Late Arrivals – A Recollection of a Past Memory
A gentle misting rain fell through the dark as Tom and I followed the crowd through the abandoned ticketing gates. Swept up in this river of people, we had just walked twelve miles through a long serpentine traffic jam to get here, having left our Greyhound bus far behind. The driver said, “All right. Everybody out. Can’t go any further.” And it was true. That day, the road up the rolling hills was packed with cars as far as the eye could see. We stepped down into throngs of walkers, envying the college students lucky enough to be perched on the tailgates of station wagons, guzzling pink Bali Hai wine. There were beautiful girls and dudes with long hair. Pot smoke was everywhere, a strange, alien aroma that smelled of illegality to a young kid like me. As Jimi Hendrix and Grace Slick wailed from the car radios, Tom and I left the bus and started walking.
Gray-haired local ladies at tables waited along the roadside, handing out free lemonade to us. Everybody was grateful; it was a hot day. Other than the hippies’ little kids, who we saw later in the treehouse groves, Tom and I were the youngest people there: two sixteen-year-old boys with backpacks filled with Pop Tarts our moms had packed. Along with sleeping bags, soap, and a few bucks to spend from our after-school jobs, Tommy Burke and I had ridden from Arlington, VA to upstate New York that day, and we had just arrived at Woodstock.
We were too young to be there by ourselves, but we were there anyway.
It was Friday, August 15, 1969. About 10 pm. We’d walked for eight hours to get to these gates. Nobody asked for our tickets, because nobody from the festival was there. They’d given up and just opened the gates.
Feeling the mist on my face as I followed the crowd, I became aware of distant music. Tom and I finally crested the ridge and beheld a vast natural bowl, filled with what turned about to be 400,000 people. Far down at the bowl’s bottom, a tiny pink light shone faintly. It took me a moment to realize that it was the giant main stage, so far away it was. Sitar music wafted up clearly. Turned out to be Ravi Shankar, who eventually became one of my musical heroes. Back then I didn’t know who he was, all I knew was that as the breeze surged from below and then waned, his wondrous music grew louder, then softer, then louder again.
The crowed was shrouded in darkness. Only flames flickered here and there from cigarette lighters.
In need of sleep we found a spot beneath a swaying banner in an out of the way spot on the ridge and ate our Pop Tarts, which by now were crushed to fragments. They were tasty anyway, though, but in the morning we knew we’d need to find some real food. In my sleeping bag, I could hear the music still surging. It was a woman’s voice. We talked a little about how amazing it was that we’d both gotten here and that the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was going to be very cool, and then fell asleep.
Nobody knew what this weekend would turn out to be. Least of all our long-suffering parents at home, reading front page news in horror about rain and muddy drug overdoses. They were wishing they hadn’t let us go, they confessed later—at least mine did–and since cellphones didn’t exist in 1969, they wouldn’t hear from us until we called from the bus station, back home in Virginia four days later. “Hey Mom, Dad. I’m back. Can you come pick me up?”
Quite the four days. More in the next episode.
Tom Burke and John Bodkin, circa 1969
The Woodstock Teen Chronicles