Uncle Mike had a great idea. He would take my brothers and me to visit our cousins at sleep-away camp. Laurie and Ira were going to summer camp in the Catskills, the same camp Uncle Mike had attended when he was a kid. He had great memories of going to Camp Olympus and he was eager to show us the verdant grounds and, of course, see his other niece and nephew.
Early on the morning of August 16, 1969, we piled into his green two-door GTO (which Uncle Mike named “Boss”). Steven was riding shotgun, Mark and I were in the back. Uncle Mike was a big guy, in all dimensions. He was about 6’3” so the driver’s seat was positioned as far back as it would go. Since I had the shortest legs, I sat behind him. I was not yet 10, Uncle Mike was 23, Steven was 14 and Mark was 12.
Uncle Mike supplied 8 tracks to keep us entertained. I don’t ever remember riding in a car with Uncle Mike without music playing – he loved R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll. The “oldies” on WCBS-FM were the soundtrack for many car rides. That morning we set off from Canarsie listening to the Chambers Brothers on a trip that should have taken about two, maybe two and a half hours each way. It was already a gray and very humid day and perhaps that should’ve been a clue that we should postpone the trip. But, we barely noticed the weather in our excitement.
Things were proceeding uneventfully as we left Brooklyn, skirted Manhattan and headed through the Bronx. Then the traffic got heavy as we drove past Yonkers. We were approaching the Harriman toll when we came to a virtual standstill. Fortunately, Uncle Mike knew another route and we got off and made it to the Red Apple Rest Stop– a cafeteria-style restaurant that didn’t look like much to me, but it was a favorite of Uncle Mike’s.
I think sometimes he and his friends, at the end of an evening in Brooklyn, would take a ride “upstate” to the Red Apple. Anything beyond the Bronx was upstate to us; the Red Apple was about 40 miles outside the city. Apparently, in its heyday, comedians who performed at the hotels in the Catskills would congregate at the Red Apple at the end of their evening, too.
We had some breakfast there and got back in the car, still unaware that this was an inauspicious day to be making the trip. After we left the Red Apple, things got really interesting.
None of us realized that August 16th was in the midst of the Woodstock Music Festival. We were attempting to drive right by it because Camp Olympus was located a few miles from Bethel, the site of the concert. We couldn’t have picked a worse time to try to visit!
As we proceeded up Route 17 we saw cars parked on the side of the road; people abandoned their cars and made the pilgrimage on foot to Yasgur’s Farm (just like the song lyric described later). We finally understood what was going on – we put the radio on and heard the news. Many of the people had long hair, bell-bottoms, beads, sandals – the costume of the day – they looked pretty dirty, too. It was not a look embraced by either of my uncles, or my brothers. Each time we passed a group, Uncle Mike yelled “Hippie!!” out the window. I’m not sure why, maybe it was his merry, antic tone, but my brothers and I found this hysterical. We laughed every time he did it.
I got the sense that Uncle Mike didn’t much approve of the hippies. And, they looked back at us disinterested. Uncle Mike worked full time and, as far as I knew, didn’t partake of any kind of illegal substances. I don’t believe I ever saw him with a drink in his hand either. The counter-culture was as foreign to him as it was to me.
At a snail’s pace, we made it to the camp hours later than expected. At least I think we made it. I don’t remember much about the visit. Given the circumstances, and the weather (it was raining steadily), we probably made it pretty brief and started back home.
Uncle Mike navigated a very roundabout route toward home that I think took us through Pennsylvania and then New Jersey. The rain was unrelenting. It was nearly impossible to keep the windows from fogging up and now it was dark.
Uncle Mike tried every possible combination of defroster on high, low, cold air, warm air, and windows open, windows closed. It was a battle to see the road. I was given the choice of getting rained on with Uncle Mike’s window open or sweltering in the humidity with his window closed. I wanted a third choice.
The novelty of yelling “Hippie!!” had worn off. We had played all of Uncle Mike’s 8 tracks again and again. There were only so many times we could listen to the Chambers Brothers – even if People Get Ready and In the Midnight Hour were awesome songs. We were wet and hot and hungry and the trip home seemed never-ending. After a long, sweaty, aggravating day, the air in the car wasn’t too pleasant either.
Fortunately, Uncle Mike persevered. He had an uncanny sense of direction despite never having taken this particular route. We were incredibly relieved when we finally recognized the highway heading to the Verrazano Bridge. Even I knew my way home from there.
Needless to say, hours later than expected, we got back to East 91st Street. It wasn’t our most successful outing, but at least we had a story to tell. I could say that I was almost at Woodstock.