by Bill Pitts
Ches McCartney was called the goat man because he traveled around the country in a ramshackle, metal-wheeled wagon drawn by a team of goats; because he drank the milk of these goats; slept with the goats; looked somewhat like an old goat thanks to his thick beard and bushy hair; and by all accounts—this is one of the few uncontested facts of Ches’ life—smelled like a goat. He was a modern day satyr in more ways than one, to hear him tell it.
I never met the goat man. He gave up wandering a year or two before I was born. But my mother remembers when he would come to Cordele, and Bill, Warden Dub Goff’s son, does too. Much of Darryl Patton’s book America’s Goat Man (Mr. Ches McCartney) is made up of letters from people all over South who recall him passing through their towns, if never Atlanta or Savannah. Ches targeted an Arcadian audience. City slickers wouldn’t get it.
He came down Highway 41. Eight or nine big billies drew the wagons, a large one up front with four iron wheels and a trailer hooked behind with two. A bunch of nanny goats followed on a rope, along with a few more billies, which he had trained to push from behind when he was going up into the Smoky Mountain wilds. The goats acted as brakes too, digging in their hooves, holding him back when he started rolling downhill too fast. A family of Pans, they worked toward a common goal of wandering.
Yet more goats rode up on the wagons with Ches. The ones too old to walk curled up on piles of croaker sacks tucked amongst the junk—scrap iron, beat up garbage cans, lanterns, hub caps, hay bails, license plates, feed bags, buckets, old tires and lost recaps, the horns of deceased goats. Up front a big American flag flapped in the wind, and here and there a sign stuck out of the chaos: JESUS WEPT; PEPSI. It was a wonder all of it didn’t fall in an avalanche. The precarious piles defied gravity. No true gypsy caravan or California-bound Okie jalopy could have been half so messy. The goat man’s rig was something out of a Terry Gilliam film, a post-apocalyptic wasteland where only battered remnants of an ordered society—the human species itself—remained, which was the point: fantasy was Ches McCartney’s business.
Kid goats rode in the wagon too. They leapt up the moving mountains of junk, baahing from the peak of rusted barrel, the crag of bent-up corrugated iron. A Persian cat dozed in an upside-down Homburg, while various rodents scurried around it. Some were trick mice Ches sold, along with automatic needle-threaders and other gadgets. Others were just rats that had made the wagons their home. Up on the makeshift box sat Ches, god of this mobile, half-feral animal kingdom.
He wore an old railroad cap, a pair of Wellingtons, and overalls reeking of goats, though sometimes he went all out, tied goatskins to his body with ropes, completed the outfit with a furry conical hat, like Robinson Crusoe, who was Ches’ inspiration. He always kept a copy of that novel somewhere in the wagons, along with the Bible, despite its derogatory references to goats. The Son of Man segregated the goats from the sheep, made the goats sit on his left side while the sheep got the right, sent the sheep to heaven while the goats were cast down into hell, all without justification. A goat was a Christian animal so far as Ches could see. It would give you food when you were hungry, milk when you were thirsty, the aforementioned clothes when you were naked, companionship, transportation. But Ches took no offense. The Apostle Mathew just made an unfortunate allegory.
The wagons moved along at about two miles an hour. The traffic backed up behind him all the way into Cordele. So many travelers followed the faun, most unwillingly. Ches kept his rig on the shoulder whenever he could. The gawkers were the trouble. The people who’d never seen him before, tourists on their way to Florida, couldn’t help slowing down out of curiosity. And those who knew him wanted to say hello.
“It’s the goat man!” they yelled out the windows.
“Welcome back, Mr. Goat Man!”
Stewart McGlary, the cross-eyed state patrolman, served as escort, turned on his red flashing light. Lots of the troopers complained about the way the goat man snarled up traffic, but not Stewart. He took pleasure in the way everybody had to slow down, look, wonder, question, What the . . . ? Idling along behind the nannies, Stewart kept his arm out the window, describing a circle until it seemed more than a mere signal to come on around, but a mysterious symbol, a mudra. Still people were pulling over everywhere to take pictures. The goat man would let them, for a dollar. He had to keep his goats fed. That was another sign propped up amongst the junk: Pictures for $1 Tip for Goat Feed Please. There were arguments over that dollar in the middle of the traffic jam. The strange image in the viewfinder seemed a revelation of the photographer’s own hidden desire, something that already belonged to him.
The goat man pulled off at the Cedar Creek Bridge, his favorite camping spot in the area. It wasn’t the river—he still had miles and days before he reached the Flint—but a muddy, slow-moving tributary. He found no reeds growing along the banks, but plenty of elderberry. He hacked down a branch, trimmed off the leaves, tossed them to the goats—had to keep the goats fed—pushed out the pith, notched some holes. He took the cyanide-laced wood between his lips and blew. My mother remembers seeing him playing such a flute a few years later, though she couldn’t hear anything but Honey, please, please, please, please on somebody’s AM radio. James Brown’s Live at the Apollo was a huge album in Georgia. There was no competing. The Godfather of Soul would skin him alive. Ches put his pipe away.
Nearly a dozen cars had pulled up so far, but Ches knew how to bring in more. He selected from his piles of junk a blown out tire he’d found earlier that day, threw it on the ground, doused it with gasoline, and set it on fire.
“Keeps the skeeters away,” he explained while everybody fanned the poisonous fumes. Seeing the black smoke rising, people on the highway thought there must have been a nasty wreck and pulled off, found instead a gathering before the grotto-like opening beneath the bridge, a congregation around a rubber cauldron of flames.
The goat man began his act by rolling up his sleeve, revealing a deformed arm. A tree had fallen on him while he was sawing timber for the WPA during the Great Depression. Thinking he was a goner, the men carried him to the undertaker, who was about to stick an embalming needle in him when he woke up. The great god Pan is dead and probably never lived in the first place, but Ches resurrected him at every stop.
The audience murmured.
“I heard he and his goats got run down by a truck out in Texas somewhere.”
“Well, there he is in the flesh.”
When Ches was just fourteen years old he ran away from his Iowa home to New York City, sold newspapers on the corner. Like a young Marsyas in Rome, he shouted truth, or the version presented by the Daily News. He fell in love with “a beautiful Castilian maiden.” She had a knife-throwing act. He helped out, selling tickets and serving as her target. He stood spread-eagle against the boards while she hurled blade after blade, outlining his form with quivering handles. But in the end the Spaniard left him (after teaching him a thing or two about show business). She could take life on the road no longer. He had re-married twice since then, and both wives had run off with other men.
That was the version he told at the Cedar Creek Bridge. On past migrations he said his wife had died, but audience reaction had been lukewarm. He tried claiming to have sold her to a farmer, but that seemed a bit much. Ches had learned to give them what they wanted, the usual fantasy, same one the TV gives us today: nymphs running off with whatever man pleases them at the moment.
“These goats have taken me a hundred thousand miles!” he yelled.
It was always a hundred thousand miles: ten years before, in 1947, he had claimed a hundred thousand miles, and now, after a decade of traveling, he said it again: a hundred thousand miles. Even by 1966 he would keep the number the same. Towards the end though—‘68, ’69—he realized his odometer was stuck and made up the difference by upping the distance to an even three hundred thousand.
“We’ve gone to every state in the nation except Hawaii,” he went on. “We’d go there too if I weren’t afraid my billy goats would eat the grass skirts off those hula girls.”
Ches presented his billies as fellow satyrs and himself as the greatest ladies man of the bunch. He said twenty-five different women had asked him to marry just last year. The proposals were like the hundred thousand miles: every year he came to the Cedar Creek Bridge, he’d gotten twenty-five proposals the previous. And after the crowds broke up and the last hangers-on went home—lonely men could stay until the wee hours—a Southern belle Iselin may have risen up from his herd and drawled in his ear what might be construed as a desire to wed. Afterwards she melted into the tire smoke like a witch in a Goya painting, her face a hellish smear.
Ches shifted to a somber tone, showed off goats with only three legs, goats with only back legs, goats that looked a little too much like him—as though they were becoming human just as he was turning goat, all striving to meet each other at some halfway point.
Ches spoke of goats run down by cars, goats stabbed in the night, goats doused with lighter fluid and burned alive. Hooligans did it, punks. While feigning the wildest freedoms, they strove for an order that left no place for him and his kind.
Ches took out a quart mason jar, held it up so everybody could see how filthy it was. The glass was nearly opaque it was so greasy. He squatted by a nanny and filled the jar half way with milk. He went around the circle, offering a drink to anybody who wanted it.
“Nothing better for you than goat milk,” he assured them. “Just look at me. I haven’t been sick in thirty years. I drink goat milk every day.”
This was as close as he could come to bacchanalia, Crisp County being dry, Fat Boy Magnum the Sherriff’s deputy standing in the audience, not to mention the ladies. In South Georgia of the fifties, men and women generally parted company before taking snorts, came back to face each other buzzed.
When no one accepted the goat milk (no one ever did), Ches guzzled it down.
If it was Sunday, he would give a sermon. He was an ordained minister, or he said he was. He could marry you or bury you, though he does not seem to have ever done either to anyone. He had a fire-and-brimstone style so wild it inspired Flannery O’Connor, who caught his act at Milledgeville. He looked devilish even by Southern country preacher standards. He had long curved fingernails and lots of rings, each set with a dull stone. He reached up to grab the invisible hand of God to keep from falling into hell. With him resembling a goat so much, it was easy to imagine cloven hooves in the Wellingtons, a pointed tail wound up the seat of the overalls, a pair of horns buried in the wooly hair. Ruby, J.L. Blackman’s cook, said Ches had Satan’s eyes, same as a goat: all iris, no white, and rectangular pupils that made his expression seem both evil and amused, familiar yet alien, all-knowing but stupid. Ruby didn’t want anything to do with the goat man. Soon as she saw the wagons coming around the curve, heard the bahs and clangs, caught that unmistakable smell, she rounded up her children and made them go into the house. “But mamma,” they cried, “I want to see the goat man!” She shushed them, grabbed their hands, made them bow their heads, and repeat after her, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”
But this was Saturday, so Ches, unlike Ruby, didn’t do any preaching. He sold postcards with pictures of his goats, his wagons, and himself. He would strike a pose in the photos, squinting up at the sky, getting the finer details of God’s guidance right. He also sold pamphlets and booklets, which told his story (the Spanish knife thrower, his resurrection on the embalming table), and even his politics. Ches would make a run for president in 1960. Lillian Goff, the warden’s widow, tells me she remembers watching Douglas Edwards announcing election results on the CBS Evening News. Kennedy was barely ahead with Nixon catching up fast and—he paused, glanced to co-anchor Walter Cronkite, then back at the paper to make sure he’d read it right.
“And we have one write-in vote for the goat man of Georgia.”
He gave out Cracker Jack type toys to the children, let the billies butt him for laughs. The McGayhee kids, who lived on the other side of the country prison farm, came running, as did the sons and daughters of L.L. Blackman’s farm hands. Even one of Ruby’s managed to escape the sanctuary of the shotgun shack, dart across Highway 41 to see the man his mother thought was the Devil. A Yankee tourist couple led up their twelve-year-old girl, who dutifully observed yet another roadside attraction, filing the spectacle away in her mind with Casper’s Ostrich and Alligator Farm and the Beautiful Atomic Tunnel (home of “Happy” the walking fish), wondering over this repeated emphasis on the anthropomorphic theme. Why did they want her to consider again and again these beings who were neither quite animal nor human?
Bill Goff, then eight years old, was there, along with his daddy, the Warden Dub Goff. The Cedar Creek Bridge was at the northern corner of the prison farm where Dub and his family lived in a small house, built by inmate labor, just a stone’s throw from the main barrack.
When the crowd began to break up, the warden approached the goat man, asked him if he’d care for a meal in the guards’ quarters, a shower, a bed in one of the isolation cells. He wasn’t trying to keep things presentable. Nobody cared if the goat man slept under the bridge. He offered out of Christian charity—Dub was a Deacon at the First Baptist Church in Cordele, a Knight’s Templar too—and also because helping out the goat man was something people tried to do. It was supposed to be good luck. Take him in and everything you touch might turn gold, or at least not turn out quite so bad. It was not the first time Dub had invited him. Cedar Creek Bridge was Ches’ favorite camping spot mainly because he didn’t have to camp there.
Ches pulled around to the prison farm’s entrance, went under the arched neon CRISP COUNTY sign glowing in the dusk, and parked his medieval-looking rig in front of the modern building of concrete and steel. He left his goats to graze the pecan orchard, kept neat and park-like by the inmates. The white-painted trunks stood out in the darkness like the pillars of an endless ruin.
As they entered the lighted area around the barrack, an inmate who went by the nickname T-Model spotted them. Like a lot of black men, he had been sentenced to six months hard labor for nothing. He’d siphoned some gas, hoping to go out joyriding with a friend who somehow got a car, wound up swinging a bush hook on the roadside instead. He was eighteen.
“It’s the man with the goats!” he yelled.
From one end of the barrack to the other—black side, white side, guards’ quarters—men called out. There was big Albert Middlebrooks, lead man on the bull gang, who’d gotten locked up for killing a man in a fight. There was Acock, the mild-mannered barber who’d cut the throat of his wife’s alleged lover. There was Radford, the well-to-do South Carolinian doing time for bayonetting a man supposedly trying to rape his sister, and Willie Henry, who’d shot somebody in a card game. They must have seen something of themselves in the goat man. He, too, had taken freedom beyond the bounds of natural law, become a roadside lesson to society. Keep yourself in check. Don’t go too far. This could happen to you.
Dub led Ches into the dining area, cool with polished green tiles and big industrial fans drawing a current of air. A Geechee prisoner-cook with the ominous nickname of “Hack Man” greeted the guest with his Jamaican-sounding accent—“Belcome, Goht Mon”—served sweet potatoes and butterbeans hot with black pepper, fat back and greens, cat head biscuits with butter and cane syrup, side meat, coffee, peach cobbler from a secret stash. The clichés about prison food were not true of all Southern work camps, and the better-run ones like Crisp really operated almost as peculiar restaurants. At dinnertime patrolmen, sheriff’s deputies, county commissioners, state representatives, local doctors, lawyers and judges would all show up to eat with the prisoners. Grown right there on the farm, the food was good and free, so long as you didn’t count the loyalty eating it incurred. Were riots to break out, Dub would have half the law enforcement in rural Georgia on his side, officials at every level ready to spin things in his favor. In a culture where nearly every sensual pleasure except eating is crushed, the quickest way to a man’s heart really is his stomach. Dub, politician to a fault, understood this.
It’s possible he expected something in return from the goat man, too.
Ches suspected as much. As soon as Hack Man topped off their coffee and turned in, he braced himself for whatever it was Dub was about to say. He had learned that when a man contrived to be alone with him after the show, it was because he had something on his mind, something he couldn’t tell anybody else. At nearly every stop he encountered a quiet desperation somehow articulated in his presence. They sat up by the tire fire with him, telling him their insecurities, desires, regrets, and terrors. He saw so much suffering he wondered if it was better never to be born. They asked him for advice or absolution. This half-goat augur might even predict their futures.
Most people who knew Dub would assure me that he didn’t share anything too personal with the goat man. Lillian says Dub didn’t bring home his problems. He didn’t want to worry her. Bill claims he never saw his father second guess himself in an open way. Former inmates of the prison I’ve talked with have nothing but good things to say about him. He was tough, they assure me. You didn’t want to cross him. But he was fair.
“Straight up and down,” Willie Henry describes him.
Straight up and down: an ideal, in South Georgia of the fifties, and here and now, too, though we aren’t always so up front about it. We prefer to let men flounder around and guess.
Would Dub have maintained this ideal even for the goat man?
Nobody knows what was said or not, but I like to think Dub kept Ches up half the night talking. I imagine the goat man listening with the gravest expression, nodding even when he doesn’t understand, stroking his beard, a wise old Silenus. The call for lights out has come and gone. The prison has fallen quiet. There is no sound now but the night man making his rounds, the frogs yapping down in Cedar Creek, a murmured confession of sins or fears. There would have been both for a man in Dub’s position. When he has said all he can, Ches pauses, tells him what he always tells them. It’s like the hundred thousand miles, the twenty five proposals. He uses the same words stop after stop, year after year. But they are enigmatic enough to bear the repetition, and in some ways they are even true.
Truth was Ches’ business, too.
“Cap’n,” he says, “all of us are goats. We just don’t know it.”
But Ches knew, and it allowed him to see all that is human.