By Jenna Purcell
City on a Hill Press Reporter
A bronze goat lays grotesquely arched over a sacrificial stake. Among the construction and general “fresh quarter” hustle at Cowell College, details like this tend to fall out of focus. With new class enrollment, book-buying and general stressing in the works, students walk briskly by the sculpture without a second glance.
“Sacrificial Goat,” created by local artist Jack Zajac, serves as a war memorial for the UC Santa Cruz students killed during the Vietnam War.
George Skakel, one of the students commemorated in the memorial, attended UCSC as a member of its 1965 pioneer class. Drafted in July of 1966, Skakel served as a sergeant in Vietnam and was killed in action in March of 1968. It was not a death Skakel would have chosen, said friend and fellow UCSC student Blair Cooper.
“George hated that war,” Cooper said. “He recognized it for what it was: a huge mistake on the part of the U.S. government, a human travesty for the sake of unscrupulous motives. He felt helpless to do anything — he was forced to do what he knew was morally wrong.”
This sense of futility was widespread, said Skakel’s sister Nancy, a former UCSC student.
“It was a time of very few options,” she said. “It felt like there was heavy machinery rolling over people and no one was safe.”
Having fallen victim to this machine, Skakel took action and became a war news correspondent for a very young City on a Hill Press. An aspiring writer known for his charisma and intellect, Skakel described the life of a soldier and channeled his views to loyal student readers.
“I think his views on the war helped to shape those of the students at UCSC,” Cooper said. “His published letters deeply affected those on campus. George conveyed the idiocy, futility and brutality of war. He described sleeping in the mud, [moving] through the jungles, killing ‘gooks,’ the camaraderie, the fear. I can’t see how his view of reality wouldn’t affect anyone who read it.”
Zajac, who was inspired to create his “Sacrificial Goat” series upon seeing animals hanging in the street markets during an Easter in Rome, hoped the piece would exhibit this harsh face of reality. Although the piece was not designed to be a war memorial, Zajac feels the expressed themes are appropriate.
“The theme of sacrifice is very broad,” Zajac said. “We see that same brutality right now in the Middle East. We’re no better or freer than we were in Vietnam. Still, I am pleased if the piece can turn just a little corner in thinking or be enough to move someone from war.”
Nancy Skakel, who was still in high school at the time of her brother’s death, said she first found it hard to comprehend and cope with the sensitive themes of the memorial.
“When the memorial was first erected after George’s death, the subject of the sacrificial goat was confusing to me,” Nancy said. “I guess it took maturity and perspective to really understand the sacrifice that George made, that we all made.”
In an era brimming with draft notices and Kennedy idealism, sacrifice was commonplace in the streets and the hearts of young people everywhere. Nancy said political activism of today’s youth does not compare to the notorious demonstrations of the 1960s.
“Why aren’t we rioting in the streets?” Nancy said. “I’ve seen a few sizable demonstrations, but it’s not the same. Everyone just goes back to their video games or mall shopping when it’s over.”
Bill Dickenson, a friend of George Skakel’s who frequents the Cowell memorial, feels a generational gap.
“I sit with the memorial sculpture fairly often when I am on campus,” Dickenson said. “But as I watch today’s students walk to and fro without noticing it, I think it merely expresses a blip in time that probably means nothing to all but a small handful of us.”
The memorial allows Dickenson to remember and honor his good friend, he said.
“I recall a vividly passionate young man wrestling hard with big ideas about the truth of existence,” he said. “I sometimes find myself crying when I think about how much energetic promise was wiped out for no good reason. But that was then and this is now. Your generation has its own truth to pursue.”