The annual Army-Navy football game is today in Philadelphia. This reminiscence of a past escapade associated with that game is excerpted from "The Offering, My Vietnam Memoir," which will be published next spring by William Morrow.
In October of 1965, during my senior year at West Point, I began to talk with some of my rowdier classmates about stealing the Navy goat before the Army-Navy game. I found quite a bit of support for the idea, and the night soon came when we met secretly as a band of potential goat thieves. I had recruited Cadet Captains Art Mosely, Deem Clainos and Mike Brennan, along with Mike Mewhinney, Bob Lowry, Mac Hayes and Bob Kesmodel, all cadet lieutenants.
Kesmodel lived in Severna Park, Md., and we agreed to leave West Point on a weekend pass one Saturday, steal the goat that night and take it to my grandmother's farm in Eagle Mills, N.Y., some 100 miles north of West Point. Since a similar theft in 1955, the goat had been kept at the Severna Park Naval Security Station across the river from Annapolis for the last two weeks before the Army-Navy game. The superintendents of both academies had made gentlemen's agreements not to steal each other's mascots and directed their cadets and midshipmen not to violate this agreement. But we felt the word of some general did not constitute our word.
We met regularly as we gathered our skimpy intelligence. Capt. Slinky, veterinarian in charge of the West Point mule -- a mascot never successfully stolen by midshipmen -- told us a few things about goats. The most important thing I remember was that the goat, once approached, would probably not make any noise, but might well attack. This was not comforting.
We learned from Bob Kesmodel's father that the goat was indeed housed at the Severna Park Naval Security Station. But we learned more as well. The station, he said, housed a number of 250-foot towers used for communication with the Atlantic fleet, as well as some classified research laboratories, and was closely guarded by marines. He said he had taken his daughter to the front gate and asked to see the goat and had been shown the animal in a pen immediately behind the guardhouse at the main gate. The theft looked impossible, he said, and he was concerned for our safety.
We were a bit discouraged at this news, but decided any marine guard could be distracted by a girl, and we recruited some female allies. We also borrowed a fast new Chevrolet from a West Point dealer who would be selling hundreds of cars to our class within a few months. Mike Brennan's girl, Helen, brought her father's Ford station wagon, and on Saturday, Nov. 21, 1965, we left for Bob Kesmodel's house in Severna Park. We arrived around 8:30 p.m. to meet the other three girls who would act as decoys. And more warnings. Mr. Kesmodel had played golf at a course next to the security station a few days before and had sliced his ball over the fence. A loudspeaker had warned him not to approach the fence, that his ball had violated a federal security area and under no circumstances to try to enter the area to recover it. He was somewhat shaken by this incident and cautioned us to be careful.
We drove to the station to check things out. First, we passed an unguarded gate where signs warned we were entering a military housing area. After a few hundred yards, we came to the main gate of the security station. The whole area was brightly floodlit with many signs warning intruders away. The actual gate -- a small guardhouse and raisable barrier -- blocked a two-lane road leading toward the communication towers in the distance, eerily studded with red lights. We could see three beefy marines inside the guardhouse, and a small pen no more than 30 feet behind it. This did not look good.
Some of us were no longer quite so sanguine about the task. But Art Mosely and I were determined.
Leaving the others in a nearby bar, we parked in the housing area a few hundred yards down from the main guardhouse and approached the fence. It looked impregnable. The whole length was bordered by a 50-foot wide strip of closely mown grass, and we walked along, keeping our distance. After we had gone a half mile or so, we came to a small pedestrian gate. We looked around, saw no one and walked over to it. The gate was secured by a chain and padlock, but the chain was the lightweight sort found on children's swings. Art and I grinned at each other, made our way back to our car and returned with a pair of bolt cutters borrowed from the post engineers at West Point. We cut the chain, opened the gate and just walked in. No problem. With adrenaline pumping, we reshut the gate, hooked the chain and raced back to our beer-fueled classmates in the bar.
Our excitement reignited the team and soon we were back at the Kesmodels' making our final plans. The back seat had been taken out of the fast Chevy and replaced with straw. Bob Lowry would wait with this car in the housing area a few hundred yards from the pedestrian gate. Mike Mewhinney would hide in bushes near the gate with the bolt cutters, in case the marines discovered the broken chain and replaced it. We smeared our hands and faces with burnt cork and, in our black turtlenecks and Levis, were soon dark from head to toe. I was to sneak through the pedestrian gate at 11:30 p.m. with Art Mosely, Deem Clainos, Mike Brennan and some tools. We gave ourselves 50 minutes to cross the half mile to the goat pen. Mac Hayes and Bob Kesmodel would stay with the four girls at the bar but the girls would leave in time to arrive at the front gate at 12:20 a.m., according to our synchronized watches. At that time they would approach the Marine guards, tell them they were looking for the Naval Academy and and keep them busy flirting while we stole the goat.
We drove back to the pedestrian gate by 11:30, unwound the broken chain and walked in, rewrapping the chain behind us. Mike Mewhinney had already vanished into the bushes outside the gate, and we could see the shadow of our fast Chevy a few hundred yards beyond the reach of the floodlights. Pulses pounding, we edged through the buildings toward the main gate, dodging a marine Jeep patrol that was checking for unlocked doors. By midnight we were in position in a clump of bushes near the gate. We watched as the guard was changed, and by 12:10 a.m. were left alone with the goat and two big marines.
At 12:20 a.m., right on schedule, the girls drove up to the gate in their station wagon. We saw one guard walk to the car, and then the other emerge from the guardhouse as the girls got out of the car. We instantly went into action, creeping silently to the goat-pen gate. Both marines were standing with their backs to us no more than 20 yards away, talking animatedly to the girls. I stole a look at them and caught Helen's eye, but she was getting into her act, and we all heard her break into tears. The pen was a 20-foot square of Cyclone fence topped with barbed wire, secured with a huge padlock. I pulled out a crowbar and put the end through the hasp of the lock. Mike Brennan wrapped a black towel around it to deaden the noise, and the rest of us jerked down on the crowbar on signal. There was a loud metallic snap as the lock broke, and we all froze. But the marines went on talking to the girls.
We quietly inched the gate open. At the center of the pen was a small hut, where Billy XV obviously slept. He was on the other side of it, shaking his horns at us silently. He was about the size of a heavy Hereford heifer. His horns were painted navy blue and gold and they were immense. Art and I each had a lasso to slip over his head, but frankly, we were terrified.
We were slinking around either side of the hut when suddenly we were bathed in light. Everyone hit the dirt, which for Art and me was equal parts dirt and goat droppings. We froze in the headlights of a car stopped entering the station. The marines checked the driver's pass and raised the barrier, and the car drove by. Art and I were quickly back up, but Billy XV was now pawing the ground. We didn't know what to make of this, so we both rushed him, each grabbing a horn. To our surprise, Billy was calm, almost docile. We started to slip our lassoes over his huge horns, and Art quickly had his around Billy's neck. I, however, saw Billy step through my loop as I tried to get it over his horns.
With mounting panic, I tried to pull his leg out but Art suddenly hit my shoulder and we were back down in the goat droppings. Someone was walking in the gate. It looked like a young marine in civilian clothes, obviously pretty drunk. He showed his ID and then walked by the floodlit cage no more than three feet from my prostrate, blackened form. We had stopped breathing, and my heart was going like a triphammer, but he walked by kicking rocks, looking back at those pretty girls. We waited for another minute or so, then I got Billy's foot out of the loop and the loop around his neck. Art and I led him out of the pen, waved Deem Clainos out in front of us and started back toward the pedestrian gate. We had been uncertain how Billy would react, but he wanted to run, and we ran with him -- just like Navy cheerleaders in the stadium before a game. Deem arrived at the gate first, and Mike Mewhinney held it open as we ran through with Billy. Bob Lowry saw us coming, and the monster engine roared to life. We ran Billy into the back seat, piled in with him and took off.
Back at the Kesmodels', the girls arrived and we marshaled our joy-drunk forces for the trip north. We left around 2 a.m., two men leading in the fast car with the goat, the rest following in the station wagon. We soon discovered we had been well advised to replace the back seat in the getaway car with straw. Billy dumped the entire contents of his alimentary canal into the straw, and riding with him became a duty, if not a punishment. We stopped every hour or so to change goatherds and laughed at the looks we got at tollbooths on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Around 6:30 a.m., some 30 miles west of West Point on the New York State Thruway, the station wagon threw a rod and ground to a halt. We blew the horn desperately at the getaway car ahead. But Clainos and Brennan, goatmen of the hour, never heard us and kept driving north. Neither knew the way to my grandmother's farm, the designated hideout.
Art Mosely and I walked through several fields to a local road, where we hitched a ride to West Point. It was about 7:30 a.m. when we got there. My regiment was forming up in full-dress uniforms to march to chapel, and we did some dancing to get into the barracks, faces blackened, without being seen. We quickly found a classmate with a visiting girlfriend and were soon headed back in her car. We arrived at our station wagon, piled everyone into our new car and headed north. The goatmobile turned up at the next rest area, with Billy XV grazing contentedly beside the freeway. Within hours we had him stabled in my grandmother's barn and were back at West Point. That evening, I called ABC sportscaster Mel Allen in New York and told him -- anonymously -- the whole story. He later broadcast the interview over ABC radio. The word was out: Army had gotten Navy's goat!
The next day, West Point denounced the Mel Allen interview as a hoax. We had told no others of the theft, but wanted the Corps of Cadets to know the goat was in Army hands. So, Monday morning, Art and I used the West Point band's sheet music mimeograph to print up several hundred leaflets, which we left on tables in the mess hall. At lunch, the Corps of Cadets erupted in roars of celebration.
But enormous pressure was quickly brought to bear on the corps as the West Point staff tried to find out who had the goat. We thieves met several times each day to determine what to do. Art was fanatic all the way -- he wanted to kill the goat, cook it in the mess hall and feed it to the corps. But by Wednesday, when the staff began grilling cadets individually, the time had come to give up our prize.
That night, five of us snuck off and drove to Eagle Mills. We took our picture with the goat, then drove it to West Point, and about 5 a.m. slipped it into the mule barn to a bathroom off Capt. Slinky's office, where we tied it to the commode. We intended to retrieve it the next morning, bring it to lunch and present it to Sonny Stowers, captain of the football team. But a janitor cleaning the office discovered the goat, thought it had been put there by the cheerleaders for some sort of rally and told the Tactical Department they'd have to move this surrogate goat before the captain came to work. Alerted by our contacts in the chain of command, Art and I were roaring up to the mule barn in our borrowed fast Chevy in a heartbeat, but found the place swarming with military police. We decided that the only thing left to do was have a massive rally before lunch and fall on our swords, just to ensure the corps knew of our coup.
We set up a loudspeaker in an area everyone passed on the way back from class, and we all stood on top of a dumpster and told the cheering corps what had happened. They carried us into the mess hall on their shoulders, as a three-car caravan commanded by a full colonel returned Billy XV to Annapolis.
Nothing really happened to us until after the Army-Navy game, which ended in a dismal 7-7 tie. Over the next few weeks, we met three times with a board of five full colonels, to whom we described our escapade in great detail. The colonels submitted a report to the commandant, who later saw us all individually. I was the last he saw, and he told me that I had done well and he would be proud to have me serve under him in the Army. But we had broken the rules and must be punished. Our punishment, he said, would be loss of our senior privileges for two months -- a slap on the wrist we accepted with relief. And later, with a wide smile. In fact, we all smiled hard for several months.