Letting go: my preteen at Woodstock '99

Half of my friends thought I was crazy to let my 12-year-old go to the Woodstock '99 music festival. They warned me about drugs, nudity, antisocial behavior. The other half - those of a certain age - spoke wistfully about having missed the first Woodstock.

My son, Ambrose, would travel by train almost 3,000 miles from Washington State to New York in the company of Dave (one of the wish-I'd-a-been-theres) and his 13-year-old son, Jeff. Under Dave's watchful eye, I knew the boys would not do anything age-inappropriate or illegal. I was more concerned about their physical safety. I worried that Ambrose would get lost or trampled by the crowd.

"No mosh pit," I told him. "No Marilyn Manson." (Fortunately, that band's appearance was cancelled). "Stick close to Dave."

After he left, I read in the morning paper about riots at the former Air Force base where the festival was being held, and all my admonitions seemed futile. In the hours that I waited anxiously for a call from Ambrose, I regretted letting him go.

It was evening before he got through. My relief at the sound of his voice turned to dismay at the news that during the riot, their tent had been ransacked and two of their bags stolen. Over the next few days, newspapers and television were saturated with images of concertgoers rioting, looting, and burning. That is the Woodstock '99 the media impressed upon us.

But when Ambrose arrived home a few days later, he gave me a very different picture - one filled not with rage, alienation, and mindless violence, but with moments of peace and harmony worthy of the original Woodstock.

Yes, there were drugs, nudity, and vile behavior. Ambrose saw someone selling mushrooms "with long skinny stems" and a naked man carrying a sign above his head: "It's Woodstock. Be brave." The odor of marijuana was omnipresent.

Yes, the food and drinks were overpriced, but, he shrugged, "It was too hot to eat anyway." The heat, round-the-clock noise, inadequate shower and toilet facilities - those were givens and hardly worth mentioning.

This is what he wanted me to write down so he wouldn't forget: Boarding the shuttle to the Air Force base surrounded by excited, happy people playing guitars and singing. Drowsing beneath a tree to the sound of tinkling music coming from a tent where Tibetan monks created mandalas with colored sand. Talking to a man from Colombia. The kind festival employee who helped the boys find their tent when they got separated from Dave. The heady feeling of being at his first rock concert and wondering if he could ever again be satisfied by listening to CDs. The rainbow that filled the sky during one of the concerts. Dancing to Bush, Korn, and Rage Against the Machine until he was deliciously spent.

And on the train home, the sense of connection he felt with an old man who joined their card game. The man happily played Go Fish although the boys were playing Rummy. When it was his turn, he'd ask, "Got any threes?" When Ambrose handed him a card he wanted, he broke into "a huge grin, and you could see his teeth all yellow and crooked, and he looked so happy. I felt like I had done something good for somebody."

Dave's car keys were in one of the stolen bags, so I picked up the three travelers at the train station at 2 a.m. Seeing my son step off the train, bent under the weight of his backpack, his face tanned, his hair stiff with grime, I realized that this was just the first of many adventures.

My friends were right. He came home changed; something did "rub off on him" at Woodstock. When school started that fall, Ambrose formed a rock band with three other seventh-graders. They practiced all winter in an unheated garage and made their stage debut at an assembly on the last day of school, playing to a cheering crowd of middle schoolers.

At Woodstock '99, my son saw thousands of people behaving their worst, but what he chose to remember were the moments of connection: with his traveling companions, with members of the audience, with the old man on the train, and even with his future self, envisioning himself up on that stage someday.

Do I regret letting him go?

No, I just wish the rioters could have looked at the event as this 12-year-old did: as a place where thousands of people came together and managed to create, often unintentionally, moments of real beauty; a place where you could learn that the definition of happiness is doing something good for a stranger.

T.L. Freeman-Toole lives in Pullman, Wash., with her husband and two sons.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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