Atlantic City Pop

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic

Remembering the Woodstock era

Atlantic City Pop

(c) 2018 by Jim Shipp

The Atlantic City Pop Festival was held over the first three days of August in 1969. Almost every band that appeared at Woodstock a couple of weeks later was there.

Stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, with the Air Force, I bought a one-day ticket from a service buddy and began making my plans.

At that time, I was waiting for my security clearance to catch up with me from my previous assignment in Trabzon, Turkey, and was temporarily working as a charge-of-quarters at the old hospital barracks on the northwest corner of the base. The “barracks” was actually a single, rambling, one-story wooden structure built before World War II that fronted on a couple of blocks of lightly paved roadway deep in the woods. It consisted of an extremely long hallway, offshot by myriad former wards that then served as overflow housing for the Air Force personnel who worked in the National Security Agency building on the base proper and at its Friendship Airport annex. I sat in a small office off the day room, with its sofas, television set, and pool table, where I answered the phone, did hourly walkthrough inspections, and kept an event log.

The security service work regimen was four-based. You worked four days, then got a day off, four swings, then another day off, and four mids, then four days off. I arranged things so that my four off days spanned the concert time frame.

Given the remote venue of the barracks, I was able to let me hair grow for ten weeks before the concert. I used hats, collars, scarves, and Butch Wax to hide this fact from interloping sergeants. I also used this time to handstitch a broad maroon stripe with tiny white flowers down each side of my faded blue jeans, the stiff denim fighting me the whole way.

The big day finally came. Early on Friday morning, I washed the grease out of my hair, donned my newly decorated jeans, and accessorized them with an understated Hawaiian shirt. I then rolled all my “possibles” into an old sleeping bag and set out for the concert.

The Baltimore-Washington Parkway was a relatively short distance from Fort Meade. At the crack of dawn, with my trip kit slung over my shoulder, I walked down the exit ramp and stuck out my thumb.

Almost immediately, a black TransAm swung off the highway and waited for me on the shoulder. The driver was a sailor from Norfolk. He was accompanied by his girlfriend and her girlfriend. They were headed to Atlantic City.

The trip took around three hours. From my meager funds, I chipped in on gas along the way. We talked excitedly about the festival and its performers as we sped toward our destination.

The concert was being held at the Atlantic City Race Track. The crowd was about a hundred thousand strong and parking there was impossible. Less than a mile up the road, we found an abandoned fruit stand tucked into the woods, with a small parking lot in the rear. Other concertgoers had already staked their claims, but there was one space left.

My companions had tickets for all three days of the concert, so they immediately headed back to the race track, while I remained behind to hold our space. I began talking to an older couple in a motorhome next to our site. They had brought their two teenage sons down from Toronto to attend the festival. The father told me that we were in for a heavy rainstorm that night. The fruit stand, a small concrete block building, was shuttered and locked, so we began exploring its exterior for materials. He produced tools from his RV and a couple of hours later, using old wooden signs and other discarded lumber, we had hammered together a fairly sturdy four-by-eight-foot lean-to between two trees.

The sailor and his female mates returned at midnight, just as the storm began. They were happily surprised by the makeshift shelter. We huddled inside while they recounted the day’s adventures. Then the rain intensified and was windblown into our little hovel. The swabbie shouldered open the fruit stand’s back door and we spent the night inside, high and dry.

Early Saturday morning, I hoofed it to the race track. The parking lot was full-scale bazar, where attendees busily traded soup for cigarettes, beer for food, and so forth. Standing in line at the entrance, I watched with amusement as a lanky black policeman tried to stop unticketed fans from scaling the high chain-link fence that surrounded the track. His “beat” included two large oak trees about thirty feet apart, which people were climbing in order to drop into the concert grounds. As soon as he cleared one tree, the other one would fill up. He started off fighting this influx on the run, but when the hopelessness of the situation became apparent, he slowed to a walk and made a half-hearted effort at each oak.

Once inside the grounds, the first thing I saw was a pet monkey smoking a joint. He had drawn quite a crowd. He was bogarting. I wandered around a bit before entering the stadium, and when I saw him again, he was passed out flat on his back, grinning.

Inside the arena, the music droned on throughout the morning as several lesser known bands staged a prolonged opening act for the coming attractions.

The day was hot, sleep was in short supply, and there were possibly some chemicals involved. At any rate, the crowd had pretty much nodded off until the early afternoon, when the concert’s best-known unknown performer took the stage. By the time B. B. King, King of the Blues, finished his first song, heads were popping up everywhere. His virtuoso guitar leads left no room for inattention. When he finished his set, concertgoers blocked his limousine and forced him back up on stage. An obviously affected King said, “In the words of the Blood, Sweat, and Tears, you’ve made me so very happy”. Then over his shoulder, he cued the band. “Boys, The Thrill Is Gone”, he directed. They tore the song up and left to a standing ovation.

A little later that afternoon, the Byrds were in the middle of Turn, Turn, Turn when someone in the audience released a helium balloon that drifted up to the overhead awning. The wind caught it and bounced it along the corrugated surface, just half a beat out of sync with the music. For some reason, it attracted everyone’s attention, including the bandleader, who stopped the song and told the drummer, “If you can’t get in time with that damned balloon, you’re out of a job”. The drummer complied, the song resumed, and the crowd roared.

As darkness fell, the Jefferson Airplane came on stage and Grace Slick decided to have a little fun. They began with Somebody to Love and Gracie’s lips were moving, but no one could hear her beautiful voice. A battalion of sound men descended on the bank of equipment at the back of the stage, checking every amp, every cord, and every jack to no avail. When the song ended, Grace giggled loudly into the microphone and winked. Her fans went along with the joke. The rest of the set was terrific.

Creedence Clearwater Revival was the top US band in the world back then and they didn’t disappoint. The crowd sang along and clapped as John Fogerty belted out hit after hit.

Mama Cass Elliot’s enchanting Dream a Little Dream of Me wafted through the night air as I left the race track and trudged back to our campsite.

Without a Sunday ticket, I opted to take the bus back to Maryland. Bus tickets were incredibly cheap in those days, although the ordeal was no less harrowing. Once I put some distance between myself and an extremely odiferous wino who sat near the front of the coach, the trip through Philadelphia and on south went smoothly. When we reached Laurel, Maryland, I hitchhiked the few miles back to Fort Meade.

Woodstock took place two weeks later.

I never heard a word about it until it was all over.


Submitted: June 24, 2020

© Copyright 2023 Jim Shipp. All rights reserved.

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