I was twenty years old and a seminary student in the summer of 1969. I was a loner, a peripheral man on the fringes of both the counterculture and society at large.
It was a turbulent time in America with wars raging on both the foreign and domestic fronts. Our leaders were being assassinated, civil unrest, discrimination and the questioning of all authority, The institutions of this country were being rocked to their very foundations. In this environment the counterculture took on added appeal.
My favorite group was “The Doors”. I had a record player that played single records. The only record I owned was “Riders on The Storm” which I played over and over. The great music of the day acknowledged our underlying feelings of alienation and angst.
The Hippie movement was more than bell bottom pants and long hair. It was a state of mind. A world view. A philosophy and lifestyle. It was so pervasive that it crept into, and finally overran the mainstream culture. We were all part of it to some degree. We shared common values such as basic human rights for all people, the sanctity of life, the desire for truth and a better world, the need for change, a distrust of those in power.
Civil unrest was the first wave of change to sweep the country. Demonstrations quickly turned violent. Hatred and division ran rampant. Then came women rights and the counterrevolution. The “hard hats” (Middle America) and government were terrified and struck back. Black people were beaten and hosed in the streets. Mayor Daley’s police at the 68 Democratic Convention savagely beat student protesters. Our fellow young men were being brought home from Viet Nam in body bags by the thousands. Daily bombings of Vietnam and Cambodia. Assassinations of Presidents and Civil Rights leaders, all of the above brought to us in living color each night on the 6 o’clock news.
The drug scene was a way out (not a real good one) of the day to day oblivion and despair many of us felt. I began riding motorcycles, studying philosophy, visiting a friend in the town of Woodstock regularly, riding the subways of Manhattan alone late at night and spending time in Greenwich Village.
When I attended the Woodstock Festival in 1969, I was barely twenty years old. I followed a carload of people from Tarrytown N.Y. My motorcycle had ape hanger handlebars and a sissybar to which was tied a very large duffel bag. Inside the car was a girl that sort of intrigued me.
When we got within 15 miles the traffic began to back up. The girl jumped out of the car wearing only jeans, a top, and no shoes. She had me throw my gear in the trunk of the car and we rode along the edge of the highway into the festival site and waited for the car to catch up. It never did. All the cars came to a stop. Some were overheating and stopped running. Streams of people were just abandoning their cars on the roadway. We soon realized we would not connect with her friends.
I turned to her and asked if she had any money? She had $60, which was a fortune in 1969! I told her that the rules of he road dictated I watch out for her until we found her friends but she would have to split the dough. She agreed, and jumped back on the bike and we got a bottle of Boones Farm wine and rode into the Festival. She was barely seventeen. So there I stood on the edge of the grassy oval looking down upon the stage, with this pretty girl with long hair, a bottle of wine, my bike, surrounded by 400,000 unsupervised soul mates. I looked up to heaven and said “It just doesn’t get any better! Thank you God!”
Then we turned right as a tractor drove along to clear a portion of ground. I watched in horror as the tractor ran over what first appeared to be a mound of earth, as a human arm flung out. It became evident that a person had been inside a mummy sleeping bag and had been run over. I ran to the trailers and banged on a door until the doctor came out. I told him he had to come and help because someone had been run over! “What do you want me to DO!” he said, explaining that thousands of people were overdosing, having babies etc. “Are you kidding?” I said “I’ll knock you out, damn it!”
“I will call a medi-vac unit”, he said. The helicopter flew in and removed the young man already dead. It was like a replay of the 6 o’clock news. Then the rain came. A hundred years of cow manure came to the surface. We were cold and wet and found refuge in other people’s tents was we slept briefly an hour at a time. We sloshed around together in ankle deep mud the entire weekend, listening to the music and taking in the scene. My friend stepped on glass and cut her foot. She got help in on of the medical tents. In between the music played and everyone got along- no assaults or murders. People loving each other. Saturday night Sly and The Family Stone came on stage and sung “Gotta Get Higher” and 500,000 young people working out to the beat on car rooftops, shouted the lyrics at the top of their lungs. This was the magical moment for me, which galvanized a generation in the mud together. The Woodstock nation was born with that performance!
By Sunday I was sick and thought I had pneumonia. So I decided not to wait for Hendrix and took my friend home. Riding down the Thruway in torrential rain I had a premonition of a crash. Just then the memory of my roommate from the seminary, entered my mind to remind me he worked in a camp somewhere in the Catskills. I turned off the road and stopped at a store and asked if they ever heard of St. Vincent\’s camp. It was just down the road! I pulled in to the camp with a full beard and leather jacket, a big knife strapped to my waist on my black bike. The young girl on the back was literally in tatters. The old Irish Catholic nun at the gate was mortified when I told her I was seminarian. My roommate identified me and was let in. I collapsed under ten covers in a big log bed while news reports about the disaster area we had just come from, blared over the TV.
The next day it was sunny and clear as I drove down the NY Thruway. I dropped my new friend of on a corner in Tarrytown. Tears welled up in her eyes as I explained I was headed back to the seminary. I was the oldest of eight children from an Italian family and I was the \”designated priest\”. She asked me to see her once more the day before I left for school a few days later and handed me a beautiful St Christopher\’s medal she had engraved. It read “Love Always Maria,Aust 28, 1969” on the reverse side.
Once back at school in my vestments, I opened my prayer books and the picture of that sweet girl with tears in her eyes would appear. I put up with it for three months before I cranked up the bike and rode back over the Throggs Neck Bridge to tell her I just maybe I might be able to see her, once in a while. June 28 was our 39th wedding anniversary!
There was no police harassment at Woodstock that I observed. Just the opposite. They left everyone alone and were friendly.
I felt a camaraderie with the downtrodden and oppressed. I was poor, strong willed, and a fiercely independent thinker. I was a philosopher and an existentialist. When I ultimately decided to leave the seminary (I had studied since age 13 for the priesthood) I underwent a religious and moral crisis. It was a time of deep emotion and psychological soul searching for me.
I think a lot of us became disillusioned back then just after Woodstock, with Altamont and Kent State. We all went on with our lives and buried our ideals. We became jaded and cynical. We pursued wealth and power. We ultimately matured (how horrible!). But there is a reawakening, a resurgence beginning to sweep the country, I feel. A lot of us including myself are beginning to look back to those times and question the paths we have taken. We are trying to recapture the magic and the light we left behind.
The experiences of the past were both liberating and debilitating. Many of us who experimented with mind altering substances for instance, may have actually changed who we were, the very makeup of our own brains and personalities. There is something sad in that I think. Maybe that explains the comical situation I put myself in at the twenty-fifth reunion at Woodstock in Bethel were I walked around at night telling young people smoking pot that “you really shouldn’t be doing that”. Being a parent now myself; I wished I had taken it a little easier on my own parents.
To borrow a phrase, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” To be fair I have enjoyed the fruits of my labors to some extent in my adult life. I bought my first house at age 25, and drove fancy cars most of my life, but I never became a slave to money. I did become a slave to the retail business, however. A workaholic, putting in 12 hour days for thirty plus years. I took few too many vacations, and smelled few too many flowers. Yet for what purpose ? – I now as others ask myself.