Woodstock: Suburbanites look back on the transformative fest 50 years later
Fifty years ago this week, as David Zacher and some high school pals pulled out of the driveway of his parents' Long Island home on their way to the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, his mother ran out of the house with a Bible in her hand.
She made him swear he wouldn't use drugs or have sex.
He didn't have sex.
"My biggest fear was someone would make a stage announcement: 'Will David Zacher please call his mother?'" said the Northbrook resident, who was among hundreds of thousands who attended the iconic festival Aug. 15-18, 1969, on Max Yasgur's dairy farm in upstate New York.
"I just thought we were going to a great concert," he said. "I didn't know it would define my life."
But it did. And not just his. Theater artist Richard Pettengill, chairman of Lake Forest College's theater department, and retired Harper College and Northwest Suburban High School District 214 biology teacher Laine Gurley-Galatte say Woodstock had the same effect on them.
"I can close my eyes and I'm back," said Gurley-Galatte, of Wauconda. "I can see it and feel it. ... I think it influenced the rest of my life. Being in a group where you trusted everybody. They were there for the same reason you were there. They were treating you as well as you were treating them."
"It was like family," she said.
Not a day goes by that Pettengill doesn't reflect on the experience.
"It shaped who I became today," said the Highland Park resident and lifelong musician who taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. "Not just the amazing musical experiences, but the kindness, cooperation and the protest. I've tried to emulate that kindness and trust with other people."
David Zacher returned last October to the site of the 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair, an event he said has defined his life.
- Courtesy of David Zacher
Tickets in hand, Zacher and his friends packed up sandwiches and extra clothes and drove to The Catskills early that Friday morning.
"Little did we know we'd be literally trapped there for three days," said Zacher, a self-described "folkie" who discovered rock 'n' roll and political activism at Woodstock. Returning to college, he became involved in the anti-war movement.
They parked the car, slept under a tree for a while and awoke to people pouring onto a field surrounded by a ridge. Rushing down, they claimed spots center left, about 40 yards from the stage.
"The sound system was amazing," Zacher said. "There was no fighting, no pushing, no one trying to get closer to the stage."
Like Zacher, Pettengill sent away for tickets, which arrived on Tuesday. Within 24 hours the 15-year-old and his teenage cousins set off from the family summer home in western Massachusetts, towing his uncle's pop-up trailer behind his mom's station wagon.
"We had pretty deluxe accommodations," he said of the trailer, which they parked at the top of a hill overlooking the stage. "We were dry. We had a camp stove, spring water and Dinty Moore beef stew. No one was checking anyone in ... . It was super chill, pleasant and relaxed."
Rutgers University sophomore Laine Gurley-Galatte, a reporter for the student newspaper, happened to be in the office when a festival promoter called asking where to send press passes. Gurley-Galatte gave the promoter her name.
If it weren't for the newspaper, her parents never would have let her attend.
"I said it was my assignment, otherwise I think they would have kiboshed me," she said. As it was, her mom insisted family friend Barry Barnett accompany her.
"In upstate New York it was wall-to-wall traffic," she said. "Everyone was in a great mood, passing around giant jugs of wine. Everyone was so excited. If I had to stay there and never got to the concert, I still would have had a great time."
With fellow concertgoers sitting atop the car and a press ID affixed to the windshield, she and Barnett drove to the press area and set up a tent.
"There was a lot of camaraderie and a lot of sharing," she said. "I don't know what happened to Barry. We'd meet back at the tent at night."
Backstage, she rubbed shoulders with the likes of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Carlos Santana, who were unknown at the time. Onstage singer/songwriter Arlo Guthrie marveled at the size of the crowd estimated at more than 400,000.
Gurley-Galatte took notes and photographs initially. But after getting "lost in the music, that was the end of the camera and notes," she said.
Her story, which ran after classes resumed, "got cut big time," she said. By then Woodstock was old news, except to those who were there.
High school student Richard Pettengill, then 15, snapped this photograph of the stage during the 1969 Woodstock festival.
- Courtesy of Richard Pettengill
'Best music heard in one night'
Woodstock expanded Zacher's appreciation for rock 'n' roll, especially Saturday's lineup that included Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who and Janis Joplin, who "blew everyone away."
"It was probably some of the best music you'd ever heard in your life," said Zacher, who awoke Sunday morning to Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane singing "White Rabbit."
"Santana was one of the biggest surprises. Nobody heard of them," said Pettengill, who, after sitting 18 hours, returned early Sunday to the camper and fell asleep to Joplin's "Summertime."
But the high point came courtesy of Jimi Hendrix, who played early Monday morning to the 30,000 fans who remained.
"Greatest performance of the festival, without a doubt," Pettengill said. "'The Star Spangled Banner' was mind blowing."
Rain failed to dampen the concertgoers' enthusiasm.
"I was happy as a clam," Pettengill said. "It was summer, 80 degrees. (The rain) was really pleasant."
"It wasn't cold, so who cared?" said Gurley-Galatte, who cooled off in a pond.
"Going in it was great fun. Coming out you were covered with algae," she said.
After three days outdoors in the sun and rain, Zacher and his friends left Woodstock on Sunday and stopped at a delicatessen.
"We stunk so bad the owner chased us out," he laughed. Returning home, Zacher encountered his father, who hosed down his son before letting him into the house.
This photograph of the 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair, taken during a rainstorm, includes 15-year-old Richard Pettengill, who stands shirtless at the bottom of the photo near the center.
- Courtesy of Elliott Landy / The Image Works
At one point during the festival, Zacher bought sandwiches and soft drinks for his friends. On the walk back to their spot, people stopped him to request a bite or a sip. Zacher obliged, and by the time he made it back, he had about half of what he'd purchased.
"People shared what they had," he said, including marijuana (which he tried) and seating space on blankets, which Zacher and his friends shared with a girl named Phoebe who had lost her way. She disrobed and sat down. The young men looked but didn't touch.
"We gave her food and a half-hour later she put back on her clothes and disappeared from our lives," he said.
After vendors ran out of food, local residents stepped in and distributed sandwiches, Gurley-Galatte recalled.
"It was all about friendliness, peacefulness and sharing. It was idyllic. It was perfect," she said. "Tens of thousands were there with the same intention ... all sharing the lifestyle."
Besides its musical and cultural significance, Pettengill believes Woodstock demonstrated the human potential for cooperation and kindness.
"If you extend courtesy and assume people will behave well, people will behave well," he said.
"We look back and say, 'Ah, this is how life can be.'"