III. Patton’s Day
Patton’s death march to the shooting chamber was interrupted when Dolan happened to look over and see us standing by the incinerator. He had no desire to speak to us—that much was clear. After debating it internally, he detoured in our direction with heavy steps, as if unwillingly snared in our tractor beam.
The three of us turned our attention to Patton. There was an unspoken consensus that the goat was the one subject we could discuss neutrally. Patton’s crimped winter wool had been shaved recently. His pink unanchored skin slid down on both sides, gathering in silken heather folds under its belly.
Compared to my goat, Balls, with whom I had a love-hate relationship, Patton was almost like a house pet. In fact without his wool he looked like a large hairless cat with hooves. As for the shearing job, Dolan did a lousy job. Glistening red scabs covered Patton’s body like a handful of rubies tossed on a pale shag rug.
The most impressive feature of the shearing was that it revealed a thick jugular vein. Without the wool, the vein stood out in pronounced detail. Dolan walked his index and middle fingers along the length of the jugular, gently depressing the vein with his fingertips; after each step, the blood rushed back with enormous vigor. I had the image of a tiny man strolling atop an aqueduct.
“That’s where I’ll stick him,” Dolan said, tapping the vein. “If I can’t hit that pipe with a 14 gauge needle, then I don’t deserve to be a medic.”
Sergeant Madura squinted at Patton, as if the goat was standing on the surface of the sun. Madura had very little stomach for goat killing. He slipped his hands into his pockets and fished around as if looking for something, and then withdrew them empty-handed. He looked down at his hands as if surprised they didn’t hold something, some talisman or good luck piece that he could use to stem his growing distress.
We watched Patton sniff the pale grass that poked through the concrete, nibbling only the sweetest tidbits and leaving the straw colored blades untouched. His red plastic ear tag, #67, scraped along the concrete walkway as he moved his head.
“Well, it’s almost over,” Dolan said. “A year and a half of training and it comes down to today. I’ll be glad to leave this shithole behind.”
I reached down to scratch Patton behind the ears.
“How’s the sacrificial goat doing today?” I cooed. Patton leaned up against me, enjoying the attention. “How’s he doing?”
Dolan yanked Patton out of my reach. Without skipping a beat, the goat resumed nibbling the grass. An instructor stuck his head out of the shooting chamber and impatiently waved to Dolan.
Miles away, near the sprawling airbase on the far side of Fort Bragg, the air raid siren blew its daily test sequence. Three short blasts that drained the atmosphere of optimism. Dolan stuck his boot between Patton’s mouth and the sweet grass.
“Ask not for whom the bell tolls, Patton. It tolls for thee. Now come on!”
This time Dolan picked up Patton and carried him to the shooting chamber. Dolan kept his back straight. I was teary eyed, as if he were boarding a ship bound for the opposite side of the earth. Dolan handed the goat to the instructor, who unceremoniously grabbed Patton and took him inside. Dolan crossed the courtyard to the O.R. without looking up.
“Good luck, Dolan!” Madura shouted, then in a low voice, “I don’t have a good feeling about this.”
A sudden, irrational loathing for Madura overtook me. Three days of working the incinerator with Madura, I’d grown sick of his constant angst. I envisioned beating him on the concrete but he’d probably talk the entire time.
You know, Igoe, I don’t have a good feeling about this. I really don’t.
“Did you hear me?” Madura asked. “I said, I don’t have a good feeling about this.”
“Shut your hole,” I said.
Madura looked unhappy. I took the opportunity to increase his pain.
“The last good feeling you had was the day you learned to jack off.”
“I don’t jack off!”
“Everyone jacks off, Madura. You jack off. Your mom and dad jack off. Even your Grandma jacks off. She’s probably jacking off right now.”
I walked to the picnic table and sat down with my back to him. I could feel him staring at me. Madura wouldn’t do anything. He was too conflicted.
“My grandma doesn’t jack off,” he mumbled. “Asshole.”
Yes she does, I thought. I didn’t say it, though, because the argument was already out of steam. If you’re angry, don’t bother beating up on Madura. It doesn’t do any good. He’s the kind of guy that would let you beat him up if he thought it would do you some good. He’d enjoy it, actually. To him, getting beat up was like a trust-building exercise. Like closing your eyes and falling backward and trusting the person standing behind you will catch you by the armpits before you fall on your keester. Besides, I didn’t join the Army to listen to Madura talk about who does and does not masturbate.
A few minutes passed before the rifle sounded, and then again and again. The booms echoed through the shooting chamber and washed over us like three terrible waves crashing to beach.
For the eleventh time in 72 hours, the stretcher team, four men in all, sprinted around the corner, this time with Patton on the stretcher. Madura and I jumped to our feet, trying to get a glimpse as the goat passed by. Patton’s head was tucked under its forearm, like a duck’s head under a wing. The O.R. shut and we were left outside alone again.
Madura continued to face the shut door as if he were sniffing the wind for signs of snow. The morning started off misty and almost humid, but now the wind picked up, dropping the temperature. I hugged the incinerator to stay warm. The November cold was settling in like an unwelcome house guest.
“What are you doing?” I asked. I turned around so my ass could benefit from the warmth of the oven.
“Did Patton have a hole in his head?”
Madura’s tone was rhetorical. He tilted his head to the left until his ear was nearly touching his shoulder, almost the way Patton’s head had been tucked under. He tapped a spot behind his ear. “Right here. A red hole.”
“I didn’t see anything.”
“I saw a red hole right behind his ear.” Again Madura tapped his skull. “Right here. A small red whole and a dark stain.”
“It couldn’t have been. What you saw, Madura, was a shoulder wound that leaked blood onto Patton’s ear. That would explain it. A shoulder wound is common. If Dolan patches the wound and throws in a chest tube in case the bullet nicked a lung, he’ll be fine.”
Madura wasn’t listening to me.
“How’s Dolan going to treat a goat with a hole in the head?” Madura asked. If anyone had walked up in that moment, they’d have thought by the look on Madura’s face he’d just let the hand slip of a man who’d stumbled over a cliff.
“Is that goat even alive?”
I started to say something but shouting erupted from the O.R. Metal crashed and clattered across the floor and then the door to the courtyard erupted and a scrum of white and blue gowns spilled outside. Students and instructors covered in goat blood fell on the ground and got up and fell down again screaming and pushing and pointing fingers at each other.
Dolan was on one side of the fight and Roberts was on the other. A fellow student dangled from each of Dolan’s arms. His face was contorted, furious. Roberts looked somewhat less enthusiastic; he allowed himself to be pinned to the wall by two instructors. He continued to curse Dolan loudly, though he had a confused look, as if he hadn’t planned for such commotion.
Dolan dropped his arms, panting. His restrainers, sensing the end of the battle, lowered their guard. Instantly Dolan dropped his head and violently rammed through their cordon, popping up right in front of Roberts. Roberts lifted an arm to cover his face but Dolan landed a clumsy blow on Roberts’ temple. A dozen instructors dragged him to the ground.
Someone produced a pair of plastic zip-ties and after a brief struggle, Dolan was lying on his belly with his wrists bound behind him. He was still screaming.
“You can’t fail me. Patton was D.O.A. You killed my goat! You killed my goat!”
“You’re outta here!” Roberts screamed back. He’d made his way next to Dolan, holding his ear tenderly, which was blossoming like a red rose on the side of his head. Roberts pulled his foot back to put a boot in Dolan’s ribs. A quick witted instructor saw it coming and pulled him out of kicking range.
“You’re outta here! You’re outta here!” he repeated unrelentingly.
“You’re outta here!”
“He was D.O.A!”
“You’re outta here!”
“He was D.O.A!”
Dolan was brusquely hauled to his feet and prodded toward the main offices. He immediately stopped resisting. His chest was heaving but he lifted his head high. “I’m okay now,” he said. “I swear I won’t do anything.” He was true to his word. They let him go and he walked directly to the First Sergeant’s office and waited outside with two instructors on either side of him. Dolan looked very dignified, like a defeated young general who’d come to negotiate terms of surrender.
The First Sergeant appeared at the door. He hadn’t heard the commotion and appeared startled by the crowd that had gathered. Dolan remained silent while one of the instructors described the situation. He wasn’t ten words into it when the shouting started again, this time back at the incinerator. “Everyone stay put!” the First Sergeant cried.
No one listened. We sprinted back to the incinerator. There was Madura gripping the huge steel hinges on either side of the door, blocking Roberts, who was standing with a dead Patton in his arms, a black trash bag hastily thrown over the goat’s head. Blood soaked Robert’s sleeves up to his armpits.
“Open that incinerator, Sergeant!” he screamed. “That’s a direct order! Do you want to get kicked out like Dolan? Do you want to fail? If that door isn’t wide open in three seconds you’re outta here! You hear me, you’re outta here!”
Roberts dumped the goat on the ground and roared, grabbing hold of Madura by the shoulders and prying him backward. Madura didn’t budge. Physically, he was on the average side, one of those smart guys we referred to as being “in his head,” but he fiercely and tenaciously hung on as if the incinerator was a life preserver and he’d been cast into a violent, unknown ocean.
“I can’t let you burn that goat, Sergeant. I can’t let you burn it. That goat is evidence. The goat is evidence!”
Roberts looked around in desperation. His window of opportunity was closing fast. We were gathered around now, muttering. Even some of the instructors were looking on with disapproval. Roberts gave a last mighty yank at Madura and the two men fell to the ground. By the time they’d regained their feet, the First Sergeant had shoved his way to the front of the crowd.
“Stand down, goddamnit it! Stand down!”
Roberts let go of Madura reluctantly. Madura flopped down on the picnic table, his chest heaving. Roberts hovered over him, pointing an accusing finger down at Madura.
“This soldier disobeyed a direct order, First Sergeant. I ordered him to open the incinerator and he refused.”
The First Sergeant stared coldly at Roberts. Roberts opened his mouth to try again but reconsidered. He took a step backward and folded his arms.
“Get up,” the First Sergeant ordered Madura.
Madura stood up.
“Why did you disobey Sergeant Roberts?”
“The goat. Patton. Was D.O.A., First Sergeant. They shot him in the head. By accident, I’m sure.”
The First Sergeant turned to Roberts.
“Take the bag off the goat’s head. Now, Roberts!”
Roberts pulled the bag off Patton. The back of the goat’s skull was missing where the bullet hit. The First Sergeant put his finger in Patton’s skull and twirled it around. When he pulled it out, a bit of brain clung to his finger. He wiped it off on his pant leg. A collective gasp went up from the students.
“This patient was shot in the head accidently. It arrived in the operating room D.O.A.,” the First Sergeant said. “Record that in the logs. Under the rules, the student will be assigned another patient and permitted to retake the test.”
The class cheered spontaneously, clapping Dolan on the back. The instructors, except for Roberts, appeared relieved. They didn’t mind Robert’s conspiring to shoot a goat in the head, but it was another thing entirely to be caught doing it. Already you could see them distancing themselves from Roberts.
The students took up a chant.
“Do over! Do over! Do over!”
Dolan wore his trademark smirk, saying nothing. Two instructors led him back to the First Sergeant’s office, his hands still bound behind his back.
The First Sergeant pointed to Madura.
“Incinerate that patient.”
The First Sergeant walked back to the offices. I opened the incinerator door. The caustic scent of blackened goats pushed out.
“I can’t do it,” Madura said. He was still shaking.
Danny the Handyman, who’d watched the uproar from the trees, silently offered his assistance. He grabbed Patton’s head and I grabbed the rear legs. We swung the corpse three times and let it fly. The body landed dead center of the oven. We watched the skin smoke and catch fire. Danny had something like disgust in his face. For once it wasn’t directed at us.
“They shouldn’t go wasting a good goat like that. Even if they don’t like the kid.” By kid he meant Dolan. “Even if the kid’s an asshole, it doesn’t give them the right to waste a goat.”
Late that afternoon, word came down that Dolan would be court-martialed for assaulting a non-commissioned officer.
“So they got him anyway,” Madura said. And then, because he couldn’t help himself, he added, “I had a bad feeling about Dolan.”
Dolan’s door was propped open so I walked in. He was lying on his bunk with his boots on, his arms folded behind his back, and his eyes closed. If one had to guess his age in that moment, it would have been difficult. Though he looked his 23 years, there was still something innocent about him that made him infinitely younger than me. It’s a quality that I now recognize as idealism.
I had to visit Dolan because he was confined to barracks. The rules permitted him to sign out for meals at the mess hall and, if he felt sick, to the clinic. Other than that, he couldn’t leave his room until the court-martial proceedings were finalized. A worn copy of The Brothers Karamazov was propped open like a lean-to on his chest, a slender orange highlighter clipped to the book cover. If he hadn’t been wearing camouflage, he might have been a college student, studying for an English exam.
“They got me,” he said without opening his eyes.
“Did you have to punch him?”
“You’d have done the same.”
“You’re probably right.”
Of course he wasn’t right. I wouldn’t have punched Roberts. Dolan knew I wasn’t the type of person to invest myself in a situation enough to fight for it.
“So what will you do? Go to college?”
“What’s wrong with college?”
“College is the place people go when they don’t know what to do with their lives. It’s where you will end up.”
“Are you kidding? I barely graduated high school. There’s no way I’m going to college. I’ll probably stay 20 years in the Army.”
Dolan stood up and put a hand on my shoulder, as if trying to get a point across to small child.
“The best thing you can do is get out of the Army ASAP.”
I waited to hear more, but he sat back down on the bunk and continued reading his book. I wasn’t sure if I’d just been insulted or given the best advice of my life. Either way, I decided the proper response was to leave.
The next morning we arrived at the compound to find the gates locked and four military police vehicles blocking the entrance. A crowd gathered at the far side of the classrooms, though we couldn’t make out any faces. The flashing blue and red ambulance lights echoed through the mist and darkness.
We clung to the chain link fence like prisoners in the exercise yard. The instructors were mulling about, smoking cigarettes and ignoring our shouts. Two paramedics slammed the rear doors on the ambulance and hopped inside. The sirens wept into the darkness. The instructors opened the gate for the ambulance and then quickly locked it again.
Wallace took off down the street after the slow-moving ambulance, running alongside and waving his hands until the paramedic riding shotgun rolled down his window.
“Hey, what the fuck?” Wallace yelled over the sirens.
“What the fuck?” The paramedic shouted back. “I’ll tell you what the fuck. They nearly beat this guy to death!”
But the paramedic rolled up the window and the old ambulance lumbered up the road. The traffic light at the K.F.C. was red and the ambulance ambled right on through it, in no particular hurry despite the situation, running the light slowly, as if after years of transporting injured soldiers, the ambulance itself had become indifferent to injury and pain.
Wallace sprinted back to the gate.
“You hear that? They beat someone to death!”
“Who else? They beat Dolan to death!”
Word spread like fire of Dolan’s death at the hands of the instructors. Pretty soon we were hanging off the gate and screaming obscenities. Still the instructors ignored us. Without the lights of the ambulance, the compound was once again shrouded in darkness and mist. The time was 0530. The winter sun wouldn’t rise for another hour or more.
“Wait a sec. Is that Tello?” someone said.
Tello walked out of the First Sergeant’s office and into the parking lot. He had early duty that morning, to prep the O.R. for testing. He wove his way through the parked cars and sat down on the lowest step of the classroom with his knees up around his elbows. The overhead floodlight showed him light a cigarette and look around. We waved our hands to get his attention, quietly, so the instructors wouldn’t hear. Tello continued to smoke, oblivious. So we threw pebbles and then stones and finally Stoney picked up a coke bottle and hurled it and the glass smashed 5 feet in front of Tello, who leapt to his feet in horror, as if a grenade had landed.
Somehow the instructors didn’t hear the smashed bottle, as they never budged from their clusterfuck by the office. Daniels squinted his eyes in our direction. After a moment, he tilted his head just so, to let us know he saw us. He finished his cigarette casually and even took time to strip off the final bit of tobacco between his thumb and forefinger. He tucked the butt into his breast pocket, looked around, and then quietly disappeared behind the far side of the classroom.
A minute later, he reemerged in the woods, just to the left of us and out of the instructor’s sight. Tello grinned and lit another cigarette.
“Hey, guys, what’s shaking?”
“You tell us! What’s going on in there?”
“You nearly killed me with that bottle, you realize. I nearly shit my pants as it is.”
“Knock it off, asshole. Did they kill Dolan?”
Tello looked at us contemptuously.
“Kill Dolan? Are you all that stupid?”
Tello paused to take a drag from his smoke, his eyes never leaving us for an instant. He was enjoying himself immensely. Tello always felt as if his qualities had been overlooked by the class in general and he was determined to make the most out of the moment.
“As you know,” he said, warming up. “I was the first person on duty morning. So I got up at 0330 and made some coffee. Then I stopped and picked up a half dozen raspberry jelly-filled. The ‘HOT’ sign was lit up and I couldn’t resist. I generally don’t stop there, but I had a sudden craving for raspberry.”
Schapp grabbed the fence in front of Tello’s face and shook it.
“I swear to God I’m going to punch your throat when I get a hold of you!” Schapp whispered.
“Easy, man! So I get here and the front gate is unlocked, which is odd. As you know, you have to buzz for the office and the instructor on night duty unlocks the gate. So I call out, ‘Hey, it’s me Tello! Anyone here?’ No one answers. So now I’m getting a little freaked out. I mean it’s nighttime in bumfuck North Carolina and who knows what kind of devil worship shit goes on out here. Then I hear some mousey sounds coming from the far side of the classroom. A kind of whimpering. I’m positive shit is going down so I grab a flashlight and a bone saw from the operating room, just in case.
“When I get back outside, the whimpering is louder. I walk around, looking for the source. As I get closer to the incinerator, the sound gets louder. Now I’m totally freaked out right, like thinking of all the goats who died in there and goat zombies and all kinds of crazy shit. So I throw open the incinerator door, my bone saw at the ready in case I have to cut a goat demon in half.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Schapp snaps, “what happened!”
“Who do I find lying inside, butt naked, tied up in duct tape, with the dear Jesus holy shit beat out of him is—”
Everyone went silent.
“Roberts?” I asked. “Don’t you mean Dolan?”
Tello shook his head. “You guys are morons? Don’t you get it? Roberts had C.Q. duty last night. Dolan slipped in, beat Roberts nearly to death, and stuck his ass in the incinerator!”
A clamor erupted. Everyone was shouting at once. Tello raised a hand for quiet.
“That’s not even the big news,” Tello yelled over the uproar.
We shut up instantly, all eyes on Tello, everyone leaning in to hear the finale.
“After the instructors arrived and Roberts was treated by the paramedics, something told me I should check on the goats. With the mist, it was impossible to see anything from a distance. The goat pen was strangely quiet. None of the goats were outside. I walked into the barn and switched on the light.
“There, in the middle of the floor, in a lake of blood, were the goats, their throats slit!”
A wail went up from the crowd. A round of pushing and shoving broke out. We shook the fence. We cursed. We had violence in our veins. Having finished his dark tale, Tello broke into a fit of mad laughter interspersed with a smoker’s cough. The scale of his outburst startled us. We stopped rioting to watch Tello doubled up on the ground, laughing and coughing until the wind got out of him. We helped him to his feet and brushed him off and he looked fine, if a bit dusty.
After the rush died down, I recall feeling like the apocalypse had arrived and it wasn’t quite as bad as we’d read about. Awful, true, and bizarre. But more of a firecracker than an inferno.