Hey ... let’s go to a Joan Baez concert!
It must have been a Friday. I’m really not sure. But I am sure it was a counselors’ day off. Richly deserved and greatly appreciated. We were the counselors at Camp Shawnee, near Waymart, Pa., not to be confused with another Shawnee somewhere along the Delaware.
I decided to be a camp counselor that summer of 1969 because I wanted to make sure I liked kids enough to become a teacher. So I applied to work for Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bland (I’m not making that last name up) who ran Camp Shawnee. Lacking any special skills which could be turned into a camping activity, I was named a general counselor and put in charge of a bunkhouse full of 11-year-old boys.
But this is not the story of what a great counselor I turned out to be and how I went on to a rewarding teaching career before becoming a weekly newspaper editor. No, this is the story about a trip to a Joan Baez concert, or at least that’s what I thought was a Joan Baez concert in some small town across the border in New York state.
My day off started with a quick trip across state to my hometown where I picked up my new, slightly used, 1967 Mustang which my father had just purchased for me. Fellow counselors Rich Fornadell and Cindy Hammill went along for the ride. I left my old Dodge station wagon at my parents’ house and off we went to the concert.
For some reason, we decided to stop back at Camp Shawnee and take Rich’s car to the concert. Looking back, it was one of the smartest decisions I made in my young life.
Rich was from New Jersey. He, too, wanted to become a teacher and decided to try counseling for one summer. Cindy Hammill was one of two girls hired to run the stables that summer at Camp Shawnee. To my amazement, she was a Penn State student, like myself. How could I have missed her on a campus of only 35,000?
Neither Rich nor Cindy cared that much for Joan Baez but they didn’t have anything better to do that day so they thought a road trip would be interesting. Most of the other counselors would go shopping in Scranton and spend the evening in a local bar that didn’t mind serving underage camp counselors.
By the time we got to Woodstock, the roads were pretty well clogged, so we parked the car somewhere along the road and started following the crowd. We didn’t have to worry about tickets because all the fences surrounding the concert site had been trampled down, so no tickets were being sold or collected.
The crowd was large. But I had no idea how large until that evening when Melanie sang and just about everyone lit a match and held it over their heads. I read that she later wrote the song “Lay Down” (Candles in the Rain) based on that experience. Can you imagine 500,000 people with lit matches raised in the air. It’s my most vivid memory of Woodstock.
I can’t tell you for sure if we heard Joan Baez that day and I’m not sure who else performed while we were there. For some reason that’s all a blur to me, though I do remember hearing Richie Havens for the very first time. I mostly remember the people — the hundreds ... the thousands of people my age converging on one place. I had never seen that many people together at one time.
I must have looked a little like Forrest Gump sitting there with Rich and Cindy on the hillside. I know I felt like a fish out of water. Throughout the first two years of college, I stayed pretty much a small-town boy with a small town haircut, small town clothes and a small town mind. I liked The Doors, Sgt. Pepper and Jefferson Airplane, but I wasn’t into drugs or peace marches. I was amazed by the funny little cigarettes being passed around the crowd that day and when people started getting naked around me, I felt uncomfortable. Thank God Rich and Cindy kept their clothes on!
Back at Camp Shawnee, the Blands and everyone else had given up hope for us. The network news programs carried scenes of the masses at Woodstock. Our fellow counselors knew we’d never get back to camp until Woodstock was over, and maybe not even then. But they were wrong.
Sometime late in the evening, Rich, Cindy and I got up, amazingly walked in the right direction, found Rich’s car and drove back to Pennsylvania. I wasn’t there for the rains (maybe it had started to rain and that’s why we decided to leave) and “bad acid” and all the other now historic events. Still, something from Woodstock came home with me.
It wasn’t long into the new school year I started growing a goatee. Cindy and I dated and even drove down to New Jersey to visit Rich one weekend. Cindy took me to my first peace march. Eventually, Cindy got lost at Penn State. I’m not sure whether she ever finished school.
And Woodstock ... well it’s gotten a little lost, too. Specific, detailed memories are lacking. But being at Woodstock awakened something in this small town boy that has never gone back to sleep. An awareness. A consciousness. I think it was during that day on a crowded New York hillside I realized I was part of a big world made up of a lot of individuals who matter, who can make things happen. And like the Forrest Gump character, I had blundered onto Woodstock, but that experience 50 years ago remains both a fond memory and an influence in my life today.