|By Sidney Underwood|
I cannot remember the first time that I saw Shirley Hosey. It seemed that he was always there showing up like a favorite uncle. He had that mischievous grin that made you think he was about to play a trick on you, or he knew something about you that you really didn’t want him to know. With his unique sense of humor, when he approached you on the street, you needed to be alert and ready for anything.
At the old Calhoun High School, Shirley went about his business of being the custodian with a smile and a wave for everyone. The students thought he was a neat “old” guy. Often after class, several students would help him with the sweeping chores and he paid them with his own money.
If you needed to talk to Shirley, he could usually be found down in the boiler room. If you went to Calhoun High, you surely remember the boiler room located down below the first floor near the staircase to the second floor.
That was the place where some teachers went for a quick smoke between classes. That was also the place for top secret conversations as those brick lined walls did not have ears. It was rumored that Shirley had a bunk stashed down there for short naps in the afternoon.
It was also rumored that certain teachers also napped on that bunk. Supposedly, Shirley surprised an English teacher asleep there and grabbed his feet and starting dragging him off the bunk. The teacher, now fully awake, reacted desperately by grabbing an anchored flow pipe and was able to maintain his presence if not his dignity on the bunk until the bell rang for his next class. This happened in the late 60’s and only adds to the mystique of that time and of Shirley Hosey.
Shirley Hosey (left) and Holly Kerby in the
boiler room at old high school circa 1961
Shirley tended the gas fired boiler and was responsible for keeping the building warm in winter. He knew that old heating unit like the back of his hand. He also knew that it could be temperamental causing him concern on cold winter weekends when he was not there.
There is something that you probably didn’t know and it concerns that old boiler and Shirley. This event may have occurred in the early 70’s. It happened during a cold winter season. The boiler was prone to surging and the problem was a necessary component similar to a thermostat. A new one had been ordered, but not yet received. That weekend, Shirley worried and fretted at home. His wife, Margaret, sensing his concern, suggested that he go back to the school and check it out instead of worrying about it.
Later that morning, Shirley approached the south entrance to the school and felt heat when he touched the door. Upon unlocking and opening the door, intense heat hit him in the face like a sledge hammer.
He quickly realized that the building was in danger of exploding. Giving no thought for his own safety, he ran down the steps and dropped onto his stomach on the concrete floor as the air was only breathable there.
Slowly, he crawled up the hallway and upon reaching the far end, turned right, pushed open the boiler room door and slid down the steps.
Sweating profusely and fearing that he would soon lose consciousness due to the unbearable heat, Shirley felt his way forward unable to see.
After an agonizing period of time, he located and turned off the valve to the gas main. As he lay there exhausted and barely able to breathe, he listened as the boiler roiled and groaned and slowly cooled.
Summoning inner strength, He crawled up out of that place and slowly struggled toward the open door at the end of the hallway that promised cold fresh air. Shirley Hosey was a hero that day and probably no one ever knew about it.
That building had burned once in the early 40’s, and, thanks to Shirley, it did not burn again that day.
On summer evenings in the late 1990’s when we lived at Cabot Station, my son, Eric, and I would ride our bicycles up the road to Shirley’s house which was below Sav-A-Tool on the other side of the road.
Larry Morton would already be there when we arrived. He would be reclining on and sometimes lying on the porch glider. Shirley would always be sitting on his swing. It was difficult at first for us to understand that Shirley and Larry were good friends because of all the cutting remarks and barbs that they zinged at each other.
Shirley’s cat, “Old Tom”, would be there waiting and watching for Doc Law to show up in his tobacco brown Ford Ranger because Doc always brought him a treat.
When “Old Tom” saw Doc’s truck, he would scramble down the steps to meet Doc in the front yard. With Doc seated on the porch, the talking would resume. Occasionally Duck Stevens and Frances Cain and others would stop by and the conversations would drift over a variety of topics.
During those evening sessions on the porch while Shirley held court, cars would be passing by on Rt# 5. Everyone, it seemed, knew Shirley, and there was much honking of horns. Shirley never failed to wave back, but occasionally would say,”I don’t know you.”
He would then ask Larry if he knew who had just went by and honked at him. Larry would say that he knew who it was. After a prolonged period of silence, Shirley would say, ”Well, tell me who it was?” Larry would reply by saying, “I can’t say.” Shirley would then look at Larry and tell him that he had a poor attitude.
Shirley was a creature of habit. After retiring in the late 70’s, he would usually drive each morning to Grantsville and park his pickup truck in front of the J&B Drug Store. Back near the pharmacy was a booth and some of the morning regulars would include in addition to Shirley, Victor Hamilton, Harry Stevens and other “mature” men of Grantsville.
Their conversations lasted as long as the coffee flowed. It was during those mornings in town that certain strange things started happening to Shirley’s truck.
On one occasion, someone spotted Shirley’s truck in its usual place by the drug store. That individual walked over and reached into the truck and turned on the radio to high volume, turned on the wipers to maximum, the heater fan to high and engaged the left turn signal. It was planned for everything to come alive when Shirley started his truck.
Satisfied that he had turned on everything he could think of, that person retreated to the NAPA store across the street. He made small talk with the patrons while keeping an eye on Shirley’s truck.
In a few minutes, Shirley exited the drugstore and got into his truck. Instantly, Shirley’s radio could be heard all over town attracting everyone’s attention and it must have been an amusing sight to see him flailing around inside the cab trying to shut everything down.
Several people were standing around and they heard Shirley say that he knew exactly who had done this dirty deed and he was going to get that person.
On another occasion after Shirley had left his keys in his truck, it mysteriously drove itself down the street and parked itself in front of the Minnich Florist Shop.
When he finally found his truck after fifteen minutes of searching, Shirley was heard to say that this time that person had gone too far. Shirley said he was going to get that person. He said he would pick the time and place and he was going to get him good.
Over time during many evening sessions on his porch, Shirley would regale us with stories such as when he was a young man and lived in Morgantown and operated a trolley [streetcar] in the late 30’s. His usual route was High Street.
At regular stops along the way, passengers would board the streetcar and drop tokens in a box mounted beside his seat. When he reached the downward end of High Street, Shirley would exit the car and use an insulated long arm tool to unhook the trolley cable and slide it along the roof track to the other end and reattach it to the overhead power line.
He would then re-enter the car and sit in the other operator’s seat facing uptown and begin his return journey. He met many interesting people while working this job and enjoyed talking with them as it made his job more enjoyable. But, he said the pay was low. Shirley said that when his shift ended, he would return to the Westinghouse car barn near Decker’s Creek, pick up his dinner pail, sign out and go home.
At first, Shirley was reluctant to discuss his experiences in the Second World War, but did eventually open up about it. He told us of the time his troop ship, one of seven in convoy, was torpedoed by a German U-boat while crossing the Atlantic one night early in the war. His was the only ship hit that night. He said the burning deck of the ship became a living hell with men screaming and dying.
He said he was lucky as he and many others jumped over the side into the water. He treaded water and held onto a floating body for several hours before being rescued. He said that he was praying when the searchlight of the rescue ship locked onto him.
Shirley told us about participating in the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 when he waded ashore in chest deep water to Utah Beach. After reaching the beach, he was pinned down by German machine gun fire from high on the cliffs.
As he tried to burrow down into the sand to make himself a less vulnerable target, a German Messerschmitt flew overhead stitching the sand beside him with automatic fire.
He said that as he lay there on his back, the plane flew out over the channel and started turning to come back and rake the soldiers on the beach again. An American Warship far out in the channel scored a direct hit on that plane. Shirley said he saw it explode in the air and fall in pieces into the channel behind him.
Another time while serving with an Army Infantry Unit in France, Shirley and many others in his squad became violently ill with food poisoning due to machining oil residue on newly issued mess kits.
Shirley said that a local French doctor was summoned. The doctor assessed the situation and then gave each man a shot and they slowly recovered.
Shirley said that he thought he was going to die that day, and he thought it would be so ironic that his death would result from poisoning instead of a bullet.
Shirley told of the great celebration in Paris, France when the war ended. He and other American Soldiers resplendent in new dress uniforms marched in correct formation under the Eiffel Tower while pretty French girls cheered and blew kisses at them. He said that was a special time for him as he suddenly realized that he would be coming home alive!
The final year that Shirley was able to remain in his own home, his stepdaughter, Betty, and neighbors, Larry and Judy Morton, looked after him. Larry and Judy ran errands, took him to physician’s appointments, picked up prescriptions and tucked him in at night with reassuring bedtime phone calls.
Shirley feared no man and had survived so many dangers. After all he had seen, after all he had done and after all he had experienced, Shirley Hosey lived a long and rewarding life.
In this lifetime, we come in contact with certain individuals that can never be forgotten because they are so unique and I mean that in a good way. If we are lucky, those individuals interact with us and are a part of our lives for an extended period of time.
In my lifetime, Shirley Hosey was one of those individuals and I will never forget.