Woodstock Redux

Does the name Sri Swami Satchidananda ring a bell?  

On August 15, 1969, he was the Yogi who opened the Woodstock Festival with remarks about the “sacred art of music,” after which he led the assembled masses in several chants.  And while many factors combined to keep this event relatively calm, there are those who believe the Yogi’s words … “Hari OM” and “Rama” … were symbolic of the peaceful nature of this iconic gathering.

With the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock just over the horizon, there is another well-known Yogi who comes to mind … Yogi Berra.  And though he has been gone since 2015, one of his immortal malapropisms seems an especially accurate capture of the chaotic planning for this event: “It’s like deja vu all over again.”  

Thinking back to the woefully inept preparations for the original Woodstock, a number of memorable fits and starts come to mind … several communities rejected the festival before Max Yasgur stepped in at the very last minute … food and water supplies ran out almost immediately … medical care was inadequate … police were vastly outnumbered … and traffic control was non-existent.  

Considering the near-catastrophe in 1969, one might have expected a cooperative and competent planning effort this time around.  Recent reports, though, indicate otherwise … in one press release, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts emphasized that their planned anniversary is not affiliated with the organizers of the 1969 Festival, going on to underscore that they are not associated in any way with Michael Lang (the key promoter of the 1969 festival).

Meanwhile, Michael Lang has announced that he has plans for the anniversary as well, though details of who will be performing, and when and where the show will be held are not yet available.  Lang says further information will be coming soon.

In other words … when it comes to planning Woodstock Festivals, it is business as usual.

Although I have been retired from policing for a number of years, I always celebrated my good fortune at having been assigned as a young officer to work at Woodstock.  I learned much from that experience, but there is no denying that those days and nights in August, 1969, were long and busy.  All of us … cops and hippies alike … were wet, tired, and hungry, but when it was over, we knew we had been part of something remarkable.

My wife, Bonnie, and I will be heading to New York for the 50th Anniversary, but this trip will be different in a number of ways.  First and foremost, I will not be working, so the  miles-long traffic jams on Route 17-B (now known as “The Woodstock Way”) will be somebody else’s problem.  Instead, during this visit we will be engaging in some of the activities I witnessed but could not participate in last time.

No, we will not be sleeping in pup tents, using illegal drugs, or eating brown rice from a hand-thrown pottery jar.  Instead, as we set out for Bethel, New York, this summer, we will be guided by the words of Don McLean in his 70’s anthem American Pie: “We all got up to dance.  Oh, but we never got the chance!”

In 1969, we did not have the chance … but this time we will ……….

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The Guys at Breakfast

In Fort Worth, Texas, the “go to” place for good food and great service is the West Side Cafe.  If you stop there on a Tuesday morning, don’t be surprised at the mob of guys sitting in the back room talking, laughing and enjoying breakfast together.  The restaurant knows to expect this crew and, though doctor’s appointments and other alibis can cause the numbers to fluctuate, a solid ten to twenty guys make it a point to show up every week.

I am proud to count myself a member of this merry band.  All of us are neighbors at Overture Ridgmar, a 55+ Active Retirement Community where, on Tuesday mornings, we form up and car pool to our weekly gathering.  

A casual diner walking into the West Side Cafe and seeing this crew, might be inclined to write us off as simply a rag tag collection of “old guys” with grey hair (or, in some cases, no hair).  But that would be a mistake.  Having had the good fortune to spend time with these fellows and get to know a little bit about them, I can testify to the fact that the experiences, depth of knowledge and record of accomplishments around that table are, in a word, remarkable.

Many of my breakfast colleagues have founded and managed businesses, others have performed design work in aeronautics, there are medical professionals, men with legal backgrounds, advanced teaching credentials, two preachers, a musician, and a banker.  A common theme among most of the fellows around the table, though, is military service.  You would never know it, however, from listening to the Tuesday conversations … nobody aggrandizes their time in the armed forces.  You have to ask … and ask again … to learn what they have done in service to our country.

As a police officer, I learned early in my career that, from time to time, people would decide to resist arrest.  Occasionally, somebody would raise their fists and declare loudly: “I’m going to kick your *** … I’m not going to jail!”  Caution was always important, of course, but in most cases I found those bold declarations to be little more than bombast.  On the other hand, the people who always impressed me were those who quietly assumed a bladed and balanced stance, kept their hands free, made direct eye contact and didn’t say a word.  It was clear that those folks knew how to handle a physical confrontation … they didn’t have to broadcast how tough they believed themselves to be.

In my experience, what I just described is much the same with military veterans.  Maybe it is just me, but when someone repeatedly (and unsolicited) tells everyone around him of the heroic things he did while in the military, I tend to be suspicious of their declared credentials.  It is the quiet one, though … the one who has to be prodded to talk about his experiences … he is the one that usually has the most impressive story.  

For example, among the men at Tuesday breakfast are a number of retired Viet Nam veterans including a KC-135 pilot, a member of a B-52 crew, a Helicopter pilot, a Swift Boat crewman, a West Point graduate who commanded an artillery battalion, and a number of enlisted “ground pounders.”  Our group also includes a veteran of the Korean conflict who, at age 19, parachuted into North Korea.  None of the men around our table talk about their military experiences unless prompted, but each is rightly proud of what he has done in service to our country.

When someone walks into the West Side Cafe on a Tuesday morning, he may find himself seated near a large group of older guys who seem to be talking about things like the Texas Rangers current losing streak or a new medication for aches and pains.  In truth, though, there is a lot more going on at that table, and I have been privileged to sit, listen and learn from some really remarkable men.

Having sold our home and moved to Overture Ridgmar less than two years ago, my wife and I remind ourselves, on a daily basis, how much we enjoy our new living arrangement.  There is much to celebrate in our new digs but, for me, one of the most rewarding benefits of our move has been the opportunity to meet and interact with this remarkable group of guys with whom I go to breakfast each Tuesday.

Frequently Wrong: Never in Doubt

For anyone thinking about quitting their day job to start earning big bucks as an author, think again.  James Patterson, Stephen King, Bob Woodward and other literary luminaries are, of course, the exception, but when you are writing and self-publishing brief memoirs, well, it is a good idea to make sure the mortgage payment does not rely on this months’ book royalties.

Knowing this, when I sit down to write I do so for entirely different reasons.  The fact is, I enjoy putting ideas down on paper and, hopefully, providing a worthwhile experience for the reader along the way.  And if, on occasion, the final draft turns out well, I give full credit to two important people … Miss Goodman, my High School English teacher … and Sergeant Herbie Stahn, who was merciless in reviewing reports that I wrote … and rewrote … as a young Trooper with the New York State Police.

I also enjoy writing and self-publishing because it puts me in touch with people with whom I enjoy interacting.  In the area where I reside, there is a community-oriented chain of stores named Half Price Books.  Their shops are always fun to visit, and they even provide “book signing” opportunities for local authors.  I have taken advantage of a number of these events and, though books sales are always modest, the conversations with customers and passers by always make for a delightful experience.

Most of the time.

At one recent gathering, a number of folks stopped to talk about my book “Dear HIppie … We Met at Woodstock,” with many sharing their recollections of what was going on in their lives at that time and place in history.  There was a lot of laughter and much discussion about that iconic festival, and many theories about why people are still talking about it today. 

Around the middle of the afternoon, a woman walking past my table noticed the book and its’ title.  She stopped, looked at the cover and said: “Woodstock … I saw a move about that once.”  The conversation that followed went, essentially, like this:

Me:  “Yes, I was there, and that’s why I wrote the book.”

Her: “The movie showed that it was wild and out of control, with people doing all kinds of drugs.”

Me: “I worked there as a police officer and, yes, there was a lot of marijuana being smoked.  But the fact is the youngsters were extremely cooperative and kind.”

Her: “The movie said that people were drunk, stoned and having sex all over the place.”

Me: “Well, like I said, I was there and I did not see any of that.”

Her: “Well, maybe you should watch the movie.”

Me: “Um … I was there.”

Her: “Well … okay then!”  

After giving me a look of haughty disdain, the woman turned and stalked away.  As I watched her disappear into the crowd, I was reminded of Earl Landgrebe, a Republican Congressman who, in 1974, registered his adamant opposition to the impeachment of Richard Nixon with these memorable words: “Don’t confuse me with facts.  I’ve got a closed mind.”61CHJRGEDWL._SY445_

There is more to be said on this matter but, for now, I must move on to something far more important.  I have to go in search of a copy of the “Woodstock” movie from 1970 … and once I lay hands on it, I may finally be able to find out what really happened over those magnificent three days in August, 1969, in Bethel, New York.

Woodstock Everlasting

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was neither the first nor the last of a number of similar gatherings in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  In many ways, though, it holds a place of special significance in any discussion of the vast cultural changes so characteristic of that era.  Other concerts … Monterey … Isle of Wight … Altamont … Powder Ridge … contributed to the music and protest scene of that time, but only Woodstock has its own special and enduring brand: Woodstock Nation!

Since the initial publication of “Dear Hippie,” I have been invited to speak about Woodstock before a number of groups.  Across those sessions I met only a few folks who claim to have been in Bethel, but a vast number of others who, though not physically present, have vivid recollections of what they heard or read about those remarkable three days in August of 1969.  What I found especially impressive was that, young and old alike, people were acutely aware of Woodstock, and had a sense of what it seemed to meanIMG_1512 during that vibrant period.

While the conversation about Woodstock has allowed me to resurrect a number of fond memories, it has also shown me how deeply that singular event and that distinct period of time have touched so many people.  Clearly, if there is such a thing as a “Woodstock Nation,” its influence is felt well beyond the corporate boundaries of Bethel, New York, and is not limited solely to those with boots (or sandals) on the ground at the festival itself.  And though elusive, there is something about the texture of those three days that continues to resonate.  Having had the good fortune to be there, I suspect that it springs from the unexpected enormity of the event, and the fact that some half million people, effectively cut off from the rest of the world, persevered through an intuitive spirit of cooperation and good will.  And, yes, there was some music as well.

 

Some fifty years after the fact, the question remains: why does this event, originally billed as a mere music and art fair, remain so indelibly imprinted on our consciousness?  Theories abound, but Richie Havens, the first performer to take the stage at Woodstock, put it this way:  Though it’s frequently portrayed as this crazy, unbridled festival of rain-soaked, stoned hippies dancing in the mud, Woodstock was obviously much more than that or we wouldn’t still be talking about it in 2009. People of all ages and colors came together in the fields of Max Yasgur’s farm.

Nostalgia has a way of smoothing off the rough edges, so I am not surprised that those incredibly long hours, sodden fields, gridlocked roads and throngs of people seem less overwhelming today than they did in 1969.  Instead, my mind is drawn to more pleasant memories … smiling faces …  acts of kindness … expressions of appreciation … and the sense that we were involved in something bigger than all of us.  It was a very special time and place and, as the saying goes, if we didn’t do foolish things while young, we wouldn’t have anything to smile about when we are older.

For a lot of us, those days three days at Woodstock … well, they make us smile.

Of Jelly Beans, Chimneys and Such

Police officers and other first responders often find themselves working on holidays.  And while this inconvenience is understood to be “part of the job,” there is no denying that being on duty while others are celebrating with families can be difficult.

Cops, though, have a way of lightening the mood.  On Easter, for example, it was a common occurrence for the dispatcher to send a midnight shift officer to an accident where a vehicle had struck an “unknown animal.”  Further details in the radio transmission would typically run something like this: “ … uh, witnesses do not know what sort of animal but … uh, it is big and fuzzy … and, uh, there are numerous jelly beans spread around the scene.”

At Christmas, night patrol officers expected, at some point, to be dispatched to a call along the lines of: “ … report of a suspicious person on the roof … uh, caller describes the suspect as chubby and dressed in red … and, uh, he appears to be trying to climb down the chimney.”

Patrol officers had a way of getting a laugh at the expense of dispatchers as well.  Back in the “old days” when vehicle license information had to be obtained through a radio transmission to dispatch, cops would sometimes reach into their store of “special” license plates that they knew were issued to some recognizable names.

One such scenario involved an officer calling in an apparent abandoned car.  The cop would tell dispatch: “ … there is nobody around, but I found a complete set of men’s clothes on the floor of a phone booth next to the car.”  The dispatcher would then be asked to check the license plate on the vehicle which, naturally, came back to Clark Kent (the mild-mannered newspaper reporter who, when duty called, would turn into Superman).  Coincidentally, one of Clark Kent’s favorite places to change from street clothes to his superhero leotards was in a phone booth!

Another “abandoned car” prank began with a cop telling dispatch: “ … there is nobody near the vehicle, but the inside is filled with hamburger wrappers, french fry containers and soft drink cups …”  When the license plate was checked it came back, naturally, to Ronald McDonald.

The sorts of shenanigans mentioned above would, generally, take place on quiet overnight shifts when things were slow.  And while most officers looked upon these antics as harmless horseplay, there was not always universal agreement across a given shift.  Sometimes, senior officers – who wanted nothing more than radio silence – would make their views known by broadcasting on the car-to-car channel: “Knock it off … we are trying to get some sleep!”

Taking a Knee

Every once in a while, something extraordinary appears on Facebook. Take, for example, the powerful and eloquent post from a New York State Trooper who, ten years ago, was shot while at the scene of a domestic disturbance. In her post, she recounted the details of that awful day, and expressed her gratitude to the three officers who responded to back her up and who, after the shooter was neutralized, worked to save her life.

In this age of hyper-charged debate about what it means for an athlete to take a knee before a game, this Trooper’s post reminded me of a simple but absolute truth: police officers kneel all the time. And when they do, it is not to register their views on some social or political issue. Instead, cops take a knee because that is what the job calls for, and they do it without hesitation.

In the case of the seriously wounded Trooper, this was exactly what happened. Once the scene was stabilized, the three other officers (from two different agencies) who were there, immediately took a knee by her side, cared for her, and remained with her until she was evacuated.

As the recent tragedy in Las Vegas unfolded, pictures of the scene showed numerous police officers taking a knee next to patrol vehicles and, while under fire, scanning their surroundings to determine the location of the shooter.

Police officers responding to the scene of a serious auto accident sometimes find that they are unable to reach a trapped individual in a wrecked car until they take a knee on the pavement. Only then are they able to reach in through the twisted metal to render assistance.

Family disturbances are among the most emotional and dangerous calls for police officers. In the aftermath of those events, though, it is not uncommon for cops to take a knee to comfort a distraught young child watching a parent being led away in handcuffs.

And, far too often, police officers find themselves taking a knee at funerals, wakes and memorial ceremonies as they pay their respects to fallen brothers and sisters who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Next weekend, the networks will gear up for the usual schedule of athletic events and much attention will be paid to whether athletes knelt or did not kneel during pre-game ceremonies. And though it will go unnoticed, this is one of those times when cops will not take a knee. Instead, with the first stirring notes of the National Anthem, every uniformed police officer in the arena will stand at attention and render a crisp hand salute.

As Americans, we do not rise and show respect for the flag and the National Anthem as a way of aggrandizing ourselves. Instead, we do so to honor, in some small way, those who have paid the ultimate price for our freedom. Police officers, who place themselves in harms way every day on our behalf, understand this better than most.

Stirring the “Pot”

Wrapping up a speaking engagement at a local high school, I had left some time for questions from the assembled students. The topic had been Woodstock and, since the students had been required to read “Dear Hippie … We Met at Woodstock: One Cop’s Memories of the 1969 Woodstock Festival,” there were a number of good questions about things like crowd size, weather conditions, music of that era and drug use.

As the class period came to an end, one young lady began to raise her hand, only to have her neighbor pull it back down. I decided to call on her for the last question anyway and, very softly, she posed one I had never been asked at a session like this: “Did you ever smoke pot?”

Whoa.

When the laughter in the hall began to subside, I thanked her for asking, and then answered truthfully: “No … at least not intentionally.” I went on to explain that the use of marijuana by concert-goers over those three days at Woodstock was so ubiquitous across the entire region that anyone within a twenty mile radius of the concert stage – including me – stood a good chance of experiencing some level of “contact high.” I was exaggerating, of course … but not much.

There is a popular aphorism concerning those who share their memories of that special time in Bethel, New York: “When someone says they remember Woodstock they probably weren’t there.” This is a sly reference, of course, to the purported negative impact marijuana use has upon memory … and it also helps explain (kiddingly) why it has taken so long to legalize pot: “The hippies kept forgetting where they left the petitions.”

With all this said, I have fond and strong memories of my time working as a police officer at this once-in-a-lifetime event. Recently, I was able to reinforce many of those recollections during a visit to the original concert site, and a tour of the lovely Museum at Bethel Woods, New York. The weather the day of my visit was pleasant, so my wife and I walked along Hurd Road … visited the meadow where it all took place … inscribed our names on a memorial … it was all good.

Walking through the Museum, itself, is an ideal way to get a sense of what occurred at that very location almost fifty years ago. Video presentations and static displays provide context and depth not only to the concert, but to the cultural conflict that was taking place in the United States at that time as well. We shopped around the Bindy Bazaar Museum Shop, of course, and picked up a few souvenirs … we even checked on my book! (see photo below)

In their song “Old Hippie,” the Bellamy Brothers sang of a fellow in his fifties who “dreams at night of Woodstock and the day John Lennon died,” all the while struggling to make sense of the societal changes going on around him. I suspect that many folks who came of age during the Woodstock era can understand the quandary of that old hippie trying to navigate a world he no longer understands. For me, a periodic journey back to Bethel is a refresher … a way to reconnect with a wonderful time in a truly extraordinary place.

Reflecting back on a singular event like Woodstock, I am reminded of the wisdom of Steven Wright: “Whenever I think of the past it brings back so many memories!”

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A Trip Down Memory Lane

As the calendar turns to August, I am feeling the inexorable pull to return to a place that holds genuine meaning for me … Woodstock. Yes, a family reunion in upstate New York is the purported main reason for our visit this year but, truth be told, the prospect of a visit to the Museum at Bethel Woods and the historic site that used to be Max Yasgur’s farm … well, that is really tugging at my sleeve.

The fiftieth anniversary of the iconic Woodstock Festival is a scant two years off and, though I hope to return for a sure-to-be momentous reunion, one can never predict what the future might hold. That being so, I plan to make the most of my time in this very special place this summer. Maybe a stroll down Hurd Lane … a photo, perhaps, next to the “Tomb of the Unknown Hippie” overlooking the original concert site … even an unobstructed drive along Route 17b which, in August of 1969, was jammed for miles with abandoned cars. Ah, memories!

Though named the “Woodstock Music and Arts Fair,” the event was actually held in the small community of Bethel, New York. The Museum at Bethel Woods is an excellent venue for a visit as it contains a trove of mementos and memorabilia from that iconic gathering. I am pleased that my book Dear Hippie … We Met at Woodstock is available for purchase in the museum shop so we will, of course, be stopping there as well.

Though we have lived in the state of Texas for the past thirty years, I am looking forward to our visit to New York for another important reason … it was there (in the City of Poughkeepsie) that I began my law enforcement career just over fifty years ago. While I discuss a number of my law enforcement experiences in my book, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to do a Woodstock presentation and book signing at the Adriance Memorial Library in Poughkeepsie on August 16.

The fact that I was assigned to work at Woodstock as a police officer was pure serendipity, but it was an experience that I cherish. As I look forward to visiting a place laden with rich memories, I am reminded of the 1966 song by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders: “Something Keeps Calling Me Back.” Indeed, something does.

Woodstock Book Now Available at The Museum at Bethel Woods

We are very excited about the recent good news that the book Dear Hippie … We Met at Woodstock is now available for purchase at the Museum at Bethel Woods in New York.  This lovely facility – which is located on the grounds of the 1969 Woodstock Festival – does a wonderful job of collecting, tending and preserving the history of that iconic event.  The setting is beautiful, and fond memories abound.  For those who were there, this museum provides a wonderful trip down memory lane (especially if memories are a bit vague).  For those who weren’t there but want to know about the event itself along with a sense of the times, this facility is outstanding.  Their site can be found and enjoyed at bethelwoodscenter.org

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Woodstock Memories

It has been a delightful labor of love getting to this point, and I am pleased to announce that our latest book Dear Hippie … We Met at Woodstock has been published and is now available in paperback through Amazon.  Subtitled One Cop’s Memories of the 1969 Woodstock Festival, the digital/Kindle version will also be on Amazon within the next two weeks.

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Though the event took place almost fifty years ago (August 15-17, 1969), writing about my time there as a police officer brought back a number of fond memories, many of which I included in the book.  For example, while the organizers of Woodstock only planned for a crowd of about 50,000 people, an estimated half million actually found their way to Max Yasgur’s 600 acre dairy farm in bucolic Bethel, New York.  Fun fact: when the “official” tally of attendees was noted, that colossal number  made the little town of Bethel – at that moment in time – the second largest community in New York State!

Needless to say, concert organizers and government entities quickly were  overwhelmed.  With chaos seeming inevitable, catastrophe was averted through a grassroots spirit of cooperation and collaboration between Hippies and cops.  Though the few police officers assigned to work at Woodstock did a commendable job of providing essential services under very difficult circumstances, the young concert-goers, themselves, were remarkably cooperative, kind and generous.

The iconic images of Woodstock are ordinarily those of crowds, traffic jams, rain, mud … and did I mention traffic jams?  When all was said and done, though, thousands of Hippies and a handful of cops had worked together – and succeeded – in keeping things relatively calm … and peace, love and music prevailed.