For the life of me, I don’t remember how I got invited, but at age 22, freshly out of the Army on Temporary Disabled Retirement Leave, I found myself in a basement in Vandalia with a bunch of superheroes.
Most of them, gray haired, and close to, or recently retired, they all shared a common bond- jumping out of a perfectly good airplane for Uncle Sam.
I have never met a bunch of strangers that I was so instantly embraced by. Within a meeting or two, I was “elected” their Sgt. at Arms. They were the 82nd Airborne Division Association, General Matthew B. Ridgway chapter. And although it was the 82nd- and I’d only served with 7th Group down the street- the bond was the ownership of a pair of jump wings.
The basement, belonged to a man who always had a smile on his face- and gleam in his eye, a man named Shirley Gossett.
His obituary appeared in today’s paper- with a perfunctory summation of his military and post military pride in being a paratrooper:
Shirley graduated from Parker Vocational High School in 1941 and was on the Reunion Committee for 40 years. He served in the U.S. Army 325 Glider Infantry of the 82nd Airborne Division in Holland, Belgium, and Germany as a Scout & Runner in WWII. Shirley earned many ribbons including the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He retired as a sheet metal worker from Local #224 after 40 years. He formed their Retirement Club in 1985-6 and served as their President for four terms.
In 1970, Shirley formed the Dayton Chapter of the 82nd Airborne Division Association, which was later renamed after General Matthew B. Ridgway. He served on the Board of Directors of the 82nd Airborne Association as Secretary, Assistant Executive Director, Executive Director and was elected as National President in 1981 and 1986. In 1990, Shirley received their highest award, “All-American of the Year.” He was certainly the most active veteran in this association, holding raffles, selling VCR tapes and books will all profits going to their Educational Fund.
In 2000, 82nd Airborne Commander, MG Dan McNeil presented Shirley with the “Commander’s Award,” an award given to a civilian for his dedication to the Division.
He died November 13, 2014, in an odd twist in obituaries, it didn’t have his age or birthday. Doing some math- based on graduating from high school at 18- he was born in 1923, and was probably 91.
Tom Brokaw dubbed men like Shirley our greatest generation, and to have known him, you’d understand why.
Those meetings of men, from all walks of life, all social strata, that were held in Shirley’s basement, told a story of the resiliency that they brought to battle, on foreign soil, for a cause that was as clearly just as any in history.
I remember hearing stories from these fine gentlemen of having more combat jumps than training jumps (5). Of going off to war, with no guarantee of coming home after a “tour”- unless you were severely injured or in a casket. Some of them had served in the 101st at Bastogne in the “Battle of the Bulge” – facing incalculable odds and horrendous weather. Many had put behind the horrors of war, and come home to raise kids, have careers and live a life that was considered “normal”- without the respect and appreciation they deserved for their sacrifices by a country that seemed to turn its back on those who served.
All of them, were welcome in Shirley’s basement, its walls covered with memorabilia- a shrine to the “All American” division. All of them brothers from different mothers.
I drifted away from attending after my term was up. Taking on battles with the city over garage doors, running for office and later starting my own band of brothers- VOB 108, a group for Veteran Business Owners. But, every so often, I’d stop by an 82nd event, and get the same big smile from Shirley and a welcome hand from the brotherhood of paratroopers, and some ribbing for not winning election battles. If there is a reason why my license plate has the army jump wings on it- it’s because of Shirley, who put a higher value on the fraternity than I ever would have imagined. It’s not about my accomplishments, but about that of those who came before me and after me
As I ran around the track at Ft. Benning, during “tower week,” past the c47 painted in Normandy invasion stripes, we would chant a cadence about the perils of parachuting…
Stand up, hook up, shuffle to the door.
Jump on out and count to 4,
and if my main don’t open wide,
I’ve got another, by my side.
And if that one should fail me too,
lookout ground, I’m comin’ through
Tell my girl, I’ve done my best-
Pin my medals upon my chest
bury me in the front leaning rest…
Thank you for your service Shirley Gossett. And for being a prince among men. Those who have had the honor to shake your hand, and share in the Airborne brotherhood will miss you. There isn’t anything more you could have done for us, your family, our country.
Airborne, all the way.