George Laye

George is originally from Haverty Grace, Maryland. He is 63, divorced and has been living in the Berkshires for thirty years working in many capacities from being a carpenter to being on the road as a musician. He is currently director of the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington, MA. George met Arlo Guthrie in the late sixties and has been a close family friend ever since. He is godfather of Arlo’s children. Here is a brief description of the Guthrie Center:
Alice’s Restaurant isn’t around anymore. But, as the song says, “Alice didn’t live in a restaurant. She lived in the church nearby the restaurant…” And the old Trinity Church, where Alice once lived and where the saga began has become home to The Guthrie Center and The Guthrie Foundation.
Arlo Guthrie, providing a place to bring together individuals for spiritual service, as well as cultural and educational exchange, founded the Guthrie Center, an Interfaith Church, in 1991. The Trinity Church where the song “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” began and where the movie “Alice’s Restaurant” was filmed, continues to service the local and international community.

I was a senior in high school and I had turned eighteen in March of 1960. The recruiters came into our high school in April and they were talking to us about the army and about when we would need to register for the draft. I raised my hand and said, “What do you mean registering for the draft?” They told me that when you turn eighteen you register for the draft. I said, “Oh, well, no one told me anything about this. I’m eighteen.” “You’re eighteen now?” they asked and suddenly stood at attention like it was very serious. I was very ignorant and naïve. I didn’t know it was serious. They pulled me out of school within a matter of minutes and took me to go register for the draft that day. It was just a month or two since I turned eighteen and they were telling me about penalties and jail time for failing to register. It was unbelievable. I thought they were just joking around with us, but they were not joking. I guess I was the only one who had turned eighteen by that point. I remember getting to the registration center somewhere around the county seat, but what really sticks in my mind is that these guys were deadly serious.
I was a senior in school so I was living at home. I was preparing to go to college. I was going to go to a satellite school of William and Mary down in Richmond, Virginia. I was going to go down there in the fall and I had summer plans to travel around the country with a buddy of mine from Cuba. I always loved Cuba. I thought it was a neat island. I love most islands. The big thing in my life was getting out of high school and going to college. My parents wanted me to attend because they didn’t get the chance and I should. My dad had been in World War II and, of course, he had had to register for the draft, but I guess my folks didn’t realize I had to register. They weren’t anti-war. They were regular “Joes”.

My buddy from Cuba and I had gotten a new car for graduation from high school and so we took off for New York that summer after graduating. Two eighteen year olds in New York. It was ridiculous. We got in a few fights because he was Cuban and looked different. We weren’t fighting kind of guys, but that’s what happened. We spent the month of August on the road traveling. A gang of guys stole all our stuff in New York, even our clothes. It was traumatic. These guys just basically decided to kick our asses and rob us. They took us to this old building, god knows where. It was actually kind of like a Hollywood movie. We really were running down these narrow steps, running from this gang of guys and getting into the car. They were trying to break the windows as we were squealing off. We drove out of New York City that night. It was like two in the morning, but we drove till we reached this farming part of Pennsylvania and then we went to sleep.

We got back to Maryland to go to school. I didn’t hear a word from my draft board. One thing I do remember about registration is I had a doctor’s appointment, a physical the same day. I had to have a physical the day I registered. It wasn’t a regular appointment, it was a physical. It wasn’t with an army doctor, it was a school doctor but they ordered me to get a physical and the school referred me to that guy. I think the doctor was gay. I was from a small town school and it was 1960 and I didn’t even know about homosexuality. It was many years later that I thought about it. I thought it was a little weird that the doctor was touching me so much.

I began college that fall of 1960 at the William and Mary satellite. I went one year and then flunked out. I wasn’t ready for college. I dropped out and worked as a photographer. I worked for Thiokol Chemical and they were making all the solid propellant for the rockets that were being used in those days. I worked there for a year and then went back to school, but this time to a school in Baltimore. That’s where I discovered folk music. I got a job working at the Blue Dog Cellar. One of my friends in college used to come over to my apartment and bring his guitar and play this great music. He knew I was a rock and roll guy, but he told me about the Blue Dog Cellar, which featured real folk singers so I started working there. It was a wonderful funky little coffee shop and had terrific people there, like Josh White and all other sorts of great people. I worked there as a waiter and whatever else they needed. This was from ’62 through ’63. I became really good friends with the owner and his wife and a lot of the people there and am still in contact with some of them today. Then I went back to the arts school after a year.

I was exempt from the draft again when I returned to school and that was one of the reasons that I went back. I was pretty interested in photography and art and then got into the folk music scene so I stayed in college another semester before deciding to move to New York City. I was out of school and 1-A again in 1963. I was in New York City and working as a road manager for a new group that was put together at the Blue Dog. We shared an apartment and I worked in a department store to make ends meet. I hated it. I was freezing all winter and I was poor.

While I had been working at the Blue Dog, I met a group a black gospel folk rock group called “Joe and Eddie”. They had a couple of hit songs and we became really good friends. Everyday I’d look in the paper to see when they’d be back in town. I wouldn’t see them for a year or so, but one time they said, “You gotta come to LA.” I finally saw a big ad that they were going to be in town. I called them and went over to see them. They were staying at the Hilton and doing a TV show. Within two days I was living in Hollywood. They were touring and doing the Dean Martin show and all these other TV shows. I got out there and didn’t work with them right away, but then I did. I went on tour with them and worked at the William Morris Talent Agency for a while, but I didn’t fit the image of their employees in Beverly Hills. I wore a sport jacket and tie to work, but I drove a motorcycle. I just didn’t fit their image. They wanted me to sell my motorcycle and cut my hair, and they gave me a car, but all my friends were getting stoned. I was a hippie, but I had a job. By this point it’s mid-’64 and I recall my mom calling me from Maryland and saying, “You have a letter.”

Of course, it was a letter from the selective service. I said, “Oh, wow, open it!” She opened it while we were on the phone and it said something about court and a physical so I said, “Mom, send it out here right away!” She did. I then called the selective service in California and told them I’d moved. They basically said, no problem, and they would just re-register me in California. I was petrified. I said, “Oh, Jesus. I’m 1-A. I have no deferments. I’m going to go. What am I going to do?” Oh, man, I was panicked. The war had really started by then. Before that moment, since it was all we talked about, I had fears. I had been saying this war is crazy but I had done nothing to protect myself. When the letter came and I saw how it was for me, I was kicking myself in the butt.

I got hold of some friends right away. I wasn’t drafted yet. I was re-registered in California so I had more time, but I wasn’t stupid. I was crying because everything was right there in front of me, laid out clear. I got together with a buddy of mine who I was with every night and said, “I’m going to get drafted. What the hell am I going to do?” He said, “You know there’s this guy we hear about through the grapevine. He’s an attorney and very sympathetic to the cause. He’s giving a free clinic that gives legal advice to guys in your situation.” By that point I had gotten my draft notice.

I got hold of this guy and he said, “Well, here’s the deal. You could have done some kind of a psychiatric thing if you’d been seeing me for a few months, but you can’t just let them see that – Oh, you’ve gotten drafted and all of a sudden you’re seeing a shrink.” I guess I was one of those guys who thought it could never happen to me because I had known about it and hadn’t done anything. It was just that kind of attitude. The fact was that I’d dropped out of school and nothing had happened. I’d gone back to school and nothing happened. There must have been a part of me that said nothing would happen. Now that it had happened I only had so much time. This draft-counseling lawyer then told me there were meetings. I didn’t attend any meetings, but all the guys were talking about this. Many others were in the same situation and we’d be sitting at the bar and talking about it and making plans. That’s when we learned about going to Canada.

I had gotten all this information by now. I had my draft notice and there was a date. My counselor said, “Here’s what you have to do. You can’t do the shrink thing but when you go for the physical there are a lot of different avenues you can explore. One is the hearing test. If you fail the hearing test you’re not going in the army. It’s that simple. You’ll be put in this little chamber and they’ll put headphones on you and give you a button. Then they’ll say, ‘Tell us when you hear the sound in the earphones.’ Meanwhile you’ll count, ‘One thousand one, one thousand two,’ but you’ve got to be consistent. You have to have the same results each time.” That was one option, the hearing test. Another one he told me about was, “When the guy in front of you has his blood drawn, start holding your breath. You’ll pass out as soon as they jab you with the needle.” Each strategy was to make you make you look weak, not fit. You could tell them, “I can’t pee or I don’t have to pee.” You could sit down in line. He told me not to get physical with anyone, but you could say you’re tired or you have a headache. He told me not to be too much of an asshole; just be natural. There was a place on the form that asks, “Are you homosexual?” I’m not sure that’s how they worded it. They give you the innards of a pen, not the whole pen, just the filler and I thought that was really bizarre. The counselor suggested that I should check yes for the question about whether you were a homosexual, and then scratch it out with my fingernail and check no. That was intended to make them wonder what was going on. It was the idea that if this doesn’t work, you try the next one.

By this point I was getting very nervous. People were throwing several of us facing the draft a party at this guy’s house in the valley. We decided we were going to get really stoned and really drunk. We would cut our hair off and not sleep all night and be totally exhausted the next morning when we went in to downtown L.A. I don’t know why we cut our hair. I think it was just to throw them off again, to look straight. I did what we planned. I cut my hair short, had a hell of a party and got totally blitzed. I wasn’t much of a druggie. I smoked marijuana regularly. I tried everything else and I didn’t really care for them, but I tried them that night. You have to wonder how I stayed alive. I got really fucked up.

The party was at my friend Rose’s place. He was an entertainer who I knew from the Blue Dog, but who now lived in LA. He took me downtown the next day. When we got there all the peace movement folks were out in front. We took all their flyers and pamphlets. Of course, the military folks took all of these hand-outs from me as soon as I arrived. They wouldn’t let me take them inside. They separated my friend, Biff and I. He couldn’t come in. Then it was just me.

It was a funny thing. I wasn’t laughing at all and I wasn’t being a smart ass or anything. I was just thinking, “Fuck what am I going to do?” I really didn’t believe in the war. I was still a young kid and I was afraid, but I didn’t believe in the bullshit and I knew that I wasn’t going to go. I had faith in myself. I remember the first room I was in and I remember seeing all these guys and thinking, “Man, these guys have nothing to do with me.” We had nothing in common. These guys really wanted to be there. Of course, I quickly found out I was in the wrong room. I was in the room with the guys who had enlisted. These guys were army guys and talking about how they were going to do this and that when they got in and went to Vietnam.
They then gave us the inserts of the pens. The forms didn’t make any sense to me. They had nothing to do with being drafted as far as I could tell, so I raised my hand and the officer in charge said, “Oh no, you’re not supposed to be here. This is for enlistees.” He took me to another room and that’s when I saw my people. There were a bunch of other guys in there, none of whom wanted to be there, so at least I had someone to talk to, but then the processing started it. I spent the rest of the day in my underwear feeling just humilitated. It was the hardest day I’d ever been through. The hearing test was the first test and I kept my composure, and I thought, “I can do this.” All I had to do was fail this test and I could go home. It was just like they said. There was the button that you held, counted to whatever you counted to and pushed it. You had to do a couple of different things at different pitches. I got through it and I came out and there was an army guy standing there. He sent me right back to the test area again. You had to do it three times if you failed the first time. They wanted to see if you failed in a consistent way. The third time I was thinking, “All I need is one more time and I can do it.” It was just like in the movies. I came out after the third time and I didn’t know whether the original officer was in the bathroom or at lunch, but there was another guy standing there by the door and he said, “That’s close enough. You passed”. I was just beside myself.

The next part I remember is I was sitting down in line and we’re just hundreds of guys in line in endless hallways with different colored lines, blue lines and red lines that you had to follow. Everyone was standing, but I sat down in the line and this guy came up and screamed at me. He screamed at me so loud he scared me. He was yelling, “Get up. What are you doing? Who the hell are you?” I said, “I have a headache and if I sit down my headache will go away.” I was trying not to be arrogant. I wasn’t trying to piss him off. I was just trying to say, “Look, I’ve got a headache and this is what helps it.” He screamed at me again to stand up and I said, “No, I’m not in the army. At the end of the day you’ll tell me to stand up and I’ll probably have to, but now I’m sitting.” They didn’t force me to stand.

Then we went into the room to do the blood test and I held my breath and I swear to god as soon as they put the needle in I was gone. I had no idea it would work like that.
The next thing I remember was I was lying on a bed. They made you do it again and again. It didn’t stop them from taking blood. It just made you look bad. I had to go to the bathroom, too. I was in that room for a long time and they kept giving me liquids and I just couldn’t hold it any longer so they got that, too. It was sort of like boot camp.

They sent me to the shrink because of the homosexual thing. I had tried that angle, too. I had filled out the form and they wanted to know. So the shrink asked me, “What does this mean?” I had written that I was homosexual then crossed it out so he asked, and I won’t ever forget this, “Are you a homosexual now?” I, of course, said, “Well, if I was a homosexual now I would be coming onto you, wouldn’t I?” That’s all I could really think to say. I didn’t know how their system worked. I’d never been to a shrink before and I certainly didn’t ask to come there. They were really on my case. They weren’t being gentle and nice; they were really ripping into me.

When the shrink interview was over, I got sent to an officer and he asked, “Do you have any outstanding warrants?” Now I hadn’t heard anything about this from anyone I had spoken to before. They hadn’t advise me about that at the attorney’s, but the way he said it made me think he knew that I had been busted recently for hitchhiking. I hadn’t been hitching on the sidewalk. I was on the street and I had gotten arrested. I didn’t have it taken care of yet, but I knew it was coming and I was prepared to deal with it. The officer said that I needed to make a phone call to a friend and it needed to be on a conference call because he would be on another line. I had to have a friend verify that they would take care of this warrant by the time of my induction. He had to know I had a friend who would take care of this for me and forward it to me in the service. They got the phones out and said, “O.K., call your friend.” I said, “Well, I don’t have any friends.” He asked, “How long have you been living here,” and I answered, “Oh, four years.” I said, “I don’t know anybody, I haven’t met anybody.” I was desperate so I thought I’d play with it. They kept insisting, but I kept saying I didn’t know anybody, I had no friends. I stuck with it. They said, “Well, you’re not going anywhere until this is taken care of.” Next thing I know, I’m walking out of that fucking place. All those guys out back were getting on the fucking buses and I felt like I had just been let out of jail. It’s affecting me again even right now just thinking about it. (George starts to tear up)

I went down to a funky little diner somewhere in downtown L.A. I couldn’t talk to my friends. I couldn’t call anybody. I’ll never forget what happened. I ordered the chicken salad sandwich with a glass of milk and I savored every bite and sip and then I called my friend. I said, “Come and get me out of here.” I couldn’t believe it.

Within two months I received a letter from the army and it said:
Dear Mr. Laye,
Your records have been misplaced. Please call the selective service.
I put it right in the fucking fireplace. That’s the last I ever heard from them.

I knew I had to take care of that warrant. They said I had to take care of the warrant and they’d talk to me and re-do my physical, but I felt a tremendous sense of success. If I had made that phone call I could have been on one of those buses. I might have very well have ended up in Vietnam. The amazing thing was it was all about this warrant. Hitchhiking got me out of the fucking army. The only bad thing was I should have written a song about it.

I didn’t call my family. I had a very close and wonderful relationship with my family, but they were of another school of thought. They wouldn’t have understood it. They might have looked at me as a draft dodger. They wanted me out on a college deferment, and they didn’t want me going to war. They weren’t well read enough to really understand what was going on over there. They just didn’t want their son going off to die in a war. They knew it wasn’t World War II. I kept thinking that if it was I would have joined. I probably would have gone just like my dad did.

When I saw those men getting on those buses I knew that if I hadn’t gotten off on the warrant I would have had to have another alternative. I wasn’t going. I had thought about Canada or jail. We were all talking about it. Jesus, I didn’t want to go to jail and I really didn’t have any idea to go to Canada. The next part in my head towards the end of the day of the physical, before the warrant thing happened, was something the counselors had told us about boot camp. It was about being really clumsy once you got there, so my next step, had I needed to take it, was I was going to have to fuck up there. I had nothing else left. I didn’t know there was going to be a warrant question and it was just the grace of god and the part of my mind that allowed me to think of how to handle that circumstance. It was desperation at that point. That was the last deal.

The truth is it was one of the milestones of my life and it’s still with me. It actually feels like it was yesterday when I think about it. I’m choked up talking about it and I can still see those buses there. I can’t find words for it. It was amazing and it had a big impact on my life. For years I was always looking over my shoulder, waiting for them to come after me. I was always waiting for the next letter. I kept thinking, “It’s the army. They’re going to find me.” I didn’t feel free at all when I was burning that letter. It was just, “Fuck you. This is my next move. You’ve had yours, now this is mine. You’ve lost the shit and it’s just unbelievable. I hope you really lost it,” is what I thought. It was a long time – many years before I stopped worrying. I didn’t walk around paranoid all the time, but I wondered whether there was a statue of limitations or if they were going to catch up with me and say, “You did this and your ass is going to jail. You can’t do this to the United States.” There were still more years of the war. It was always in the back of my head. I got married. I moved back east, but it was always with me.

These fears did not stop me from doing anything I really wanted to do. I had reservations about going oversees, about getting a passport, but it didn’t really affect my life at all. My mom went to Yugoslavia one time when I was living in California and asked me if I wanted to go and I said I didn’t because I didn’t want to stir anything up. That was about it in that respect.

There’s still the sense of relief. I had no regrets about not getting drafted. I didn’t believe in the war in Vietnam. I don’t believe in the war in Iraq and I probably would do the same thing again if I was that age now and there was another draft. Again, if it was World War II, I probably would have joined. It’s that simple.

As for Arlo (Guthrie), he doesn’t really know about my story. He knows some of it, but I haven’t shared it all with him. I will tell him now though, because I don’t think he even knows how closely it parallels his. I really haven’t shared all of it with hardly anyone though. I told it to my wife. Sharing it now makes me wonder what has kept me from telling Arlo and others and I don’t know why I haven’t chosen to. Maybe there’s something inside me that was protecting me from being caught. It feels good to talk about it though and now I look forward to sharing it this weekend when Arlo and the family gather for the Christmas holiday.

I really didn’t think about this at the time, but I am also now aware that someone else went in my shoes. I got out this way and they went. That seems kind of selfish now that I think of it. But I know I’d do the same thing if it was happening again now. I wouldn’t go to Iraq. Self-preservation is a huge thing.

The fact was I was so against the war; I probably could have tried for a CO. If I had some more time and counseling I probably could have made some pretty intelligent decisions, but the way I’d lived my life to that point there was no time. To have heard some people talk back then about how we needed to be in Vietnam and we needed to fight this war, I didn’t understand why we needed to be there. I just didn’t get it. I was going to submit because of patriotism? No way. I was as patriotic as anyone. I loved the country, but fuck them, I didn’t care how I got out as long as I could avoid fighting in that horrible mistake of a war. I would have gotten out on the hearing test. I would play dirty with them. I was fine with it. I got out on a stupid technicality and they lost my files, but the truth is I knew there were a lot of guys who got out on college deferments. They just went to college forever.