In mid-August, 1969, I found myself in a massive traffic jam on a highway in upstate New York. It was my day off from working as a counsellor at nearby Camp Equinunk, and I'd decided to spend it at the Woodstock music festival.
Along with thousands of others, I abandoned my car and walked the last few miles to the festival site. I don't remember if the two-hour walk was fun, but I remember having plenty of energy by the time I got to Woodstock. I was only 21, and the summer had been a trip.
In fact, the entire sixties, only a few months from ending, had been a trip. A weird trip. It had started when I was about to begin a Grade 10 gym class at Bathurst Heights Secondary School in Toronto. The date was Nov. 22, 1963, and somebody in the corridor yelled, "Kennedy's been assassinated."
My reaction was absurd. "Kennedy? Why would somebody want to assassinate him? He was such a good hockey player." I thought Ted (Teeder) Kennedy, the Maple Leafs hockey player, had been killed. I couldn't conceive of somebody killing U.S. President John F. Kennedy. I've thought of this often over the past 40 years, but my reaction returned when I learned that Teeder Kennedy, 83, had died recently.
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I stayed home from school to watch JFK's funeral on television. Four and a half years later, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Not long after, JFK's brother, Senator Edward Kennedy, who died last week, asked, "What has become of our land?"
Then, on June 5, 1968, I woke with a start in the middle of the night - something I never normally did - and immediately switched on my bedside radio. As soon as the radio came on I heard a bulletin saying that another of JFK's brothers, Senator Robert Kennedy, had been shot in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He died soon after. I have no idea what to make of my sudden awakening.
Forty years later, it all seems eerie. I can't attach any meaning to the times, or what I was going through or feeling. I do remember thinking how lucky I was to be Canadian, and not subject to a draft that was sending Americans my age to Vietnam. From time to time I would meet a young American who had fled to Canada. I thought the term "draft dodger" was inappropriate. My American counterparts weren't dodging a draft. They were leaving their country because they didn't believe in the war. That seemed responsible and thoughtful.
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A carefree Canadian, I was on vacation in Florida in December, 1968, with my family when, during dinner, I overheard two men discussing their need for somebody to run a driving range at their summer camp. I told them I was a decent golfer. They invited me to interview in New York, where they told me I could have the golf job but they'd prefer I look after a group of five- and six-year-old kids. It would be their first summer at a sleepover camp. I took the job.
The night of July 20, 1969, was clear and starry. The kids were asleep when I walked across the country road to a lake. I met a fellow counsellor and we walked out on the dock.
"Can you believe that man is walking on the moon?" I said as we looked up. She and I were both amazed. JFK had promised that would happen by the end of the sixties. Did it mean anything? I had no idea. But what an accomplishment of human imagination and science it seemed then.
Little more than three weeks later, I made that long walk to Max Yasgur's farm. I can't remember anything about being there, except being part of a swaying sea of people.
This past June, I attended the U.S. Open golf championship in Long Island, N.Y. On the way home, I made sure I passed by Bethel, N.Y., where Woodstock was held. I didn't feel nostalgic. But I did feel an enormous sense of emptiness, and a few questions coursed through my mind as I drove home to Canada.
What's happening in the U.S., where there's so much anger? I spend the winters now in Florida, and I follow American politics closely. I cringe every time I hear the right-wing scream that President Barack Obama means to introduce socialism because he wants health insurance to cover every citizen - the cause that Teddy Kennedy fought for even as he was desperately ill. Colleagues at the U.S. Open had sneered at Canada's health-care system. I tried to set them straight, but they had made up their minds. What was going on?
No answers presented themselves. Similarly, Woodstock had provided no answers to questions I had about American involvement in Vietnam, nor should it have. Does everything have to mean something? Maybe Woodstock was simply about music and young people coming together to enjoy themselves when the world seemed so dangerous. And maybe that was enough. Who knows what makes us the adults we are, the generation we were? We can ask where have all the flowers gone, and we can think the answer is blowing in the wind. But really, what do we know? What did we learn, if anything?
I went out the other night when the sky was clear and looked up and thought, yes, man did walk on the moon 40 summers ago. It seemed important then. In these confusing times, I can still hear the music, and I'll go see Ang Lee's new film Taking Woodstock. The world remains rough and dangerous. It's still difficult to understand what's going on, and to find meaning in events. But, as it was 40 summers ago, it's helpful now to hear the music. It probably always is.
Lorne Rubenstein lives in Toronto.
Illustration by Neal Cresswell.