesting in my bedroom. I would lug all my building blocks up from the playroom downstairs, lay them on the floor and build complex structures. Most of them were symmetrical, but once in a while, I would make an asymmetrical design with openings in the roofs to let in light. The avocado green curtains, a core color of the 1960’s, were just sheer enough to tinge the light as it hit my buildings adding a bit of mystery to the shadows. My early childhood was just a bunch of blurry Polaroid pictures, still shots of frozen moments like the time Dad and I ran out of the rain and just missed getting struck by lightning, or the time I punched Mark Thompson in the stomach for being a bully, or the time Mom learned that Robert F. Kennedy was shot.
I remember that moment more clearly. Mom and I were in the brown paneled family room. A white blouse was hanging off the side of the ironing board. A small, 12 inch black and white TV with “antenna” showing footage of an ambulance pulling up to a hospital over and over again. A serious voice repeating the news, “RFK is dead.” But what I remember most was the iron in her hand frozen in space and the look of bewilderment and sadness overtaking her as she tried to process the unthinkable. Hours and hours of crying followed, interrupted by my weak attempts to console her. In moments of calm, she told me that RFK was the “last hope,” and she would lament, “First JFK, then Malcom, then Martin and now this.” And the crying would resume. I tried to console her to no avail. This would be our pattern for years to come.
One summer morning, when I was methodically, placing blocks in a specific pattern, Mom burst into my room and proclaimed, “Robby! We’re going to Woodstock!” She announced it with a strange mixture of urgency and excitement. The urgency came from growing up very poor in New York City. The enthusiasm came from her true self, her soul of souls. It’s the type of enthusiasm that’s either contagious or exhausting depending on who you are. Most people found it exhausting — not me.
Leaving for Woodstock would not only be the end of my quiet contemplative block building session, but also the end of what most people categorize as a “normal” life. Woodstock was not just a “lost” weekend away from home. It was a turning point in Mom’s life, the formal beginning of an informal life, a life without structure, and without boundaries. It was more thrilling and scarier than any roller coaster ride because there was no track, no particular direction and no end in sight.
We left late that morning from our prototypical suburban home in one of the first ever suburban developments in the country. Thanks to Mr. Levitt, Willingboro was an all‐white, middle class, community filled with nuclear families, short grass lawns and short haired boys. Leaving late was something I would get used to with Mom. Dad was the opposite, steady and prepared. He did not go to Woodstock. At the time I didn’t make much of it, but in retrospect I know now that the trip would be the beginning of the end for my parents and their marriage would not work out.
Getting into the car was an event for my younger Sister and me. By 1969 we had the requisite bright yellow VW Bug, the ultimate hippie car. It ran on flower power. Our previous car, the Plymouth Valiant, adorned with hand painted flowers was traded in for this new hippie status symbol. The Bug had something
we called, “the bucket”, a tiny, carpeted space behind the back seat to be used for storage. It was Sister’s turn to sit it in there ‐ the perfect vantage point for seeing out of the back of the car and comfortable because there was a lot of back support. The other sibling, me, sat on the front edge of the rear seat in‐between the two bucket seats in the front, leaning forward, getting as far forward as possible. Seat belts were never used. And that is how we started our pilgrimage to Woodstock: The greatest music experience in history.
Car rides with Mom were always fun because she was addicted to McDonald’s fries, which was ironic considering one of her many future careers was as an alternative healer. Health food became a huge deal in the 70’s and Sister and I were the victims of dozens of madcap experiments in meals like: “soy grits, super milk and saw‐dust bread.” But on this day, we focused on spotting The McDonald’s Restaurants along the side of the road to get our fix of French fries. Drive‐throughs were new back then, a phenomenon of the emerging car culture, a prominent feature of New Jersey. We loved it, absolutely loved it. Junk food, also something new, was now available almost on demand.
The first leg of the Woodstock journey featured Sister and I singing in unison “French‐fires…French‐ fries…French‐fries!” When we spotted the actual golden arches of McDonald’s, our voices reached a feverish pitch. The thought of the salt and grease (2 of the four food groups to a kid) made us literally salivate. We lucked out, cued in line for the drive‐through — which, to a six‐year‐old was the second best Willingboro experience. (The first, most, best, neatest experience was going through the carwash with Dad, watching the soap poor over the windshield, then the giant spinning mops which looked like friendly monsters to me, then the rain storm rinse, followed by the very loud dryer, inhaling the water leaving a pristine windshield. Automation was the expected norm in my early
childhood, quite a contrast to what I was about to experience in the strange but somehow, friendly confines of Woodstock.
When Mom handed us the fries, we both yelled, “Neat!” We ate our fries quickly and quickly fell asleep. Sleep was the main strategy Sister and I used to avoid the often-harrowing experience of Mom’s driving which was simply terrorizing.
Hours later we awoke to the screech of tires and the beginning of a historic traffic jam — a three-hour bumper to bumper crawl. Whatever joy of the being in the Bug and eating junk food was now long gone. Being stuck in traffic with Mom wasn’t all bad though. She chatted constantly, telling us of how the world was changing and how we were a “part of it all.” sometimes we would sing, “This land is your land, this land is our land….from the gulf wood waters to the…” In other moments, she planned my route north to Canada to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam War. She said, “If there is one thing I am sure of, Robby, is that you won’t fight in that goddamn war.” Thanks to my Dad’s constant peppering me with simple math equations, I knew that Vietnam was still 12 years away. I never really worried about it, but I did get the sense of a guiding principle that underscored Mom’s world‐view — a definition of right and wrong that would become clearer over the Woodstock weekend. At some point, the epic traffic jam turned into an epic parking lot. We abandoned our car along the side of the road along with thousands of other traffic Jam victims and headed to Woodstock on foot.
We lugged our camping gear nearly ½ mile to the “campsite” which was nothing more than some farmer’s hay field. I began sneezing uncontrollably. Mom always suspected I had hay fever. This was now confirmed in the worst way. Putting up tents with mom and sister was always a mixture of frustration, fun and satisfaction. It usually took three tries. On the first try one of the spikes would
come out. On the second attempt the spikes were to close so that the tent would collapse in the middle. Sister and I would always jump into the mass of canvas and roll around for some illogical reason. We got the tent up on the third try and we laid out our sleeping bags.
Food became a priority, and since we had none to speak of, Mom quickly turned her attention to this, and we set off for the festival. We walked another ½ mile, following the faint sound of music and hundreds of others who were also just arriving. We emerged over a crest and looked down upon what only could be described as a throng of people: thousands upon thousands upon thousands of bodies, dotted by bright colored clothing and topped by mops of hair, lots of brown and blond hair. We were now at the actual Woodstock Music Festival, and it was a spectacle to be sure. Mom was giddy. I was hungry.
On the left, stood the giant sound stage which soared into the blue sky framed by the tree‐covered rolling hills of upstate New York. It was the steel towers that were the neatest — large tectonic structures that exuded strength. It reminded me of my erector set I had gotten last Christmas. We could hear guitars playing and the sound of voices singing but there was no way to make out the words.
We spotted a concession stand on a crest to our right and after pushing our way through the crowd and waiting in line for 45 minutes we discovered they only had watermelon left. It was at this time that we also confirmed that watermelon made my throat itch. I ate it anyway. I was hungry.
Then it was time to find a bathroom — a polite term for the temporary toilets overflowing with all manner of human waste coupled with an unbearable stench. Even worse, there was no real door, just a half-slung curtain for privacy. This turned out to be a good thing because I was not tall enough to use the toilet. A long‐haired man with frameless spectacles and a kind face waiting behind must
have noticed my dilemma. He came in, asked if I needed help, and lifted me long enough to take care of business. He moved my entire body to help me aim better. I mostly missed but it didn’t matter. Maybe he helped me because he wanted me to hurry up, but I think it was just an everyday good deed — a tall act of affective empathy for a short kid in need. Somehow that little bit of kindness made feel better about Woodstock, which so far, to be honest, was a bust.
At some point we laid a blanket down in a field and tried to hear the music. We never saw or heard Sri Swami Satchidananda open the festival, or Jimi Hendrix’s National Anthem or Joan Baez’s crystal clear voice. In fact, I don’t recall a single clear note of singing my entire time there. According to Mom, Bob Dylan was going to come and sign and so was John Lennon. Neither showed. As a child I always loved Janis Joplin’s anti‐materialistic song Mercedes Benz. Her voice was raspy and edgy but her message was clear. And that was the thing I started to learn about the 1960’s — everything had a message. Sister, Mom and I would sing along to Janis Joplin, “Oh Lord, won’t cha buy me a color TV…” I love the way she sung “color” as “co‐lore”, all the while I secretly hope to get a color TV. The only color TV I had seen by that point in my life was at my uncle’s house in New Jersey. It was integrated into a piece of dark heavy furniture and sat low to the floor. I would sit quietly on the plastic slipcovered couch and watch that co‐lore TV for hours.
The worst album of the 1960’s, to me, was the Beatle’s, Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The music and the album artwork were spooky, psychedelic, and weird ‐ a sad departure from the happy, catchy, pop lyrics of the early Beatles. Things got worse when my parents told me that if you played Abbey Road backward you could hear the words, “Paul McCartney is dead,” and, that Ringo was dressed as Paul’s undertaker on the album cover. All of this scared the living daylights out me. I would lay in bed at night worrying about Paul McCartney. Eventually I saw a trial on our 12 inch Black and White TV run by F.
Lee Bailey on channel 12. He tried to “uncover the truth” about Paul. No one told me it was a joke. Eventually, thankfully, McCartney did a live interview and the fear subsided. Even worse was the movie Yellow Submarine. The Blue Meanies were a nightmare by definition for me. My parents never should have let me see that movie. It haunts me to this day. Go ahead and watch it, you’ll see why.
Sitting on the blanket at Woodstock, barely hearing the music, was dull. It got worse when the pungent smell of marijuana was added to the other irritants of hay fever and an itchy throat. It wasn’t long before I saw the source of the scent and shortly after I watched my mom share a joint with some long haired, bug eyed freaky looking people on the blanket next to us. I watched as they carefully passed the burning “cigarette,” taking short inhales and long satisfying exhales. It wasn’t weird to me. Mom had been smoking a pack of cigarettes per day for most of my childhood only stopping somewhere right before our trip to Woodstock. To a six‐year‐old, it was just another cigarette. It would be a few years later, when Mom was arrested for possession of pot, that I really understood the illegality of it. Luckily for her, and for Sister and I, she managed to avoid jail, receiving 5 years’ probation which we later broke when we traveled cross country in a hippie caravan to California. To this day I’ve never done illegal drugs. I’d like to say that this was some form of rebellion against Mom, that somehow my normalcy and law‐abiding tendencies would make her mad, but it was probably more out of a fear of losing control. In fact, my whole life has been focused on control, a permanent knee‐jerk response to a childhood bereft of a sense of normalcy and predictability. I was driftwood floating in the ocean of my mom’s soul, an unwitting partner to her seemingly aimless but exciting journey through life. Thankfully, Dad served as the buoy, the steady, consistent force that gave us just enough stability to not completely fall apart
That night at Woodstock, Sister and I were so relieved to be back at the campsite. It was great to unzip the tent, and crawl into our cozy sleeping bags. Under the soft light of a kerosene lantern, we talked for what seemed like hours. Later, Mom, unzipped our bags and made one giant sleeping bag for all three of us to sleep together. It was then that I was happiest, snuggled up tight to mom. Sister was on the other side. We were finally safe and sound and fell into a deep sleep.
The next morning at Woodstock featured the beginning of the rain. Umbrellas were not available, nor hats. My hair was soaked and so were my clothes. We had wandered off looking for my uncle, a musician from New York. Sister and I begged to go back to the tent to get dry and share the last bits of food: a half jar of peanut butter with a plastic spoon. But we could see that we were in for the long haul, for the entire experience of that day.
Being a kid included time of just hanging around and waiting for people to stop talking. This was never truer than at Woodstock. Mom would randomly strike up long conversations with a wide variety of “interesting looking” people. I don’t remember the exact words, but if I had to paraphrase, I would guess it sounded like this: “Really big things were happening” and it was only a matter of time before the “shit hit the fan” and “the revolution was just around the corner.” On her deathbed, decades later, Mom revealed that she quit the revolution when they started talking about bombing buildings. I guess there were limits after all.
We never did get close to the music again at Woodstock, choosing instead to continue our search for Uncle. Hours later, when Mom spotted him, she yelled, “Far, fucking, out!” That was her catchphrase back then, pretty embarrassing really, but what can you do? My uncle looked the part, long curly hair, bell‐bottom jeans. He was tall, and he picked me up, twirled me in the air smiling up at me while I spun, around and around all the while I prayed he wouldn’t let go. I loved the way he talked. “Bake” he would say, “This is great!” Bake was short for Baker, their last name. I loved it when Mom and Uncle were together, both were really intense and really excitable. They fed off each other. It was contagious. I would soak it up, take it in. Sometimes these meetings didn’t always end well. Two years after Woodstock, Uncle came to visit us at our West Philly House. I remember waking up the next morning and seeing the handles of a pair scissors sticking out of the wicker clothes hamper. Apparently, there had been a big fight the night before. We didn’t see our uncle for a long time after that.
While Mom and Uncle talked, the rain intensified. I took note of giant puddles that had been forming all‐day and I took further notice of people taking off their clothes — all the way down to their underwear. A group of six or so people slowly tiptoed into the puddle. They had sheepish looks, as though they were unsure about this, but soon they were splashing each other, brown muddy water flying into the air, hitting their long scraggly hair. They were laughing now, frolicking, and they soon discovered that the water was deeper in the middle. They dove in. Bigger splashes. People had gathered at the edges, watching with delight as the mud puddle show continued. A few others took their clothes off and I remember seeing some actual entirely nude people joining in. I was taken aback by this.
Even at age 6 I was already prudish. During a typical week back in Willingboro, Mom would put us in daycare with Mrs. Hoffmann. She was mean. She would try to make us swim in our underwear in a 12-inch-deep portable plastic pool on her driveway. It was very unpleasant. So, when Mom urged Sister and me to take off our clothes and go for a swim in the mud puddles at Woodstock, it was a non‐starter. Besides, we knew a puddle was not a pool. Mom was disappointed. We must have watched this for another hour or so until we finally wandered off in search of food.
We saw military helicopters flying over us with a muffled voice over a blowhorn saying something about food supplies were on their way. Mom was convinced that the helicopter was an “advance force” and this was, “It.“ and that is was about to “go down”. The revolution in her mind would be violent. The scary thing to me was that she seemed to welcome it, that weird urgent side of herself would come out when she got like this. I few months before Woodstock, she came home one afternoon red‐faced, tearful, and crying, saying something about gas masks. “Those assholes didn’t tell me about the tear gas. All they gave me was this sock.” I looked at the heavy black sock closely, perplexed. She eventually explained what a protest march was and what tear gas was and how the sock didn’t really help. I didn’t understand but I knew something terrible had happened. I also was starting to see a pattern in Mom’s thinking. There was always a bad guy, “the man” if you will, and we were the “common people” fighting for justice.
By that evening it got scary, real scary. People were acting weird, really weird. There was a strange energy of restlessness in the air — very different than earlier in the day. Maybe it was hunger, or perhaps the drugs were wearing off, but the only way to describe it would be to call it a mob. I remember being jostled about while we worked our way through the crowd to get back to our tent. We had trouble staying with Mom who was now holding our hands tightly. I knew it was bad because she was squeezing my hand so hard. Mom must have known that two little kids were virtually invisible in this big crowd and in the dark. All I could see were legs everywhere. My view of the night sky was obscured by the masses of people moving in many directions. We were getting bumped and pulled. Finally, to her credit, and to my relief, Mom realized that it was time leave Woodstock. We made our way back to the “campsite,” and spent the next hour packing up our tent and looking for our yellow VW Bug. We were exhausted, utterly exhausted.
We made our way back along the route of the traffic jam, the crowds finally thinning out and the rain eventually stopped. We spotted our car. That was the good news. The bad news was that we were parked in on all sides. There was literally no way out and no way to find the owners of the other cars. To be clear, there were nine cars parked around our vehicle and one clear lane heading both in and out of Woodstock. Dejection. The thought of re‐establishing our campsite in the dark, in the mud was demoralizing. Our hopes of leaving that night were dashed. And I did what any typical 6‐year‐old would do. I started to cry. At some point, a group of long‐haired shirtless guys walked by and asked Mom if we were okay. While Mom explained our situation, one of them stroked his hippie beard, listening intently, patiently. When Mom finished, they walked a few yards away and huddled, talked for a while, motioning and pointing, and then they literally broke the huddle, as a team would do in a football game. Then they moved towards the car that parked us in. It was a massive American car, a Buick, the kind of car proud Americans drove when gas was 20 cents a gallon.
They surrounded the car, squatted, and proceeded to try and lift the car off the ground. They failed. It wasn’t clear to me yet what the plan was. A few more bystanders joined in, and even more people gathered to watch. The “volunteers” regrouped. The leader counted to three, they put their backs into it, let out some loud grunts and slowly, very slowly began to lift the car, just a few inches. And then after considerable effort, they started awkwardly shuffling their feet sideways and started to move the car out of its spot. It was hard work, but they managed to move the car out into the road. A cheer arose from the watchers. It was now a spectacle, a test of selflessness, of volunteerism, and a test of strength. There was a buzz in the air now. Moving our VW Bug was a much more manageable task, and the volunteers took to this one with more confidence and even excitement. They counted to three and they lifted it on the first try and repeated their sideways shuffle, got it out to the road, quickly turning it around, and gently placed it on the ground. Louder cheers, back‐ slapping, handshakes, and smiles. While the now very large crowd looked on, we thanked each of the volunteers one by one, Sister and I hugging their legs, Mom hugged the leader.
The symbolism of this miraculous liberation of our VW Bug never left me. It was the ultimate act of altruism, an expression of empathy that was so needed at that moment. A cynical person might argue that the volunteers only helped us so they could feel better about themselves, that there really is no altruism, but I disagree. Somewhere, deep inside us, the genetic coding and chemical makeup that compels us to help others is still there. When we act on behalf of others, the legal drug of oxytocin is released into our bodies making us happy, making us want to do more for others. That is the only drug I took at Woodstock and it felt great, absolutely terrific, exhilarating.
For all its muddy waters, disgusting toilets, sneezy hay fields, itchy watermelon and unrecognizable music, Woodstock still holds that sense of wonder and hope. In fact, the 60’s itself still stands as the last great empathic flowering of human civilization — an opening of the heart and quickening of the mind. It was the counter to the culture of industrialism, oppression, materialism, and greed –a world‐view shift. For a blink of a blink of an eye, humanity got a glimpse of what it could be ‐ the best version of ourselves. We were in the middle of it all, swept up into the tumult that was the 60’s.
The spectacular release of our car culminated the Woodstock Experience. The rest of the ride home was quiet except for a weak effort by Sister and me to get fries but back then nothing was open at midnight. I was in the “bucket.” Staring at the star‐filled night sky. I’d like to say that I used that time in the car to reflect on what happened at Woodstock, or that I built a worldview that would guide me for the rest of life, but it doesn’t work that way for a kid. The engine in the back of the VW purred as we drove along, and it wasn’t long before I did what any normal six‐year‐old would do. I fell sound asleep.