Every year, when summer comes to a close, my mind takes me back to the year 1969, when I saw a small ad for an outdoor rock concert.
Every year, when summer comes to a close, my mind takes me back to the year 1969, when I saw a small ad in the Philadelphia Bulletin for an outdoor rock concert that would be taking place Aug. 15 to 18 in upstate New York.
Since my wife Jeanette and I had never been to an outdoor rock concert (we were 29 and 26 years old, respectively), liked the lineup of rock stars mentioned in the ad, and had been planning a vacation in Maine anyway, we decided to send for tickets. I'm pretty sure they were $14 apiece.
I mailed a check and received the tickets about 10 days later, along with directions for how to get there from Philadelphia.
Newspaper reports had indicated that organizers of the upcoming concert near a town called Woodstock expected a crowd of 50,000 or fewer and that there would be enough food, water, parking, and porta potties for that many people. (The festival was actually staged in Bethel, which is 45 miles from Woodstock, but I guess that Woodstock sounds a lot hipper than Bethel, which sounds kind of Biblical, as in "O Little Town of Bethel.")
But when we got to about one or two miles from the concert site on mid-Friday afternoon, Aug. 15, it quickly became apparent that those estimates were wrong. The word crawl does not begin to describe the stationary line of cars.
I'd love to say we saw Janis Joplin (who went to high school with my wife in Port Arthur, Texas), The Who, Joe Cocker, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead and all the other rock legends, but that would be a lie. We did not see or hear any of them. To this day, I am skeptical about whether or not there really was a rock concert there.
We were still about a mile away from the concert venue when the state police made us pull off the road, park the car and begin to walk — and walk and walk. In my arms was our 8-year-old black cat, Blackie, who had been declawed and had not been out of our 11th-floor, two-room apartment in six years. (We thought Blackie was also entitled to a vacation.) Back then, we lived in the Mayfair House, which was located at the corner of Lincoln Drive and Johnson Street in Germantown and has since been demolished.
When we got to the field, where about a half-million people would eventually gather, we planted ourselves on a blanket. But we still weren’t anywhere near the music, so that night we walked and walked and walked, following a mammoth crowd, to where we heard the rock stars would be performing.
After trudging in the rain and mud (with a black cat) for what seemed like forever and hearing no music, we gave up, turned around and went back to the field where we had originally planted ourselves, and slept there on the ground overnight.
That night Blackie disappeared. The following morning we asked a zillion people if they had seen a black cat with a red collar. Eventually, we came across a couple who had him, so we figured we better cut our losses and go home. We'd had no food or water or rock music for about 16 hours — and no prospect of getting any. We were dirty, hungry, thirsty, tired and frustrated, so we took Blackie and walked the long road back to our car, which, thankfully, was still there.
By this time the rural road was a virtual parking lot, both going and coming. There were so many others trying to leave (as well as zillions more still arriving) that it was another achingly slow slog in the rain, but we eventually made it out of Woodstock (without being able to boast about seeing Janis Joplin). We drove to Maine, got lost on the way to the cabin we had rented and did not arrive until about 3:30 a.m.
During the last two or three hours of our drive, there were no street lights, so the road was pitch black. It seemed as if we were driving off the end of the earth. Every so often there would be a road sign saying something like "Bar Harbor, 45 miles," but I would have to stop, get out of the car and shine a flashlight on the sign to read it.
When we finally arrived at the cabins, we looked in the backseat for Blackie and realized he was nowhere to be found. "Oh, no, Blackie's gone again!" I exclaimed, realizing that Blackie might have jumped out of the car when we stopped to open the door and check out a road sign. In other words, he might be nearby, or 25 miles away, or 100 miles away.
We were so far north that there were bears, coyotes and other wild animals who could have easily made a meal of Blackie, an easy target because he had no claws and was wearing a red collar around his neck with a little bell. "If we don't find him soon, there's no way he can survive," I said.
The next morning we got up and promptly began looking. We walked all around the property and then drove down the road several miles looking for our poor black cat. No luck. We continued looking for him for the next two days, having a miserable time on our vacation because we could not concentrate on anything but Blackie.
We finally decided to pack up and go home, two days earlier than expected because we were so miserable. The cabin we stayed in had no kitchen facilities, no TV set and just about none of the other conveniences that have been invented since the American Revolutionary War. But the worst thing by far was going home without Blackie.
When we left, I wrote down my name and phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to Doug Bell, the caretaker for the cabins. "Just in case you ever see a black cat with a red collar and bell around his neck, would you please give me a call in Philadelphia?" I said, though I thought the odds of his actually finding Blackie were slightly less than my odds of bringing peace to the Middle East.
So we drove home to Germantown, about 12 hours from the northernmost part of Maine, dejected, depressed and with no appetite. We got on with our lives, of course, but there was a big hole in our animal-loving hearts.
Almost four months had passed when, on Dec. 11, 1969, my phone rang at The Philadelphia Tribune, where I was a reporter.
"Hi," said the voice on the other end of the line. "This is Mr. Bell."
"Can I help you?" I replied.
"Don't you remember me?" he said. "I'm Mr. Bell, the caretaker of the cabins in Maine, where you stayed after Woodstock. Remember?"
"Oh, yes, sure," I said. "Wow. What a surprise. How are you doing? And why are you calling?"
"Well, don't you remember that you asked me to call you if I found your black cat?” Bell said. “Well, I just found him!"
"No, that's impossible. Are you kidding?"
"No way,” he said. “Every night I put food out on the porch of the cabin, and when I wake up in the morning, it's gone. There are lots of wild animals around here who eat it. Well, a few nights ago, there was a huge racket that woke me up at about 4 a.m. I looked out the window and saw a raccoon and a black cat fighting over the food, screeching and crying.
"When I opened the door, the animals ran away. The next night, the exact same thing happened. Then I noticed a red collar and bell around the neck of the cat and realized it was Blackie. But I forgot where I put that piece of paper where you wrote your name and phone number. So I ransacked my drawers and every piece of clothing and finally found the piece of paper under some underwear.
"Then last night I put the food very close to the screen door, and when I heard the screeching in the middle of the night, I opened the door very gently and quietly and grabbed the cat. Now he is here in the cabin with me."
"Unbelievable!" I said, thrilled beyond belief. "I will be glad to send you some money for food and for your time. Can you hold onto Blackie for a while?"
"Well," Bell replied, "the problem is that snow is falling, and it's supposed to continue for another day or so, and we're supposed to get one or two feet of snow. I have already put a down payment on an apartment in the nearest town, and I am moving there next Monday. I have talked to the landlord, and he said no pets are allowed. I'm afraid you will have to pick him up by Sunday."
Jeanette and I proceeded to call the SPCA, veterinary offices and anyone else we could think of who might have a solution for us since there was no way either of us could leave work and drive up to northern Maine and back.
As a result of several suggestions, we wound up wiring Bell $500, which he used to buy a plane ticket for Blackie, a vet checkup and a rental car since Bell had no car of his own. On Sunday, Bell put Blackie in a big cardboard box and drove him to the Bangor Airport, and then loaded our cat into the cargo section of an airplane bound for Philadelphia.
On Sunday night, Jeanette drove to the Philadelphia Airport, where she picked up the box ("Black Cat" was written all over it), put it in the car and drove Blackie home. He cried all the way. When we got the box into our apartment and opened it up, he jumped out and leaped up onto a pillow on the bed.
I don't think Blackie stopped purring for three days, and the only time he left the pillow was to eat and go to the litter pan.
And he never looked better!
Len and Jeanette Lear moved in 1971 from Germantown to West Mt. Airy, where they still live. Blackie died in 1973. Len can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.