High Speed Turns

Greg Gaudet would drive to the Bridgeport Ferry, his eyes shielded by mirrored aviators, the Ray Bans favored by ex-military men; a Honda motorcycle hitched to the back fender, his teenage son Vernon seated beside him. Recently separated, a separation that would last seven years before ending in divorce, Greg brought Vernon along to act as his pit crew. It was 1978. Greg had started racing. He was 41 years old. Greg and Vernon quietly struggled to reach across the weekly chasm and reacquaint themselves. “It was a difficult time for my son.” It was a time with an uncertain beginning, and an even less certain ending. It was a time that hit Vernon unexpectedly, forcing him to swerve, and altering his trajectory. The ferry crossed the flat waters of the Long Island Sound. A tidal basin that was once a freshwater lake, the Sound succumbed to ocean waters, rising as the glaciers melted. Greg sailed his Nonsuch 36 on these waters, a single-handler, that didn’t require a crew. “I was faster than anyone under 70-feet.” An American Airlines pilot Greg knew how to find speed in the friction of weightless air. He kept up with the big boys, who waved, and then cursed, when they realized they couldn’t pull away. When the wind was against him, Greg found speed others couldn’t. The Nonsuch was designed to tack in narrow coastal waters. Controlled by a steering wheel, the Nonsuch’s wishbone boom moved side to side like a windsurfer, making quick, and efficient turns. When the ferry docked in Port Jefferson, Greg and Vernon drove down the ramp and headed east for the Bridgehampton Raceway. On October 31, 1944, seven-year old Greg Gaudet was at a Halloween party in a Somerville, Massachusetts firehouse. It was a densely populated blue-collar town in the early stages of industrial decline. The firehouse party kept Somerville’s children where they could be seen, kept them out of trouble, and kept them safe. It was here that Greg saw two soldiers approach his mother. The soldiers spoke in the hushed whisper of adult conversation. A whisper not meant to be heard by children; a whisper children always seem to hear. “You must be mistaken,” Irene Gaudet, said, “it’s my son Eddie who’s missing, Georgie is in Florida.” Lt. Edward Gaudet missing since June 29, 1944, when his single-seat P-47 lost over occupied France. Lt. Edwin Unger, his wingman, was wounded, his plane heavily damaged after being jumped by two German FW-109 fighters. After recovering from a tailspin, Unger did not see nor was he able to establish contact with Lt. Gaudet. Eddie was listed as missing. But it wasn’t Eddie the soldiers had come to talk about. It was Georgie. A pilot training in Florida, Georgie was killed on October 29th when his B-17 crashed during an emergency landing. Irene Gaudet would soon receive confirmation that Eddie was also killed. The loss of her sons would harden Irene Gaudet’s tough French-Canadian spine. The myth of the Greatest Generation expected her to tap a reservoir of unknown inner strength. But she grew cold, and distant to the things she was supposed to cherish. Her country. Her marriage. Her children. “I had to buck up,” she would tell Greg shortly before her death,” I still had four children to raise.” She never hugged Greg. She never cried for her dead sons. The Bridgehampton Raceway had a panoramic view of the North Fork, Shelter Island, and the Peconic Bay. The tranquil almost meditative view, a stark contrast to the raceway’s deafening engines, the smell of exhaust, and a rough track surface dusted by sand from the surrounding dunes. Not a simple stock car oval, the “Bridge” was a road course with thirteen turns that included a banked hairpin as well as multiple elevation changes. It gave drivers the impression they were actually going somewhere. Greg would race against kids half his age. He worked his way up from novice to the most advanced level, earning a place on the traveling team that would enter 24-hour endurance races. Greg wrapped in speed, Vernon timing his seemingly endless laps Greg, a less than average student, became an aviation mechanic for Capital Airlines, after high school. At 20 without a college degree, he took the Air Cadet (USAAF) exam. The same exam his brother David, six years older, had taken during the Korean War. David passed and was scheduled for pilot training. But, David grew frustrated with the long wait, and enlisted in the Army. One of Eddie’s friends, who had flown with him in Europe, saw the Gaudet name on the pilot’s list. He called and offered to move David into an earlier class. Irene Gaudet never told him. Greg passed the exam Accepted as a navigator; he declined, writing back ‘PILOT’. After declining a second time, the third notice arrived clearing him for pilot training. From 1957 to 1965, the height of the Cold War, Greg flew single-seat fighters, designed to shoot down Russian bombers coming over the polar icecap. He sat on a runway strapped into his fighter during the Cuban missile crisis, waiting for a mission that never came. He had called his wife in their Michigan home before heading to the runway and said, “Put the kids in the car and drive west.” He experienced flying faster than the speed of sound. Guiding his F-86 Sabre through the transonic wall, experiencing extreme drag, the plane feeling like it was on the verge of splitting apart, creating a sonic boom that would rattle windows. As he reached the smooth flow on the other side of the wall there was little comfort, he knew he would have to experience it all over again when he returned. Greg was never the fastest at Bridgehampton; others had bigger, faster bikes. But he knew how to make up for it by moving quickly through the turns, clipping the apex, leaning his bike against a force that tried to push him further out in the turn. He rode the sidewalls of his tires, just an inch of rubber still in contact with the road, wearing tires out faster than most other bikers. Hiss tight turns squeezed the track, shortening the distance of each lap. One afternoon at the “Bridge,” Greg was closing on a bike considered the fastest on the track. As the bike slowed to enter the hairpin turn, Greg passed him. But he was into the turn with too much speed and lost control. He leaned in, just above the ground, the front wheel sliding away, the handlebars hitting his gas tank. About to wash out Greg gripped the handlebars picked up the front end and made it through the turn. A few moments later, he realized he was alone, the other biker returned to the pits. “You were right in front of me,” the other biker later said to Greg, “I could have killed you.” On July 4, 2013, 76 year-old Greg Gaudet anchored his Tolleycraft 47, in the San Juan Islands, at a place called Roche Harbor, a place he visits every summer. His winters are spent downhill skiing in Utah, bringing out his Kawasaki Ninja when the weather turns warm. Greg’s friend Dave Lincoln had invited him to take a ride in his plane. Greg with Dave’s help had returned to flying four years ago. At the airport, just above the Roche Harbor marina, they began talking about Normandy. Eddie had flown support above the beaches on D-Day. Dave asked Greg if he had ever tried to look up his brother on the internet. “No,” Greg said. So, Dave tried on his iPhone but couldn’t get a connection. Later when they returned to he marina, sitting around a table with several friends, Dave took out his iPhone. The iPhone connected; the search had gone through. There was a picture of Lt. Edward Gaudet’s diary. Someone had posted it hoping to find out more information. As Greg stared at it, a tear trickled from behind his dark unreflective aviators. “I had two heroes, both of them are dead. Maybe I’ve been trying to kill myself all these years.” The following day Greg headed north to a place called Desolation Sound in Canada. Dave Lincoln is a problem solver, a retired executive for a logistics and freight-forwarding firm. He knows how to put things together, and move them from one place to another. Dave promised to track down the diary, and find out more information. Outside city hall, the names of Edward and George Gaudet are engraved on the Somerville Memorial. No mention of their fiery deaths, silent to their family’s altered trajectory. Beneath the neatly trimmed fairway of the Bridge Country Club lies a hairpin turn where one afternoon someone struggled on danger’s edge. The Tolleycraft’s propellers can cut through the crosscurrents of the Puget Sound, giving the impression of traveling in a straight line. But, Greg Gaudet is already moving through another turn.