Castle Valley Comments: Aug. 22, 2019

Fifty years ago last week the nation witnessed one of the most iconic events in history when over 400,000 people descended on a 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York. The event was billed as an Aquarian Exposition, which featured three days of peace and music, but it was more commonly known as the Woodstock Music Festival.

The original location was to be at Woodstock, New York, but the city officials declined to allow the event, so the organizers eventually settled on the dairy farm 43 miles southwest of Woodstock after several other locations were turned down. The organizers pre-sold 186,000 tickets with a plan to sell tickets at the event, but when the surging masses arrived there was no way to contain the crowd so most of them got in free.

The organizers ended up with a $1.2 million shortfall and it took them over a decade to get out of debt. Because of the large unexpected crowd, the event was ill equipped with sanitary facilities, first-aid and other necessities for such a mass of humanity.

One of the thousands of people in that influx of attendees in the small community of Bethel was Castle Valley’s Kathy Russell. She was at home in Boston during summer break between her freshman and sophomore years at Bryn Mawr Woman’s College just outside of Philadelphia. Kathy and her childhood friend Mary decided that they were going to Woodstock, but when she mentioned to her parents that she wanted to go to the event the answer was absolutely not. Being a strong-willed individual even as a teen, she was not deterred by the lack of permission by her parents, so Kathy and Mary hopped in her mother’s big “Woody” station wagon and took off for their epic journey to a promise of peace and music.

The normal four- or five-hour drive from Boston took them 13 or 14 hours (and even longer, counting what they did on foot) to get to the festival because of the muddy and jammed roads leading to their destination. Sporadic rain and muddy fields marred the three-day event, but she said it didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the mostly young people who were there. The two were there for the duration of the festival because they wanted to be part of the three-day festivities, but also there was no way they could leave because the highways became parking lots. “It was weird to be part of it,” she said, looking back on the occasion.

She remembers walking a distance to the festival after parking the car as close as she could get to the venue and as they walked, they just went with the flow – sort of a migration – to where the stage was located and the people were gathering. They were totally unprepared for what they were getting into, thinking they were going to a normal concert.

They had no food, sleeping arrangements or any other comforts but simply slept on the muddy ground and occasionally ate what was given to them. Because of the collective mindset, nobody seemed to mind and all they remember is the incredible music from the 32 bands and the camaraderie that existed there. As a result, she doesn’t remember being hungry, cold or tired but remembers that everyone took care of each other when there was a need.

“We were there together away from it all,” she said, and added that it all worked, everything just clicked and she said that there was no violence.

But besides the rock ‘n roll, there was a lot of sex and drugs during the three days even though the organizers later said that “Woodstock was not about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, it was about spirituality, about love, about sharing, and helping each other, living in peace and harmony for three days.”

For the Woodstock generation it was an alternative to the troubled times the country faced in that tumultuous decade. Two Kennedy assassinations had occurred, plus the assassination of Martin Luther King, and a nation divided over the Vietnam War. But others looked on Woodstock with scorn. A newspaper article wrote that “on one side a throng of young people gathered for peace and music, and on the other more than a half-million of their peers were fighting in Vietnam.”

But for Kathy and her childhood friend Mary it was a chance to escape reality and stretch their young wings. They were creating a memory that has lasted 50 years and, without knowing it at the time, were part of an epic event that would go down in history.

The next Castle Valley Library movie night will be a documentary that features a New York City Public School’s program that teaches ballroom dancing to fifth grade students. Some of them are selected to compete in a citywide competition for a trophy that passes from school to school.

Faylene Roth says this movie is a “must” for anyone who is a fan of the Dancing with Stars event to be held in September. “For everyone it is a delightful look into the lives of fifth graders. Be sure to come early for the popcorn,” she said. The documentary is called Mad Hot Ballroom and it will be shown at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 27, at the Castle Valley Library.