Remembering Woodstock in 2009

Woodstock photos by Ric Manning & Jeannene Seeger Manning

Published in The Courier-Journal, August 16, 2009

In 2009 The New York Times used this
photo in a an online gallery. 

They say if you remember the '60s, you weren't really there. But that's not always true. I spent two days at the Woodstock festival and, 40 years later, I still remember quite a bit about that weekend.

I can still hear Joan Baez's voice drifting across the hills after midnight on Friday night. I can see a farm wife on her porch, passing out sandwiches to a line of scruffy kids. And I remember seeing a cop on horseback who smiled when he said “No, thanks” to a hippie offering a lighted joint.

Yes, there was skinny dipping in an icy creek after a day in the sun and making love under the stars. But for me the meaning of Woodstock is wrapped up in something much more mundane: Dan Mills' backpack.

Dan was my roommate that summer between semesters at Indiana University. He had brought the backpack home from a trip to Europe and he let me take it on my Woodstock adventure. The trip started in Boston where I met up with seven other friends from IU. Mike Fortuna, Sharon Cox, Chris Roth and Cindy Swope were spending the summer there. Howard Weinraub, Alan McDaniel and I flew from Indiana, and Jeannene Seeger came from Detroit.

At the time we decided to go, Woodstock didn't seem like such a big deal. There had been other rock festivals that summer, and this one didn't even have some of the year's big names, like Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones. But it was close enough to Boston to be worth the trip and, with tickets costing $18, it was affordable.

We made the trip in Chris's battered old Ford Falcon and Mike's Pontiac GTO. Highway 17B out of White Lake was jammed with traffic on Friday afternoon, and when the Falcon started to overheat, we parked it on a street in the tiny town of Bethel.

We transferred all our gear to the GTO, including a huge tent Mike had rented and the seemingly vast stores of groceries Jeannene had insisted on buying, then rejoined the procession creeping toward the festival site. After detouring around several roadblocks, we convinced ourselves that the concert stage must surely be just over the next hill and made a deal with a farm family. For $5 each, we could park in their driveway and pitch our tent in the pasture behind the house. That's when we discovered that we had a tent but no poles. Somehow, they had been lost in the transfer between the two cars. So had Dan's backpack with my clothes, money and a borrowed camera.

Driving back into town was out of the question — traffic on the farm road was moving only one way. So Jeannene and I volunteered to walk. It took us about two hours to get back to Bethel and find the Falcon. By this time the town was overrun. Shops had been bought out and locked up and the locals were sitting on their porches and lawn chairs watching the circus pass by. And every possible spot where a car could be parked was occupied.

Except for one.

There in the street, behind the Falcon, in the place where the GTO had stopped, were the wooden tent poles and the canvas backpack. They had been there for half the day, sitting unmolested while hundreds, maybe thousands of people walked by. No one even moved them aside long enough to open up the parking space.

We got back to the farm and pitched the tent just as more rain was moving in. After it stopped late Friday night, we heard Baez's voice and set out to find the stage. Of course, it wasn't just over the next hill, it was a good hour's walk. When the music stopped and people told us the show was over, we turned back.

The rest of Woodstock went by all too quickly, and it seemed we spent more time walking than listening to music. When we finally reached the festival grounds Saturday afternoon, we baked in the sunshine while listening to John Sebastian, Country Joe McDonald, the Keef Hartley Band, lots of helicopters and announcements about where to find food and which drugs to avoid. The musical highlight was Santana's electrifying performance of “Soul Sacrifice.”
Exhausted and hungry, and with more rain threatening, we walked back to the farm at dusk, stopping for a swim along the way. After dinner, a few of us returned for the evening show and found a dry spot near the crest of the hill above the stage. We sang along with Creedence Clearwater Revival, heard a sloppy set from Janis Joplin and let Sly and the Family Stone take us higher. By 2 a.m. it was getting cold, and we had not come prepared to spend the night on the hill. One by one, we broke off and made our way back to camp. Chris, the last to return, crawled into the tent as the Who launched into “Tommy.”

Thanks to Jeannene, we still had plenty of food and drinks on Sunday, and I wanted to stay for another day. But others wanted an early start on the traffic and a warm shower back in Boston, and they won out.

Jeannene and I were married the following year, and our group met for the last time that summer in Boston. We went to Harvard Stadium and saw what would be Janis' last performance. The '60s were over and it was time for us to move on. Alan went to Los Angeles, Chris to San Francisco, Mike to Denver and Howard to Florida. AIDS killed Chris in the 1980s, and cancer took Mike a couple of years ago.

With another Woodstock anniversary approaching this year, I dug out the photos I took with that borrowed camera. I scanned them, cleaned them up, put them on the Web and showed them to our kids. They had been to their own music festivals, but I tried to explain why Woodstock was different, why it was more than the music, the drugs, and the long hair.

I told them how everybody treated strangers like they were friends or family. How the locals helped kids who had no food or place to sleep. How I never saw a fight or even an argument at Woodstock. How everybody respected each other and how they made the best of a difficult and dangerous situation.

Then I told them about Dan Mills' backpack.

Cindy Swope's vest in the New York Times 2019


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