Life On The Aquarian Mudflats

By Ray Schultz

From the New York Review Of Sex, October 1, 1969

Needless to say, half a million people flocked in from every conceivable point on the globe. Most of them were young: 18, 19, 20, and very informally dressed: blue jeans, striped bellbottoms, T-shirts, navy work shirts, sandals, shorts—the whole thing. They were thin, fat, bald, hairy, meek and angry as well. Some of them brought tents, some only brought sleeping bags, some came in cars, some walked from Detroit. You couldn’t begin to pin them. With the wisdom of their years, they set up camp wherever they could find a site, and with the ignorance of their breed, they walked in their bare feet over broken glass, nests of mudwasps, poison ivy, and wicked stones. They were groovy.

By the time Lady Anne arrived late Friday afternoon, she was sufficiently rent by the traffic and the crowds to consider returning to New York where she could spend the rest of her mortal days among the familiar liars of West Tenth Street, but as luck would have it, the roads going out were as crowded as those going in, and she was trapped in the muddy clime—a prospect that didn’t please her very much.

“It was weird,” she said, “like being away from home the first time in the hospital or something. How could you get yourself to adjust to such a thing? I wanted to leave as soon as I got there, but there was no way out. It was very sinister.”

This trapped feeling was worst during the first few hours as the expected crowd of 150,000 doubled then trebled into a sweaty heap of flesh on the field. Possible signs of chaos and destruction began to appear. The festival administration couldn’t get their ticket gates up on time, so people came in, technically, for free. A constant stream of bodies moved in both directions on the narrow, poorly paved access road. Cars drove by, with kids sitting on the roofs, fenders, hoods, anywhere a spare foot of space could be had. One driver, of a lemon-yellow Ford objected to the free riders.

“Get the fuck off the car!”

They jumped off, but offered their own objections to the scene.

“Fucker!”

“I’ll beat your fucking head!”

Helicopters swooped over, bringing in the performers to the backstage area from a Holiday Inn miles away. The stage was at the lowest point in the field, a natural amphitheatre sloping down, so filled with kids you couldn’t even walk. Throughout the grounds, there were three clumps of outhouses, “Johnnies-on the-spot,” according to the press releases. They did not look very sanitary, or very usable: the bushes themselves were more inviting, and certainly, they smelled better. The only water pumps were on the outskirts of these outhouse areas, and the muddy nature of it all made you think twice about partaking of said pumps.

The concession area was atop a hill in the rear, and it too, was hell. You hand to stand on line to purchase tickets, ala Jones Beach, and then you had to stand on the food line of your choice and rip your tickets off to buy your grub. The prices were average for such concessions: sodas, 30 cents, hot dogs, 35 cents. One great stand sold Mexican food at reasonable prices, tortillas five cents a piece, beans and tortillas 55 cents, chicken taco—75 cents. The portions of this fare were sort of like the ones you used to get in the high school cafeteria, and with the mud and all the other hangups, there was a disturbing air of Montezuma’s Revenge about it.

Problems became focused, bad acid, poisoned acid, the man said from the stage. Ambulances came in from time to time: one of them was halted by a young man clad only in his jockey shorts, begging for help.

“We can’t help you,” the ambulance attendant said.

“But I haven’t got any clothes,” the young man pleaded.

A group of trailers was set up down the road, one of which was “Rap Central,” designed to deal with everything from bad acid trips to lost children (three- and four-year-old variety.) A staff of six lawyers were available to give legal aid, mostly for drug cases (the only real legal problem—at least 80 people had been busted on the way there) and nearby stood a medical trailer, which on Friday evening was treating some bad acid trips but mostly a lot of cut feet and broken arms, stuff like that. The doctors in residence were mostly volunteers, some of them from the anti-AMA movement. A sign on one of the trailers read “Do you want to go home?” Just like the army: “Chaplain, I want out!”

Your reporter with a few assorted stragglers went through six joints in the pleasant open air, then moved back into his respective burrow to listen to the concert—a thing you tuned into whenever the mood took you, and tuned out of as readily. Ravi Shankar was on, terrestrial, incredible, Christ were they stoned.

As far as the eye could see, or the nose could smell, grass was in the open. Hawkers ran around pushing their wares: “Mescaline, acid, three dollars.” The only police in the area were the cats from Leary’s New York Force, not authorized to make arrests; and the mounted state police, who did nothing but escort vehicles in and out of the grounds. Everything was free, everything was open.

Your reporter neglected to bring a sleeping bag, or any other such accessory, so using his jacket for a pillow, he laid there in the open, returned to the earth, stoned as a motherfucker, digging the whole thing. At midnight, or thereabouts, it began raining, just enough to make things mean, and the reporter, duly pissed, decided to get up and walk around until it stopped—actually to prevent drowning in his sleep. The rain continued though, and by the time the sky began turning from black to gray, the reporter knew something was very wrong. He rose sopping, and made his way through the slush and the mud to the concession stands, but nothing was to be had. Kids stood around in their soggy misery and there was no food, no drink, no sustenance of any kind to be had. The reporter made his way down the hill and up the road to the medical area, which was crowded to the brim with hurting people—freakouts, cold, bruises, cuts, stomach pains, labor pains, bubonic plague and dysentery.

The light grew in the east and the rain continued, miserable rain—it was seven o’clock, and the rain poured down without mercy, sheets of it, blinding driving rain, turning the field into a swamp, the sleeping bags into sponges, a silent ghastly procession of soaked kids in ponchos, sweaters or barebacked, making their way out the invisible gate for the town, and for home, the morning was dark with rain, you didn’t move, you couldn’t get wetter if you jumped in the river, you were scraped, you were trapped here in this fucking August rain, God.

The reporter went to the press tent, but the tent had been ripped down in the night to be set up elsewhere as a medical facility. A row of telephones was wrapped over with canvas. A young man tending the press area said, “It’s very bad. Damned people should call the national guard, but they’re too proud. They don’t want to admit defeat.”

“Is the place a disaster?”

“Is the place a disaster? Look around you, man.”

Lines were formed around all the meager toilet facilities in the rain, the water was out, the wells were not producing. No shelter was available, no food, not enough medicine for the ever-growing number of patients. Epidemic, pneumonia, death, what next? The reporter snuck, into an administration trailer to get out of the rain and he asked a man with a “Staff” pass on his lapel—what were the prospects? Would the festival be called off?

“The promoters are trying to make a decision on that now.”

“Do you think it will continue?”

“There’s a good chance it won’t. The stage wires were shorted by the rain, and it’s really kind of dangerous.”

“What about the national guard?”

“What about the national guard?”

“You think they should be called in for these kids?”

“Well, I don’t know now. It looks bad, but we didn’t tell all these people to camp out right on the field. They weren’t supposed to in the first place.”

“You didn’t?”

“Hell no. If they’re stupid enough to come here like this, what can we do about it”

“What’s your position with the festival?”

“An employee.”

Are you giving me the official line from the front office?”

“Man, I don’t know.”

At nine a.m. the rain had ended, and a rumor was beginning: a man has been run over by a tractor on the main road. Yes, he’s dead.

An eyewitness explained that the kid, around 23, was wrapped in his sleeping bag, lying in the ditch on the side of the road, when the tractor came chugging along, slipping into the ditch, and moving right over him, getting caught in the mud in the process.

“We couldn’t get a crane in there or anything, and he was still stuck under the tractor, so we had about 20 men lift the thing off him, out of the mud. You could tell he was gonna die. They didn’t even bother using the oxygen tank on him, they just gave him one of those small respirators. They knew he was finished.”

“Where did he get it?”

“Lower abdomen—hip area, I think.”

“Was he conscious?”

“Motherfucker never knew what hit him.”

It was the low point of the worst morning in history. The great, three days of music and peace had turned into a total debacle, and the worst might well be yet to come. The declaration of surrender had to be imminent: How could they allow it to go on?

In all due modesty, however, the young people of this country have nothing if not resilience, and natural consideration for each other. With boundless emotional resources, the digging out of the mud began. Each new hour, you saw something more beautiful than the hour before. The men took their shirts off, people rolled up their pants legs, and settled down to the task of survival. Spare some food? Sure, stranger. Spare some water? Just a little, but you can have it. Spare some dope? Help yourself, brother.

Up on the hill, coffee was available, and that makes any morning seem brighter. A truck pulled up, selling cigarettes.

“How much?”

“Seventy-five cents.”

“Seventy-five cents! Why so much?”

“The only change we have is quarters.”

“Then why don’t you charge fifty cents?”

“You want the cigarettes or not?”

“Fuck no! Shove them up your ass!”

The scum of the earth came out of their holes. Water went from a nickel a glass to a quarter. Sandwiches were hawked for a dollar. Down the road, at a small traveling carnival, Ferris Wheels and all, the prices went up automatically, a nickel here, a dime there, anything to make an extra bundle off the wet hungry kids.

Scumbag capitalism. Some crazies knocked off a few concession stands, and some other cats sent some hawkers flying down the road, and the people, one and all, were invited to partake of the bread of the Hog Farm—which organization had been imported by the Festival organization to keep the New York anarchists in line.

At the Hog Farm medical tent, a young aide greeted the victim of a bad trip.

“Come on in,” he said. “Just sit down. You’ll be alright.”

“No wait, I have to finish this cigarette.”

“You can finish it inside.”

The kid, shaking, was led inside the tent, where he was seated on a coat.

“Now,” the aide said, “how you been?”

In the afternoon, state police helicopters landed on and off, bringing in food and medical supplies. The rumors from the outside world were vague and terrifying; disaster, death, destruction, dope. A helicopter came in, bearing Maury Schumach of The New York Times.

“They already had someone up here covering the music,” he said. “They told me just now to get up here and see what was going on. It doesn’t look as bad as they say it was. Even the Thruway is clear.”

Be that as it may, two helicopters landed from Stewart’s Air Force Base, to evacuate medical emergencies. A Captain Glazer led the team, a young doctor in Air Force khakis.

“Who called you in, Captain?”

“I really don’t know. I got my orders at Stewart’s Air Force Base.”

“Well, what are you going to do here?”

“Just look around a bit. Take some people out.”

When he entered the medical area, some kids jeered him but they realized, somehow, it was not good, and they let up. A local sheriff explained that a girl had to be evacuated for an operation.

“What was it?”

“Don’t know. Appendix or something.”

“Who’s paying for the operation?”

“Festival,” he said. “Who do you think?”

The girl was taken on the stretcher to the chopper. She was eating a sandwich and as the chopper lifted off, she made a victory sign to her friends. Later, a report came back that someone had died of a burst appendix. Could it have been that girl?

Volunteers were called for in the medical areas, and more came than were needed. One was an ex-Navy hospital corpsman with six years experience. Many others were qualified to do more than assemble cots. One of the medical workers was Abbie Hoffman who labored for long hours in the crowded tent. Everyone was needed. New wells were dug: kids immersed themselves in the muddy ditches around the old ones to blow air into the tubes and prime the pumps. Other kids put hay down on the mud to have a drier place. It didn’t take much sense to know that the kids, not the police or the promoters brought the mess together and made it work. By Saturday evening, it was almost perfect, you could live with it, young people together—all shades. Now it was time to sit back and enjoy the music, and each other.

Further up the road, lucky guys and chicks skinny-dipped in Philippine’s pond, a murky-looking body of liquid mud. For once, nudity held no implications beyond old-fashioned practicality. Nudity was nothing special, just as blue-jeans, SCREW sweatshirts and sunglasses were nothing special.

A visit to the Hog Farm was worth your while. To get there you passed through a small wood, the paths of which were designated by orange Christmas lights and wooden signs: The Gentle Path, the Groovy Way, the High Way. Head shops were back there, second-hand clothing stands hidden in the woods. The smell of grass was everywhere, sweet and high. There were particularly large numbers of sellers shouting the familiar refrain, “Mescaline, acid, three dollars.” The poison acid turned out to be nothing more than bad acid. A bum trip.

The farm was perfect in its layout and simplicity; unlike the main festival grounds, it was actually geared to meet the needs of the people . Newsreel had small, closed circuit TV’s set up for the screening of new, on-the-spot films. The underground press had a co-op stand for the selling of papers: Rat, EVO, Black Panther Paper, New York Herald Tribune, etc. The camping area was sizable, and the free food was simple but good: rice vegetables, fruit, sugar and water. Nourishing, anyway. A sign on one of the food tents read “Take only what you can eat—please.” Further down, a small stage was located on which move-oriented groups performed for the happy folks smoking grass, eating rice, fucking, love, drinking, breathing. And the music down below.

“It’s just like an Arkansas Hoedown,” A girl said.

In short, the rest of the festival was a gas. With the assurance of an army veteran, you made your way through it carefully, but bravely, going to sleep with the sounds of “My Generation,” by the Who, and waking up to “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love?” by the Jefferson Airplane. Monday, you went back to your homes, covered with the mud, and thinking about the Groovy Way—wonderful path in the night.

 

 

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