Retired Central Washington University and Ellensburg School District custodian Tom Welch hopped off his bicycle and parked it in the rack on the sidewalk outside the Soup Bowl on the corner of Fifth and Main.

There was a little hitch in the 69-year-old’s gait as he walked though the front door, as he dealt with the aches and pains of a knee that needs some physical therapy, a reminder that life is a long, strange trip.

Although attempts to recreate three days of love and peace in upstate New York failed in 1994 and 1999 and again on the 50th anniversary, the PBS’s three-hour, Academy Award winning documentary “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” did an admirable job of showing the historic event on Aug. 18, 1969, and Welch was there.

He plopped down in a chair in the corner, removed his bicycle helmet, leaned back and said, “What ya want know?”

Unlike the psychedelic jokes saying, “if you can remember the ‘60s, you weren’t there,” or Arlo Guthrie’s statement to the crowd, “ ... The New York State Thruway is closed man,” which wasn’t exactly true. New York State Police did end up closing off the Newburgh and Harriman exits to prevent people from going to the concert.

The former Ellensburg custodian remembered every minute of the three-day event that cost him a then-astronomical amount of 17 bucks. Unlike the concert-goers who showed up with just the clothes on their back, parked miles away or sat exposed in the rain, Welch did everything right.

“I drove over from Michigan two days early. I actually parked down by behind the stage,” he recalled of the event that was actually in Bethel, N.Y. and not Woodstock. “I set up a tent in an area behind the stage.

“The hillside was a natural amphitheater for the music. A lot of people just slept out on the hill or huddled under a blanket when the rains came. But I had a place to go.”

Event construction crews had fallen behind schedule in setting up, so organizers had to chose between a fence surrounding the grounds or the stage with the plywood barrier. The fence was scrapped, and Woodstock essentially became a free festival. Despite the floods of humanity, the expected 40,000 that turned into an estimated 400,000, Welch said it was, in fact, a thing of beauty.

“I would say the thing I remember most is the humanity. People were helping people,” he said. “People were sharing their food, helping each other find some place out of the rain.

“I couldn’t hear it all, but when the (Republican dairy farmer Max Yasgur, whose pasture hosted Woodstock) came on and talked a half a million kids getting together for three days of fun and music. I thought that was pretty cool.”

GAVE VOICE TO A GENERATION

Such a peaceful event might not ever happen again, but it was the music that helped shape the weekend, launch musical careers, and give a voice to a generation that questioned all the answers.

“I’ve always wondered what the soldiers thought about Country Joe McDonald’s (I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-To-Die-Rag) song when he sings, ‘ ... You can be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box ...’ But I guess they’d appreciate someone asking to bring them home from Vietnam.

“In those days, there were a few FM radio stations in places, but most of the people in New York hadn’t heard of the West Coast bands. I’d never heard of Santana until then. Bands like the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane were pretty unknown. In fact it was Crosby, Stills and Nash’s (second concert), so when they recorded (Joni Mitchell’s) ‘Woodstock’ later, I thought that was pretty powerful.”

He remembers Richie Havens coming out early because the opening acts were stuck in traffic. The New York folk club star premiered “Freedom,” which is now one of the most standout songs from the festival. John Sebastian’s heartfelt folk solo “I Had a Dream,” The “No Rain Chant” between Joe Cocker’s emotional set and the show that would set in motion the legend of Carlos Santana.

Welch had one of the best seats at the festival. When asked where he sat, he pointed with his chin to the front door of the Soap Bowl, maybe 30 feet away, with a smile.

“I was pretty close to the plywood barrier they built in front of the stage. The rain delays messed up the schedule, so bands were coming on at all times,” he said. “Anyway, Abbie Hoffman of the Chicago 7 came on during The Who and started ranting about John Sinclair (founder of the White Panther Party, who was jailed for marijuana possession).

“(Who guitarist Pete) Townsend shouted get off of my (bleeping) stage and started poking him with his guitar.”

The three days of peace and harmony in upstate New York helped define his generation, but it wasn’t until Tom Welch came to Ellensburg in 1977 that he found his true peace. Welch joined and became active in Mercer Creek Church, made significant lifestyle changes, and has found memorable peace of mind through the teachings of Jesus Christ, he said.

But 50 years ago, on a pig farm in upstate New York, he had a front-row seat at one of the historic events that shaped American history and helped show the world what a half a million kids could do when they put their mind to it.

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