Big battle for a little island

The battle over the Tocks Island Dam, one of two major events in the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, took on a new and dangerous front in 1969 when the U.S. Army Corps of engineers advertised houses for rent in several New York City newspapers.

The Corps had begun buying and condemning property for the dam and now those empty houses and farms stood vulnerable to vandals. Renting those structures along the Delaware River, the dividing line between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, would provide income for the government.

It also would create a conflict as explosive to locals as the Vietnam War.

At first, all looked peaceful. The feds called the renters flower children. They called themselves river people. They settled by the Delaware to grow crops and lead an alternative life. Angry at being displaced from their homes by hippies they viewed as decadent, the locals called them squatters.

By the early 1970s, that anger boiled over. Buildings in the squatter encampment burned. There were reports of drive-by shootings of windows and the killing of farm animals and pets.

The Corps finally acted. In September 1971, armed U.S. Marshals bulldozed six houses and a pup tent in an effort to clear out the trespassers, according to The Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa. A legal battle ensued. In November 1973, a judge gave the river people 30 days to vacate. When they didn’t, in February 1974 about 90 U.S. Marshals staged a predawn raid to evict the 65 squatters who remained in the area of Shawnee-on-Delaware, on the Pennsylvania side of the river.

Steve Drachler, a colleague of mine at the Record, served as the pool reporter for the removal operation. He said that despite local hostility toward the squatters, their eviction by heavily armed U.S. Marshals was surprisingly peaceful.

“It was a very emotional moment, watching as these families, and a number of singles, were taken from the homes they had occupied. As soon as the people were removed the bulldozers began knocking the buildings down.”

Their experience, and those of the residents whose homes were condemned, form the backbone of Born Under a Bad Sign. The novel is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

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Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All things must pass

Some bands will do anything for a break. Ours happened on Saturday, June 22, 1968, in the tiny Pennsylvania town of Wind Gap.

Ohio Express concert poster

That chance plays out in a pivotal scene in my new standalone novel, Born Under a Bad Sign, a chronicle of the struggles of a group to play what we now consider the granddaddy of all outdoor music festivals in America—Woodstock.

First, some background. In the mid-1960s, fellow high school student Chip Decker formed a band called the Beaux Esprits (beautiful spirits), with Chip on bass and lead vocals. The other members of the band were co-founder Bob Dittman on rhythm guitar, John McAllister on drums and me on lead guitar. Later we added Joey Raynock on keyboards, succeeded by Gene Gorse on the Hammond B3 organ, and a pair of singers, Ron Oney and Don Chase.

Not wanting to sound like fops, we changed our name to the Seeds of Time (not much of an improvement) and later to Shagg. We took the name from the long-pile carpet that was popular in the late ’60s, not from the British euphemism for sex. Luckily no one who booked us recognized the connotation.

What they did recognize was rebellion, a spirit I harnessed for the two principal characters in Born Under a Bad Sign—photographer Elizabeth Reed and guitarist Hayden Quinn.

My first guitar

Back to Shagg. In the beginning, we played popular music. But bythe end of the decade, a lot of mush clogged the airwaves, songs like “Crimson and Clover,” by Tommy James & the Shondells, “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)” by John Fred & His Playboy Band (another unfortunate name) and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” by the people who would almost singlehandedly ruin a decade of music, the Bee Gees.

While still programming commercial music, we admired a less saccharine sound. Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” sat at the top of the charts, as did “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones and Joplin’s “Piece of my Heart.” We tuned into music that foretold the hard blade of metal to come, embracing the dexterity Deep Purple and the heavy slog of the Vanilla Fudge remake of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”

Like Quinn, we championed the holy trio of havoc—Cream, Hendrix and the Who. We played numbers that were aggressive and loud, complex pieces heavy on improvisation and wailing guitars. The sound was fun, and as musicians it enabled us to stretch. But the kids couldn’t dance to it, and at many of our gigs, people just wanted to dance.

We played any place that would hire us: bars, frat parties, high schools and an underground speakeasy called the Hobbit Hole. Our snobbery limited the audience. So when the opportunity came to play the cavernous building called the Hullabaloo Club as the opening act for the Ohio Express, we jumped. Like the Monkees, the band was a creation of recording executives and promoters, an ersatz group that represented the penultimate in the most mindless sound of the times—songs for the preteen market dubbed bubblegum music.

Our job was to warm up the crowd for a band who’d hit the Top 40 hit with the vapid “Yummy Yummy Yummy” (their version of the song reached No. 4 and No. 5, respectively, on the U.S. Pop and UK Singles charts.) We’d cut our teeth on the Kinks and the Doors and knew we’d blow the imposters off the stage.

That confidence evaporated the minute the Ohio Express ran through its sound check.

The musicians didn’t play bubblegum music. They played the real thing. Their version of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” seemed effortless. So did the other numbers. To a bunch of kids struggling to reproduce the music of their heroes, the Express sounded unbelievably good.

Undaunted, we took the stage and, as the crowd burst through the doors, I plugged into the lead guitarist’s Vox, a small amp like the ones the Beatles used, and cranked the volume knob to ten, where it stayed through our finale, the Who’s “I Can See for Miles,” its lines snapping toward a spectacular crash.

As we stumbled off the stage, the Express took its audience to a place we never would—to preteen heaven on a string of hits.

After the concert, in the warm, moist night by the loading dock, the now very real musicians of the Express leaned against their flower-painted VW bus and gave us the unvarnished version of success. Over long necks they complained about how studio musicians had recorded their first album. As the touring band, they were locked into a contract for the next few years. Yes, life on the road stunk and they wanted to play music more complex than “Beg, Borrow and Steal” and the forthcoming “Chewy Chewy.” But the money was good and this was their best shot at fame.

That was a sentiment we understood.

Then they packed and drove into the night. We headed to the Wind Gap Diner.

Shagg lasted another year. College, family and jobs replaced the music. The Ohio Express played out in 1973. Disco replaced bubblegum. The Hullabaloo Club went the way of disco. I think the corrugated steel building later became a blouse mill before those jobs migrated overseas.

All things must pass, but do they have to pass with such regret?

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

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Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

An incarnation of the Ohio Express

 

 

 

 

 

 

War invades the home front

July 1969 saw the landing of the first humans on the moon. It was a brief time of celebration in a decade of conflict. And chief among those conflicts was the war in Vietnam.

That is the world the characters inhabit in my first standalone novel, Born Under a Bad Sign, a world I knew only too well.

Like one of the book’s principal characters, the guitarist Hayden Quinn, I was of draft age and the Selective Service was hunting for conscripts. Jim, my roommate in college, pulled #3 in the draft’s lottery. I drew #4. We’d heard a rumor that every number south of 130 would wind up in Vietnam. To a pair of kids who’d only handled a rifle in target practice, the news was not encouraging.

Meanwhile, protests spread across the nation. At our university, students marched on a laboratory used as a Naval testing facility. Someone firebombed the ROTC building. Demonstrations became violent. On May 4, 1970 at Kent State University, the Ohio Army National Guard fired on students, killing four and wounding nine.

Jim was called to his physical. If I remember correctly, he rode a bus to a nearby town and took his physical in a gym. While he finished his last term that spring, I headed to Manhattan for an internship at Flying magazine. I felt my life was on hold. Everyone said President Richard Nixon would end the draft. With graduation approaching, the order couldn’t come soon enough.

Finally it did. I was never called. But until those orders came through, I kept a weather eye on the news.

Each night, Americans watched footage of soldiers and civilians, the wounded and the dead, in an endless march across television screens and into our souls. Through protests and coffins, the war had invaded the home front. Even for those immune to the draft, there was nowhere to hide.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

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Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

 

 

Good Vibrations

Born Under a Bad Sign, my novel of the turmoil of the 1960s, is garnering positive reviews from the people who witnessed one of the book’s central conflicts—the damming of the Delaware River.

From Stephen Drachler, the pool reporter covering the eviction of the squatters from the Tocks Island project, comes this account of the work:

Jeff Widmer’s Born Under a Bad Sign is his best novel. It is a rich telling that combines the real-life history of a river valley between Pennsylvania and New Jersey with the struggles of a community caught in the vice of a government eager to buy their properties for a controversial dam and other forces eager to take advantage to fill their bank accounts.

Love. Death. Intrigue. Squatters. Fear of a potential repeat of the massacre at Wounded Knee. And a story of a young woman rapidly learning about love and life in the turbulent ‘60s. It’s a gripping and poignant tale that takes full advantage of the author’s home-grown knowledge of the region. I should know, since I was there, too, as a young journalist reporting on the events of the period.

From Mina Hamilton, who with Nancy Shukaitis led the charge to save the river, and their land:

This is a fast-paced, compelling novel with an unusual twist. It’s set in a pristine valley threatened by environmental disaster—flooding by a proposed dam. The author deftly draws us into a young woman’s soul-searching regarding allegiance to her family’s home and community or to the lure of a quirky musician. As she ponders, we meet a host of unusual characters. And the plot zips along as we experience families torn-asunder, squatters evicted. Even murder lurks.

Some of this novel’s feisty characters and colorful events are loosely inspired by the legendary, decades-long battle against the Tocks Island Dam—here dubbed the Fox Island Dam. This book is strongly recommended both for folk who still remember the battle against Tocks (a battle that was ultimately successful), as well as for anybody up for an intriguing summer-reading adventure.

Whether you want to curl up by the fire or head out to camp under the stars, take Born Under a Bad Sign with you. Guaranteed: A fun (and at times distinctly scary) romp and a nostalgic peek back at the ‘60s. I just hope Jeff Widmer is up for writing a sequel.

And from a reader who just liked the book:

I’ve enjoyed each of Jeff’s books, but I consider this his best yet. I was completely drawn in to the characters and to the real history of the story, and not only was I unable to put it down, I ended up shifting my old nail-biting habit back into high gear! I very highly recommend this book!

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. You’ll find the companion, Finding Woodstock, a collection of essays and photos about the era, at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

‘Finding Woodstock’ released in paper

Finding Woodstock, twelve personal reflection on the Sixties with original photography, is now available in paperback. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

The book is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

 

The festival that almost flopped

You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find you make history.

The Woodstock Music & Art Fair was the brainchild of a quartet of promoters and investors—Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld, Joel Rosenman and John P. Roberts. In 1969, the team sought to build a recording studio in Woodstock, NY, an area along the Hudson River known for recording artists like Bob Dylan. When that idea morphed into an outdoor concert, the group scheduled the event for August 15-17 in a small town called Wallkill, located a few miles to the south. The town’s residents, concerned about traffic and noise, stalled the permitting process. A serious hitch, since Lang had already booked major acts like Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and a new band calling itself Crosby, Stills and Nash.

The hammer fell on July 15, when Wallkill’s Zoning Board denied permission for the concert. With the event scheduled to start in exactly a month, organizers scrambled. On July 25, the team announcing the festival was moving to the town of Bethel, a remote location in the rolling southern edge of the Catskill Mountains. Lang had done the miraculous—he’d not only found a site but a sympathetic advocate in dairy farmer Max Yasgur.

Enter the fictional rock group Orwell and its stellar guitarist Hayden Quinn, one of the principal characters in my new standalone novel Born Under a Bad Sign.

Lang was booking a number of local acts like the newly formed super group Mountain with guitarist Leslie West and Dylan’s session guys, who in a fit of creativity had named themselves The Band. That’s where Orwell, the fictitious Pennsylvania-based group, gets the idea of crashing the party. They had the biggest record in the country. They were based two hours to the south. So why not play the greatest gig of their lives?

The idea wasn’t as absurd as it sounds. By late July, the roster of musicians at Woodstock had solidified. While there were still some open slots on Saturday, those places were reserved for West Coast acts. Folk on Friday, West Coast on Saturday, the big international rock acts on Sunday. That meant Arlo Guthrie and Ravi Shankar on Friday, Canned Heat and the Jefferson Airplane on Saturday.

When the Doors bowed out—Jim Morrison was afraid someone might kill him on stage—Orwell saw its chance. Lang had another ideas, one that must have seemed bizarre to the musicians.

From here I’ll let reality take over.

Hendrix’s people wanted the guitarist to close the show on Sunday but, as Lang writes in his memoir of the festival, The Road to Woodstock, he wanted to make a statement. So who did the organizer of this counterculture bash favor to conclude three days of peace and love, to send the masses on their happy trails?

Roy Rogers.

Good thing we don’t always get what we want.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

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Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

The Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock in 1969

 

 

 

 

Surveying the Sixties in ‘Finding Woodstock’

I came of age in the 1960s, absorbing the culture, identifying with the music, praying I wouldn’t get drafted and shipped to Southeast Asia.

The decade began with a revolt against the restrictions of the 1950s and folded back in on itself. Along the way, it bounced from one extreme to another. We marched for peace and rioted for justice. At Woodstock, we celebrated the unifying power of music. Four months later, the innocence died with the concert at the Altamont Speedway.

At the time, none of it made sense. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, we have the opportunity to look back, not in anger but with an understanding of the forces that shaped our world.

The 12 brief essays that comprise Finding Woodstock reflect on one of America’s most turbulent times, examining the promise of the era and the decade that shaped our lives. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, as Joni Mitchell once sang, to get back to the garden.

Finding Woodstock launches June 1 in ebook and paperback formats at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

A Tocks on all your houses

Much of Born Under a Bad Sign deals with a seminal event in the history of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains—the proposed construction of the Tocks Island Dam.

What began as a response to devastating floods along the Delaware River became a David and Goliath battle pitting land owners against officials, marshals and profiteers.

It was a big fight over a small piece of dirt.

Tocks Island is a spit of land in the middle of the Delaware River, north of Shawnee Inn and the Delaware Water Gap. Its tip is not quite visible from the top of Mt. Minsi on the Pennsylvania side of the river, with its soaring views of water that has run free for millennia.

It is also the fictional setting for the Reed farm and the mythical Indian Head Resort, named for the striated rocks resembling a Native American on the New Jersey side of the river.

In the 1930s, after decades of flooding, the federal government decided to fix the situation by damming the last free-flowing river in the east. The lake the dam would form—a 34-mile long impoundment stretching north to Port Jervis, New York—would not only control flooding, the feds said, it would generate electricity, tourism and jobs while providing recreation and water for New York City.

Government and business leaders hailed the dam as a win-win-win situation. Residents whose families had lived along the Delaware for generations had a vastly different view. For them, eviction from ancestral lands was a travesty. Those who weren’t bought out were kicked out. Homes spared by the bulldozer were rented to people the locals derisively called squatters, creating even more tension along the river.

Property owners fought with a passion that belied their numbers. As a reporter in the early 1970s, I interviewed several of their leaders, including Mini Hamilton and Monroe County Commissioner Nancy Shukaitis, both of whom lost their homes to a project that was never completed.

It is their spirit that animates the characters of the novel.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

 

 

For Everything There is a Season

Some days I feel I’m living in a parallel universe, as if the decade of the 1960s is repeating itself. That sense of déjà vu is one of the reasons I wrote my first standalone novel, Born Under a Bad Sign.

But it is not the only one.

The Sixties were a time of hope and conflict, of great promise and greater uncertainty. When I came of age, the Vietnam War hung over our heads like a bloody sword. Its protests tore the country asunder. Racial and economic inequity threatened to finish the job.

I grew up in a rural area with its own conflicts, chief among them the fight over the Tocks Island Dam, a project that saw the government condemn homes and evict their owners, only to rent those properties to people seeking an alternative life to the mechanized grind of the city.

For the youth of that small Northeastern Pennsylvania town, the Sixties were a struggle against personal injustice, too, against the conformity and abusiveness of the 1950s. It was a battle to find our own voice, to choose our own path.

The Sixties weren’t all protests and riots. There was peace and hope and goodwill. Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, Kennedy and King, Beatles and Stones, Leary and Burnett (Carol, that is).

Portrait of the author as a young musician

There were festivals like Monterey and Woodstock, and music that offered an outlet for the raw passion of youth.

There was the beauty of nature, the view from the Appalachian Trail of the Delaware Water Gap and the flow of the river below, holy and bright.

And then there was first love and the great firestorm of emotion lit by that first kiss.

Twenty years ago I decided to write a novel about those experiences. It has taken this long to realize that dream. Am I trying to relive the days many see as carefree? Or am I sifting through memories like an archaeologist, digging for clues to how we became the people we are today?

That and more. I wanted to capture the spirit of the time in a way that, as a journalist, I never could. I wanted to reimagine those years through the eyes of two young people, Elizabeth Reed and Hayden Quinn, who embody the chaos of the late teen years and the excess of the era. They have many decisions—stay or leave, tradition or adventure, comfort or uncertainty. Yet like so many considered wild in their youth, they manage to hold fast to their values, to honor their families and, against all odds, to fall in love.

Writer Anne Lamott says it best. “You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart: your stories, memories, visions and songs—your truth, your version of things—in your own voice. That’s really all you have to offer.”

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

The Delaware Water Gap

Talkin’ ’bout my generation

I came of age in the 1960s, absorbing the culture, learning the music, praying I wouldn’t get shipped to Southeast Asia. While my new standalone novel is fiction, Born Under a Bad Sign is based on a series of historical and personal events that played out in many of our lives, from the war in Vietnam to the fight against the Tocks Island Dam to the dicey gigs our band played to keep the dream alive.

The novel launches today.

Titled after the 1967 hit by blues master Albert King, Born Under a Bad Sign introduces a pair of unlikely heroes, a Quaker and a rocker, Elizabeth Reed and Hayden Quinn—lovers, fighters and opposites in every way. It’s through their eyes that I’ve tried to capture the heady rush of those years. In the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the most famous rock festival of our time, we’ll look at the impact of the Sixties, at Woodstock and Vietnam, at the government’s plan to dam the Delaware River and the people whose homes and lives were demolished by that project.

And, above all, we’ll reconnect with the music. Join me as we revisit an era that shaped a generation.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.