Well I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going?
And this he told me
Said “I’m goin’ down to Yasgur’s farm”
So wrote Joni Mitchell some 41 years ago this weekend when she ran into me during my journey to the epic music festival that would become a touchstone for the entire baby boomer generation. For many my age, Woodstock fills the imagination with what it was like to be free and young and extremely high during the turbulent Sixties. For a fortunate few of us, though, it’s an actual memory of joining a half-million people in peace and love on a farm in upstate New York.
You see, I was at Woodstock.
As you might imagine, my recollections are a little cloudy after all these years. I was 15 years old on that August weekend my family was visiting my cousin in Binghamton. I was getting a little tired of the living room chats about long-lost aunts I had never known when I decided to slip out of the house for what became the adventure of my life.
I wasn’t normally a rebellious teenager, but there was just something in the air that called to me. I caught a ride with my cousin’s neighbor to the next town over, where I was dropped by the side of the road and started hitch-hiking north. I tried for over an hour to catch a ride when I came across three slightly older “hippie” types who “turned me on” to what was “going down.”
We traded only nicknames at the time although I later came to learn that the trio included then-reigning homerun king Roger Maris, a crazy dude named Fred Sullivan (son of TV host Ed Sullivan), and a young cowboy named Bobby McGee. We finally caught a lift as far as Bethel, NY, but the New York State Thruway was, as famously announced by Arlo Guthrie, “closed to man.” We were lucky enough to be spotted by the low-flying helicopter of singer Richie Havens, a remarkable pilot despite his lack of sight. Richie set down in the parking lot of a Dairy Queen, invited us aboard, and soon we were landing behind the stage where he’d be performing just a few hours later.
It quickly became apparent that festival organizers were overwhelmed by the unexpected turnout, so we were pressed into service as stage hands. We’d be getting a front-row seat to rock-and-roll history.
In between the routine roadie chores of hauling amps, separating M&M’s by color and periodically wiping down the members of Canned Head, we found ourselves offering advice to some of the legendary performers in attendance. I still remember telling Pete Townsend to “turn it the hell down – people are trying to sleep here” as The Who ran through their 4 a.m. set from the rock opera “Tommy.” On the final night, I saw Jimi Hendrix pacing nervously before the final set of the concert. He was debating whether he should close with “America the Beautiful” or “Onward Christian Soldiers.” It was I who suggested that instead he play the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
We were worked pretty hard during those four days and got hardly any rest. We did take a break one afternoon and Roger, Fred and Bobby tried to get me onto that mud-slide you’ve probably seen in film clips from the time. They became totally soaked and dirt-encrusted while I remained neat in the crisply pressed dress pants I had been wearing…
Wait – something doesn’t sound right. I may be a little confused about my presence at Woodstock. Something just doesn’t ring true about these memories, and I bet I’ve gotten the highlight of the Age of Aquarius confused with a 1995 business trip I took to Washington. Both locations start with “W”. I’ve always gotten Woodstock and Washington mixed up.
What I actually attended was billed as the “Woodstock of Statistical Process Control (SPC),” a four-day conference and training session for corporate quality administrators interested in being certified as ISO 9000 auditors. I was joined by three coworkers in a suburban Ramada Inn while we studied day and night to learn the proper ways to document workflow and process variation. It was an event unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since – four days of modes and tolerances.
To this day, it remains the only business trip where I was forced to share lodging with a roommate, but the hardship forged a lasting bond between us that was only slightly frayed by his questionable Spectravision and pajama choices. We’d get up early each morning for a vigorous jog around the hotel grounds, then spend the day with our noses buried in loose-leaf binders. We kept thinking we’d get at least one evening free to see the sites of the capital but the organizers of the event, a couple of Brits from Lloyd’s of London, were real taskmasters. (It was those English accents that probably reminded me of The Who).
On the evening before the last day, we were grilled during a “live-job scenario” wherein we pretended to be inspectors looking over the books of a company seeking ISO certification. The instructors played the parts of defensive company executives, trying to mislead and distract us, and we were supposed to insist on seeing the records. We did badly enough to realize we had to spend the rest of the night studying for the Friday exam.
Again, my recall might be a little off, but I do know the test was not at all what we expected. After the grueling preparations, I thought there’d be serious questions presenting difficult circumstances that required us to prepare, in extensive essay form, what our responses would be. Instead the questions were so simple as to be confusing.
“Give me an F… give me a U… give me a C…” began the examiner standing before a conference room of puzzled participants. He gave us the final letter, then yelled the question: “What’s that spell? What’s that spell? What’s that spell?” The rapid-fire interrogation made it impossible to think straight, and I flunked the spelling portion of the test.
Then, came the multiple-choice questions: “And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?” One, two and three? Is this how they do it in Britain? What about A, B, C or D (all of the above). D is almost always the answer when questions are phrased in this format, but we don’t have that choice. Again, I fail.
Finally, there was the essay question: “What would you do if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me?” I had learned that SPC was all about reducing variation, and that any singing out of tune could only be acceptable if it were within a predefined tolerance. I wrote something to this effect on my paper, but this too turned out to be wrong.
I tried commiserating with my coworkers on the flight home, but they actually had performed pretty well on the exam. They understood there were fundamental truths underlying the event, that it was impossible to quantify the heady experience we’d just been through, that “answers” were a fleeting concept and sometimes the questions were more important. In other words, they had been certified while I had failed.
I could’ve gotten by with a little help from my friends.