Pray for the Chickens

I woke up in Atlanta to the wheels of a very large passenger jet’s landing gear skimming the roof of the bookmobile in which I was sleeping…on the interstate.

Whew! That’s a big sentence. Let’s unpack it and see what’s accurate and true.

My friend Cody and I were on our way to the 2nd Atlanta International Pop Festival. It was July fourth weekend, 1970; a year after Woodstock. It was a bold move for li’l Roger. The $14 ticket price alone was a major gulp. It represented 70% of my weekly budget.

But Cody wanted to go and we had all been listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s DÉJÀ VU album featuring their version of “Woodstock” for three months. We had just about worn out the eight-track in his van.

(For my millennial friends; I’m sorry for that last sentence, but I assure you it’s worth Googling “eight-track”, “Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young”, “Woodstock”, and “van”. You’ll be happier and a more complete person if you do…well…maybe not “eight-track”.)

We needed transportation. His van would never make it and I was driving a 1963 Chevy Conundrum my dad had pieced together from parts that could only charitably be described as non-organic road kill. No problem. We had a half-dozen friends our age that were working at the public library at the time. It was a nerd mafia before there were nerds. One of our fellow workers’ car had recently gone belly-up. Since his duties included running books from the main library to the bookmobiles and branches, the administrators of the library gave him the use of a spare bookmobile.

A spare bookmobile…

ponder that for a moment……

I don’t often long for the “good ol’ days”, but I think a world where there are spare bookmobiles might be more than okay.

Cody reasoned and wheedled; since the bookmobile would be parked for the holiday weekend, what’s the harm in taking it to the pop festival? Our fellow worker, thankful he wasn’t being recruited for this adventure, bowed to this superior logic (that’s how you think before your brain is fully formed, which I’m told is about the age of 24…except, of course, for people like me – still workin’ on it), and he surrendered the keys.

We were on our way.

We drove all that sweet southern summer night with the windows open. Bookmobiles in 1970 didn’t have air-conditioning, or FM radio, or eight-tracks (maybe you better look that up after all – for about 12 months in 1970, it was important). We arrived in Atlanta about 4am, which presented a bit of a logistics problem. Cody had a sister living in Atlanta who had obtained our festival tickets for us, but we couldn’t go barging into her house at 4am. Besides, her address was on Peachtree Street. Provincial Lexingtonians that we were, we hadn’t realized that half the streets in Atlanta were named Peachtree Street. We needed to kill some time and we were sleepy. We found a straight stretch on the interstate and pulled over for a snooze. In 1970 you could do that with a fair chance of impunity.

I was out like a light, sleeping the sleep of the innocent (or damned, I forget which).




We had, unbeknownst to ourselves, pulled over directly in front of the Atlanta airport and morning takeoffs had commenced.

Today, my head explains to myself that the landing gear could not actually have touched our vehicle.

In 1970, my bowels begged to differ.

It was without a doubt the most effective alarm clock of my life.

The bookmobile rocked and we rolled into Atlanta’s dawn traffic to find a telephone booth (sigh…yes, look that up too) to call Cody’s sister.

A couple of hours later, tickets in hand, windows open, we were barrelin’ down the highway in the not-so-sweet southern sunshine to Byron, Georgia, actual site of the festival. Byron is almost 100 miles south of Atlanta. It was hot. The forecast was for 100°+ all weekend. Georgia was in the grip of a severe drought about which we learned by hearing Governor Lester Maddox on the radio.

I’m recreating this from an almost 50-year-old memory, but I think I’m pretty close – it was, shall we say, vivid at the time.

“My friends, my fellow Georgians, we are in the midst of a terrible (yes, of course it was pronounced; “turrible”) drought.

It’s hot.

It’s dry.

The crops are dying.

(big pause)

The chickens are dying.

People ask me; ‘Governor, what can I as a citizen do?’

I tell them pray.

Pray for relief from this heat.

Pray for rain.

Pray for the crops.

Pray for the chickens.”

He really did say that; “Pray for the chickens.”

In my spiritual life I’ve been asked to pray for many and varied things. But chickens?

I looked over at Cody and he returned my glance with a look that screamed; “Mister, we aren’t in Kansas anymore!” Then, callow and callous as we were, the laughter exploded and caused us to wobble in our lane.

The Governor went on to proclaim the sinfulness of the drug-ridden, nudie/rock/orgy that was assembling in the heart of Georgia and that he would have law-enforcement and maybe even the National Guard all over it all weekend.

That pretty well sucked the humor out of one wayward bookmobile from Kentucky. We decided to act like the mature 19-year-olds that we were, drive responsibly, and not call undue law-enforcement attention to our journey…in our bookmobile.

We even considered offering a neighborly prayer for the chickens.

We finally arrived at Byron. We took the exit ramp and came to a complete halt. The traffic to the festival was completely jammed. We joined the folks pulling off into the grass beside the ramp and parked. It was a jolly, picnic-like atmosphere. We began the four mile walk to the site.

Did I mention it was hot?

We trudged with our packs. Everywhere there were fellow trudgers; 600,000 of ‘em by some guesses. This “Three-Day Celebration of Peace and Love” was melting into streams of young humanity marching grimly into the glaring inferno of a promised real good time.

We were the chickens.

Pray for us.

We got there and collapsed…stunned.

We roused ourselves about five o’clock. I had been conducting a personal experiment in the total lack of discernible movement in the shade of a pine tree. I was still hot, but I didn’t die. I would categorize the results of the experiment as “mixed”.

We went looking for food and news. Food was scarce, news was plentiful. The doors had been thrown open. Everyone was admitted, ticketed or not. AND the music was starting!

We headed for the concert. The music was delayed until about seven: it was hard to get performers to the stage through a crowd that would have qualified as the biggest city in Kentucky. Finally a regional combo took the stage; the Allman Brothers. They were pretty good. As they heated up the temperature plunged down to about the mid-nineties. The band played until midnight when miraculously the heavens opened and, for about 15 minutes Governor Maddox’s rain poured down. While it fell, it was a relief and, I suppose, a few chickens were saved in the neighborhood. When it stopped, the heat returned and brought mud and soaked stage equipment.

There was another delay as new equipment was being set up for the next act (“Mountain”, I believe). I embarked on a new thought experiment. I put myself back in the bookmobile, windows open, night air coursing through, heading north to a rendezvous with a shower; indoor, not heavenly.

The music continued through the night and it was very fine, but as the sky just began to lighten, Cody uttered three magical syllables; “I’m done. You?”

We retraced our trudge and arrived back at the bookmobile in time to witness a primordial sight. The Governor had ordered the abandoned vehicles to be towed away from the highways. The steamy mist of dawn made the herd of tow-trucks look like dinosaurs prowling through a savannah. The car that blocked our path to the ramp was being hoisted as we unlocked our doors. The tow-truck operator looked relieved. He wasn’t quite sure how he was gonna hook up a bookmobile. We trundled (an accurate word – bookmobiles don’t fare easily off-road. Tuck that tidbit away for future reference.) We trundled up the ramp, over to the north-bound ramp, and away from all that peace and love. We bid adios to Byron, Georgia, a town whose population had swollen from 4,000 to 604,000 overnight.

There were adventures getting back home, thermostat problems and the Tennessee gas station attendant eager to relive how he and his buddies had run the local hippie commune out of town (I think our pristine condition, the result of rain, heat, mud, sweat, and no sleep might have triggered his bout of nostalgia).

Finally we reached Kentucky and once more began to breathe the sweet, humid, night air of hope.

By the time we got to the town of Liberty, our spirits had revived enough to remember it was still July 4. There was an Independence Day celebration happening in Liberty’s courthouse square. A flatbed trailer had been populated with local musicians (not the Allman Brothers). There was food and dancing.

Liberty was about half the size of Byron, but they were enjoying their own celebration of peace and love.

I wanted to stay at this one.

No one was praying for the chickens.

They were fryin’ ‘em.

Give me Liberty…or my $14 back.

There are some accurate facts in this tale……some.

There’s a bit more truth in the tale……a bit.