My Woodstock

Culture Watch

Mr. Castagnera is a university attorney and author of Al Qaeda Goes to College (Praeger, 2009).

       All the attention to the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival makes me feel like it was the party of a lifetime --- and my invitation got lost in the mail.

       More accurately, “Jim Castagnera regrets that he cannot attend your weekend of love and peace, because he has a previous engagement.”  In fact, I had chosen to spend my summer at the Jersey shore, a paid vacation compliments of my uncle, every American’s uncle --- Uncle Sam.

        I checked into the luxury accommodations of the U.S. Coast Guard Recruit Training Center at Cape May two days after the astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

        When I stepped off the gray military bus it was one small step for a man, one giant step into the wonderful world of nine uninterrupted weeks of seaside recreation: boating, aerobics, jogging and lots of the sun’s rays.

          My summer of love and peace was presided over by a 6-foot-6 sailor named Boatswain’s Mate Green, known to me and his other friends in Lima Company as “sir.”

          Actually, he was sort of “sir squared.” That is, we always addressed him that way twice if we knew what was good for us.  “Sir, Seaman Recruit Castagnera reporting as ordered, sir.”

          My comrades and I in Lima Company suffered none of the deprivations that August 40 years ago that were endured by the Woodstock concert goers.  Sir, no sir, sir.  Uncle Sam and Boatswain’s Mate Green saw to all our needs.

         Anyone can tell from the photographs and films of Woodstock how impractical civilian clothing proved to be in the field --- most attendees threw theirs away.

          Similarly, ours were confiscated by the Coast Guard on day one and replaced by a seabag full of new duds, including: giant-size boxer shorts (these fit only the 250-pound Green), blue jeans (which came in only one length, intended to be hemmed by each new recruit to suit his stature), dress whites reminiscent of the Chilly-Willy man, and dress blues including trousers with 13 buttons in front (you guessed it: one for each of the original states) instead of a zipper.  (I believe this last item of apparel was intended to test the new sailor’s ability to cope with emergencies.)

          On the subject of hair --- a subject of greater significance in 1969 than now --- Uncle Sam was ahead of the Krishnas at Woodstock by decades.  The barber’s lot was a light one at Cape May.  Four swift sweeps across the recruit’s cranium and hair, everything from the Ivy League cut to shoulder-length splendor, was on the floor at the barber’s feet.

        Nowhere but bootcamp could the barber of 1969 experience such exhilaration, such power.

        Music was not overlooked by company commander Green.  None of that Richie Havens stuff for him.  Sir, no siree, sir.  No Country Joe and the Fish or Jefferson Airplane.  He taught us tunes you could whistle.

Semper paratus is our cry,

Our strength, our glory, too.

To fight to save or fight and die.

Aye, Coast Guard, we’re for you.

       Eat your hearts out, Lovin’ Spoonful.

       You think the kids who abandoned their cars in the traffic jams, walked for miles to reach Woodstock, slept in mud and lived on the oranges from the emergency tents were motivated?  Green gave us motivation aplenty.

        You left a few whiskers on your cheeks when you shaved at 5:15 this morning?  Double-time down to the beach, find a clamshell and shave again with that.  Sir, yes, sir.

        You can’t quite crank out that 50th pushup?  Here’s a hot cup of coffee down the back of your neck to put a little bounce back into your biceps.  Sir, thank you, sir.

        You’re failing the swimming class?  Crawl into that puddle over there, fully clothed, and show the whole company your backstroke.

        But, alas, all good things must end.  Woodstock was over in three days.  For those of us in Lima Company who passed all the requirements, bootcamp ended in nine weeks.  Neither the 400,000 who trekked to Max Yeager’s farm in Bethel, New York, nor we 40 who spent some 60 days with Boatswain’s Mate Green and friends will ever forget the summer of ’69.

        Maybe I did miss the party of the decade, but hey, how many college kids of my generation got to spend a summer at the Shore without having to wait on tables?

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