August 15th, 2009

New Tilley Hat

My parents were at Woodstock while I went to Disneyland

The Woodstock Music and Arts Fair was held August 15-18, 1969, less than a month after Apollo 11 put two men on the moon. Earlier in the year, the country had elected Nixon, who had "a secret plan to end the war" in Vietnam. America was feeling good about itself, and rightly so.

My father, A. N. (Al) Romm, was editor of the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, NY, the first daily paper to be printed on offset, which meant magazine-quality pictures, the only daily closest to any of the proposed sites for the festival. The concert itself was controversial even before it happened, and the final site at Yasgur's farm was the third site selected. The first proposed site was in Middletown itself, but the Wallkill Zoning Board said no. My father was critical in swaying public opinion to accept the 3 Days of Love and Peace. It's just a rock concert.... what could go wrong? he opined. The promoters found Max Yasgur's farm a few miles up Rte 17. No water-- six wells had to be dug. No parking.

Both my mother and father were at Woodstock the entire time, as reporters, starting Thursday. No one assigned to the story could get near it, nor could any of the New York papers. But Middletown staffers there on their day off all gathered in the Press Tent and wrote the coverage that almost won the Pulitzer that year --"Only one vote off," said an editor later.
more Woodstock detailsCollapse )
All this passed me by. I knew about the concert, of course, and had followed the travails of the organizers. My parents trepidatiously broached the subject of my going. But I didn't care about Jimi Hendrix or The Dead. Pete Seeger wasn't going to be at Woodstock, so neither was I.

I was 14. I grew up on tv. I wanted to go to Disneyland.

I had stayed up all night watching Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon--memories I treasure to this day. Nothing like the moon landing has happened since. I was bouncing around for weeks, following the progress of Apollo 11 and the excitement when they all came back. I didn't want to sit still to listen to music I probably wouldn't like. When it came time for Woodstock, my parents made preparations for a camping trip up there, and sent me to California.
more California trip detailsCollapse )
Disneyland was great. It wasn't everything I expected: The Tea Cup Ride was closed. But the weather was perfect, the rides spectacularly fun (what we would later call "awesome!") and Apollo 11 banners were on sale. The Matterhorn was more fun than it looked on tv; the Enchanted Tiki Room's audio animatronics were better than on tv; It's A Small World was as good as it had been at the 1964 NY World's Fair. And so on and on. The whole place was a real E Ticket.

I was treated like royalty. Well, like a tourist with money, which in LA is roughly the same thing. I met Mickey (several times) and my faith in television was affirmed.

At Woodstock, it rained for three days. Mud. Water was scarce and you should be careful of food and drink anyone just gave you. The music was great, if you could hear it, but many were outside the natural amphitheater with sound quality a secondary concern. As huge flash crowds go, Woodstock was peaceful and real bonds were formed with total strangers. Then everyone went home.

While Woodstock took place forty miles from where I lived, I was at Disneyland. I had a much better time than my parents but they got much better stories.

Aftermath: No one knows just how many people were at Woodstock: could be as few as 200,000, as many as 750,000. The initial estimate of 600,000 seems high in retrospect, and the only way to know is to lay a grid over the scene and count the people there, then count the squares--the way the cops do it, and add in a guess at the people in the woods. But no one has done it. All we know: It was large and no one was in charge.

I've probably told more Woodstock stories than Disneyland stories, but, for better or worse, in the third person.

An edited and unlinked version of this article appeared in the August 15, 2009 Times Herald-Record as In his words: The 'Record' on Woodstock. For my mother's perspective on the experience, see my brother Joe's column in the Huffington Post, Sex, Drugs, Rock 'N Roll in Redneck Country. I'm also one of many people who's excerpted comments are in the St. Paul Pioneer Press's I Remember Woodstock, Really column of 8/14/09.