I Became A Woodstock Soldier
— Hitching not from LA to Woodstock but to Military Induction!
[NOTE: A Facebook enthusiast asked for folks to come up interesting hitch-hiking stories. Although I’ve got many, I offered this one.]
Growing Up Antiwar!
T’was summer of 1969. I was vehemently antiwar, but still draft age and fodder for war. Given I had repudiated higher education, my choices were: Enlist, get drafted, pull off a crazy deferment, split to Canada, go incognito or go to jail.
The media then called myself and who I hung with “hippies.” But, really, we were “freaks,” This was especially so given how bad the supposed normal world had become. As a side note, in many ways, it has worsened today!
Anyway, back then, besides growing long hair, doing all kinds of drugs and groovin’ on world-changing music, primarily I was a hitch-hiking poet who carried a writing pad and a chess board. To me, philosophy counted, romance was seasonal, politics all too real and I was all done with sports since I adopted a position opposing competition. I also had taken a formal vow of poverty, which I have lived and adhered to my entire life.
I was raised at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire and got to know a bit of everybody as elements of young hippydom would summer visit the beach resort. Growing up, I’d often run away from home and visit my new friends throughout all New England. I had become a wanderer of hobby.
But at my fragile age it had become decision time. I concluded the only way to deal with the military was the honorable way. I didn’t want to kill and I deeply opposed war. So I applied for non-combatant conscientious objection status to my local draft board. This meant they could draft me, but they couldn’t legally force me to carry a weapon: I would and will not kill anyone! In response, I got the letter of approval. But the very next day I got a notice to report for induction.
Off To California
Frustrated and uncertain, I had taken off for California with friends. Who knows, perhaps deep down I was prepping to leave the country, or at least enabling the option. I think the combination of not wanting to face the music and just plain not knowing what to do inspired me to get out of my home zone and onto the West Coast. I knew had I remained home I’d end up in the army. But were I far away, perhaps my decision might become different.
Inherently, I expanded my options by leaving for a very great time in California. I enjoined 1969’s Summer of Love on Sunset Strip! Counterculture in LA was then happening bigtime. Like previously in San Francisco and New York, LA too was exploding. I was there at the perfect time, much like I was for the experiences in Boston and New York City.
‘Summer of Love’ Life in LA in 1969
I got to California when a friend showed up at Hampton Beach with his dad’s brand new Ambassador SST. Angry at his parents, he didn’t mind a bit taking it on a long drive. He also had gas credit cards. He showed up to a group of us on the boardwalk and we had plenty of acid. When he asked what we were doing that evening, somebody instantly gave him some acid and said, “let’s take a trip to California.” We did!
Along the way we picked up a couple who were hitch-hiking to California. They had a pad at Venice Beach so this gave us a landing zone when we arrived. After a week at their place, my friends went back to NH. I met a nice young traveling girl so I decided to stay with her in LA, pushing off my military decision as long as possible.
Eventually, we became part of a high-end and very hip communal house located in Laurel Canyon. The house was rented to someone who rented it to someone else who then gave it to someone who gave it to someone else. It ended up becoming a house where lots of people lived for free.
By the time we got there, there was hardly any furniture. Only multiple mattresses, candles and very few tables and chairs. All of the walls were painted in amazing colors and designs. Black strobe lights were everywhere. It was a great house in which to dance to loud music. It was easy to stay awake all night till the sun came up. Even then it was still hard to sleep.
Then came a Saturday morning where I was awake early. I answered a knock on the door and met the house’s original owners (the real owners), an elderly couple who had just returned from a very long stay in Europe. They asked for the person who originally rented the house. I was clueless who that could have been.
This became one of the greatest embarrassing moments of my lifetime. You see, I knew, at the particular moment of their inquiry, that the whole house was full of hippies in very strange sleep patterns.
In response, my jaw dropped. I hedged, then meekly muttered, “Er, ah, I don’t know what to tell you. But I don’t know anyone by that name.” The couple then stretched their necks and peered inside the doorway. That gave them their first glimpse of the horrid condition of their home. The woman instantly began crying. Feeling both saddened and sorry, I invited them in and suggested someone else in the house might know the name of the person they were seeking.
I left the distraught couple in the living room and then walked all throughout the house, waking up folks who I knew that knew more than me. I explained they should talk to the couple. Meanwhile, my girlfriend and two of my two friends quickly got organized and we darted out the back door, knowing there was nothing we could defend.
It was an instant conversion. We were back to becoming street people. Once again we were daily panhandling on Sunset Strip, no longer among the upper crust and living only a few doors down from the great folksinger Tim Harden on Stanley Hills Drive in Laurel Canyon. So it goes!
It was also getting closer to decision time: Was I gonna be a soldier .. or was I not gonna to be a soldier? Was I gonna stay an American … or was I gonna be a Canadian? Canada, at the time, was extremely supportive of war resisters. After all, the Vietnam War was totally immoral and everyone knew it or was quickly finding out.
Decision Made — I Would Become a Woodstock Soldier!
One friend was from New York, the other from Pennsylvania. For their own reasons, they also wanted to return East. Fresh on everyone’s mind was the huge Woodstock Festival coming up. I think the coincidence of the timing of Woodstock made it easier for me to decide that I’d return home and face head-on my own reality. I wouldn’t get to Woodstock, but at least I would get to go with a lot of folks who got to go to Woodstock. This sort of cushioned my fateful decision.
I brought my seasonal romance girlfriend to her brother’s place, hugged and kissed her goodbye. I really didn’t want to do that, but I had no choice. I then teamed with my friends panhandle as much money as we could. Clearly, with not enough money to comfortably make the trip, we began hitchhiking.
One of us had about $20, I had $10 and the other guy about eight bucks. Back then eggs, beans and dogs at a diner were cheap … so we had a shot at it! Foolishly, three thumbs went out!
We got up to San Bernadino where we got stranded for about eight hours. Our names were carved into a signpost from boredom. Suddenly a state trooper approached. The guy from PA, who had the $20, quickly jumped the fence and ran away. We never saw him again — he got away!
Meanwhile, the New Yorker and I each received a ticket for hitch-hiking, and promptly got booted from the highway. But we persevered, carried on and made it to Las Vegas.
So now we’re in Vegas. What did we look like? My friend had a Jimi Hendrix-like haircut; I had a Jimmy Page-like haircut. We were just a couple of 19-year-old kids. But still, according to our society, we were each old enough to kill. Moreover, we didn’t look at all like the kind of people cops would like and we were in Las Vegas with barely a dime.
Since most of our money was gone from the PA guy who skip-tailed away from the San Bernadino cop, I called a friend in New Hampshire and asked him to wire us money. He agreed. Confident we had $50 coming in the mill, we put our remaining dollars into the slot machines. Ten minutes later we were completely broke, wandering the streets and now at the mercy of Western Union.
Eventually, a serious hippie-hating cop approached and asked some very unfair questions. The conversation ended with his threat to arrest us if laid eyes on us again. Knowing the short history of the relationship between rightwing police and leftwing hippies, we opted to get back onto the highway. Our thumbs were again.
A nice guy in a nice convertible picks us up and drives about 40 miles into nowhere where decides to take a left onto a road that was barely any road at all. Dropped off, we spent the night watching shooting stars, worrying about scorpions and other things that could eat us in the desert. No matter how well our thumbs worked there was no magic to them as there were hardly any cars to show drivers.
Time wore on. We made it through the cool of night only to find ourselves sweating with the new morning sun. We were on our 12th hour of desert time. It got so bad we were breaking bottles in the road, hoping someone would get a flat, hoping we could help ’em fix their tire, then get a ride.
People would drive by and smile. They’d drive by and wave. Others would drive by and give us the finger. But we stayed friendly and answered back with the peace sign. The flat tire idea didn’t arrive without good reason. Many passers-by were obnoxious and often it seemed like we were at war. Some would yelp out oddball comments and occasionally one would scream out, “fuckin’ hippies!”
At this place in Nevada we had a 12-hour spell stuck in the desert. At least I became a true witness: I have seen the skies!
Ironically, a VW microbus came rolling along with a neatly-dressed hippie couple in the front. They pulled over. Running up to the bus I notice a New Hampshire license plate, still The Scenic State. I quip to my friend, “I wonder if I know ‘em!” We open the door and climb in the back.
The couple both turned with smiles, and I immediately realized I knew the driver. I didn’t know him personally, and he didn’t know me personally — but we each recognized the other. “Hey, I know you” and life suddenly became joyful again. We had great conversations. It turned out the driver was the guy who opened the first head shop at Hampton Beach. He’d just gotten married and he and his wife were touring the country.
Not only did they rescue us and get us out of the desert, at one point we found a swimming hole. We got all smoked up, drank some wine from a real hippy wine pouch and went skinny-dipping. We had a great time in the desert. It was sort of an oasis feeling — good vibes with the wind to our backs!
We got dropped off at a very good spot in Utah. Somehow we ended up in Provo where we met a rock n’ roller who told us we had to go to the rock concert on the mountain. He brought us and, sure enough, what a blast! At the show we met two girls who afterwards brought us to their home in Salt Lake City, a bit out of our way. But we didn’t mind. It was 1969 and the Summer of Love continued beckoning. We were enthralled in what can only be described as A Hitch-Hiker’s Delight!
Woodstockers on America’s Highways
The Utah experience completely changed only our whole hitch-hiking timetable, but also our attitude. When we finally got back on the road we discovered a new vibe had filled the air. Maybe it was the leftover effects from being with the girls and the rock concert. Anyway, when the girls were done with us we were put back onto the highways we discovered there were dozens of people now on the highway on-ramps, everyone taking turns hitchhiking eastward.
They, too, had long hair, wore tie-dyed clothing and believed in the peace symbol. They passed out joints, lit incense, shared fruits and granola and several played guitar. We, hitchhikers all, were singing songs enroute to Woodstock. There literally had to have been thousands of westward hippies migrating east to Woodstock!
The hell with becoming a real soldier: I now, officially, had become A Woodstock Soldier!
While in Salt Lake City in our dreamy state of consciousness, I erroneously got the Las Vegas Western Union money transfer sent to Denver, thinking we were gonna be in Denver. Very bad chess move on my part. Route 80, our primary interstate highway, didn’t take us through Denver. So I called my friend and got the money transferred to Rawlings, Wyoming.
But once there, we encountered a gang of cowboys who wanted to beat the crap out of us. As we near-accidentally bumped into them, one said, “Hey, look at the rangatangs!” Another said, “Let’s get ‘em!”
Full of love, peace and understanding, we turned and ran as fast as possible back onto the interstate. I got the money transferred from Rawlings to Cheyenne. We made it to Cheyenne, found it a nice place and got what was remaining of the dough as each money transfer reduced the amount that was originally sent.
But at this point, money no longer seemed to matter. Anyone heading to Woodstock was golden! No longer did slings and arrows of outrageous hitch-hiking misfortune apply. Each of us now hitched in full confidence knowing luck was on our side. From ride to ride, at every on-ramp, Route 80 was full of concert-going hippies — every ride a fun ride!
Journey Fraught With Peril
Then came another ride in a VW microbus. This one already was full of hippies. It became nine of us, all scrunched in. We were smoking pot, singing songs and being all sorts of happy for miles and miles and miles. We were on a long haul roll.
But, for some reason — I don’t remember why — we ventured into Omaha where we got lost. Seeking help, our driver pulls next to a police car and asks for directions. We went the way he said only to find ourselves on a dead end street. Suddenly, a dozen flash-lit police cars closed in and surrounded us. To them, we were dead meat!
With hardly any conversation with the driver, they yanked us out of the VW bus and immediately lined us up against it. It became exactly like the famous song by David Peel & The Lower East Side: “Up Against The Wall, Mother-fucker!” We wuz bein’ frisked!
While the frisking was happening we were looking through the bus windows at cops inside searching with flashlights hellbent on finding pot. Interestingly, when the flashing lights first came upon us we hid a big bag of pot at the very bottom of a box of books in the rear of the bus.
Looking through the window, I thought for sure we were screwed as I saw a cop shine his light into the box. He picked up a couple of books in one hand while holding his flashlight in the other. He couldn’t easily pick up all of the book at once. Seeing pretty much only a box full of books and needing a third hand to search thoroughly, he gave up after picking up a few of them.
Observing this, my friend and I began laughing outside of the bus. A cop close by yelled, “shut up!” Then another one chimed in, “where’s the pot?” He said they knew we’d been up on Route 20 [Nebraska], insisting we were picking marijuana plants. He wanted to know what we did with the plants. Clearly, it was all a ruse.
Except for the small amount of pot in the box of books — which they never found — we were straight-sure innocent. Meanwhile, the conversation between us went: “How come you guys got long hair?” “How come you got short hair?” “Isn’t it hot in the summer time?” “Isn’t it cold in the wintertime?”
We told them all about Woodstock and described how they they should also go. After about a 40-minute hassle, they finally freed us, even though they didn’t wanna. Although a close call, at least it ended friendly!
A Festival Spawned, A Step Taken — A Conscience Deepened
Everyone on that VW bus, but me, got to Woodstock!
As a side note, I indeed became a real soldier and went through the real boot camp and real advanced military training at which point I evolved from being a non-combatant conscientious objector into becoming a full conscientious objector requesting a discharge.
I reasoned serving in the military was like serving in an institutionalized killing machine with nuts and bolts holding it together. No matter my capacity of service, I had become like a nut or a bolt holding an institutionalized machine together. What ensued from this process was a very long and interesting struggle of experience. Indeed — a whole ‘nother story!
Ultimately, after 10 months of military service, I received an honorable discharge as a Conscientious Objector. I was discharged as a very proud Woodstock Soldier, ultimately becoming a musician and writing several antiwar songs.
Tempting though it was to segue to Woodstock instead of military induction, I carried forward and took my step into the US Army! With the snap of my mind I easily could have alternatively opted for Woodstock and beyond … and then likely trouble.
However, in my mind and given my experience, I already had become a proud Woodstocker. After all, I hitchhiked, smoked pot, shared music, exchanged stories, listened to and recited poetry, sang songs and battled cops among those on their way to the festival. In spirit, I was among them!!!