[Based on true events. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.]
Tuesday, July 15, 1997
With paintbrush in hand, I sit on the dusty wooden floor in a huge room behind the auditorium stage, among rusty nails poking out of boards and planks, open paint cans, a wardrobe full of torn and faded costumes, blank canvases, and props from previous summer productions. It’s my second summer working here, at my old camp, and at various moments I’m reminded of my younger self as a camper—that awkward, lonely girl trying to navigate her way through childhood. I paint Lucy’s lemonade stand for the youngest bunks’ upcoming play—my old jeans and t-shirt now ruined for the benefit of a bunch of eight- and nine-year-olds.
Gary, the scenery and prop director, comes bursting through the stage door, brow furrowed, looking annoyed and perturbed and slightly off kilter. He’s a bit eccentric, so his demeanor doesn’t seem all that surprising to me. He has his Yankees hat on backward, perhaps an attempt to hide both a bald spot and his age as he borders on fifty.
“C’mon, we’re going for a ride!” he announces.
I look back down at my work of art, just having finished the sign up top—PSYCHIATRIC HELP 5¢—and am about to say that I should probably finish the bottom part—THE DOCTOR IS “IN”—before heading out anywhere. But Gary’s nervous energy begs to be alleviated, and I know that he needs a sidekick to accompany him, or perhaps babysit him, as he heads out on some expedition to find peace and calm—or at least a change of scenery from this dusty room filled with, well, scenery.
I follow him out the side door and am greeted by the morning sun, a stark contrast from the dark and secluded area backstage. Gary dashes down creaking wooden steps, and I follow, a bit tentatively, across the gravel road to his car in the parking lot at the edge of campus.
“Where are we—”
He gestures for me to hurry up.
“Just get in, man.” His voice, his demeanor, his entire being seems rushed, desperate to get going as soon as humanly possible. He starts the car and pulls out of the lot before I can even close my door. When I finally get my seatbelt fastened—a difficult task when speeding along a bumpy, winding dirt road in the middle of Upstate New York—I try my question again.
“Woodstock?” For a moment, with my mind still on the upcoming Peanuts production, I think he’s referring to Snoopy’s friend. Huh? I mentally slap myself on the forehead when I realize he’s talking about the location, not that silly yellow bird. “Wait, we’re near Woodstock?”
“Yes, of course! Like fifteen, twenty minutes away!” I inhale, worried for a moment about going off campus with this slightly unusual man. It has nothing to do with not trusting his motives; there’s no worry on that front. But I wonder what kind of adventure, or mess, we’ll be getting ourselves into.
“It’s the place to be, man,” he continues. “Damn, we needed to get out of that musty, sunless cavern and smell the air, see what there is to see, you know what I mean.”
We drive in silence, Gary now focused on the road, looking much calmer than he had been when we started off. I feel the sun’s warmth shining on me through the front window as I look out at pine trees, seemingly endless meadows, fenced-in farms, the occasional grazing deer.
Finally, Gary stops the car by an open, hilly area, gets out, and stretches out his arms as if he’s Jesus. I’m confused, disappointed, feeling duped. I unbuckle my seatbelt and join him.
“Wait, this is it?”
He gasps. “What do you mean, ‘it’? Yes, this is the place, the very location where it all happened!”
I look at him for a moment, waiting for a punch line that never comes.
“It’s just some huge…field,” I say. “Yeah, sure, kind of sloped, I get that, but this is…it?”
“It’s kind of a letdown, really. I was expecting something, well…something not plain and ordinary like this is.”
“This isn’t no ordinary place, man. This is where it all happened!”
“Where what happened?”
I can tell Gary’s getting annoyed. “Everything!” he exclaims. “This is where everything happened!”
Then he proceeds to give me a history lesson, and a geography lesson, and the background on the concert’s development, and how it defined the 1960s and made way for the ‘70s. Then he starts with a whole social commentary on the state of society from the ‘60s on up to the present day. And then, his face lighting up at some vision or scene that’s invisible to me, Gary points in this direction and that direction in an effort to illustrate how far the audience stretched. That’s where Hendrix played, he tells me. Janis Joplin, The Dead, Joan Baez. I can’t see anything that he seems to see. I don’t feel much of anything here, at this moment, except maybe underwhelmed.
“So, you were there then?”
Gary’s dead stare tells me to stop asking silly questions, and I oblige. But as we get back in the car, I notice an obvious sense of longing in the way he takes one last breath of the fresh air. This place means nothing to me, but to him it holds more significance than I can ever understand.
“I’m sorry,” I say as he backtracks down the road from which we came. “I don’t feel the aura of the place like you do, but I should be respectful of what it means to you.”
Gary shakes his head and smiles. “Nah, no problem-o. Sometimes there are just places that take you back, you know? And going back there, having that reminder every now and then of where you’ve been…Well, I just needed to get that cleansing breath, that calmness, that renewal, you know. To see the world with fresh eyes.”
He goes on a bit, then apologizes for rambling, but I appreciate his candor and understand what he’s talking about. I have a place like that, I think but do not say, not so far away in Monticello. I imagine standing at the end of a line of bungalows, right at the top of the slope leading down to the paddleball courts and softball field beyond. It’s twilight and my father stands beside me as we quietly watch two deer grazing in the field. If there’s one moment that I’d wish to re-experience, it would be that. I wonder if I could do that, go back to Sefardy’s and try to recreate that moment, like Gary has tried to do here with visiting old Yasgur farm.
The rest of the ride back to Swan Lake is as quiet as the way there. It’s about noon and I imagine I’ll be back in time for the specialty staff’s lunch break.