Now it should be made unmistakably clear from the beginning that this is an absurd and tortuous tale. It is laced with bitterness, frustration, avarice, suspicion of perfidious behavior—and poisonings. It is a story that treats of the untimely death of innocents, of the insensitive machinations of modern bureaucracy, of a gala pagan ceremony that is ruled over by a virgin and a hairy beast. The venues of this tale are many and varied: the burnished environs of Manhattan's "21" Club; the glorious green plateaus of Macgillycuddy's Reeks, which are Ireland's highest mountains; the antiseptic gray piles of architecture that are the campus of the U.S. Naval Academy. Ah, yes, and the characters of this story are diverse in the extreme: St. Patrick and Oliver Cromwell; a whizbang Manhattan adman named Thomas J. Maloney and a representative of something called the Mohair Council of America; and John Phillip O'Sullivan and Sean Falvey and the hermit Sean O'Shea and Pat Houlihan—all good citizens of Killorglin, an Irish village of premedieval origin situated in County Kerry between the Lakes of Killarney and Dingle Bay. It is a fantastic cast, indeed, but you would be deceived if you were not informed early on that the principal character is named King Puck. And he is a goat.
So much for the preamble. Now to get on with it—The Abstruse Fable of Getting Navy's Goat.
It is reasonably common knowledge that for some 75 years now the U.S. Naval Academy has owned one or more goats for the expressed purpose of bringing good fortune to the football team. It all began at the Army game of 1893, when Navy brought forth a goat named El Cid from the cruiser U.S.S. New York. El Cid had a bad case of sea legs and could only stagger in dazed bewilderment along the sidelines, but Navy won that day. Since then there have been 20 different goats—though rather a motley lot, it must be said. Some were spirited and brought great luck; others had even less class than El Cid, and one was actually retired with an ugly case of mange. Sadly, a rather laissez-faire attitude still prevails when it comes to obtaining mascots. The officer who more or less oversees the goat situation nowadays is a brisk and cheerful Marine major named Terry Cooper. "All I really know about goats is what I've read in this catalog," Major Cooper said as he flipped the pages of a publication put out by the American Angora Goat Breeder's Association. "See, this is an Angora goat," he explained, pointing at a picture. A visitor said it looked more like a sheep than a goat, so the major studied it more closely. "Yes, maybe that one is a sheep," he said. "But here's one of a goat over here on this page."
About 18 months ago, in the spring of 1967, a group of alumni from the Class of 1927 was lunching at the "21" Club and discussing the rather shabby assortment of Navy goats collected over the years. After several drinks it was decided that on its 40th anniversary year the Class of '27 should donate a new mascot to the academy. It was also decided that Thomas J. Maloney, who is a vice-president of MacManus, John & Adams, Inc. ad agency and also founder of U.S. Camera Publications Corp., should take charge of the goat-getting. Now, even though Maloney is a man of high enthusiasm and great energy, he is not really an alumnus of the academy. He started at Annapolis with the Class of '27 but he dropped out and never did serve in the Navy. Nevertheless, he deeply loves his un-alma mater. So that day Tom Maloney set out after lunch to fulfill his years of unrequited devotion to Navy: he would find the most magnificent goat in the world and transport it in triumph to Annapolis.
December 9, 1968
Now, in truth, the academy was not wildly enthusiastic. It already had two goats—Bill XV, an arthritic 16-year-old, and Bill XVI, a $15 goat from Colorado that the Air Force Academy donated in 1966. But it was impossible to say no to the entire Class of '27—which included several admirals of the Navy plus some captains of industry, as well as key members of Navy's undefeated 1926 football team. So Navy said yes, and the odyssey of King Puck began.
To get his goat, Tom Maloney knew there was only one place in the world to go, Killorglin, Ireland, for Tom Maloney is a well-traveled man, and he knew that early each August in the cobbled square of Killorglin there occurs the unforgettable spectacle of Puck Fair. He knew that the star of the festival would be a majestic puck goat (meaning a male) culled from the brawny flocks that roam wild over the nearby slopes of Macgillycuddy's Reeks. He knew that this noble beast would be crowned King Puck, hung with bells and ermine tassels and raised in a flower-decked crib to the top of a royal scaffold 50 feet above the village square. And from there, the goat would reign over the whole madding frolic.
Now Puck Fair is immensely popular in Ireland. That may seem strange, for Killorglin is a fairly drab hamlet of 1,250 souls, and Puck Fair itself, if the truth be known, is not remarkably different from the ordinary run of festivals the world over. Except for one essential point: under special fiat granted centuries ago all 28 of Killorglin's pubs can remain open the full 72 consecutive hours of King Puck's monarchy. Nowhere else in Ireland is there a town that can boast such distinction, and that, in large part, explains the enormous crowds drawn to the revels at Puck Fair.
Of course, in normal months, Killorglin offers a less frantic scene. On a recent chill and misting autumn afternoon the small square stood deserted, its gray cobbles gleaming from the wet. The only sign of life was a horse that was harnessed to a two-wheeled cart, which contained a pig. Even O'Sullivan's pub—a shadowy and unadorned place that is intended solely for drink and conviviality—was without clients. It is run by John Phillip O'Sullivan, who has for 30 years been chairman of the Puck Fair. To him, the festival is a mystical combination of passion, profit and poetry, and so, for nearly two hours Chairman O'Sullivan spoke in silvery rhetoric that evoked sun-splashed scenes of summer even while droplets of mist rolled down the windows facing the dreary square. "Ah, you can feel the very hearts of the crowds pumping at Puck Fair time—the very square pulsates like a living creature," he said. "It is a peculiar friendly time, and the crowds seem lifted beyond their normal, mean personalities and they are happy at Puck Fair." He also mentioned in passing that much of the year-round happiness of Killorglin merchants depends on the commercial success of Puck's three days; then he outlined the scheme of King Puck's reign.
"About five weeks before the Fair, we contact our man who lives up on the mountain; he is named Sean O'Shea and he is a bit of hermit. He is also a specialist on goats, since he lives among them, and there are those among us who think Sean O'Shea has the look of a goat himself. Each year he is charged, by our committee, with spotting the finest-looking animal on the slopes. As a matter of sanitation and esthetics, we insist that during the weeks of the king's captivity before the fair he undergo repeated fumigations, washings and deodorizings. If you have ever lived in the same town with a puck goat, you'd know why. But once the king is ready to appear, he is so well-groomed, so combed and perfumed that he is more like a Dior mannequin than a puck goat. He is—dare I say it?—lovely".
No one can ever know, says O'Sullivan, just when Puck Fair was first held, but he is convinced that it is an outgrowth of a pre-Christian fertility rite. The ritual of Puck Fair also requires a queen who is virgin, and the committee cautiously ruled long ago that a girl under 11 years of age would be chosen to serve in that capacity. At sunset of the fair's first day (called Gathering Day), the virgin crowns the goat and he ascends to his throne. At sunset on the last day of the fair (called Scattering Day), the goat comes down, she removes the crown and King Puck goes back to being a wild goat while his queen goes back to grade school. "I suppose," said Chairman O'Sullivan, "the pagan requirement of a virgin and a goat signifies Innocence and the Beast. Or perhaps Purity and Fertility—which I must say, constitutes a super-naturally perfect combination."
There are other versions of Puck's origin. One involves the gift of a puck goat to St. Patrick that encouraged him to bless the whole southwest of Ireland. Another has it that around 1650 the invading English armies of Oliver Cromwell were delayed briefly at Killorglin one night because a flock of mountain goats, led by a noble puck, clattered across the cobbled square. The flock awakened the town, which set up a fierce, if temporary, resistance to Cromwell's troops. Some people believe that legend, but Chairman O'Sullivan admits that it is probably not true, since frightened goats usually circle behind intruders instead of stampeding in front. Ironically, of course, it was the Cromwell tale that appealed to Tom Maloney in his quest for Navy's new goat. "Good lord, what more could we ask?" he said. "Here's a goat that actually stopped Army!"
Misinformed though he was about that, Maloney's campaign to make King Puck a Navy goat was enthusiastic and well organized; but the men of Killorglin were not immediately convinced that their hallowed tradition should be lent to a cause as insignificant as American football—a game they thought sissified anyway, with all its pads, helmets and cushions. To help bridge the culture gap, Maloney enlisted the aid of a man from the Irish Tourist Board who gave fiery pep talks about positive thinking to drinkers in the gloom of O'Sullivan's Bar. Ultimately the visions of floods of Puck Fair publicity in the U.S. caused the skepticism to disappear.
Thus, in August 1967, Maloney flew in from New York for the final summit negotiations with key committee personnel. There was, of course, Chairman O'Sullivan. And there was the secretary, Sean Falvey, an articulate young schoolteacher. And there was Patrick Houlihan, a rosy-cheeked man-about-work who held the contract for building King Puck's scaffold, as well as for his general all-round care during the fair. The arrangement was that Maloney would pay $100 to Puck Fair, plus all fees required to get King Puck from Macgillycuddy's Reeks to Maryland.
Oh, it was a fine, firm business deal, consummated with many pints of good Guinness stout. "I suppose we might have sensed a fiddle in it," Sean Falvey, the teacher, mused much later. "But Tom Maloney is a genuine man, I know. Of course, we bit the cherry on the positive-thinking arguments. They made us greedy for the publicity. Ah, yes, it was greed, I know now. And the rewards of greed aren't often worth a damn."
Indeed, the odyssey of King Puck was double-damned, jinxed, hexed and star-crossed from the start. The goat had scarcely set down on U.S. soil in an Aer Lingus jet when bad things began to happen. A U.S. Department of Agriculture agent suddenly stiffened as he riffled through the thicket of documents that accompany any animal immigrant and, as Maloney recalls it, he shouted in a deep and dramatic baritone: "I'll shoot that goat if he sets foot off that plane. His papers are not in order!"
Well, there was nothing to be done for it; King Puck was flashed back to Shannon Airport. At first, there was grand embarrassment at the Irish Department of Agriculture in Dublin, but that feeling soon changed to icy disdain when U.S. agents sheepishly admitted that King Puck's papers had been misread. He was, they said, quite welcome to return. Ah, but there was another delay at Shannon, and the poor goat, confined to the baggage center, fell to an alarming state of low morale and bad health. At last, a sympathetic traffic controller sent an S O S to Killorglin.
Stricken, Pat Houlihan exclaimed to Sean Falvey, "I shan't stand here, Sean, and allow the goat to die in captivity. I'm going to Shannon and bring King Puck home." It was done and, with some good Killorglin grass in his belly, the goat quickly took on the look of well-being When all was ready for his return to the States, a newly frisky King was re-crated by Pat Houlihan, driven again to Shannon and jetted off once more to America Houlihan figured it only reasonable that he be paid for his time, so he sent a bill for $70 to Maloney, "I thought it not unfair," said Houlihan, "for I have five children to support and the few quid wasn't asking for much, you know."
But by then Maloney was in no mood to be spreading largess any further, and he did not pay Houlihan. Instantly, all of Killorglin turned sour toward Maloney. "Any man who thinks a few quid are more important than a goat's life has his wires reversed," said Sean Falvey. At that point no one would have agreed more than Tom Maloney that every wire was crossed, crisscrossed and short-circuited in King Puck's world. "Hell," said Tom, "the goat was here in the States, all right, but everything being written called him 'Tom Maloney's goat' and that was exactly what I didn't want. He was Navy's new mascot. And anyway, by the time the damned thing turned up at the academy, it had cost me $2,000." To add insult to inflation, the Navy was only using handsome King Puck as a "backup mascot" to the punier, less ornery $15 Bill XVI.
Yet—miraculously—when King Puck did finally appear at games against Syracuse and Army in 1967, Navy produced stunning upsets. Indeed, for those two brief Saturdays, the goat's hitherto ominous odyssey seemed at last to be crowned with good fortune. Could it last? Of course not.
One hot sunny day last July a new hand at the academy's farm in Gambrills, Md. cut the grass outside the goat's pen, then drove his machine inside the fence where grazed the feeble old Bill XV, young Bill XVI and the noble Irish monarch. A lethal pesticide had been sprayed upon the grass outside the pen and some clotted lumps of the poisoned cuttings lodged in the power mower. They fell inside the pen. King Puck and Bill XVI ate them and both died within the day; ancient Bill XV survived only because his teeth are so poor that he cannot eat grass anymore.
The goats' obituaries were duly posted in newspapers. In an elephantine, if oddly fitting, stroke of irony, the notices of King Puck's death generated about all the publicity that Puck Fair ever did receive from the affair. Once the news was out the academy received a spate of offers to replace its mascot. The quickest reaction came in an eager dispatch from one Walter Pfluger of the Mohair Council of America, an association of goat breeders.
He offered a free, new, purebred Angora goat to the Navy. Walter Pfluger also used the occasion of King Puck's death to offer the use of his association's beauty queen—Miss Mohair of the Universe—for the Army-Navy game or "other appropriate occasions." The academy replied that it couldn't think of any occasions where Miss Mohair of the Universe would be appropriate. It did, however, accept the goat, which was duly delivered this September. Around his old ranch in Texas the goat had been known as "Admiral Chester Nimitz," but the midshipmen applied their own special brand of fun-loving creativity and renamed him Bill XVII.
Although Walter Pfluger had wafted his pitch in first, Tom Maloney and the Class of '27 did not remain idle. Within 48 hours of King Puck's death, Maloney told the academy that he was standing by to bring over the 1968 Killorglin king. Rather reluctantly, academy brass told Maloney to proceed with the operation if he really "desired to go to the expense and trouble again."
Since Maloney's name was anathema in Killorglin, he brooded about how he could make a contact to buy King Puck. Idly, he mentioned the problem to his old friend, Pete Kriendler, who is an owner of the "21" Club. Kriendler, a hyperefficient executive, acted instantly. He phoned the venerable old Gresham Hotel in Dublin. He outlined the crisis to Managing Director T.J. O'Sullivan (no kin to Killorglin's Chairman O'Sullivan), then followed up with an enormously detailed night letter. "Well, of course, Toddy O'Sullivan was delighted to help," Pete Kriendler said. "Toddy's really a kind of Mister Ireland, you know. He has a fine reputation—a fine reputation. Also a fine collection of Irish silver. If Toddy O'Sullivan can't get that goat out of Killorglin, no one can."
Actually, Toddy O'Sullivan seems like precisely the kind of man who would have nothing to do with getting goats out of Ireland. He is a middle-aged gentleman of elegant grooming and he has the poised look of a natural aristocrat, the worldly mien of a man at ease with princes or prime ministers—but not with goats. Nevertheless, he seemed positively delighted with the escapade. "Ah, I never fancied myself as a goat exporter," he said, chuckling. "But I must say that I've made rather a success of it."
Scarcely two weeks after Toddy O'Sullivan entered the negotiations, Tom Maloney passed through Dublin on business and stopped at the Gresham Hotel, eager for a progress report. Toddy beamed and said with dignity, "Official documents are in final processing. The puck goat is in captivity in Killorglin, Tom. It is awaiting your pleasure—and the delivery, of course, of $100 to Pat Houlihan." Predictably, Tom Maloney looked surprised, for of course this was the same Pat Houlihan who had claimed to be underpaid in the $70 billing. "Maybe," said Toddy O'Sullivan soothingly, "they've simply decided to forgive and forget in Killorglin."
But on that recent chill and drizzly day in Killorglin, when the subject of this year's transaction was introduced in O'Sullivan's Bar, it was clear that Chairman John Phillip O'Sullivan, at least, had neither forgotten nor forgiven. The chairman's light blue eyes widened behind his rimless spectacles and he said: "Sir, we have had no contact at all with America. We have not even been advanced the courtesy of an official notification of the death of last year's King Puck. No, there will be no goats sent again by our committee to America."
Then Chairman O'Sullivan was informed about Pat Houlihan's contacts with Toddy O'Sullivan in Dublin, about the documents already prepared, about King Puck's imminent departure. The chairman scowled. "If that goat is sent out, there will be questions." Chairman O'Sullivan then suggested that Sean Falvey as committee secretary would certainly know of any such "alleged" transactions. Falvey was as flabbergasted as the chairman. "Pat Houlihan has arranged it?" he asked. "I just can't put it in my head that Pat would sell King Puck himself. I mean, not without consulting the committee...."
When Sean arrived at Pat Houlihan's home the mist had stopped, and there was the hint of a cold golden sunset beneath thick clouds. When he was asked about King Puck, poor Pat flushed. Then he blinked. Then he produced a very, very small and painful smile, and he said, "Of course, I meant to tell the committee the moment the goat was off, Sean. But I was afraid that if word spread of the sale, Sean O'Shea—even up on the mountain—would have heard, and he'd not have parted with the goat for 200 pounds. I was protecting everyone's interests, surely you see that. If Toddy O'Sullivan himself hadn't guaranteed me the money, Sean, I shan't have gotten involved with the American Navy. I don't trust the bounders, either."
Sean Falvey sounded weary and sad as he said, "I'd not have thought it of you, Pat. You've taken advantage of your position on the committee and sold King Puck. You've capitalized for yourself on Puck Fair, and the dollar sign is the root of it all, isn't it, Pat?"
Pat Houlihan threw out his hands in a helpless plea. "Sean, see it this way, then—it's a private transaction between Toddy O'Sullivan and meself. I've sold him a goat, that's all. There is nothing wrong with a man selling a goat and picking up a few quid to support his children, now, is there, Sean? Is there?"
Sean Falvey said quietly, "Pat. Pat Houlihan. I am only now getting to know how little I know about people. I wouldn't have thought it of you, Pat. But, of course, I was wrong, wasn't I?"
That night John Phillip O'Sullivan pondered the situation in the dim light of his pub and finally he made his decision: "The goat sold to the American Navy can't possibly be King Puck, for there is no goat that is King Puck until our committee styles him so. Our King Puck was released to the hills this year. The American Navy has a goat from Killorglin, but it cannot be truthfully called King Puck." Then a broad smile beamed across his face. "Of course," he said, "if that is the same big black goat that abdicated his crown this fall, then I must commiserate with the American Navy. He was a bloody bad goat that one was—a hopeless slop who would not deign even to stand when he was crowned."
Well, as the tale at last ends, this handsome, black Irish goat is alive and well and residing in a pen near Annapolis. Tom Maloney figures he is out another $1,000 or so. Pat Houlihan has gained a few quid, but times are testy in Killorglin. Two goats are dead and, reflecting on its football season, Navy is not far from it. King Puck has had his vengeance. If there is a moral to this story, it is obscured. However, it might be respectfully suggested that the next time Navy seeks a mascot from Killorglin, it ought to consider the virgin.