“Private Sullivan!” my sergeant roared, his voice filling the Fort Dix barracks like a bullhorn. “You have a phone call.”
Privates – especially ones just finished with basic training – didn’t get phone calls like this unless to convey bad news, usually a family member telling us about some tragedy.
But the voice on the other end of the phone was not a member of my family, but rather my hippie best friend from New York City asking if I wanted to go to the Woodstock concert. He called it “The Aquarian Exposition,” one of the many older names concert promoters had proposed when laying out what was to become perhaps the most famous outdoor rock festival of the 1960s.
My friend Frank had talked about it for months, writing me letters to keep me posted, on the off chance I might get a three day pass so I could attend.
Vinnie, a fellow private I had teamed up in basic with, and I were trying to get passes for that weekend. But the last thing either of us wanted to do was bivouac in the woods. We would get enough of that when we went for Advance Infantry Training. So I said no.
Neither me nor Vinnie ever suspected that our sergeant would call us for duty on that weekend and that we would get to glimpse the concert site from the air as we made our way to Fort Drum as backup support for medical operations there.
Frankly, I never thought the concert would happen, since it had gone through so many changes and delays. It was originally supposed to take place closer to Woodstock but was relocated to Bethel, an hour’s car ride southwest of the historic arts village in upstate New York.
Hear me, see me
The event that began on Aug. 15, 1969 featured some of the most prominent musical acts of the era, including The Who, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Crosby, Stills and Nash, as well as others, and as many as 500,000 people crowded the fields in a moment that gave us the label as “The Woodstock Generation.”
Jimmy, the leader of our civilian hippie troop in northern New Jersey, kept telling people not to go, saying the whole thing would fizzle and everybody would be wasting their time.
Carol, the girl everybody loved, went too.
Carol, the girl everybody loved, went too, and where she went, Ralph went, and both of them managed to talk our mutual friend Rocky into driving them.
Ralph was infatuated with Carol, and hoped the love and peace festival would make him seem more acceptable in her eyes. But his plans failed.
“She disappeared the moment we got there,” Rocky recalled. “I wandered off, too. We met again two days later at the car.”
With an estimated half million people attending, it was easy to get lost. Nearly all my friends went, but none actually ran into each other while there.
Bob, the only one to listen to Jimmy and stay home, fumed by the side of the radio as reports came in about how many people were going and how successful the event appeared to be.
Jimmy, always the capitalist, talked Bob into ferrying late concert-goers from the hippie store in downtown Paterson to the start of the New York Thruway, charging a fare for each.
Frank never got to see Hendrix. He took ill with pneumonia and was airlifted out a few hours before Hendrix was scheduled to go on.
Twenty five years later, illness kept Frank from attending the anniversary of the concert in 1994. But this illness proved terminal and he passed away a few months later, still regretting that he had not seen Hendrix at Woodstock.