I am posting an unabridged chapter from my memoir in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival. I look back and in many ways do not recognize the person I was, the Frank before coming out, the Frank that returned from a year in Rome, the Frank that was thrust into a new sub-culture of hippies, mind-altering drugs and protests.
When Woodstock took place I had never even smoked pot, although later that year I discovered the weed and indulged frequently. Never did anything stronger (mainly out of fear that it would be a bad experience).
Now, by the standards of the 60s, I would be considered "conservative" although as my readers know, I am basically a progressive liberal, though I am not out marching in the streets. Now I am even leery of medicinal marijuana and CBD. Try not to take anything stronger than Alieve.
I hope you enjoy this little vignette. Feedback appreciated.
/8/ By the Time We Got to Woodstock (Unabridged Chapter)
WHEN I GOT OFF the American Airlines flight in Hartford in June of 1969, the last leg of my trip from Rome via Chicago, I was no hippie. I wasn’t even sure I knew what a hippie was. But I probably looked like one: one who was smuggling contraband to boot.
I had a scruffy beard and was wearing sunglasses. I wore the heaviest pants I owned, a pair of corduroys, a T-shirt, and over that, a long-sleeved shirt, two sweaters, a sport jacket, and a London Fog-type trench coat. The pockets of the coat were stuffed with socks, underwear, a Kodak Instamatic camera, several religious articles blessed by the Pope, a pair of sexy Greek sandals with the long laces that Valerie got for me on a trip to Greece, and whatever else I could manage to fit in. I had a large carry-on bag and an authentic Italian-made guitar in a leather case slung over my shoulder. I must have looked ridiculous, but at least I had been conscientious about keeping the weight of my checked luggage under the required fifty-pound limit.
Once back in New England, the initial culture shock I experienced and my nostalgia for sidewalk cafés, Roman ruins, and honking Fiats quickly gave way to readjustment to McDonald’s, suburban neighborhoods, and Chevrolets. But a dormant, rebellious part of my personality began to emerge that was more in tune with the prevailing popular counter-culture that included protests, tattered jeans, and long hair.
Soon after my return, 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. Hoping that the line of cars and vans would start moving, we waited it out. Whenever we were able to move a car length, there were cheers and whoops from fellow pilgrims alongside the road and from cars ahead of us and behind. Soon enough Michael, Wayne, and I realized that each move forward was merely due to someone ahead giving up, turning around, and leaving.
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. Even without picking
up Wayne it would take about four hours, including picking up Michael in Springfield.
We got within a mile or so of the festival and figured it would be OK to leave the car, barring any hippie space travelers on LSD. Abandoned cars still lined the road and people were walking in both directions. Some, looking tired and muddy, were leaving, but others were hanging around their vehicles, and many appeared to be just arriving.
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. Here 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.
* * * * *
In the months and years after Woodstock, although I may have looked the part, I was never a full-fledged, card-carrying, hallucinogenic drug-using, communal hippie—unless, of course, you count smoking marijuana and sharing an apartment with six other guys and the fact that I wore tattered bell-bottom jeans and let my hair grow into an Afro.
No, I was not a hippie, but I was gravitating toward not so much my own comfort level but the least uncomfortable of the available options. The most uncomfortable was the dorm environment created by the beer-swilling, macho campus-boys who got drunk on Friday evening, remained that way all day Saturday, and left the bathrooms in shambles. I would spend as much time away from them as possible; some weekends practically living in the student center, the snack bar, and the library.
Off-campus life suited me better, but required more planning and depended on friends actually wanting to share space. I hung around with two different circles of friends—one, a group of conscientious, more or less asexual, closeted, or in-denial gays; and the other, a group of academic, asexual, or closeted straights who experimented with mind-expanding drugs, believed in the cultural revolution, and called themselves freaks.
Mine was mostly a tangential role, where I and a few others occupied the space intersecting these two overlapping circles, like a Venn diagram. I drifted among the groups but never felt as if I really fit in anywhere.
But they were the folks that were, in one way or another, my friends, my support system, and my social circle during my senior year and the year after when I returned to make up the few credits I needed to graduate.
My identity as a student was defined partly by my living situation—one that seemed to change each semester and with it, my lifestyle. One semester I’d be an intellectual recluse and live in a private room in the senior dorm; another semester, I’d be isolated in a small apartment with Michael; then I’d be in a large house with six other guys where I often felt like an interloper. I even lived for a time in the basement catacombs of a huge convent where Phil Swanson and I each had a room in exchange for kitchen cleaning duties. But even that was his gig; I felt like a homeless freeloader.
Nineteen sixty-nine and 1970 were depressing years, judging by most of the music we listened to, like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” or their Bookends album: music to slit wrists by.
Around that time, a bunch of us got together to run a coffee house in an empty building on campus. I made espresso, hot chocolate, and mulled cider while the others played guitar, sang protest songs, and read poetry.
The guys I hung around with shared similar ideas about social justice and antiwar issues and apprehensions about getting drafted. I was more than worried about the military draft, especially with my college deferment about to run out. I couldn’t imagine how I’d survive the induction medical exam, let alone boot camp. After all, just being with a bunch of guys on a basketball court could precipitate an anxiety attack and make me feel thoroughly emasculated. The sustained anxiety I would experience in basic training and living in barracks was too frightening even to think about.
In December 1969, the United States Selective Service instituted a draft lottery. All of our male bodies were numbered by a chance drawing of birthdates to establish the order in which we would be called into military service and possibly go to war. Those with low numbers would be certain to be called soon after graduation when our academic deferments could no longer protect us. The lottery sorted us like goats and sheep ready for a June judgment day.
“Lucky me, I got 23,” Walt Hawley said with his usual sarcasm. “What’d you get?”
Walt was a journalism major. Back in sophomore year, Walt and I had written a regular column for the college newspaper, which we titled “Diogenes.” We were quite audacious in our choice of topics and commentary, at least for the times and the milieu of a small Catholic liberal arts college not used to boat-rocking. That was also the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and Walt and I along with a handful of sober and socially conscious students staged a sit-in to prevent a student-sponsored, Spring-Break-Keg-Party-and-Parade from moving off campus into the streets. We held hands and sat across the college access road. The drunks were pissed. It was my first protest.
“I’m 334,” I said, almost embarrassed to admit that I’d been spared a stint in the army by sheer luck, and knowing that Walt was sure to be called.
“Well, that calls for a couple of beers,” Walt said. I wasn’t sure if he intended to numb his own fears or to celebrate my good fortune. I was soon certain it was the former, because Walt got pretty shit-faced.