I was 16 years old in 1969, too young to know what I knew, and too young to know what I didn’t. Like many suburban “hippies” of that age I connected, in the ways that I could, to a world just beyond my reach. I read the books, listened to the records, and smoked the pot. I let my hair grow long. My paper route was a convenient cover for explaining to my parents the disposable income that resulted from my business; selling LSD to my peers. Incorrigible as I was, there were a few teachers at my high school who thought I was gifted. I attributed this to either an attempt to manipulate me, or to a delusion rooted somehow in their own failed hopes. In any event, it was clear by early spring that something would have to change. My leaving the school seemed the most likely outcome, as I had continued down a path of insubordination and apathy.
My parents hoped that, with respect to my “gifts”, the minority opinion was true. To that end, they sent me to attend the Young Artist Studios summer program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The program that summer was in Aspen, Colorado. I gathered that, in the meantime, they would figure out what to do with me.
Aspen was the first time, outside of summer camp, that I was away from my parents for any length of time. The chaperones and teachers seemed as caught up in the day as we were. There was little supervision. In the daytime we did art projects at the local High School, made a film about something or other, and took trips up into the spectacular mountain reaches. In off times I gravitated toward the hippies that were at the park in the center of town, attracted by the sweet smell of pot and patchouli oil that wafted across the Green. Although I was but 16 years old, I was tall, and easily able to pass for older. It was there that I learned of a festival that was to take place at the end of the summer in New York, the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair. There was an older woman, she must have been 24 or so, who became enchanted with me. She thought I looked like a Botticcelli angel. She found me wise. I knew better. But I was going to Woodstock.
Woodstock wasn’t in the news until it happened, so when I asked my parents if I could use my paper route money to visit a friend in New York, they had no suspicions about my intent. Airfare was only 24 dollars each way between Chicago and New York for a student standby ticket. They said yes, knowing that when I returned, they would have to tell me that I was being sent away.
Of the ten million people who say they were at Woodstock, I am one of the three hundred thousand who were actually there. I hiked in, after taking a bus from Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. The bus got within about three miles of the site, halted by the unforeseen crush of traffic. As I walked toward the concert area along a broad dirt service road, I came face to face with the older woman from Aspen. I think she was tripping. She now thought I must be Jesus, and that it was fortuitous that we met again in this endless sea of souls. It wasn’t, and I was not.
I saw some of the concerts, but spent most of my time at either the “Hog Farm”, which was an alternative site that fed us, and “the Woods”, a copse that separated the “Hog Farm” from the main soundstage. “The Hog Farm” had a smaller soundstage of its own that included the “Further” bus of Merry Prankster fame. They held yoga classes there, and provided music from lesser known musicians. It was also where the bad trip tent attended to those who had looked too deeply into the abyss. “The Woods” had head shops and drug dealers arrayed along paths with names like “groovy way” and “high street”, posted in Day-Glo lettered signs on the trees. I remember a guy in “The Woods” selling mescaline out of a plastic bag. He was old, maybe 30, wore a long hair wig, bad mod clothing, and had a visible side-arm. Mafia meets Aquarius.
Upon my return from New York my parents took me to lunch. I knew that they had something to tell me, and I knew what it was. Anything, even military school, would have been better than staying home and going back to my high school for my junior year. I was already gone.
As it turned out, my parents picked a progressive school in Connecticut with a relatively free form approach to dealing with troubled youngsters, including group therapy sessions, a hip young live-in faculty, and relatively few rules. Most of the kids there were pretty much like me; affluent teenagers with a penchant for drugs and rock culture. I found out early on, after spending the weekend with my sister in Boston, that I could go away on the flimsiest of excuses. Nobody checked on where I actually went. I spent many weekends that year hitch-hiking up and down I-95, catching concerts in New York and Boston, crashing where I could. As summer approached, I gravitated toward the beach communities on the Cape. It was a heady time to be young and about. My antics eventually got me expelled.
My parents would have none of me by this point so I made my way to San Francisco, only to find that whatever party it was that had taken place there had ended years ago. The street was pretty grim. I stayed at an old man hotel on Turk Street among an assortment of geezers who had planned poorly for this day. That was about all we had in common. I worked for a bicycle messenger service ferrying legal documents and such between the offices in and around Market Street, and sold the Berkeley Barb, a counterculture rag, at Fisherman’s Wharf on weekends. I saw a few concerts at the Fillmore West in a vain attempt to find a nexus with the dispirited remains of what had been, but the bloom was clearly off the rose. My loneliness was profound, and for the first time in my life I had a gnawing suspicion that things were not going to come out well. One day I caught my reflection in a store window mirror, and saw the vacant hopeless eyes of a street kid. It was time to go home.
My senior year of High School began with a haircut, entailed a heavy course load to make up for lost time, and ended with a diploma the following summer. Having my first real girlfriend was the only thing that made it bearable. That my parents took me back had been a surprise, but it became clear that they had never really given up on their wild eyed boy. They had just realized that what they wanted me to understand would only be learned the hard way. Nobody was going to make me see what I didn’t want to know.
I live near Seattle now with my wife of twenty years. My journey, far more productive since those days, has fortunately remained interesting. There are things I would change if I could, of course, but no true regrets. I believe that we are all redeemable, provided that we wish to be redeemed, and that there will always be others who will help us once we make that choice. My memories of those days are occasionally ignited by the dying flame I can see flickering behind the eyes of the kids on the streets of Seattle. I wonder if they, too, will finally see what they don’t want to know. Before the candle goes out for ever.
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