Woodstock and the Wild Bunch

Friday nights are a great time to write as the work-week is over.  I like drinking on Friday nights, so do indulge me.  Luckily, I turned on the television and bumped into “Woodstock.”  I have been enjoying the film immensely – while drinking several beers and contemplating dinner.  Jimi Hendrix just performed the “Star Spangled Banner” as a solo tour-de-force, and it is amazing how good he is, how young, and how long and nimble his fingers are.  Janis, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe….  Amazing! 

My friend, Ron and I drove up to New York City that weekend of Woodstock back in 1969; we were in Ron’s Ford Mustang picking up our close friend, Lynn, who had been working in New Jersey at a Salvation Army camp for underprivileged girls just outside of New York City.  We were sixteen and on our own.  Our plan was to sleep at the camp, then, drive into New York City and hang out in Greenwich Village before returning to the horrors of “farmbelt” Pennsylvania that night.  When we arrived in the Village that Saturday morning, we were shocked to see no one was there.  It was like a mysterious wind had emptied the sidewalks and stores and removed all the cars and taxis! 

Ron, Lynn, and I would be entering tenth grade that fall; we were from “the dead-of-no-where” Pennsylvania, and we didn’t have a clue as to what was going on until we read the New York Daily News that morning.  Ugh!  Talking about being in the wrong place at the wrong time!  I can remember sitting in a diner trying to decide what to do – should we take off for Woodstock or stick with our plan to hang out in Greenwich Village?  Subsequently, we read the freeway was closed, with cars stranded everywhere, and decided ditching new Ron’s Mustang wasn’t worth it either. 

Two good things, though, came out of that trip: in a record store in the Village I heard Al Cooper’s album “Blood, Sweat and Tears” and realized I was listening to a great album.  I bought it immediately, and it still holds a place near to my heart.  The second thing was seeing “The Wild Bunch.”  God!  What a fabulous movie!  To this day, I remember endless details!  We were in a movie house in mid-town, and, I remember, we were allowed to smoke cigarettes while watching the film.  Three sixteen-year-old boys smoking up a storm – we were immersed totally in the experience.  And the movie was incredible!  On that screen, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, and us – we were all one, and, in the end, we died together in the central plaza fighting the Mexican Army!  This was even more unbelievable than the Magnificent Seven or John Wayne and the Alamo.  This was four guys armed to the teeth, in the Mexican Army’s encampment, slugging it out to the death and in slow motion too!  Simply incredible! 

Still, several months later, watching the movie “Woodstock,” when it played in our local movie theatre, we realized, then, how much we missed not hiking up the New York Freeway! 

Now, sitting in my easy chair, drinking a few beers after a long week, watching a sliced-up, commercial-filled version of “Woodstock,” I can’t help but wonder about our decision – what if we had made it up to Max Yasgur’s Farm, would our lives have played out differently?  Yet, how much of an impact could it have had on three young, farm boys who still had three years of high school remaining in our “lost-in-a-dead-zone” world?  Of course, maybe things would have changed for Ron.  At the time, Lynn and I embraced what “Woodstock” meant to kids, like us, looking for a future, but Ron shied away from us that year, and our friendship, as a result, was never as close. 

Essentially, Ron joined the wrestling team that year and began hanging out with the athletes in our high school.  While Lynn and I explored pot and other drugs popular at the time, Ron embraced the binge-drinking lifestyle of the jocks in our school, and, ultimately, never was as comfortable being around us again.  Later, in college, at the beginning of our junior year, Ron crashed his Ford Mustang late one night dead-drunk from a long night of underage drinking in a bar just past the state line.  He died driving back to school; he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and, in the accident, was thrown into the oncoming lane.  I have thought about Ron many times – why he went the route he took back in tenth grade, and, again, years later – but mostly, I think about what it must have been like recognizing the bright lights of death speeding directly at you at sixty miles-an-hour.   

I remember, at the time, I was in college moving off campus.  My friends and I were living in various apartments before we could get the keys to our house.  When, finally, we unlocked the front door to our rental, a three-day-old telegram from my mother was lying on the floor waiting for me.  I recall vividly standing in the hallway stunned.  According to the text, Ron’s funeral, in fact, was being held the next morning.  Looking back, I regret letting my college friends talk me out of taking a bus back home. They kept saying I would never make it in time, there was too much to do with the house, and it was just a friend from junior high, after all.   

Today, I think of Ron and me drinking bottles of vodka together back in eighth and ninth grade in my basement or smoking cigarettes on the side streets between our houses, and, later, in high school, Lynn and I showing up stoned at parties and seeing Ron happily drunk with his new friends.  Mostly, I remember, how close we were in junior high: we were boys from screwed-up families who banded together, who spent hours listening to music, who thought nothing on a Friday night of walking the railroad tracks for miles to get to Ron’s father’s farmhouse where we could drink the booze in his father’s liquor cabinet, or, later, after his dad gave Ron the Ford Mustang, speeding over a hundred miles-an-hour to see if we had the guts to do it.  We were the Wild Bunch back then, yet, through blood, sweat, and tears, Lynn and I went on – but Ron, Ron, in my mind, remained behind, back in the plaza, fighting demons as overwhelming as the Mexican Army.   


Categories: Memoir

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