POLK CITY, Fla. -- After flying 50 combat missions over two tours of duty in World War II, Neal Goss returned home a reluctant American hero.
Sixty-four years later, he has done it again.
He was recognized three years ago by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest active hang glider, a record to which he continues to build.
Time may have taken most of our heroes from the most devastating and significant war in world history, but time hasn't robbed the zest from Goss, leaving him to inspire a whole new generation.
"I figure that they probably have hang gliders and sail boats up in heaven somewhere,'' he said after one recent flight. "I don't plan on being there anytime soon, but I want to be ready when I get there.''
Goss, a First Lieutenant in the Army Air Corp until 1945, served as a bombardier/navigator as part of the Flying Fortress squadron that dropped more than 9,000 tons of bombs and shot down 200 enemy planes during the war.
Today, he flies only for the thrill of the sport, soaring in his light, unmotorized aircraft that takes him as high as 6,000 feet above the ground, using body control and thermal drafts to navigate his way across the countryside, providing a view and a freedom that few have enjoyed.
"I'm not a hero (from the war). I didn't think I was brave. I was just doing a job for my country,'' he said. "This flying now is fun. It makes you feel like one of the birds. I never had this view from inside the bomber.''
When he returned home from the War, Goss promised his aging mother that she would be proud, not so much for what he had done for his country, but for the way he would live the rest of his life, so grateful for coming home alive, making sure his time here was well spent. He certainly has gotten his money's worth.
At a time when most of his peers have either died or turned to a sedentary lifestyle, Goss keeps pressing the accelerator. He lives alone today in his Panama City home where he and his wife raised their four children, now making the four-hour drive by himself to the Wallaby Ranch at least once a month to fly.
His concessions to age still rankle him, yet he knows how far he can push. He no longer jumps off cliffs and mountains in other parts of the country with his hang glider, preferring the more controlled starts he gets with a tow. He gave up racing motorcycles almost 10 years ago. He no longer sky dives or goes deep sea diving with friends. He stopped wind surfing shortly after he closed his dental practice at age 82, leaving behind patients of 50 years. He stopped making his annual week-long trip to Guatemala, where he provided free dental care to Indians in the poor parts of the country.
He has cut back on his sailing, too, although he made a 200-mile voyage just last year down the West Coast of Florida, from his home to the home of his daughters who live in the Tampa area. His biggest regret is being bypassed by NASA several years ago when they were looking for a senior citizen to join a space shuttle flight.
"They wanted someone with a bigger name, but I've been very fortunate. I wanted to fly since I was a young boy,'' he said. "And I'll do this for as long as they let me, hopefully another 10 years. I would just tell anyone my age to go for it. You have nothing to lose.''
Goss is amazingly healthy for 89. He suffers from a frustrating neurological disorder that affects his speech, making him difficult to understand, forcing a questioner to piece together his sentences. Yet his body remains taut and strong. His walk is slow because both his knee joints need replacing. None of that matters, though, when he is soaring close to the clouds, guiding his craft with a veteran's experience, surveying all that is below and above him. He calls it a peek of what to expect in heaven.
He will be part of a flying extravaganza at the nearby Fantasy of Flight attraction Nov. 7-8, when he makes his usual trip to the area during the week of Veterans Day.
"He's way beyond unusual,'' said Malcolm Jones, a longtime friend, who met Goss when they both were just learning to hang glide in the Tennessee mountains. At the time, Jones was 18 and a daring teenager. Goss was 53, considered old to be learning a new sport. "He's an inspiration to everyone he meets," Jones said.
Although flying a hang glider is considered relatively safe, Goss has had his share of close calls since starting almost 36 years ago. There was the broken ankle, the skull fracture, the four different times he landed in trees when he missed his approach, once leaving him in a swamp where he spent the night before he was rescued in the morning.
One crash resulted in a gash on his head that was closed by another flier with a staple gun to stop the bleeding. Through the years, he has flown from the beach, behind boats, off mountaintops and across hundreds of miles in competition.
He still uses the same helmet he has used for the last 30 years. It's nicked and dented and ugly orange. It's both a reminder and a badge of courage. For each of his tree lands, there are distinct notches in the helmet, a way to celebrate his survival each time.
His flying harness is old, still held together by duct tape, his do-it-all answer to anything that breaks. Still fiercely independent, Goss sounds embarrassed when he must ask Jones for help in moving his glider or getting into his sling to fly.
His daughters, who came to his flights this month, have watched him for so many years, they don't worry anymore about the dangers or potential problems that could arise because of his age.
"He's made it clear to us, that if anything ever happened to him -- like something really went wrong and he crashed – that we better not let anyone know about it,'' said daughter Sigrid Edwards. "He loves this place too much, and he wouldn't want his end to reflect badly on anyone here. And we'd honor that. He's always pushed the envelope a little bit.''
Daughter Carol Goss has another theory about her father, the way he has lived his life, and the way his amazing story eventually will end. After surviving bombing missions over Sicily, Italy, France, Austria and Greece, after skidding off runways during the War, there is nothing now that could deter him.
"We don't worry about him up there,'' Carol said. "But it would be a helluva way to go, wouldn't it?''
Her father, she believes, won't be taking his last breaths on earth from a hospital room, or in a rest home with the elderly, not after living such a free-spirited life.
"If he was told his days were numbered and he had to go to a nursing home, he'd try his best for one last adventure,'' she said fondly. "He'd get on a sail boat and tell us he wanted one last trip around the world. And we'd all say goodbye.''