Katherine Kersten: Who'd believe Coleman celebrated 20th birthday at Woodstock?

How would you like to have Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin play at your birthday party -- along with 30 of the world's other great rock and roll bands? How about having hundreds of folks lined up to give you a congratulatory slap on the back, and another 500,000 or so rallying round at the love-fest of a generation?

That's the way Norm Coleman celebrated his 20th birthday on Aug. 17, 1969, at the "three days of peace and music" known as Woodstock.

Today, Woodstock is back in the news as plans take shape for a museum commemorating the event in Bethel, N.Y., near the festival's site. The museum has surfaced as an issue in the presidential race. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., signed onto a $1 million "earmark" of taxpayer money to help fund it, and GOP Sen. John McCain -- a POW at the time -- rebuked her.

Sen. Coleman voted with the majority against the earmark. The federal government has better uses for its money, he said.

Since he is apparently the only U.S. senator who was at Woodstock, what's Coleman's take on it?

New York's Catskills region, where the festival took place, was like a second home to him, he says. His family had a summer place in the Jewish "Borscht Belt" there, about 5 miles from the concert site on Max Yasgur's farm.

During high school, Coleman had worked at "Sol and Marian's" grocery store, a mile or so from the farm.

In 1969, Coleman was a long-haired, anti-war type who had worked with some of rock's biggest stars: driving a truck for Jethro Tull and setting up stage equipment for Steve Winwood and Savoy Brown.

That summer, he was working as a roadie with the popular English blues band Ten Years After. "One of my main jobs was standing behind amps during concerts so they wouldn't fall over," he said. (Come clean, Norm. How much of this is on your résumé?)

Coleman left Ten Years After as summer 1969 wound down. But he wanted to make "their next big gig -- Woodstock," which seemed the ideal place to spend his 20th birthday.

Coleman trekked to Woodstock with his friend, now brother-in-law, Billy Ellis. He wasn't disappointed -- Sunday, Aug. 17, turned out to be the festival's climactic day.

Joe Cocker started the music, but a mid-afternoon cloudburst threatened to turn Yasgur's farm into a giant wash-out. After Country Joe and the Fish brought the crowd out from under its blankets, Ten Years After put on the exuberant, driving show of a lifetime.

'Like rows of ants'

That afternoon, Coleman and Ellis were trudging up a hill against a tide of humanity. "This huge crowd was going down the hill -- like rows of ants," he said. The concertgoers were soaked through and showing the wear of three days of outdoor communal living.

Then, "Billy gets the notion to yell, 'Hey ,Norman, happy birthday!' Suddenly, hundreds of people were kissing me, hugging me -- it was like some giant receiving line."I got a lot of love on my birthday," he said, laughing.

Does Coleman make a cameo appearance in the Woodstock film -- one we can see if we take out a magnifying glass and work the pause button on the remote?

No, he says. But he was just off-screen with Ellis as Jimi Hendrix played to a largely empty field on Monday, the last day. For a while, they helped pick up the mess left by a half-million rock fans.

How does Woodstock stack up in retrospect?

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