In the summer of 1969, 50 years ago, there were an estimated 350,000 to half a million people who attended the three-day music festival in upstate New York – Woodstock.
I had just finished my first year of teaching elementary school and was working in the summer as a bartender at Augie Hoffman’s Surf Club in Ortley Beach. I had heard on the radio about the Aug. 15-18 music festival in Bethel, N.Y., that had a line-up of phenomenal acts. I wanted to attend but had one problem – the bar didn’t allow staff to have weekends off, as this was the busiest time of the week.
So I came up with the story that I had a wedding to go to in upstate New York. I said I could work Friday night but would have to take off Saturday and Sunday. I promised I would be back at work on Tuesday, as Monday was my normal day off. The manager approved it.
After work on Friday (actually it ended early Saturday morning), two friends and I got in my 1968 LeMans, with an ice chest filled with food and drink, and left about 2:30 a.m. for the festival.
A few hours later, approaching Woodstock, we came to the turn-off for the festival. However, we were surprised to find the exit blocked when we arrived at 6 a.m. No one was allowed off the highway to get to the road that led to the festival. We drove about a half-mile north, then made a U-turn across the median and started going south on the highway. From that direction, we were able to get on the road leading to Woodstock.
After a while we came upon a road where cars were parked on both sides for as far as the eye could see. We made another U-turn, parked the car and started walking. At 10 a.m., after walking for a stretch, we were tired, having been up all night. Two of us decided to find a place to sleep while our third companion continued on. Since there were cars bumper to bumper on the road and people walking on the shoulder, we felt it was safer to hop on the back of a parked car and fall asleep.
Upon awakening we continued walking toward the festival, some 20 miles from where we had parked the car. Interestingly enough, I met two people I had attended college with who had been at the festival the day before and were on their way home. I asked them if they had tickets, and they informed us that tickets would not be needed, as it was now a free concert.
We finally reached the field around noon, found a space and set down our blanket, which was the only item besides binoculars that we had brought from the car. People around us were great, sharing water and what little food they had among other things. Our food was safe in our car … 20 miles away. We listened to the music and various announcements, including warnings to stay away from certain drugs that were having a negative effect on users, until late in the evening.
After midnight, my remaining companion found some friends and went to hang out with them. We didn’t see each other again that weekend. I spotted the other friend who had left our company earlier, working one of the lights on the tower left of the stage. That was the last time I saw him at the festival.
I left early Monday morning, catching rides until I reached my car. I devoured the food in the car and headed south to the New Jersey shore – alone.
On Tuesday afternoon I reported for work. As I entered, fellow bartenders and the manager were seated at the main bar. When they saw me they all smiled and started laughing. The manager asked me how the wedding was. I told him the wedding was OK, but the music was fantastic. He told me to turn around.
On a large mirror was a picture cut out from The New York Daily News of me sleeping with one of my friends on the trunk of a car as throngs of people walked to Woodstock. The bar staff had captioned it: “All Star second baseman AWOL.” (I had played for their softball team that summer.) Rather than fire me, the manager brought out a small wedding cake, which we all shared. He had a great sense of humor.
Later I called home and the response on the other end of the line was: “Don’t tell me that picture in The Star-Ledger was you? I thought you were working.” The picture of me sleeping on the car was all over the place. In the Daily News it shared headlines with Phillip Bleiberg, the second heart transplant patient, who had died. Since then, the picture has been in The New York Times, Esquire magazine and other publications in conjunction with stories about the legendary Woodstock music festival.
Here’s an interesting note: The picture of me and my friend asleep on the car was used by the media at the time to show festival-goers returning home. However, the picture actually was taken on Saturday morning on our way to the festival.
Years later, as a high school administrator, I attended a class trip to the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial and Vietnam Era Museum in Holmdel. One of the displays in the museum was a timeline of events occurring in the U.S. juxtaposed with events in Vietnam’s history. My group of students didn’t recognize the people or images, so I started explaining who they were.
“That was Betty Friedan, who was a leader in the women’s movement for equal rights; that’s Goldie Hawn from ‘Laugh-In’ in her bikini with messages on her body; that’s Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman from ‘Midnight Cowboy’; and … that’s me!” My picture from Woodstock was hanging there, showing what had happened in August 1969. The students and I were in disbelief!
No, I didn’t attend Woodstock ’94, and the 50th anniversary Woodstock festival has been canceled. For me, the original Woodstock was a weekend that happened once and will never be duplicated, no matter how hard they try. But my picture lives on in the annals of Woodstock history, and that’s my 15 minutes of fame.
Vito D’Alconzo has a summer home in Long Beach Township.