My father’s Woodstock story is about work.
That may sound surprising, because the iconic music festival which took place 50 years ago this week usually symbolizes chill hippie vibes.
But that summer, he was in college and employed at the St. John’s Guild Floating Hospital. He was working as a counselor with handicapped children and he has always talked about the job as a fun experience. There were college students from all over the world working on the boat docked off Manhattan. He said the students went out together after work, sometimes too much. He also was taking a summer course, and he remembers being so tired that he fell asleep during the moon landing, which happened a few weeks earlier during that momentous year.
The students weren’t oblivious. They knew Woodstock was going to be something, but someone had to staff the hospital. Half the people got off work and half didn’t. Guess which side my father landed on.
“You bringing up bad memories?” he said when I asked about this recently. He missed it all: Santana, Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, the rain, the drugs, the shall-we-say looser behavioral mores, the naked jumping-into-a lake, the ecstasy, the mud.
“Story of my life,” he says. “It was a bummer of a weekend.”
The other Woodstock story I know well is from the father of my buddy Natan. It’s about work, too.
No surprise that Neal Last has a Woodstock story, as his son and I spent a Brooklyn childhood banging on Neal’s beloved drums in their basement. That August, Neal was 16, but already musical, and working.
He was a drummer in The Underground Marble, the house rock band at the Hotel Gibber in Kiamesha Lake. That weekend, the young working musicians piled into what Neal remembers as a borrowed 1962 Chrysler Newport. The concert was close by.
Oh, another worker joined them: a busboy from the hotel kitchen. His dining room duties had just ended, so he was ready to go. He got in that old Chrysler without getting rid of his work uniform, “a white shirt and black pants, vest, and bowtie,” Neal wrote in an essay about his Woodstock tale.
The road was just what you’d imagine. Neal, a member of possibly one of the last generations to remember things like complete street directions, says they took Route 42 to the Quickway, to Route 17B. Traffic was everywhere, and so were hitchhikers. The Newport was a friendly vessel (and unlike my father’s, a forward-moving one). Folks hopped in and on, including the hood.
But disaster struck when they reached the key Bethel crossing. A state trooper was no longer allowing cars down the road to the epiphanic experience of Yasgur’s farm.
It must have happened to so many. Hundreds of thousands of people attended. How many came so close to making it, yet so far?
But a star shined for Neal. His account says the busboy “leaned out of the window of the car, tugged on his white shirt, held out his bowtie, and shouted to the trooper, ‘I have to get to work. I work in the bungalow colony down the road.’”
They were saved. The trooper, himself working, waved them through. They parked on the side of the road and walked to the stage.
There, because the busboy had claimed to be working, they experienced everything my father missed thanks to his job: the music, the rain, the incredible sense of spontaneous community, the mud — the ultimate leisure activity that somehow, in the end, became something more. More than work and more than fun.