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Flying squirrel helps man face life after cancer

By Charlie Patton
Times-Union staff writer

Bill Goss and I met in the spring of 1996 and became friends because Goss liked something I'd written and decided we should be friends.

As I later wrote, that was typical Bill Goss.

"He approaches life the way he approached me, with enormous enthusiasm and none of the hesitation that prevents so many people from doing what they really want to do."

I suspect Goss, a retired Navy pilot, has always been that way. But whatever inhibitions he felt ended eight years ago. In the spring of 1994, Goss was a 38-year-old Navy pilot with a beautiful wife, Peggy, 6-year-old twins and a small growth on his left ear. Doctors diagnosed malignant melanoma and gave Goss six months to live.

Goss insisted on immediate radical surgery, during which his left jugular vein, his left ear and most of the muscle and lymph glands in his left neck and shoulder were removed. A friend, who knew that Goss loved all kinds of animals and maintained a motley menagerie of creatures at his home on Fleming Island south of Orange Park, gave Goss a new pet to cheer him. Thus did a flying squirrel named Rocky enter the life of Bill Goss, who took to calling himself Billwinkle.

"John felt that this tiny baby squirrel might be just the distraction -- and just the medicine -- that his sliced and diced, morphine-addled friend might need to help him through the cancer challenge," Goss writes in his new book, There's a Flying Squirrel in My Coffee: Overcoming Cancer with the Help of a Pet.

It's Goss's second book. As he recovered from surgery, he wrote an autobiography, The Luckiest Unlucky Man Alive, which described many brushes with catastrophe, including plane crashes, explosions and near-drownings. The book climaxed with Goss' account of his cancer.

Publishers were leery; Goss suspects that partly was because many didn't think he would live to see publication. Even he had his nagging doubts. He self-published, which is fine if all you care about is seeing your work in print but usually is a fool's errand if your goal is to make money. Goss, who has a master's degree in business, defied the odds, promoted his book with his usual extroverted vigor and made a lot of money, selling 12,000 copies. He also turned himself into a successful motivational speaker.

Rocky's story was only an anecdote in that book, but several television shows picked up on the story and eventually it was filmed as a half-hour segment by Discovery Channel's Animal Planet (a schedule of reruns is available by accessing Goss's Web site; go to, keyword: goss).

A literary agent in New York saw the show, contacted Goss and got him to write There's a Flying Squirrel in My Coffee, which Simon & Schuster has just published. Goss now is embarking on a publicity tour that will include a signing at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Barnes & Noble at 11112 San Jose Blvd.

So life is looking up for Goss, whose ultimate goal is to be a "happy 125-year-old guy."

Life also is looking up for Rocky, who recently acquired a playmate named Bitsy. A female playmate. Flying squirrels being nocturnal creatures, nights at the Goss household now are filled with the sound of squirrel ecstasy.

"Peggy makes me separate them sometimes to give her a break," Goss said with a laugh.


These days, Bill Goss laughs a lot.

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