Thirty-five years later Walt, who now goes by the initials ‘WL,’ his wife, my wife and I sat on the back porch of my home sipping wine watching my three kids playing in the backyard and swapping stories about Woodstock and those daze …
TEN YEARS AFTER
By Howard Smead
There were three of us: Walt and myself, and another fellow whom I met
the day we left. His name was John Leisure, memorable for his huge, myopic eyes
that seemed to reveal his utter disbelief that we would pay him ten bucks
apiece for two film canisters of home grown that was so green it wouldn’t burn.
I didn’t know he was going with us until I picked up Walt that morning and he
told me about the distressed phone call he had received late the night before.
“What the hell,” he counseled. “He said he has dope.” Walt and I were fresh
from our first year at the
Attitudes changed that fast. The people of
After wandering through the maze of
people asking everyone who didn’t first ask us to fill their pipe where we
were, we realized that we were supposed to follow the flow of people escaping
down that one-lane farm road across from the car. THAT was where the event of the century was
supposed to be. It had become so
suddenly dark that I worried as we bobbed and weaved along the black, tree
shrouded road that perhaps the Pied Piper was alive and well and piping in
Setting up a worn out Boy Scout tent can be tricky in total darkness, especially when you first must beat down chest high weeds before even unrolling the damn thing. The good camp sites on what turned out to be the hilts along the lake were taken so we had been forced to crash down off the road into the weeds. After setting up the tent and burning a small, obligatory fire, we crawled into the tent and fell fast asleep, three of us crowded into space enough for two small Boy Scouts. But we were too tired to care.
In the morning I awoke to the sound
of voices—all loud and happy— and above that someone rattling the air with John
Coltrane riffs. None of us had any idea
where exactly we had pitched our tent.
We had not seen the famous revolving stage we had been hearing so much
about, although over a hill to our right came sounds of hammering that had
lasted far into the night. To my dismay, my face and hair were soaked. I had slept in the middle, right under an
uneven tear in the canvas. The rain had
come and gone like a thief in the night. Yet it hadn’t totally dampened things,
the sounds of life were all around us and somewhat nervously I unzipped and crawled
out trying to dry myself with John’s shirt.
I expected to encounter many more people by day than I had in the
groping black night before, and I did, but I was not prepared in the slightest
for what lay directly beyond our tent. “Walt, you gotta
wake up,” I called to him as though I needed his calm verification to make it
so. “You’re not gonna believe this. We camped on the edge of
There not twenty yards from the tent
We found out a little later that the in-coming hordes had overrun the fences early on Thursday and the organizers, who didn’t really care anyway, bowed to the inevitable and opened it up, as free as free could be. It was great news because tickets had sold for $37 apiece and that was more than I had brought along even before I gave $10 to John. The ice had all but melted and when I sat on the fragile styrofoam, that dispensed with the rest of it. From then on it was lake water nothing cool at all.
Word spread that the music was supposed to start at 2. The three of us headed toward the sounds of pounding and sawing and found the huge, wooden monolith of a stage at the foot of a long, sweeping hill— a natural amphitheater. We had walked past it the night before. It had been so dark and the stage down so low that we saw only the faint corona of the work lights. Workmen were still hammering things together when we sat down. The music came 3 hours later but in the pleasant sunlight afternoon conviviality passed instantaneously from one person to like the hastily rolled joints that went through your fingers once then sped away never to return, from one hand to the next before it became a smudge on the last person’s middle finger. It was very easy and very relaxed.
Around the people on the stage stopped their exhortations that we be patient to announce the first performer. We all stood up and cheered. It was Richie Havens; his first song, Handsome Johnny, crystallized the mood into a kind of celebration of defiance—we would triumph—damn the war, damn the government, damn the politicians, and damn the weather—we were marching off to our own war.
It was fortunate that the swami who was supposed to begin things with a meditation had been delayed. He came on after Richie Havens. The crowd had no desire to repeat his pious incantations and ignored him right off the stage. I don’t know if it was the incessant repetition of ‘ohm’ or the claustrophobic feeling of being walled in by people he had remarked upon several times, but Walt began to complain of a headache later on as the afternoon sky began to fade. I gave him a couple of my grandmother’s Darvons that put him out for all of Tim Hardin. While he slept John slipped my wineskin from his neck and took a drink. Rather than passing it to me, he screwed the cap back on and struck out across the wilderness of people. I didn’t see it or him again until the next morning when he straggled back to the tent to tell us of his good fortune. “This chick is going to split a tab of STP with me tonight,” he enthused,”That is, if I can find her again.”
John may well have returned later that night, but if he did I was in no shape to identify him or make much sense of anything. Sometime during Ravi Shankar a tall guy with a maze of electric black hair piled up on his head in a hysterical imitation of a redneck beehive stopped to share a joint with us. Before he went on his way he stood up and looked down at me and did a very strange thing. He started rubbing my hair in time to the music saying, “You’re doing all right, you’re doing all right, you’re doing all right.” I just sort of sat there trying to figure what the hell he was talking about. At the time it made zero sense to me. I was very well aware I was doing okay. Anyway I thanked him, three times. I’d be the first to admit that much of the conversation probably went right past me. And after thinking about it for about ten years I guess he was congratulating me. I had had my hair cut only five days before and I must have looked pretty callow at that. Needless to say, many a moon passed before the barber’s scissors met my hair again —1973 in fact — but that’s another story entirely.
The rain that became so much a part
Before the rain came on Friday night he told us Tiny Tim had suggested that everyone in the audience light a match and hold it aloft. We scurried around borrowing and distributing matches and on his count struck them and held them up. There must have been well over 200,000 of us by that time, enough to produce a shockingly brilliant glow that re-created thirty seconds of daylight over the delighted crowd which showed its approval by erupting into a roar of self-congratulation. A thing of such spontaneous beauty was to be savored and even though it had lasted such a short time, I didn’t want it to happen again, ever. For the first time I knew I was part of something that very few people would ever have the chance to experience. We all belonged.
Saturday morning was wet and miserable; it rained all night long and we woke up soaked to the bone. Believe me, there’s few things in life more miserable than a soggy sleeping bag. I went down to the lake for a quick bracer and decided to walk over to the pine grove to escape the gawking crowds along the shore by the slip. One rather hysterical man stood on the bank shouting at everyone to get out of the lake because it was furnishing the drinking water. A group of four guys and a girl came by in a completely submerged rowboat, stopped to listen- then paddled away, unimpressed. Apparently the unfortunate soul whose job it was to stand there and yell at the swimmers did not know that the pumping system had collapsed during the night. There was no more fresh water until the helicopters brought it.
The pine grove where on Friday I had tried to talk Walt into moving our campsite was a perfect swamp. The few tents remaining lay useless and abandoned. A few disgusted people had stretched their sleeping bags over a fallen limb like snake skins to dry, but it was pointless. Nothing was going to dry out in that quagmire for days. I made a quick exit, greatly relieved that I wasn’t one of the unlucky who’d been rolled and packed in pine water during the night. Back by the dam the water was cool and clear and
just deep enough, so relaxing in fact that I forgot how miserable I had been when I first woke up, almost. I worked my way out into deeper water intending to make an attempt at a serious swim back. Fat Chance! I quickly disabused my self from that foolish notion and idled around until I had rationalized my laziness away. The urge to exert myself wasn’t strong enough. Back on shore, however, someone had an urge he couldn’t rationalize. There like a coiled snake beside my neatly bundled clothes lay a pile of fresh turds. Good morning.
As I was returning to our camp, a middle—aged man clad in a black stretch bathing suit asked me to take his picture. “The boys at the office will never believe this,” he explained as he handed me his Instatmatic and waded out into the water amid several of the less conventionally clad. Holding his arms out to include the glorious totality of the lake and its occupants, he grinned like a mad bomber and shouted, “Okay, now!”
Later that afternoon as Walt and I were trying to scrounge enough dry wood to build a fire, this girl walked past us on her way up from the lake. I tapped Walt on his shoulder; most people dressed as soon as they came out of the water. We watched her walk across the crowded road and on up the hill to her tent. She held her composure almost the entire way but just before she reached the tent, the weight of all those staring eyes got to her; she scrambled into it and yanked the flap down behind her. Her name was Lonnie. Several months later I ran into her at the offices of the Quicksilver Times in DC. I was sitting in front of a battered wooden desk trying to talk one of the editors into hiring me as a photographer when she emerged from the next room. I stared at her with such disbelief that I forgot entirely about the interview. Sal Torre the guy I was talking to, said something to her that she shrugged off and she returned to whatever it was she had been doing. I thanked Sal and left. They didn’t need any more photographers. It was a good thing because the next week somebody broke into my apartment and stole my camera.
In November I volunteered to work on one of the food trucks the DC cops were kindly allowing to traverse their barricades to ferry hot stew to the people braving the freezing weather for the Moratorium. The trucks worked out of a church in Foggy Bottom. Guess whose truck I was assigned to? There, standing on the rear bumper was Lonnie, just as blond and just as beautiful....
The weather and the immense crowds
slowly distorted everything to the point where it became impossible to adhere
to even the most basic of schedules. If it hadn’t been for changes between day
and night, it would have been very easy to loose track of the time entirely.
The weekend just sort of slogged on. You ate when you felt like it; rested when
you could; and stayed as stoned as possible. The music was continual, better still, all around you people were having a great time, mud
or no mud. If you were so bummed out you missed the humor in it all, chances
were you didn’t care enough to come in the first place. Some people did get
desperate though. Well, at least two that I know of. As we were cooking some hot
dogs Saturday afternoon, two washed out guys came by looking for food. We gave
them some hot dogs but rather than cooking them they crammed them into their in
mouths raw and trundled off. God knows
why they hurried away. There was no place to go. People now over whelmed the
hill in front of the stage all the way up to and over the road. All the camping
was gone. The roads were jammed. And after lunch it became difficult even to
get into the town of
It rained and rained, then the wind
blew, and then it rained some more, washing out part of the afternoon show and not
a few of the less hardy. Helicopters began buzzing overhead with frightening
regularity it was nice to see that Cobras could be put to peaceful use. But it
was also disconcerting to see a military presence at
Indeed, when I returned home late
Sunday night, my father who had been obstreperously opposed to such silly
notions, had waited up to offer his praise. As I closed the front door, he was
just sitting down on the steps. My mother stood at the top of the stairs as
though she didn’t know what her husband intended to say or do. He looked at me;
I looked at him. “Well, you proved your point,” he said with a wry smile. They
had been listening to news reports about us all weekend long.
John never did show up again (presumably he found his friend and their motors were still running) and early Sunday morning Walt and I woke up with the tent collapsed around our heads. It helped us decide we had had enough. I took one last tour, stood for an hour or beside the information booth listening to one confused guy asking directions to his own tent. I even ran into some friends from home who had arrived on Saturday. But enough WAS enough. It was great while it lasted. We rolled up our bags, then folded the remaining food — a few cans of baked beans and fruit — into the plastic ground cloth and rolled that up into the tent for John. By then nothing — even leaving — was easy. There was so much mud and so many people that working your way out to the road proved to be as much a hassle as finding a place to sit down. At the highway where the farm lane ended and where our car was parked, we stopped for one last joint. We ended up smoking three and sitting there until dusk watching the stream of people coming and going, all of them weary, all of them expectant.
After popping all the dents out of the hood from people sitting on the car, we loaded up and started to inch our way into the flow. A girl in an unbelievable fishnet top climbed onto the back of my VW and asked through the sun roof if she might hitch a ride down the road to the country store. She held onto the sunroof and pressed herself against the rear window and chatted with Walt who put his head up through the opening. We met her thanks with profuse thank-yous of our own and watched her sidle through the people lazing on the front steps of the besieged store and close the door behind her. I never saw John Leisure again. Walt gave up on college shortly after New Years and went off to LA (where he still lives) to become an actor. I saw him once in a crowd scene in “Who’ll Stop the Rain.”
Back then everything seemed possible if you just had the right attitude. Hopelessly naïve. I guess it was a case of closing your eyes and thinking of Christmas.