I was at Woodstock.
Which made one of my young journalism students remark, “So, did you fight for the North or the South?”
Not as funny as it sounds as we now live in a country more divided than it was in 1969 over the Vietnam War and civil rights.
In the half-century since 400,000 of us sloshed into a muddy cow pasture on Max Yeager’s farm in Bethel, NY for three rainy days of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, the United States of America is probably more divided than it has been since the Civil War.
But 50 years ago, we landed a man on the moon in July and in August, created the most culturally historic event of my generation in that hippie mud fest where I remember John Sebastian from Sag Harbor singing a song, “. . . it’s okay to shoot the moon/But darling be home soon . . .”
And then listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young — who were introduced by Sebastian at his East End home — performing “Suite Judy Blue Eyes,” “Blackbird,” and “Long Time Gone.”
On the PA system, concert organizers urged us “not to take the brown acid” but if we did, to report to the medical tents. Tie-dyed stoners stood on long lines to get water and sandwiches as topless hippie chicks danced in the falling rain, and fully naked crazies had mud-sliding contests, people passing skins of cheap Chianti and joints, some openly making love as the evening skies purpled like their Owsley acid.
In the drizzly mornings, a caravan of us who’d trekked from Brooklyn’s Hippie Hill in Prospect Park went to the lake to bathe and wash our shoulder-length hair. State Troopers watched us with stoic passivity, some looking like they’d like to tear off their starched uniforms for a plunge in the river for Baptism of Free Love with the skinny-dipping ladies with freshly picked flowers in their hair.
In those three days of weed, wine, and harmony, I don’t remember seeing a single argument, shoving match, fist fight. People really did make love instead of war to the music of Santana, Richie Havens, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band, Johnny Winter, Ravi Shankar, Sly and the Family Stone, Blood, Sweat, and Tears — so many now dead.
Except for a guy named Tommy, a Brooklyn sanitation worker who’d slept in the mud for several hours after the first night of whiskey, beer, and weed. Strangers from the next “blanket” had just returned from hiking three miles into town and three miles back with a large Styrofoam cooler filled with glorious ice covering a case of beautiful Budweiser beer bottles, which was a treasure chest of diamonds on that thirsty hill sloping toward the great psychedelic stage that was the focus of the universe.
Tommy was a young man of 22 out of time and place, an always-angry neat-freak germaphobe who incongruously emptied garbage for a living. Tommy was also slightly paranoid, thinking the whole world was out to swindle him, carrying a small ledger of people who owed him as little a dollar. He had a maraschino-cherry-red complexion that made his Irish baby-face and balding dome resemble the top of thermometer ready to explode.
Tommy awoke during a Canned Heat riff with an attitude matching the band’s name. “Whaddya lookin’ at?” he slurred at the friendly people with the ice cooler on the next blanket who watched him do a sideways Ali Shuffle through the deep mud.
“Peace, brother,” said one hippie sipping an ice-cold Bud, flashing a two-fingered peace sign.
“Piece of s—,” snapped Tommy, stumbling in a crazy little circle to a loud chorus of “NOOOOOOOOOs.” Tommy fell backward, landing atop the Styrofoam cooler, crushing it and all the beautiful clean, clear, ice cubes into the sludge of mud, many of the bottles smashing and foaming into the pasture.
The hippies expressed their displeasure.
Tommy jumped to his feet, throwing up his fists in a default late-1950s Brooklyn Skid Row Boys street gang rumble stance.
We all surrounded Tommy, bear-hugging him; telling him to calm down, that we were at Woodstock, where static and violence was un-cool.
What almost became the only fight at Woodstock ended with Tommy smoking the peace pipe.
We believed we were really changing the world.
It took another five years, but finally the Vietnam War ended.
And then so did the ideals of the 1960s epitomized by Woodstock. Since then we’ve had more wars, the recent one lasting 17 insane years. Yes, we elected our first black president, but then we took two steps backward to elect a blatantly racist president.
Fifty-one years after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, we have Donald Trump calling a Southern black congressman who was 17 when King was murdered a racist, tweeting that no “human being would want to live” in Elijah Cumming’s Maryland district that is “disgusting, rat and rodent infested.”
This was because Cummings criticized Trump’s inhumane policy of kids in cages on the border and for subpoenaing Trump’s daughter Ivanka’s and son-in-law Jared Kushner’s phone and email records as White House staffers for his Congressional Oversight Committee probe.
Trump has also singled out four freshman Congresswomen of color for derision, labeling them as racists and anti-Semitic, telling these American citizens “to go back to where they come from.”
This from a man who married two women from Communist bloc nations who gave birth to four of his five kids. This is the same Trump whose father was arrested at a Ku Klux Klan riot against the NYPD in 1927 in Queens, NY. The same Donald Trump whose first wife Ivana revealed in her autobiography that Donald Trump slept with a book of Hitler’s speeches on his nightstand. The same Donald Trump who was charged, along with his Klansman father Fred, twice by the Federal government under the Richard Nixon Administration for racial discrimination as landlords of Federally subsidized housing.
The same Donald Trump who took out a full-page New York Times ad calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five who were later exonerated by DNA evidence and the real attacker’s confession. Trump still insists they were guilty.
The same Donald Trump who said there were good people on both sides of a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville.
In 50 years, we’ve gone from Woodstock to concentration camps for children on our southern border and an autocratic racist in the White House.
It’s like angry Tommy from Brooklyn grew old, got platinum-dyed hair plugs, and became president.
People have asked me if I’m going to Woodstock 2019.
I’m not sure it will even happen. If it does, I’ll take a pass. I just wish all the young people who do go also make the effort to vote in 2020, because that will be the defining event of their generation in this sadly divided nation.