At Woodstock, what if it was booze?
Except for a trip out West two months earlier, the Volkswagen (not the Beetle, one of those miniature station wagon things) was brand new, so the Catskills seemed like a good destination for a weekend outing.
It was a time of upheaval for the nation and for me. After nearly nine years in the military, I took my discharge in 1965, partly because of my inability to embrace the proper gung-ho attitudes about Vietnam.
Four years later, I still was struggling to transform myself from the world of technology, clarity and regimentation to the slapdash, irrepressible world of journalism. I had landed my first job at a daily newspaper, in Towanda, Bradford County, which was less than three hours in a VW from the scene of another upheaval -- the Woodstock festival near Monticello, N.Y.
My wife, our three little kids and I did not know about that bash until we were in one of the world's worst traffic jams. Hundreds of cars and trucks were at a dead stop for miles and miles, with no way to escape.
Horrible car crash? Some other disaster? No, said a state trooper, everybody's trying to get into a music festival out in the middle of nowhere, just over those hills.
That sounds like loads of fun, so how long before we can get in?
We never did get in, which probably was a good thing, because I later learned it might not have been the best place for children under 10. But there was quite a party, right there on the jammed highway.
Car radios filled the air with the Rolling Stones (''Honky Tonk Woman''), the Beatles (''Come Together'') and my favorites, Credence Clearwater Revival (''Proud Mary'' and ''Bad Moon Rising''), as young people danced on the tops of campers and did other fun things. (Later, to my dismay, I learned that CCR was at the festival.)
The most provocative sight of all was something I had heard about, but I had never actually seen anyone smoke marijuana. I still was smoking my Camels at that time, and the first surprise was that marijuana smelled much nicer than tobacco.
Police officers were everywhere and they just smiled, or even joked with the pot smokers. Nobody got busted and nobody got obnoxious, as always happens when booze is involved. The hippies took their hits on their joints and the cops let it go.
It was peace, love and happiness out there in the world's worst traffic jam.
Not long after that, I tried marijuana for the first time, back in Towanda, but I never really liked it. I am crazy enough without extra help, and I get paranoid when I feel that something is scrambling my cerebral cortex more than usual.
Nevertheless, it was obvious that marijuana was far less harmful than alcohol, or Camels, so I was sure it would be legal soon. Forty years later, I'm still waiting for the government's cerebral cortex to get unscrambled on this particular issue.
This weekend is the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, and a feature article was planned for Saturday. The old meanies at the paper impose an earlier deadline for me, but I was able to sneak a look at some of the letters people sent to tell of their experiences in 1969.
Color me green with envy.
''It was surreal, like a Fellini film,'' wrote Roger Latzgo of Germansville. ''Woodstock was a manifestation of a parallel reality in American society.'' (That's definitely the way I would have put it, if I'd thought of it first, and I'd be talking only about the traffic jam.)
''I remember one morning rolling out of the tent with a bottle of wine, etc., and putting my head on a hay bale to listen to The Who,'' remembered Tommy Crist of Hellertown. ''Wow! It was so cool.''
David Parke Epstein, an Allentown native who now lives in Los Angeles, confessed that he was ''psychedelically altered'' at Woodstock. He saw Janis Joplin who was even more so, and she ''rocked and reeled about like a drunken dervish.''
Tim Brady of Bethlehem also told of a tailgate party on one of the jammed highways. He referred to ''some old bearded freak (must have been in his late twenties) selling acid.'' (Old? Twenties? Sheesh.)
One of the main lessons we should take from this 40-year-old event is that some illegal drugs, especially marijuana, should not be illegal. Think about it this way:
Suppose you found a way to assemble thousands and thousands of people at a festival out in the boonies, and heavy rain turned it into a mud bath. The crowd is far bigger than anticipated, so you run out of food, water and toilet paper. Security breaks down and people with tickets see people without tickets being admitted.
Now suppose that instead of pot, the drug of choice at this festival is booze. How long would it be before it turned into a brutal free-for-all of disastrous proportions?
Booze is legal and marijuana is not. In fact, there now are hysterical law enforcement crusades against pot and 80 percent of the people in prison are there for drug offenses, at a staggering cost to the public.
I think the people in government must still be psychedelically altered.
''It was peace, love and happiness out there in the world's worst traffic jam.''
August 16, 2009
The Morning Call
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