The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue

A Pack of Damn Lies

II. Fuckin’ Goats

The day of the trauma test we gathered in the parking lot before dawn and ruffled through our medical bags under the glow of street lamps. Whatever we wanted for our test—bandages, IV bags, stethoscope, syringes—we had to bring with us. Low voices moved through the darkness from one set of gear to the next.

This is the goat herd that woke me up every morning with their bells and their funny goat noises. I grew quite attached to them during my 10 days on Ithaki.

“Have you got a spare chest tube?”

“I’m short 16-gauge needles.”

“How are you on two-inch tape? I’m down to the cardboard.”

The parking lot was empty except for our class and a handful of five-ton trucks, engines idling. At 04:00 we loaded our gear onto the trucks and sat down on the wood paneled benches. For three hours the convoy rumbled through the pale blue hills of East Texas until stopping in a forest of sparse oak trees. Word came down to set up camp in the straw grass meadow and wait further orders. By nightfall no orders came, so we went to bed.

I was so high-strung I stayed awake cataloguing night sounds: birds; snores; an odd cicada song that went de de de de de de de; a nylon sleeping bag scraping on twigs; someone taking a leak in the meadow, which sounded like a garden house hitting pavement.

When I finally did sleep I dreamt that I failed the trauma test and the Army sent me back to my old unit—naked, of course. The central theme of the dream was me reaching down to cover my privates so the First Sergeant wouldn’t notice and call me out for not wearing the proper uniform.

 “This is a just a dream,” I kept reminding myself. And a subpar one at that. My subconscious had thrown me into a different embarrassing situation every night for most of my life. But lately it was falling back on the “naked in public” motif, thus diluting the effect. Despite it all, I awoke completely refreshed.

We didn’t have to break camp or be anywhere in particular. I lay on top of my sleeping bag and dozed for hours. The cool morning air and smell of campfires had a calming effect on me. Later that morning, Denton, the instructor, called my name and my heart rate barely budged. I trotted across the road with my gear and took a knee beside a pond with a gauzy film of green scum and poking through the water was the head of an enormous brown bullfrog who eyeballed me with heavy lids. It was a good sign, I thought.

My thumb was hooked around my rifle sling and the other hand gripped the medical bag. My mind was surprisingly clear, as if I were preparing to take a dip in that pond. I don’t recall a shot firing, or anyone screaming medic. One moment I was kneeling beside the pond and the bullfrog and all was at peace in the universe and the next and I was up and running, very smoothly, hopping over a fallen log, breaking through the brush until my patient appeared, lying on the incline of a gully, his feet on higher ground than his head.

He moaned in imaginary pain. Beside him Denton sat cross-legged on a boulder, a clipboard on his lap. I went to work on the patient.

“What are you smiling at, Igoe?” Denton barked. I kept working. It was no use to wipe that smile off my face. I knew it was there for the duration of the test, because it was the same smile I experienced in grade school on the rare occasion that I knew all the answers to a test. The same smile I got after being dealt three aces and two kings in a poker game. It’s a kind of smile that hurts you on one hand, but props you up on the other.

Ten minutes passed and my patient was trussed up and ready for transport. Fake blood soaked my knees, white medical wrappers clung by static electricity to the backs of my hands and forearms, small stones embedded in my knees. Denton poked and prodded the patient, pulling my IV lines to make sure they were secure. He shrugged and made some notes.

“He’ll live,” he said, not bothering to look up at me.

I’ll never forget those words. Such magnificent words for a medic to hear: He’ll Live!

When I returned to the barracks, there was a message from Dolan waiting for me. I hadn’t spoken with him since he moved to Fort Bragg and kept only imprecise tabs on his progress, mostly through the rumor mill. He was still the best medic in class, but he was making enemies with the cadre, mostly for contradicting them. Being right all the time made life difficult for him—if he’d been a bit more humble, things might have gone smoother.

I was irritated at myself for the rush of pleasure I experienced when I learned Dolan called me. Frankly, as much as I liked him, he couldn’t help but to make me feel inferior.

“Did you call to check on me?” I said when he picked up the phone. “Well, I passed!”

“What are you talking about?” Dolan asked, agitated. “What did you pass?”

“I passed the trauma test. Jesus Christ, Dolan. Remember trauma? The test that I failed and Denton kicked me out of your class and recycled me into the class behind you? Certainly you remember the trauma test.”

“The trau-ma test,” he said slowly, as if reaching into the fog to grab something solid. He recovered himself quickly. “Well, good for you, Igoe. Of course I knew that if you followed my advice, you couldn’t help but pass. It’s pretty elementary, the trauma test, compared to the final exam over here.”

“Thanks a lot!”

“You’re welcome,” he said without a hint of irony. “Look, I’m in trouble and I’m calling everyone I know to get my side of the story out. It happened Monday on the way to class.”

Dolan went on to tell me the story, much of which I confirmed later from various sources. He was driving west on Gruber Road, about to take a left at the KFC, when right in front of his nose two vehicles collided head on. It was a real smash-up by the sound of it. Tires screeching, glass flying, people screaming. Dolan grabbed his medical bag and sprinted to the scene. Head injuries, broken clavicle protruding through the skin, blood loss.

From all reports, Dolan did beautifully.

A man who would have died, lived. Another woman who would have lost her arm ended up only losing a couple of fingers. All in all a success, according to Dolan. “I just finished saving everyone when a cadre pulled up. An idiot named Roberts, who runs the operating room here. Thinks he’s Jesus H. Christ on a popsicle stick. He’s one of the guys who’s never said an interesting word in his life. If you mentioned Sylvia Plath to him he’d think she was a porn star. And that morning he was hung over—I could smell the booze on his breath. He flipped out when he saw me handling the triage. Roberts thought he was the only person alive qualified to do the job. So he starts running around like a babbling idiot, screaming at people and making a general fool of himself.

“The ambulance showed up right as Roberts turned on me, telling me I’d fucked it all up and I should have done this or that. After a minute of checking out the patients, the paramedics got tired of listening to Roberts and they turned on him. It was a beautiful sight, Igoe. I wish you could have been there. They told Roberts I’d done everything by the book. They said they couldn’t have done any better and that I was a hero. Just by chance a reporter from the Fort Bragg newspaper was eating breakfast at the KFC. He ran over and took my photo and wrote down what the paramedics were saying. Naturally that drives Roberts insane. He runs back to his vehicle and speeds off. When I get to work all the brass are waiting for me. I think they’re going to congratulate me but what do those imbeciles do? They want to give me an Article 15 for stealing unauthorized medical equipment!”

“How’s that possible? Did you steal something?” For some reason I didn’t put it past Dolan to “acquire” a few unauthorized items.

“I didn’t steal anything!” he insisted. “I keep my medical bag in my car but it’s intended for training purposes only and so they wanted to bust me for misuse of government property. But if it saves a life, who cares? Right then the same reporter pulls up. He wants to know my background info. He starts calling me a hero and guardian angel and now the brass are pissed off at Roberts. As it turned out he never told them how awful the accident was! Now they can’t bust me because they know the press will catch wind of it and they’ll look like douchebags. But if they let me go, then I really am the hero of Goat Lab.”

Dolan laughed and I politely chuckled along with him. Later, though, when I had time to reflect on our conversation, I figured out what was bothering me. Dolan’s voice had changed. The change was slight. Someone less familiar with him might have dismissed it. But as someone who’d spent months studying him as he described every facet of human nature, medicine, literature, and countless topics related to war, I considered myself an expert on Dolan. What was missing now with his sprechstimme, his oration. His pulsing cadence, it seemed, had been swept away under an avalanche of words; in his attempt to influence me, he’d nearly buried me alive.

More disturbing, I decided, was the change in his laugh. The old confidence was gone. Now it was more of a croaking, as if the breath was choked off by invisible hands around his throat.

Our class arrived at Fort Bragg later that week, three months to the day after Dolan. There was no official explanation of what to expect at Bragg, as the course was supposed to be secret. Being soldiers, we had an informal line of communication and arrived well-briefed. The real name for our new home, hidden away in an unremarkable corner of Fort Bragg, was the Special Operations Medical Training Center—a k a “Goat Lab.”

Goat Lab was housed in a dilapidated compound a quarter mile down from the KFC, off to the right where a thick pinewood was cut through by a sandy road and closed off from the rest of the base with a tall chain link fence. There were no other buildings nearby, no prying eyes, no witnesses.

The compound was probably built in the ’60s, with a laboratory and operating room, an office, parking lot, and a herd of white bearded goats chewing on hay and lounging around like a pack of young princes. For the three months these goats resided at the compound, they received the finest treatment of any caprines on earth. Each of us was assigned a goat and we provided them with a level of health coverage, to include dental, that surpasses what most Americans receive. We gave them as much food as they could eat. When the weather was warm, they lounged around in the sun. When it was freezing cold out, we wrapped our bodies around their trembling goat bodies to keep them alive.

Keeping the goats alive was the primary goal. Until it wasn’t.

As for why a place like Goat Lab exists in the first place, I offer you the rationale I accepted at the time:

Better to learn on a goat in training than on a human in real life.

On our first morning the goats arrived. An old cattle truck pulled in at 06:00 as we stood along the chain-link fence, our collars pulled up and our backs turned into the wind. We should have worn parkas, but no one wanted to admit to being cold. The cattle truck cut a slow, wide circle around the parking lot before coming to a groaning halt in front of us. A stringy man with blond greasy hair, a dirty t-shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots hopped out of the cab and ran to the rear of the trailer. “Motherfucker, it’s cooooooold,” he yelled, smiling at us through missing teeth and lit cigarette. The name “Circle J Ranch” was stenciled on the side of the trailer.

We all snickered, though I learned later that Circle J was the actual name of the ranch.

The driver attached a ramp to the trailer and waved to the cadre. All seven walked up, hands in pockets, and peered inside. One of them whistled and shook his head. We craned out necks to see. Inside was all shadows and a chorus of sniffles and grunts. The perfume of steaming goat urine intermingled with alfalfa hay and manure reached our nose, like a barnyard eau de vie; it waspleasing in a way, especially after months of classrooms and antiseptic, medicinal scents.

The cadre spent a few minutes gloating over the goats, shouting out their commentary so we’d be certain to hear them. “Take a look at this one. He’ll be dead by noon, I bet.”

“They’re all sick with something—should we send them back? These idiots won’t be able to cure them.”

“Fuck ’em! This class is a bunch of morons. They don’t deserve to wear a Green Beret anyway.”

The usual hazing, but the sergeants had gone through the same routine so many times over the years they couldn’t keep the boredom from their voices. I recalled what Dolan had said, that these guys were at the end of their careers, and we were just at the beginning.

We lined up in alphabetical order to be issued our goats, who were all male to avoid any romantic entanglements with other goats that could result in unwanted pregnancy.

Naturally, Denton said it was us they were worried about.

“Every class we catch one or two students giving it to his patient.”

My goat, Balls, was a big curly lad, a 100-pounder. He arrived with two cracked hooves, an ear infection, running wounds on his rear legs, and some kind of skin rash on his belly. Patches of hair missing, probably from the other goats roughing him up on the ride over. A broken rib or two. Malnutrition. Dehydration. Hypothermia. But—and this is the important point—he wasn’t going to die anytime soon. I was elated.

After evaluating our own patients, we started our own round of shit talk.

“Look at this, Bamberg! Your goat has a cracked hoof. It’s oozing puss—you better get him started on Tetracycaline. On second thought, forget about it. That goat is good as dead. Good luck back in the regular Army, pal.”

“Why Tetracyclaline? Don’t listen to that idiot. Take a swab and do a gram stain. Maybe irrigate with sodium chloride. I bet it loses that leg though.”

“Stop worrying about my patient, you fuck. Have you seen your goat’s asshole yet? It’s bright red. Like a clown’s eye. I bet he’s got some incurable intestinal disease, colon cancer if I’m not mistaken.”

We herded them off to the corral. Our goats were quarantined to a small portion until the rest of Dolan’s class graduated and the rest of the corral was freed up. Though I saw his goat frequently, Dolan himself was elusive. The first time I caught sight of him he was striding across the parking lot with his arms full of papers and plastic cups with dark yellow urine samples from his goat. “Dolan!” I yelled, waving. He nodded to me as if he didn’t recognize me. He was gaunt, sleepless, and hollow eyed. He didn’t stop to talk; in a moment the lab door shut behind him. I found out later that his conflict with the cadre had infused a kind of madness in him. He wouldn’t let anyone touch his goat, Patton, because he suspected sabotage. Dolan took to sleeping outside in the rain and shit and mud underneath a tarp, with his goat tucked inside the sleeping bag with him. He lost weight and his skin turned pale, like a vampire who hadn’t fed in weeks. He spent 20 hours each day in the lab, checking Patton’s blood cell counts, culturing infections, examining x-rays. Still, despite the drama, there was no doubt in my mind that Dolan would graduate and most likely as valedictorian.

I shrugged off Dolan’s lack of recognition. He was stressed out and besides, I was too busy with Balls to pay much attention. Balls turned out to be a good-natured goat and strong as hell. Only nine days after I’d taken him and he’d recovered from all his ailments save for the cracked ribs and some hoof issues. He was bursting with energy—too much energy, as it turned out.

You could say Denton’s scheme of selecting all male goats wasn’t exactly curbing the romance in the herd. “Horny as a goat,” the expression goes, and it’s amazingly accurate, at least in Balls’ case. It seemed like every day I was running outside to find Balls had worked some little goat into the corner and was giving it to him Greek style. Half a dozen guys would try to separate them, cursing me as well, as if I had any influence on Balls.

There was one goat in particular, Mr. Happy, who belonged to Dan Burber. At least once a day Burber came running into the lab where I was working. “Your goat is fucking Mr. Happy again!” And I would drop whatever I was doing and sprint outside and there would be Balls letting Mr. Happy have it. “Damn it, Balls, no, no!” I shoved him and pulled his hair and begged him but Balls wasn’t budging. He was able to keep at it, a dreamy look on his face and his tongue hanging out to the side of his mouth. I eventually figured out you could grab his hind legs and yank until he fell on his belly, but you had to tackle him immediately or he’d go after another goat again.

“Keep that rapist away from my patient!” Burber was very upset and poor Mr. Happy was baaahhhing and rubbing his ass along the fence. I felt terrible, of course. I realized I was going to lose a friend or two over Balls’s indiscriminate fucking if I didn’t do something drastic. And did Balls care? Nope. He didn’t show the slightest sign of remorse. After I tackled him and dragged him away from his victim, he’d jump back up on his feet, swish his tale and look at me like, you know I’m going to fuck that goat as soon as you leave. So after much deliberation I decided to tie Balls to the fence. He gave me a miserable look when I walked off. “It’s your own fault,” I reminded him. I didn’t believe for a moment Balls was feeling contrite. On the contrary, he was saddened thinking about all goats he hadn’t yet buggered.

There is a silver lining to this story. The next day I was working in the lab when a big commotion started in the corral. Burber was screaming his head off. Jesus, I thought, Balls must have broken away and was after Mr. Happy, but to my amazement, Balls was still tied up—and Mr. Happy had walked over to Balls of his own free will and assumed the position! It was very sweet, really. A true prison love affair. Burber wanted help separating them but no one volunteered. After all who were we to break up this love affair?

Burber tried to blame me but I cut him off. “Now wait a minute, Burber. Your goat left the pack where he was nice and safe and walked over to Balls and assumed the position. You can’t blame me for this. You’ve got to maintain positive control of your goat. If anything I should be mad at you for letting Mr. Happy seduce my patient.” That shut him up.

Our first assignment was to support Dolan’s class as the students took their final exam. Ten of us were to clean the OR, four were on litter-bearer duty, several more to restock supplies, and the balance to keep an eye on the goats and shovel manure. Madura and I were assigned an especially grisly duty: the incinerator.

Madura was particularly unfit for the task. He was jittery about the goat business and felt the need to vocalize everything, even though most of it was occurring out of sight.

“Okay, so right now Cooper is taking his final exam. He’s in the OR dressed in sterile hospital gear, beside him are two OR techs to hand him utensils; and the anesthetist is there, and the operating room instructor is Roberts, who likes Krispy Kreme donuts and will fail you if you don’t bring him a dozen chocolate frosted with vanilla inside, so I have to remember that. And just out of sight over there is the shooting room, which is 50-feet-long and shaped like a thermometer. At the skinny end is a rifle mounted on table. At the bulbous end is another table with straps on it. Into the straps goes Cooper’s goat. Igoe, isn’t it sick that the same goat we’ll keep alive for months will be put under general anesthesia, strapped onto the table and shot multiple times? And when you’re done patching him up in the OR and the test is over, you’ll shoot him full of morphine until his heart stops?” He tittered nervously. “Isn’t that fucking sick? Isn’t that—”

Three quick shots echoed through the compound. Madura’s face went white. Around the corner came four guys running like hell with a bloody sack of goat splayed out on the stretcher, screaming “Medic!” as they ran. The stretcher disappeared inside the OR. The heavy doors slammed shut and, just like that, silence returned. Birds tweeting overhead. The smell of pine needles decomposing on the forest floor. Goats grunting in the distance, unaware of their comrade’s fate.

I took a seat beside the incinerator. Madura couldn’t relax. He paced up and down the sidewalk.

“Now the goat is on the operating table. The anesthetist has intubated him and is administering general anesthesia,” Madura started to say in a small voice. As the minutes passed, 10 minutes, 20, 30, he spoke increasingly louder and in a higher pitch. “Now the chest is cracked and Cooper is massaging the heart to regain heartbeat, the tech is squeezing the pneumatic pump, forcing air into the goat’s lungs. One goat leg is amputated and stitched up with a fish mouth stitch.”

The OR door slammed open and the instructor, Sergeant Roberts, stepped outside. He was wearing a red soaked smock and holding a Krispy Kreme delicately between two fingers, to avoid getting goat blood on it.

“Take the dead patient to the incinerator,” Roberts said through a mouth of sweet vanilla filling. He walked off in the direction of the showers.

Madura and I walked into the OR. Blood was everywhere, red handprints on the walls, puddles on the floors. Scalpels were painted in dried red. The table was red. A pile of operating room gowns, dark red and wet. The cleanup crew arrived a moment later. Their faces fell when they saw the mess.

“Mother fucker,” someone said. “Looks like we got the shit job.”

Madura and I dragged dead goat off the operating table and onto the stretcher. We carried it outside to the incinerator. Danny was waiting for us. Danny was the civilian handyman who worked at Goat Lab. He wiped his greasy hands on his blue jumpsuit, leaving stains. He grabbed the handle to the incinerator and swung open the heavy steel door. We stood by with the stretcher as he took a final drag off his cigarette and threw the butt inside.

“See where it landed?”

We peered inside. The incinerator was like a gigantic pizza oven that hadn’t been cleaned in months. Piles of half-burned bones and scorched hair and skin were scattered about. A jawbone with the teeth still attached grinned back at us, as if saying how do you like them apples?

Danny’s cigarette butt, still burning, was in the middle of the chamber.

“Toss the goat on top of the cigarette, or as close as you can get it. Don’t worry, it ain’t hot in there yet.”

We swung the dead goat back and forth a few times and heaved it in. The body landed barely inside the incinerator, with its head flopping out the door. It was a terrible throw. Danny grabbed the goat’s ear in disgust and yanked it.

“Does this look like the middle of the incinerator?” he cried, shaking the goat head for emphasis.

“Sorry Danny,” Madura said.

“Sorry Danny,” I said.

“Sorry you say but I’m the one who has to fix it.” Danny clambered up the incinerator and crawled inside. He hauled Cooper’s goat to the middle, kicking old bones and scraps of scorched hide out of the way. We offered him a hand as he climbed out again. When he slammed the door, it sent an echo through the incinerator like the door shutting on a mausoleum.

Danny flipped two switches and turned a dial and a moment later, the smell of burning hair reached our nostrils. I gagged a little.

“You think that’s bad,” Danny giggled. “Just wait until all 30 goats are in there.”


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

All Issues