I knew he would be dead by now, but I had to check, just to be sure.
Charles “Ches” McCartney, aka The Goat Man, had been a personal hero of mine ever since I was a boy growing up in Athens.
For 50 years, he traveled the country in a rickety old wagon pulled by a whole mess of goats, living off the sale of goat milk, donations and from the sale of postcards featuring photos of himself and his animals.
He said one thing he liked about goats was that they didn’t care how he looked or smelled.
I’m sure he smelled splendidly bad, but I don’t remember.
The Goat Man and his clanking, bleating caravan camped out a few times at an abandoned drive-in theater near where I lived.
The entourage looked right at home parked at the old theater, with its speaker posts leaning like a regiment of drunks and the shattered screen showing a long feature about sky.
My parents took me to see him once, and I rode my bike the mile or so to visit him on my own several times.
There was always a crowd around, so it was safe. Not that I told my mom where I was going. Must have slipped my mind.
Goat Man would milk his goats, then drink right out of whatever can or jar he’d just squeezed the milk into.
He was small and wiry, dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and faded bib overalls, and sported a huge, grizzled beard, not a common sight in the early 1960s.
One of his bucks slammed me in the butt with his head, just like in the cartoons. I thought it was neat. The old man and I shared a laugh over it.
I thought he looked like one of the Old Testament prophets from the illustrations in the family Bible, with his beard and fierce eyes.
His wagon, hung with pots and pans and automobile license plates from everywhere, had an open space filled with old quilts.
They had been shaped by long use into a nest. He said that was where he slept on cold nights, with one or two goats to keep him warm.
My parents were wonderfully appalled.
I thought the wagon the very best thing that had ever been, and made up my mind that I would someday venture out into the world in just such a rig.
Well, no surprise, I didn’t.
I have a lady friend, a house and make a living without having to poke around in the nether regions of goats, or sleep with one to keep warm.
And I smell OK.
These are all good things.
And yet, I confess a love for travel and new places. I love jumping into the car and just taking off with no idea where I mean to wind up. I have a soft spot in my heart for people who travel their own road in their own way.
And for goats.
In the 1990s, I tracked The Goat Man down to a nursing home in Georgia. I got hold of him by phone.
His conversation tended to wander, but I suppose that was proper, all things considered.
“I still get around pretty good, praise the Lord,” he said.
He liked to say that he was well over 100 years old, though it wasn’t true, and owed his longevity to his simple life and to drinking goat milk, which might be true.
I tracked him down again a few years late[r or rather, a report of his death.
He had died five years previously, leaving behind a grieving girlfriend who lived in the same nursing home.
He was reported to be 97.
He had died in mid-November, about 100 miles from where I had visited him and his goats.
The town where he died is in flat country, and November in Georgia is typically cool, if a little rainy. Good traveling weather.
T..W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.
He has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.