We started early on Thursday, barreling up the outside lane on Rt 17. passing the amazing vehicles in the right lane, VW's painted all over in merry Crayola colors, vans covered with chaotic designs lately called psychedelic, never seen in rural upstate New York, every window open, young drivers and passengers with Jesus-length hair blowing in the wind.
A ridiculous sight for 25 bucolic miles. What were they doing here in redneck country?
We must be doing 80 to whiz past them like that, or maybe 90. "Honey! Slow down." I scolded my husband, Al Romm, editor of the local daily paper out of Middletown. "We're in no hurry."
The Woodstock concert was not scheduled to start until late the next day, 4 pm Friday afternoon, August 15. But Al wanted to check his plans for covering this event, a simple rock concert, which was turning into a peculiar happening no one quite grasped. He was worried about the motorcycle courier.
"I'm not going even 60." He pointed to the speedometer. It read 53 mph. !?! So they must all be driving only 40 in a 65-mph-speed zone. Hippies, loaded with hippie drugs, they didn't want to be stopped for speeding. But we don't know that yet.
We don't know a lot of things. Neither one of us had ever smoked pot, and didn't even recognize the heavy, sweet smell of it that night wafting all over Max Yasgur's farm until one of the kids, rolling his eyes at a 44-year-old's ignorance, identified it.
He introduced his girlfriend as "my old lady." She was maybe 17. They were both stripped to the waist, lying in a zipped-open sleeping bag, like hundreds, thousands, of couples around them, soon to be soaked by the rains. (Has anyone tried to track births nine months later?)
Nor had we ever dropped acid, but at least we had heard a lot about LSD. But not mescaline or psilocybin or STP or all the other stuff I was soon to see laid out for sale "at bargain prices" on long tables up in the woods, under a big sign, DRUG STORE, sometimes handed out with a smile to 5-year-olds, their palms up, begging, "Free dope, anyone?"
Al had hired a courier to bring exposed film and hard copy back to the newsroom in Orange County -- no laptops in 1969. That motorcycle spent 3 days snaking through the miles of stalled, sometimes gas-less parked vehicles that were jammed ditch to ditch. It was the reason that the Times Herald-Record was the only paper in the world to publish daily stories, witnessed from the ground.
No other journalists got closer than helicopter windows. With traffic impassable for miles in every direction, we were soon to learn that most of our own reporters never made it in, either.
Our station wagon had a blow-up mattress in the back, and a hamper full of food, juices, and ice. "Don't drink anything you haven't opened yourself," warned our Middletown doctor, Ed Thaler, who happened to be Bob Dylan's doctor. "Don't accept food, either."
Dylan, a closet heroin addict at the time, although invited, never made it to Woodstock.
We were barreling up Rt. 17, the famous road off the NY Thruway to the Catskill Mountains, always sleepy mid-week, now clogged in the right lane with this alien, crawling traffic.
At Monticello, on the advice of the State Troopers I had called the night before, we did not turn West on 17B like everyone else headed for the farm of Max Yasgur. He was the pro-Vietnam War, conservative Republican libertarian who thought everyone could do their thing. So he had given the festival a home after a town down the road cancelled it four weeks before it was to open.
Al had written a nicely reasoned editorial condemning the last-minute withdrawal of the town permit. Readers from everywhere criticized him mercilessly. He couldn't walk down the street without hearing how wrong-headed he was.
"Dirty, immoral, lazy, unpatriotic longhairs"... those were about the nicest things they wrote and hollered.
Most everyone who had correctly headed West towards Yasgur's place was piling up along the road, in the ditches and across all the lanes, never to retrieve their cars for days. Instead, we drove North two more exits and curled around a narrow dirt road until we came to the farm. The troupers said we were the last car to make it in.
We parked behind the high, huge stage and enormous speaker and lighting towers, and began to wander around. Abbie Hoffman, the founder of the Yippies (Youth International Party), was also wandering, never sober, never smiling. He used to repeat their anthem, "Don't trust anyone over 30." He was now 32.
Now Abbie's greeting to us: "Welcome to Dante's Inferno."
Only the few reporters who had taken their days off and come early were on site. By Friday, the start of the concert, not one of any paper's scheduled reporters, music critics, or photographers, including ours, could drive closer than many miles, and because of the heavy rains, they didn't want to hike in, either.
Everyone who was there had the sense to gather at the Press Trailer, empty except for the five of us -- or was it six? -- from the TH-R. The copy we wrote almost won us a 1969 Pulitzer, we were told later by someone who was on the selection panel. "You missed by one vote."
What disappointed Al about our coverage was our B-minus critiquing of the incredible music. The paper's music reviewers never made it in.
On Thursday, the day before the music started, Al sent us out to scout the place. I found the Hog Farm camp, a large collection of good guys wisely hired by the producers to keep the peace, run by Wavy Gravy, the sweet saint who herded the motley crew, the only ones who knew how to handle bad drug experiences.
At one time there were 300 kids strung out, semi-conscious. The Hog Farmers laid them out on trestle tables, fed them granola and other whole grains, and talked to them, and talked and talked.
Whenever you saw a Hogger outside their campsite, he was slowly walking someone, sometimes holding them up, soft assuring chatter in their ear.
Every now and then Wavy Gravy would take the mike on stage and warn everyone of "bad brown acid." No one at Woodstock died of an overdose of anything, probably thanks to them.
My first photo in the paper, page 1, was of a girl on a stretcher being carried into the the First Aid tent. The Hog Farm was probably there within 10 minutes, comforting her, which would have made a truer picture of how bad drug reactions were handled.
On Friday, Al gave us all assignments. Mine: "Go back up to the entrance gate on Rte 17B. We hear there's a mob crashing in."
That gate was nowhere to be seen when I got there, nor were long stretches of the fence that had been installed. The ticket booths had never gone up. It had become a free concert.
The 350 New York cops that producer Michael Lang had hired to stop this kind of thing had been forbidden by their chief to work at Woodstock, but many showed up anyway, signing in with names like "Mickey Mouse," says Lang. Even with the local police, there were not enough.
No tickets were ever sold or collected there. The huge amount of money that was lost at Woodstock was lost right there.
Later, it was reported that the promoters even had to refund thousands of tickets to people who claimed they couldn't get there. I never met any of the producers -- nor the famous or infamous singers -- my beat was far away from the stage.
On Friday an entirely different crowd was pouring through that gate. The day before, anyone coming through had asked, conspiratorially, "How's the dope? Expensive? Where do I get it?" Having stumbled upon the Drug Store in the woods, I could direct them.
On Friday the only questions were, "How's the sound system? Can you hear the music OK?" This horde had come for the concert. More or less.
I'm not sure they enjoyed the music much. On the first night, Joan Baez, pregnant, was the last act, starting well after midnight, her perfect voice wafting in the dark together with the marijuana across embracing bodies. After she finished a song, there was little applaus -- only a few pathetic claps here and there.
A bit unsettled, she asked, "Is anyone out there?" Well, yes, they were, in the thousands -- stoned, zapped, laid out on the pasture turf, soon to be mud, grinning, sappy, asleep. (The film has wild applause after all songs. Was it dubbed in?)
Yet, no one died of a drug overdose. Or of blood poisoning either, which easily could have done them in. That was thanks to Ed Silvers, the local Professional Engineer hired by the promoters to turn 600 farm acres into a festival venue. He had 2 weeks to do it all -- water, sewers, emergency hospital, toilets, telephones.
Max's farm had certain deficiencies as the new Eden. For starters, there was no water on site. Should they bring in tankers? Ed ended up drilling six wells -- that's right, six, with endless temporary piping, and faucets every few feet for people to drink from and wash up with.
"But, Ed, why did the water stink of chlorine all the time? It tasted awful. Did you tap into a swimming pool?"
"It started raining the first night. The fields got muddy. I was watching those kids running barefoot through a cow pasture full of manure-that's pure poison, with lots of broken glass from soda pop bottles buried in the mud. I was very worried. I added more chlorine to the water so that every time you washed your feet and hands, you disinfected yourself."
Everyone complained about the taste and odor, but with all the scratches and cuts, some of them deep, requiring stitches, not a single case of infection was reported at Woodstock. We were in the hands of a Master Engineer.
And in the hands of experienced electricians. No one got electrocuted in the rain by the miles of hot wires strung up the speaker towers and laying on and under and around the stage. Not that the kids didn't try -- they kept climbing up and into everything.
The sound and infrastructure engineers knew all too well that at a rainy rock concert in Scotland, a singer had died horribly. She had stepped up to the wet mike and sweetly kissed it. Shocked by 120 volts and 10 milli-amps, she dropped. Not at Woodstock.
The entire steel skeletal under-structure of the vast stage was well-grounded, everyone's eagle eyes on it through all the rain.
We were also in the hands of professional police officers. "Considering that the State Troupers were all rednecks," Ed remarked, "They did very well keeping the peace."
Those troupers had started off bewildered, shaking their heads at the nudity, the long hair, the funny jewelry, the weird clothes, the open sex, the skinny dipping in the pond. But after a few hours on Day One, they were ready to legalize pot.
"If this crowd was drinking beer," several said to me, "They'd be violent. This pot stuff quiets down everyone. There's thousands here. We couldn't have handled it."
Exactly how many thousands were at Woodstock? By Sunday, the state police figure of 450,000 was rounded up by everyone to half a million, which anniversary stories relentlessly report.
At the time, Editor Al Romm looked around and said, "100,000 to 150,000." He was very good at numbers.
You can check that out. Next time you see a shot of a sports stadium crowd, say, 41,007 packed into the Met's new ballpark, Citi Field, compare it with the air photos of Woodstock. There were not 10 times as many in Bethel. Not even 5 times.
Only a few weeks after we land a man on the moon, we have 3 Days of Peace and Music, plus dysentery, diarrhea, food poisoning, and bad drug trips. And everyone wishes they had been there, or lies about being there.
Sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll -- the "Politics of Ecstasy," LSD guru Timothy Leary called it. At Woodstock it was the Ecstasy of Politics.
For this was all about politics, the politics of peace, hardly mentioned except by some lonely New Leftists up in the woods, yet the engine for all that went on. These kids did not want to fight in the Vietnam War. There was a draft call the very week-end of Woodstock.
But, unlike their politically active brothers and sisters, the hippies (what a quaint term 40 years later) did nothing to shorten the war they passionately opposed. On the contrary, what would President Nixon like better than to have them go off to the mountains, get zonked, and leave him alone?
In time-tested American fashion, they were strengthening what they professed to detest.
Ethel Grodzins Romm covered Woodstock by accident when the reporters for the local daily paper of which her husband was editor couldn't make it onto the site.
She is the author of several books, wrote the writing column for Editor & Publisher and ABA Journal (American Bar Assn.). She has written for Esquire, N.Y. Times Op-Ed page, Penthouse, cover story for New York Magazine, among others. She is currently at work on a book on business management.
Romm has been running drafting, engineering, constructions groups and companies since World War II, when she was civilian Drafting Supervisor at Westover Army Air Base, MA. She was President and CEO of Niton Corp when it was a start-up. It is now part of Thermo Scientific.