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Wearing Woodstock

Like the hundreds of thousands of people who were at Woodstock, Bob Somers has stories. But he's one of the few who also left with a T-shirt, a red one he lucked into and held onto even as he changed from a 19-year-old who skinny-dipped with strangers in the rain into a guy with a government job, a wife he met through golfing, two docile dogs and a tract house in a Columbia subdivision.

Over the past 40 years, that red shirt became a a link to a mystical weekend and a reminder that no matter how respectable, conservative — or, heck, ordinary — he comes to look on the outside, inside there's a shaggy-haired kid who just wants to make the world a better place.

What Somers didn't realize until recently is that as much as the red T-shirt means to him, it's also quite valuable, a social artifact, and this weekend he's donating to the New York museum that's dedicated to archiving the experience that was Woodstock.

In 1969, Somers, his twin brother and a bunch of their buddies in Boston bought tickets to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. A slight, wiry kid, Somers was driving a milk truck that summer. He'd taken a break from the University of Massachusetts: "finding his way," in his words. His boss didn't want to give him time off for the concert, so he quit.

With no idea what he was about to behold, Somers and his friends stuffed knapsacks with trail mix, cooking gear and changes of clothes, then set out for New York. As they got closer to farm country, they noticed more and more folks on the highway who seemed to be heading in the same direction — literally and metaphysically.

"To be surrounded by people like you, who thought like you and looked like you, that was very empowering," Somers remembers. "Kindred spirits."

After first settling in on the grass about 50 feet from the stage, the friends realized they needed to move to higher ground — so they could see and save themselves from being trampled. They found a vending area that had been abandoned when the seller's food quickly ran out and repurposed its wooden table into a sort of lean-to where they stayed for the rest of the weekend.

It was Saturday afternoon when Somers realized that a kid in front of him didn't look right — shaking and twitching, he seemed to be going into convulsions, probably a reaction to drugs, which were everywhere. He grabbed his friend, Kevin, and ran all the way down the hill, fighting through the throngs to get to the medical tent on the far side of the stage. When they got there and told a medic the situation, he replied, "What are you, out of your mind? We can't leave here. Take this stretcher and bring him down to us."

So they did, trudging with the heavy stretcher all the way across the crowd and up the hill and then back again with the stranger. Back at the medics, the doctor asked what the kid took. Somers explained that they didn't know the guy, they were just helping him. "The doctor seemed impressed with that," Somers says. "He said, 'How would you like to help us?' "

And just like that, Somers and his buddy found themselves being tossed the keys to the doctor's pickup and charged with driving about five miles into town to fetch medical supplies.

It took hours, but they did it, and when they got back to the concert, the doctor asked them, "Is there anything I could do for you?" Somers thought about it and said, "I'd really like to have one of those shirts."

Security team members for the festival were all wearing the red cotton T-shirts. On the front was the word "peace." On the back, a dove resting on the neck of a guitar on the back. The doctor tossed them two and went back to work.

"We put the shirts on and walked toward the stage," Somers recalls. "It was like Moses parting the Red Sea."

They not only got near the stage, where the likes of the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Who were performing — at one point they got on the stage. They sat quietly in back, counting their lucky stars, thinking, "God, what are we doing here? This is like way cool," as Joe Cocker played his set. They slipped off-stage when Cocker finished — it didn't occur to them that they could have gotten away with more.

Richard Somers, Bob's twin, had been back at the lean-to, waiting and wondering where his brother had gotten to. He can still feel the surge of envy he felt when he saw Bob walk up wearing the shirt. "I'm still envious," Richard Somers says, laughing. "And I still remember how excited they were when they came back."

The fraternal rivalry heightened even more when the Woodstock II album came out, and there on the back cover was a stark photo of the Woodstock grounds after the show, the focus on the lean-to — and a bare-chested Bob Somers standing in a corner of the image.

Richard Somers, who put down roots in Boston, has seen his brother's Woodstock prize plenty through the years — it was a wardrobe mainstay when the two drove cross-country the summer after the concert, when they hiked in the mountains of Vermont; when they were getting older and visiting for family occasions. Like his brother, Ricjard Somers found work with the government, becoming a customs agent and, in doing so, lost much of the hair and youthful idealism both of them wore after Woodstock.

"There probably aren't that many people in their 19 or 20s that say, 'I'm going to go be a government bureaucrat,'" he says, adding that although they had no choice but to grow up, he thinks being at Woodstock changed his brother. "It meant something. …Three days of peace and love."

Bob Somers wore his red T-shirt to every rock concert he attended — Janis Joplin, the Newport Folk Festival, Tina Turner. When he joined the Navy, he brought it to Pensacola, Fla., for basic training, to his deployment in Bremerhaven, Germany, and slipped into it when he could as a petty officer aboard a warship in the North Atlantic. After he got married, had kids, divorced and then remarried, he wore it to a couple of Halloween parties with his wife, Kay, where it would be a key component of his "hippie" costume.

He wore it two years ago to visit the new Museum at Bethel Woods, and that's when someone finally told him he was walking around in a valuable piece of history.

"I saw this guy in the lobby wearing what was very obvious to me to be an original, authentic Woodstock staff shirt," says museum director Wade Lawrence. "He didn't look much older than about my age, and I thought he's probably too young to have been security at the festival — so where did he get the shirt?"

When he heard Somers' story, he ranked it among the best he'd heard.

"Everybody who went to Woodstock has a story — how they lost the people they came with, how they met the love of their life, how they partied with Janis Joplin," Lawrence says."But his had that ring of truth. … This happened all the time at Woodstock, where people just pitched in. It was very communal. Everybody felt obligated to help their neighbor. It was one of the big stories of Woodstock."

Lawrence figures there were only about 500 of the security shirts, known in collector lingo as the "television shirts" because the white background on the back, behind the dove and guitar, looked a bit like a rectangular TV screen. They were rarer than rare, valued at about $3,000 each, and he wanted it for the museum.

"He was pretty hesitant," Lawrence says. "It's his prize possession. He said he wanted to be buried in it. I didn't think I would get it."

This weekend, Somers is presenting his shirt to the museum, where it will become part of the permanent exhibit depicting how it was on the ground at the festival. It will be tagged and put behind glass, where visitors will see it for posterity, but Somers will never wear it again.

Somers and his friends were among the last to drive away from Max Yasgur's farm that Monday after the show. They'd stayed to help clean up because, well, that was the kind of kids they were — a little bit Boy Scout-ish. They were tired, exhilarated and dirty — wearing mud that didn't wash off, even after jumping naked into a pond.

"So that's the saga of the shirt," Somers says, sitting back in his living room decorated in unassuming tans and greens. He is, of course wearing the shirt, for one of the last times. Its once bright red has faded. There's stains from who knows what and a few tiny holes. But although Somers at 60 is balding and a bit weathered, he's still small and wiry, so the shirt fits, hanging as easily as it did in 1969.

Though he was a little thrilled to realize the shirt was worth so much, when he hands it to the museum, he says it won't be with any sadness or regret.

"The shirt has been part of me for a long, long time," he says. "It might be nice to have something to share with others."

He thinks being at Woodstock helped him become a more tolerant and giving man. He tries hard to keep in touch with most of the friends he traveled with to the show, and when he goes to work at the Social Security Administration, he wears Jerry Garcia neckties.

Wade Lawrence thinks that in a lot of ways, Bob Somers lived the true Woodstock experience.

"He wasn't a hippie, he was just a kid who wanted to go to have a good time and express individuality and freedom — and then it changed his life," the museum director says. "For him, that shirt represents that one moment in time."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

http://twitter.com/jillrosen

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