Mythical festival... world-class disaster? Not even Woodstock veterans are sure. Cleo Paskal may or may not have been there
Woodstock does funny things to people's memories. Take my parents. They drove down from Montreal to experience "Three Days of Peace and Music". I was almost one and my sister was six. No one can remember where we were. Mom, giving herself the maternal benefit of the doubt, thought they brought us. My dad wasn't so sure.

Asked what he does remember, Papa Paskal replied: "Traffic, traffic, traffic - but no one was honking their horns. And people sitting on their lawns watching us go by."

So, no memories of the actual event?

"That was the event."

My dad is a photographer. I asked him to pull out his Woodstock photos, in the hope that they would jog his memory. There were 36 black-and-white photos. Nine were of not particularly happy-looking hippies under grey skies. Two were of people sitting on their lawns watching the traffic go by. Twenty-five were of the traffic. Not one of him, my mom, the kids (who might have been left at home) or, say, Jimi Hendrix.

"Oh yeah," said my dad, his memory more nudged than jogged, "people were most interested in knowing how many other people were there. And, just like any mass event, there was an awful lot of standing around. The music was the boring part."

Give a Woodstock veteran enough time, and mud baths and traffic jams will disappear in a mist of philosophy. Accordingly, Dad continued: "You know, there were all these anti-authoritarian people and we were saved by the Marines or someone who brought us latrines or water or something. It's like a cop. You don't like them when they give you a ticket, but you want them around when you have an accident. Ironic."

Me: "Did the irony strike you at the time?"

Dad: "Er ... no. A guy in a bar pointed it out to me."

So what did happen on 15-18 August, 1969? A few facts rise from the memory quagmire. Four promoters, none over 26, staged a show in Max Yasgur's field near Bethel, Sullivan County, in New York State. Some top acts (Hendrix, Joan Baez, Country Joe and the Fish, Joe Cocker, The Who, Arlo Guthrie, Crosby Stills and Nash, Ten Years After, John Sebastian, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Canned Heat, Sha Na Na and, of course, The Incredible String Band) were paid twice the usual rate to play. It rained. The New York State Thruway was choked shut by all the traffic (one point for dad).

From then on it gets mythical. Some say it was a world-class disaster. Others say it was the defining moment of a generation.

The site is still considered sacred ground. Every year, thousands make the pilgrimage. Every year, up to now, local squares have tried to bar access. This year, a new character has entered the pantomime.

The original 37-acre natural amphitheatre and about 1,000 surrounding acres have just been bought by Alan Gerry, one of the 200 richest men in America. It took more than 14 months of surreptitious deals executed through front companies. But landowners were paid well over the going rate and no one was pressured into selling, man.

Gerry was talked into the purchase by his daughter Robyn, a 40-year-old mother of four who has camped out at the site every summer since the 25th reunion. This is taken as a good sign.

Plans are vague. There are rumours of a performing arts centre and (shudder) a "year-round destination site". Gerry is currently in negotiation with Woodstock Ventures, the company owned by the four youthful hippies who set up the original concert.

After my little talk with Dad, I realised I couldn't call myself a true casualty of the Sixties until I had been to Woodstock to manufacture my own memory of the site. And I had better go before the sacred muddy fields were turned into a water park slip-and-slide.

On the way, I stopped in the town of Woodstock. Festival organisers had named their show after the town in an attempt to cash in on the mystique of its famous drop-out-and-eat-organic-vegetables-while-recording-in-state- of-the-art-studios residents. Bob Dylan lived there. Enough said.

The site itself was as elusive as my father's memory. From the town of Bethel I took the famous Route 17B. I almost missed the turn-off. The only indication that Hurd Road might lead to The Field was a sign for the Woodstock Campgrounds.

I drove along the narrow road, past farms and fields and cattle. The only indication that it wasn't just any rural lane was the daring architecture of the farm- houses. One was built into the side of a hill. Another was a dome. And one farmer seemed to be raising emus.

When I reached the lake I had gone too far. I knew that the lake was behind the stage. I turned around and headed back. I noticed a van parked by the side of the road, near a stone marker. The van hadn't been there before and I hadn't noticed the marker. I pulled in. The woman in the van was listening to the Kinks and smoking a joint. I had found the site.

Soon other people showed up. A middle-aged yuppy came to walk her greyhound. A middle-aged man and a younger woman drove up in a white sports car with a vanity licence plate reading: "The Blues".

But there was something in the air. Normally busy people paused. And smiled. Conversations sprouted spontaneously. Woodstock war stories were exchanged. The peace. The love. Some hadn't been there but those who had, pointed out where exactly they had been in relation to the stage. Others had been there for reunions. Some were newbies. For a brief instant we revelled in what could have been, if the myth of Woodstock had conquered the world.

And then we got in our cars and drove away, secure in the knowledge that false memories are sometimes the happiest ones.

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