The first time I saw The Allman Brothers Band should’ve been when I was 13.
I had just negotiated the master exploit of my burgeoning adolescence – securing my mother’s permission to leave Camp Carolina, a bucolic summer camp for privileged Southern boys nestled into an old orchard and bottom farmland in Brevard, North Carolina. My plan was to join a half million hippies gathering at the Atlanta International Pop Festival featuring mythic bands such as Spirit, Johnny Winter, Ten Years After and an obscure Georgia-based group that had released its first album the previous November.
I didn’t make it.
An impressionable teenager in the summer of 1970, I suppose I was somewhere on the spectrum of ordinary. At camp, I was just starting to grow my hair a little longer and sported what I thought were cool amber aviators – my entry-level protests against the entrenched Vietnam War and the May 4th shooting of four student protesters at Kent State University. On May 5th, my friend Charles Driebe and I wore black armbands down the eighth grade hallway at Westminster to show our solidarity with the college students protesting and shutting down colleges that week. Within an hour our principal pulled us into his office. “Take ’em off,” he demanded. We did.
Six weeks later, when I walked into Cabin Five to meet my counselor at Camp Carolina, overlooking a cool mountainside lake, I recognized soon enough that he – West Oehmig of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee – was no ordinary counselor. West was a 20-year-old University of Virginia student with an infectious persona, husky voice, and penchant for poetry, Pabst Blue Ribbons and local mountain girls. Most important – he brought a guitar, a record player and box of Rock ’n’ Roll albums.
West was the camp’s popular golf instructor. He came by it naturally. His dad, “Sweet Lew,” named for his golf swing and demeanor, had been a member of the legendary 1938 University of Virginia golf team, a Walker Cup captain, Bobby Jones award winner and USGA champion at the age of 69, a record. In Georgia, golfers stood on the tee and told stories about Bobby Jones; in Tennessee, they talked about Lew Oehmig. At Camp Carolina, where owners had carved the bottom farmland into an economical golf course, replete with all-sand “greens,” fledgling golfers talked about West Oehmig. He had not only inherited his dad’s sweet swing, West shared his mechanical and spiritual love of the game with a venerable Lookout Mountain accent that commanded respect from reverential boys.
My cabin mates had very different personalities – some strong and proud – yet all dimmed in West’s glow. With his ability to connect with anyone he met, West soon became kindred spirits with each of us through various subjects. Some days, while we pretended to lie on our beds during the mandatory post-lunch rest hour, West would regale us with stories of college girls, glorious endless beer parties, Motown bands and Southern guitar players. Some days, we’d sit around listening to records while he sat on our front porch, memorizing verse. One day, he opened the 865-word “Shooting of Dan McGrew,” reciting it to us an hour later as we walked to the first tee.
Three weeks into my four weeks at Camp Carolina, I opened a letter from my brother Mike, who’d returned home a month earlier after protesting, shutting down classes and reportedly, engaging in a bit of mass streaking at Princeton. Near the end of his letter, he mentioned that it was too bad I’d have to miss the Atlanta International Pop Festival that was scheduled July 4th weekend in Byron, GA, outside Macon. There, a few days after I opened his letter, Jimi Hendrix would perform before the largest audience of his short lifetime … and I’d be stuck five hours north … canoeing, swimming, fashioning crafts, riding horses and playing golf at camp.
After reading the letter at lunch, I immediately showed it to West. He said I’d need parental permission to go. So I phoned my mom back in Atlanta and somehow cajoled her into letting me go to the music festival – if I could get a ride there. I ran back to my cabin and told West, who gave me a wink and said to follow him to a meeting with M.B. Chafin, a University of Florida tennis coach who was camp program director and enforcer of all camp rules and regulations. West stood silently a few feet behind me as I pleaded my case to M.B. who, by the look on his wrinkled, tanned face, had never faced such a bizarre request as a camper needing to leave to attend a rock ’n’ roll festival. He listened as I recalled my brother’s letter, my mom’s granting of permission and my intense desire to witness musical history.
He thought for a moment, then asked, “You have no way to get there from here and I’m sure your mom had that in mind when she said ‘yes.’ ”
At that moment, West cleared his throat.
“Sir, I’ve been thinking about this and since the boy’s mama wants him to go to this rock ’n’ roll festival, I’d be happy to volunteer to drive him there. I’ve got my old station wagon here.”
“That’s it,” M.B. said, losing his patience. “Nobody is leaving camp early to go to a music festival in Georgia.”
I tried to appeal, but West grabbed my shoulder, signaling the time for negotiation was done. I was not amused – even less so when, for the remaining week at camp, whenever I’d run into M.B., he’d cock his head to the right, giggle and say, “Rock ’n’ Roll!,” while I’d try not to smile.
Walking back from our meeting with M.B., West tried to cheer me up: “I may have another adventure for you. Have you ever had a beer?”
“No,” I said, excitedly. When we got back to the cabin, he pulled me and a taller cabin-mate aside and whispered to us:
“Late tonight, long after the other boys go to bed, I’ll drive my station wagon up here to the dam and park with my date. That always drives M.B. crazy. I’ll take a little walk with my date and you boys sneak down, open the back door and you’ll find a floor full of empty beer cans. In that mess, you may find one full one. Don’t tell anyone about this …”
We did just as West said and we buried the can behind our cabin. The next afternoon, after dinner, we dug the can out and enjoyed our first taste of a beer. It tasted awful!
As it turned out, the second and final Atlanta International Pop Festival was a legendary musical gathering with nearly 400,000 people attending. A great photographic archive by Earl McGeehee is available online, as are some musical recordings and videos of the event. Showtime two years ago released a documentary of Jimi Hendrix’s performance there, his last American concert before his death.
The event was marred by days of 100-plus degree heat, long concession lines and not enough water. Some who attended said I should be glad I missed it, but I’ve always felt as if I did miss out. I was reminded of this era when Cameron Crowe released the wonderful film “Almost Famous,” about his own 13-year-old adventure following a composite group named Stillwater, based mostly on his following the Allman Brothers around. Years later, Gregg Allman confirmed the famous scene of the band member jumping into a pool from a roof was based on an antic involving his brother Duane Allman that Crowe witnessed. Crowe’s original Rolling Stone article is available here.
I left my final session at Camp Carolina a week following my meeting with West and M.B. I said goodbye to West and all the other campers and returned to Atlanta. The old original cabins have since been moved to a new location further outside Brevard. My lifetime interest in beer, The Allman Brothers and similar activities was just beginning and would only grow throughout my life. While I have previously and perhaps will write again about The Allman Brothers Band in future columns, it was decades until I ever saw my favorite counselor of all time, West Oehmig, again. By then, his legend had only enlarged over time.
Four years following my time at Camp Carolina, I myself was a first-year college student at the University of Virginia and was touring fraternities as part of rush. When I walked in the 1902 neo-federal St. Anthony Hall, I looked at the old black-and-white photos of brothers past that lined the hallway walls. I was stunned to find there, in one photo, the familiar face of West Oehmig, standing in the next to last row of the group photo, looking out from his group of contemporary brothers, seeming as if he was in charge of the house in a previous decade. Legend has it his persona filled the tall, paneled party rooms in a manner few others ever have, before or since. I wasn’t a witness to his holding court during his college years there, but I would join The Hall, as we so preciously called it, four years later.
I don’t believe I was the best student to rush a fraternity as I wasn’t as engaged or outgoing as other candidates. Sometimes, when I’d struggle to find interesting topics to keep brothers at The Hall interested in talking with me, I’d ask if they knew West Oehmig and their interest would suddenly be sparked again.
“He was my counselor and gave me my first beer!” I’d say. If they were still listening, I’d tell the story of how we almost went together to the music festival, trading as best I could on his fine name.
In April 2015, when I attended the 155th reunion at The Hall, I was walking down that same hallway with old photos and heard West’s inimitable voice. There he was, with brother Gilbert Butler, whose time in college overlapped us both.
“West Oehmig!” I said. “You were my counselor at Camp Carolina. Do you remember when …”
“Schroder,” he said, looking off. “Atlanta, right?” I was amazed he remembered me at all.
Two months ago, I was saddened to read a Facebook post by one of my fraternity brothers that West had died. West’s obituary referenced his “daring and occasionally dangerous revelry” at Virginia. I only wished I had known him during those or intervening years. I was out of town for his funeral, but many great stories were told – and I wish I’d been there to add this one.