As Us

A Space for Writers of the World

Michael Wolke

My Woodstock

In August 1969, the “Woodstock Music Festival” took place on Max Yasgar’s farm in the town of White Lake, New York. As luck would have it, I was there to witness the once-in-a-lifetime event. The weather was miserable. It rained; the wind blew, and the fields were almost solid mud. But it was the 60s generation’s crowning achievement. The list of musicians and groups was the Who’s Who of the 60s, and they played in the rain, and they stayed afterwards and got high with the other 500,000 people there. But my experience wasn’t about the obvious attractions. An important thing happened for me there. I felt something powerful and beautiful from my fellow children of the 60s that I hadn’t felt before, and it gave me pause and hope, and it made me glad to be a member of this part of the human race.

Let me dirty up the air for you right away. I was never the nice, clean-cut kid. I was the other one. By the time I started the 10th grade I was already on probation, and I had a Heroin habit. I never finished the 10th grade, but I finished the habit 47 years later.

In 1965, I went on active duty in the Navy. Went West-Pac to Vietnam. Stayed mostly up in the Tonkin Gulf by Hanoi. Partied in Japan, Hong Kong, Philippines and once in Korea. Was home ported in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and used Heroin almost all the time. Got out in June 1967, just in time for the “Summer of Love” in Los Angeles. I don’t know what it was for others, but for me it was a paradise. Freedom, wanton sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, and rebellion. All the things right up my alley. I didn’t want to connect with “Flower Power” and “Love and Peace”; those people had it wrong. I wasn’t into loving everybody. Hell, I didn’t even love myself. I just wanted to stay high and hide in the warm satiny embrace of Heroin. Forever.

By August ’69 I was in and out of prison. Still using Heroin, when my friend Gator and I agreed on a trip to the Woodstock Music Festival. All on Gator’s dime. More sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Yeah! At every stop, from L.A.X to the Greyhound Bus station in N.Y.C., there are fellow travelers to this concert in numbers that amaze us. But, in White Lake, there are thousands upon thousands of kids. And it’s Thursday, and the music doesn’t start until Friday sometime. Someone tells us the fences have been torn down, and no one needs a ticket any more. It has rained, but it’s stopped now, and we walk out into the fields to get our first view of this Woodstock. What we see is cars, vans, campers, psychedelically painted busses, tents, and people everywhere. It looks like a city without buildings. We meet two girls from somewhere down south who have a tent and we spend our first night at Woodstock, dry, smoking weed, drinking a little wine, and me doing a shot of Heroin. Welcome to Paradise

In the morning, we check the place out—Hog Farm, stage and music area, baby animal zoo, the lake where we all bathe (cold)—and wander around talking to people from everywhere. Everybody is being friendly, like we all know each other. I’m not used to that. I’m an ex-con, dope fiend, people distruster. Who are these crazy people? But, I relax, and we all have deep conversations about the size of the crowd and how great this party-concert is going to be. A lot of people here are college kids, and they are smart and educated and have definite views about the Vietnam War and the state of our country and its leaders. And some are involved in the changes. Some belong to underground organizations at their universities. These kids are serious. I’ve never been exposed to this level of dissent before. I mostly listen and nod my head. Gator, on the other hand, marched for Civil Rights in Mississippi, so he’s in the conversation 100%. Our wandering ends when we are invited to stay with a commune from Taos who have a bus and a couple of tents.

The music starts tonight. It is loud. We can hear it where we are camped between the stage and the Hog Farm. The Hog Farm was a commune who fed everyone nuts, oats and honey for the entire three days of the festival. For free. Great people.

It is the wee hours, and I have become acquainted with a lady of the Taos commune who has her own tent. I am twenty-two years old, and I think I know it all. I have been under the impression that these hippie kids are spoiled rich kids, mad at Mommy and Daddy, but who will go home on Monday to their nice, safe world. Maybe I have been wrong.

The festival was an amazing event. Historical even. Though the weather never got better, everyone enjoyed themselves fully nonetheless. The second afternoon, during a nasty rain, my Taos lady took me onto the commune’s bus, and way into the back, under the last seat, she pulled out a large bakery box, opened it up, and there was the most beautiful chocolate cake I had ever seen. We ate it all with our fingers right there on the bus.

I don’t think I stayed so high, nor had so many real conversations as I did in those three days at Woodstock. I know my perceptions of all things “Love and Peace Generation” took on a totally new meaning for me. Before, I saw them as shallow, self-centered, spoiled, privileged, upper-class kids. L.A. is full of them: “Hollywood’s Coolest!” But some of these were of a different stripe. They were serious with their lifestyle. They traveled the U.S.A. by thumb. They stayed where they could. They lived as they pleased. They answered to no one. Or, they were trying to be part of the solution. They were active in school or local politics. “Change from within,” they said. They got my attention, and I applauded their dedication and nerve. After all, this was still the 60s, and the cops still had a heavy hand. Remember Kent State?

And so, as all things do, Woodstock came to its glorious end. There were half a million people there and not one act of violence. Not one! That’s an amazing statistic.

We caught a ride on a flatbed truck from one of the carnival rides into New Jersey. And the next day we were back in L.A. We were dirty and tired and hungry. And we just wanted to be alone. But my brain kept picturing all these kids with their brave and earnest faces daring the world to stop them from trying to change things for our generation from what was bad—Vietnam, politics—to what the world could/should be. And all I wanted was another trip to the poppy’s field of dreams.

Woodstock is over now. It’s long gone. But I keep it locked inside myself somewhere. And every now and then, when the T.V. or a book or someone brings it to mind, I run the old 8-track through my brain and listen to it for a while. It always brings smiles to my face and the, “I remember them,” and the music and the talks and the dancing and the rain. And the visions of a Taos lady and a chocolate cake, eaten naked in the back of a psychedelic bus. But what changed in me, in those three days, at that “Happening,” as we called those kinds of things in the 60s, was a subtle awareness that there was good in this world. And that these hippie children had it right, and I had had it wrong. What I found mixed within the rain and mud was Love and Peace. And it was a beautiful thing to feel.

It took me many years to completely love myself and to feel peace within my own soul. It was a hard road and it had many twists and turns. But I’m a better man today for Woodstock and those children wiser than me. I’m an old man now, my life halfway down the hill, but I love my fellow man and am content within my soul. I wish I could share these things with you, but it doesn’t work that way. Maybe, with a little luck, you’ll find your own Woodstock. I wish you love and peace.

Where I Come From

It looks like home to me.

It sounds like bedlam with its sirens, gunshots, and helicopters.

It smells like exhaust and smog and dirt and garbage.

It feels like it belongs to me, but I know it doesn’t.

It tastes like a cold beer on a hot day.

Raised in Los Angeles, Michael Wolke is the middle son of a working class family. Heroin became Mike’s companion early in life, which resulted in the majority of his adult years spent in federal and state prisons. Mr. Wolke is sixty-seven years old and will be eligible for parole in 2030.

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