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Iola rock festival, 1970

The Iola rock festival in June, 1970, drew an estimated 50,000 people, ending with gunfire and several people injured.

MONONA — I got back from Vietnam on August 8, 1969. A week after my return, Woodstock caught my attention and imagination.

The following summer, my girlfriend and I packed my car with a few essentials — among them a small tent, a bota of Ripple, some munchies and a lid of grass — and drove north to Iola, a small village of 967 people about 115 miles north of Madison near Stevens Point.

We attended the Iola People’s Fair.

The event was held on a 200-acre farm that included a large field, a small woods and a lily pond. It started on Friday, June 25, and went on for three days and nights. More than 50,000 young people showed up to hear the likes of Steve Miller, Spirit, Johnny Winter and Buddy Rich perform.

In almost every way, the event was what I expected. Weedy fields soon turned to muddy trails that led to a few outdoor toilets, to makeshift food carts and to the stage. The rolling landscape was covered in every type of hovel imaginable, from tents to blankets propped up by a couple of tree limbs. The smell of marijuana was ever present and the music and announcements made sleeping almost impossible.

By late Saturday, my girlfriend and I were filthy dirty, bleary eyed and looking forward to our departure on Sunday. We watched and listened to more music until the wee hours of Sunday before going back to our tent, where we found two strangers inside making love. When they stumbled out, we stumbled in and fell into a fitful sleep.

Then on Sunday morning, we awoke to someone making shrill announcements from the stage. “What’s going on down there?” the guy shrieked. “Be cool, everybody be cool, brothers and sisters.”

The guy kept shouting about something that was happening near the edge of the woods and then, suddenly, his tone got even more severe.

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“This can’t be happening. They’re shooting people. shooting people. Get on down there, brothers and sisters, revolution. Revolution.”

I told my girlfriend to stay put and went to see what was happening. As I crested a hill I saw a small group of long-haired men surrounding a young man dressed in leather standing next to his motorcycle. The hippies were threatening the cyclist with sticks and rocks. Somebody tried to grab the bike, but the man held on defiantly.

As I walked down the hill toward the scene, I watched him get on the bike, start it up and attempt to leave. In the distance, I heard the roar of other cycles departing. After some threats from the crowd, the biker made his getaway. As he did, I saw another man coming up the hill toward me holding his shoulder. Then I saw the blood streaming down his arm. The announcer was right. They were shooting people. I grabbed the man by his other arm and guided him into a first-aid tent. The nurses inside seemed dumbstruck by the man’s injury, so I took over. I told them I was a medic in Vietnam and proceeded to examine the man. The bullet entered and exited without hitting bone or arteries. The man seemed relieved at my diagnosis and started talking as I bandaged his shoulder.

He said his name was Mike, that he lived in Madison and that the bikers had been assaulting women and shaking down concertgoers for money and drugs since the event began. When I finished, the man thanked me, and the nurses stepped in to take over. My hands were covered in blood as I walked back to my campsite. I was numb. I left Vietnam behind only to find it again at a rock festival.

My girlfriend flipped out when she saw me. I remember her frightened expression as I explained what happened while washing my bloody hands with water from a canteen. I also remember our shock and disappointment at the ugly turn of events. With little discussion, we hastily packed up our belongings and within 15 minutes we were in the car heading for home.

My rock concert dreams — three days of peace and music — had been shattered.

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Larson lives in Monona.

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