About a month ago, I was standing in front of the Woodstock display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland Ohio when it happened again. A guy about my age, wearing a baseball cap over what I assumed was a balding head, sized me up and asked: "So, were you there?"
I nodded "yes" and then what happened is pretty much what always happens: He fist-bumped me, broke out in a wide grin and wanted to talk about the gloriousness of the Woodstock Festival of Music and Art and Aquarian Exposition -- aka "Woodstock" -- the way a long-lost friend who just re-enters your life wants to talk.
For the past 45 years, whenever I tell anyone "I was there," it unleashes the same reaction: If they are younger, I become a living history lesson and I watch them mentally calculate my age; and if they were there, it triggers an instant brethren-like connection, which is what happened with the guy in Cleveland.
At the risk of bursting everyone's bubble, for me, Woodstock was basically a rock concert run amok. My memories of it, which have long since blurred with what I've read and watched about the three-day event, are primarily of the rain and mud, the mind-blowing crush of bodies everywhere, and the sense of being trapped in a place without enough food, water or the ability to leave when I wanted -- which was pretty much as soon as I got there.
Yet the fact that I was at Woodstock has defined me to others ever since that infamous August weekend 45 years ago. People who hear I was there make assumptions about who I am, what my politics are, and think they know my attitudes toward sex and drugs -- all because I agreed to drive from the Jersey suburbs with some friends and couldn't talk them into turning around to go home when it began to pour rain.
So yes, I was one of the half-million hippies and flower children who made it to Max Yasgur's 600-acre dairy farm just before the New York Thruway came to a complete standstill on this day 45 years ago. My friends and I had to abandon our car about four miles away from the festival in a field and walk the rest of the way, carrying our camping gear. Only one-third of those who made it to inside the fallen gates actually stayed all three days and I was not among them.
For me, Woodstock was a muddy, difficult 48 hours or so marked mostly by my intense desire not to have to pee in public. I spent many of those hours trying to convince my boyfriend to leave. I remember his constant beseechings that I "chill out." I couldn't. I worried, among other things, that Mr. Philadelphia Freedom -- the guy swinging naked from the scaffolding above me -- would fall on us, much the way the dried caked mud from was falling from his body and landing on our heads. The music was blaring, drugs were plentiful and people were happy, except those -- like me -- who weren't. I complained, I whined, I wanted to go home -- and eventually I prevailed.
Yet just by being there at all, I became part of a club -- the "I Was At Woodstock" Club.
As I wrote 15 years ago for the Los Angeles Times, "Mere attendance at the festival means you were a member of The Club. You were the bona fide, authentic counterculture, the real thing--someone who pledged allegiance to change, not country."
I admit to being all of those things; I just didn't love being at Woodstock.
I will also admit that, like many other things in life, Woodstock as an experience has "improved" the farther in time I got from it. Nowadays, I remember in equal parts not just the physical challenges of being there but the sense of community I felt -- which is why I love bumping into Woodstock compatriots like the guy at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He and I chatted for about 10 minutes, sharing festival talk. "Remember how they told us not to take any blue pills?" I did remember, but wouldn't have taken any anyway. "And we were the third-largest city in New York state!" he recalled, perhaps aided by the notes on the display case. He added, "with virtually no crime!" Yes, indeed no crime -- unless you count as criminals all those people who showed up without a ticket and "liberated" the festival (and we don't).
He pointed to the big poster-sized photo of the crowd and asked me where I sat in the mud and rain. He wanted to know which bands I heard, what I thought of Santana, did I remember the long lines at the Port-o-Johns (did I ever!). He pointed to the $18 three-day original ticket, now preserved in a museum glass case.
And as every good conversation about Woodstock does, this one, too, talked about coming of age in the '60s, working to change the world, questioning authority, protesting the Vietnam war.
"Those were the days, eh?" he asked. At least that part, he got right.