Susanne MacArthur sat on her living room couch late on the night of July 20, 1969, and hoped that her 18-day-old son would wake up. When he did, she told him they were witnessing history.

“I was aware that this was about as big an event as had ever happened,” said MacArthur, 72, of South Portland.  “Now I tell my grandchildren, ‘Your dad and I watched the moon landing.’ It made me feel like the impossible was attainable.”

The 50th anniversary of man’s first steps on the moon was Saturday, and Aug. 15 will mark a half-century since the cultural phenomenon that was Woodstock. Both events were among a summer of historic happenings in 1969, which continue to impact and inspire people today.

Buzz Aldrin Jr. poses July 20, 1969, beside the American flag on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Aldrin and fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong were the first men to walk on the lunar surface, with temperatures ranging from 243 degrees above to 279 degrees below zero. Astronaut Michael Collins flew the command module. Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP

The moon walk by astronaut Neil Armstrong fulfilled a pledge by President John F. Kennedy just eight years earlier and became a symbol of American innovation and determination, setting the stage for an era of lightning-fast technological advances.

Woodstock was supposed to be a pop music festival with an audience of 50,000 but drew 400,000 young people who largely shared anti-war and anti-establishment sentiments. Concert-goers who slept on muddy hillsides, shared food and water with strangers and were not afraid to openly smoke marijuana became part of a generation-defining moment.

Other culture-shifting events during the summer of 1969 included a gathering storm of Vietnam War protests and the Stonewall Riots in New York City, which kicked off the LGBTQ civil rights movement that continues today.

All those happenings helped define and propel the Baby Boomers, who were roughly between age 6 and 23 in 1969 and who as an outsize generation would go on to have a massive influence on U.S. and world history for the 50 years that followed.

Here are the stories of some Mainers and their experiences during that extraordinary summer.

Concertgoers sit on the roof of a Volkswagen bus at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in Bethel, N.Y., in mid-August, 1969. The three-day concert attracted hundreds of thousands and became a landmark cultural event of the late ’60s. Associated Press

CURIOUS COPS, COMMON BONDS

Craig Brown was 16 when he left his home in Cape Elizabeth one day in mid-August of 1969, telling his mother he was going camping with friends in New Hampshire. But he was headed to Woodstock, on a farm in upstate New York, piling into a van with friends. Brown was a big music fan, and the chance to see a couple dozen mega-stars – including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – all in one place excited him. Music festivals that attract hundreds of thousands of people are commonplace today, but in 1969 they were unheard of.

Because of a massive traffic standstill, Brown and his friends ended up ditching the van and walking 6 miles to the concert site. Heavy rain meant that they slept under soggy blankets on the ground, and the massive crowd meant that food vendors quickly had nothing to sell and bathrooms were nearly impossible to find. The event, in Brown’s mind, was a symbol of his generation’s struggles and common bonds. It was filled with young men who either were draft age or approaching it, and anti-Vietnam War sentiment was high.

On left, Craig Brown circa 1970, shortly after his trip to Woodstock. On right, Brown in the office of Common Dreams in Portland on July 17. Left: Photo courtesy of Craig Brown; Right: Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photogrpaher

Woodstock was also a moment when marijuana began to go mainstream, being used publicly by thousands of people. In its stories on Woodstock, The New York Times felt compelled to explain the terms “grass” and “stoned” for readers unfamiliar with them. But Brown and his friends needed no explanation. They were stopped by police on the way home, about 20 miles from Woodstock. The officers took the pot from their van and brought them into the police station. “They mostly wanted to hear whether we saw naked women,” he said. The police gave Brown and his buddies a case of beer to drink and eventually sent them on their way.

Brown, 66, lives in Cape Elizabeth and has spent his career in politics and public affairs, working as a community organizer and political consultant as well as running campaigns. He was chief of staff for Tom Andrews, a congressman from Maine’s 1st District in the 1990s. He now runs Common Dreams, a progressive news website based in Maine. Feeling part of an empowered and politically active generation, something he felt strongly at Woodstock, helped fuel his life’s work.

“Conditions were bad, but people were taking care of each other and sharing whatever they had, and there was really no anger. There was this feeling of we’re all in this together,” Brown said of Woodstock. “I think for a lot of us who felt the same way, being against the war, it was a very empowering event.”

AN ENDURING SENSE OF POSSIBILITY

Susanne MacArthur felt as though she and the whole country were “holding our breath” in the days and hours before Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Just two years earlier, three Apollo astronauts had died in a fire in their spacecraft. What the astronauts of Apollo 11 were attempting was dangerous and surreal.

To MacArthur, a 22-year-old mother of two who had grown up in Waterville and South Portland, landing a man on the moon seemed like “science fiction fantasy stuff.” It reminded her of the jump mankind made from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. So, of course, she wanted her infant son, Cory Snow, to witness the event with her. She told him they were seeing history.

On left, Susanne MacArthur, who was 22 in 1969, when she watched the moon landing with her two sons, one a newborn, in the middle of the night. The moment helped shape her life as a teacher and activist. On right, MacArthur at her home today. Left: Photo courtesy of Susanne MacArthur; Right: Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

MacArthur had grown up admiring Maine senator Margaret Chase Smith, who made national news when she stood up to communist witch hunts in the 1950s. MacArthur was also keenly aware of problems dividing America in 1969, including race and the Vietnam War. But the moon landing gave her hope for social justice advances. If Americans could put a man on the moon, she thought, they could do almost anything.

She went on to teach English at South Portland High School, where students sensed her compassion and dedication to human rights and asked her to advise the school’s gay-straight alliance in the early 2000s. From there, she became an activist for broader LGBTQ rights and currently co-chairs the southern Maine chapter of the national Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

“It energized me and made me think so many more things might be possible,” MacArthur said of the moon walk. “It made me feel that like-minded humans could work together and break barriers.”

INSPIRED TO ASK WHY

Neil Comins sat in a barn in Marlboro, Vermont, staring at a small black-and-white TV, while some of his fellow summer camp counselors wiggled the rabbit-ear antennae to get better reception. He had finished his freshman year at Cornell University, studying electrical engineering, and was in full “science geek” mode as he watched the Apollo 11 spacecraft touch down on the moon.

On left, Neil Comins of Bangor, in 1969, around the time he watched the moon landing on TV. On right, Comins today, now a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Maine. Photos courtesy of Neil Comins

“I wondered about the surface. Some people thought it would be too soft and the spacecraft would sink in,” said Comins, 68, of Bangor. “I wondered, too, about what they might be able to bring back. They were supposed to collect rocks, but I didn’t see much more than dust.”

When he went back to Cornell in the fall, Comins switched majors to engineering physics because he didn’t feel satisfied learning about how things worked, as in how electricity flows through a circuit. He wanted to know why things were the way they are.

Comins, who grew up outside New York City, went on to get a doctorate in astrophysics and general relativity and once gave a talk about his work to legendary physicist Stephen Hawking. He’s been a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Maine for 40 years and has written more than 20 books on astronomy and space. Among the topics he’s covered is the minutiae of being a human in outer space, including that the dusty atmosphere creates “static cling like you wouldn’t believe” for anyone walking in it. His life’s work has largely been about the kinds of “fascinating stuff” he saw on that TV in 1969.

WOODSTOCK, STAGE RIGHT

In the winter of 1968 and 1969, Frank Wicks thought of Woodstock mainly as another gig. He was working as the tour manager for celebrated Indian musician Ravi Shankar, who was on the bill. He and Shankar traveled to New York City a couple of times that winter to attend meetings with promoters and organizers. He remembers being handed a stack of tickets and asked to sell them to folks he might run into, the way a Little League player might sell raffle tickets.

On left, Frank Wicks of Orrs Island, who was at Woodstock as Ravi Shankar’s tour manager in 1969. On right, Wicks at his home in Harpswell today. Left: Photo courtesy of Frank Wicks; Right: Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“So we called on people and knocked on doors. There were some great artists playing the festival, but it sounded like this gentle summer event,” said Wicks, 80, of Harpswell. “I did not have any idea what it would become.”

But he and Shankar started to get the idea quickly when they arrived the Friday the festival began. The overflowing crowd – nearly 10 times what was expected – made it impossible for performers to get to the stage in a car. Fences had been trampled and people occupied every inch of ground. So he and Shankar rode to the stage in a helicopter. Shankar’s stage time was interrupted by announcements that people should be careful of “some bad acid” going around and, whatever you do, “don’t take the blue pill.” It was raining hard while Shankar played his sitar.

Wicks grew up in New Jersey and moved with his wife in the mid-1970s to Maine, where he’s worked with humorist Marshall Dodge, helped organize the long-running Maine Festival and went on to a variety of other theater and performance jobs. He and his family lived on Orr’s Island in Harpswell full time for years but he now spends winters in Mexico, working in theater there. In an article he wrote on his Woodstock experience, Wicks summed up its hold on our popular imagination: “Perhaps we were too mystified by the walk on the moon, too horrified by Vietnam brought to our living rooms. Perhaps what we needed – and what we got – was one hell of a bash!”

INSPIRED TO ACT

As a 17-year-old in Kennebunk in the summer of 1969, Steve Bull “was not really conscious” of the Stonewall Riots when they happened on June 28. But once he found out a couple of years later, the event and its aura helped change his life.

On left, Steven Bull opens a morning session at the Maine Gay Symposium in Orono in April 1974. On right, Bull in a studio at WMPG in Portland, where he does a weekly radio show about LBGTQ issues. Bull was influenced by the Stonewall Riots in New York City that happened in the summer of 1969. Left: Photo courtesy of Steven Bull; Right: Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The Stonewall Riots were spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of New York’s gay community after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar frequented by members of the LGBTQ community. At the time, raids of gay clubs were common, and public resistance to authority by LGBTQ people and supporters were rare.

But when he was at the University of Maine a couple years later, Bull and other gay students used Stonewall as a rallying cry to start gay student groups at the university and to hold a ground-breaking gay symposium in Maine, a controversial event which attracted hundreds of people. Some of the protesters and organizers of Stonewall attended the symposium.

“Stonewall gave people like me the confidence to organize. That event caused an explosion of groups around the country,” said Bull, 67, of Lewiston. He has continued his activism with several groups and is co-host of a weekly radio show on LBGTQ issues called “Out Cast,” airing on Portland station WMPG. “We felt like our club and what we were doing was our Stonewall, in Maine. If they could do it, we could do it.”

Related Headlines

filed under: