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Flashback

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Some forty-five years ago, I—along with some five hundred thousand of my closest friends—attended a remarkable party on a farm in New York’s Sullivan County. Some time later, in reminiscing about that momentous blow-out, I wrote the following account:



By the Time I got to Woodstock
On the first of “four days of peace, love and music,” we packed ourselves into a Dodge Dart and drove from New Paltz to Bethel. OK, somewhere near Bethel—we got to within nine miles of the festival. After an immobile hour or two, my Dart-borne companions were ready to turn back.
Not about to miss this historical event, I climbed out, hoisted a sleeping bag onto my shoulder, and started walking past the endless line of stopped cars. After walking forever in the August heat—when I was perhaps half-way to the festival site—heaven smiled on this weary traveler. It began to rain—no mere sprinkle, but a hippie-soaking downpour.
Imagine the scene: thousands upon thousands of wet, tired, hippies (many with wet tired dogs) along a twenty-mile-long parking lot. Somewhere in the middle of this fragrant jamboree, a tall skinny guy, wearing white bellbottoms, a shiny purple rayon shirt (with puffy sleeves—good lord, what was I thinking?), trudged along, somewhat stooped under the weight of a water-logged sleeping bag.
Did this pony-tailed guy give up? No freakin’ way!
Not then, at least—the next morning was a different story.
I had spent the night cuddling up, beside someone I should never have been with, in that very wet sleeping bag. Did I mention that it was lined with some cheesy yellow-dyed flannel—and that, at the first sign of moisture, it released that yellow dye all over the enclosed hippies? Did I mention that the sleeping bag was, itself, half submerged in the re-hydrated fecal matter of generations of Max Yasgur’s dairy cows?
Enough was enough. I shuffled back down that same highway, and—when I reached some traffic that was moving—hitched a ride to New Paltz.
The white bell-bottoms—stained by god-knows-what-all was living in the mud of peace, love and music—were never white again.  No amount of bleach was to have any effect on them. I had to dye them a nearly fluorescent shade of magenta.
What can I say—It was 1969, and it seemed like a good thing to do at the time.




This week-end, I revisited the site of those events. The times they’ve been a-changing there. The long dirt road from the highway to Max Yasgur’s farm has grown into a paved two-lane road. A fancy museum and performance space now perches atop the hill. Inside, a gift shop overflows with peace, love, and trinkets—both cheap and not-so-cheap.




The museum’s exhibits did a great job of putting the weekend’s events in historical perspective—but that, of course, is one of the things that museums are supposed to do. They attempt to contextualize a collection of images and objects in order to help us imagine what it was like to be among them when they were current.

Unfortunately, museums can never really succeed because the moments they try to describe were filled with countless other things and sensations: things that are uncollectable, sensations that were taken for granted in the moment, but distinguish actual life from dioramas. No doubt, all historical museums are up against similar problems in trying to recreate the je ne sai quoi of temps perdu.

Certainly, the Museum at Bethel Woods showed ample photos and film of healthy young people joyously frolicking in mud… but do museum-goers smell that mud? Do they feel it oozing between their toes? Do they feel the grit of drying mud—in their hair, their ears, their very eyelashes—upon waking, before they even realize where they are? Can it help them to envision being deeply uncomfortable, but simultaneously oblivious to their discomforts because they were trivial compared the bizarre joy of rising amidst half a million equally uncomfortable but ecstatic friends? Do the photos capture the profound funkiness of half a million unwashed and mostly unwashable bodies, bodies that were more closely packed than in any time in human history? Might there have been a moment, onstage, when Ravi Shankar said to himself, “Odd… this smells a bit like the India I tried to leave behind when I came to the West?”

Revisiting that oh-so-clean homage to a moment in our history, with its glass cases filled with sanctified detritus of half-century-old everyday hippie life, and carefully re-created versions of things that were abandoned ages ago, I am reminded that, while we might—occasionally—find a spot where we were once, nothing about the spot will be the same. That the moments we remember, or even imagine we remember, are not what we believe them to have been. Inexplicably, words from a Kenneth Rexroth poem—in which he envisioned an amorous moment shared by Antony and Cleopatra—form in my head:

…taking off
 Their clothes of lace and velvet 
 And gold brocade and climbing
 Naked into bed together
 Lice in their stinking perfumed
 Armpits, the bed full of bugs.
_________________

On the way home, we stopped at a nearby restaurant, where our twenty-something waitress asked us if we had been to the festival. When I answered in the affirmative, she followed with, “Do you remember anything?”

Now I don’t know, for a fact, that her question implied a suspicion of illicit activities at the festival. Perhaps she merely assumed that I was suffering from senile dementia. Either way, it was a damned good question.

2 Comments:

Blogger Mikki said...

Nicely done Gary, and nice to have been there with you - this time, anyway.

November 16, 2014 at 11:01 PM  
Blogger Ji Yeon said...

Thanks for sharing! Nice post!

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July 29, 2015 at 5:35 AM  

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