Provincetown has sent so many of its sons and daughters into perilous realms as a matter of course. They have almost always come back. So it is profoundly upsetting — shocking — when they do not; leaving so many farewells unsaid.
Gwendolyn “Gwen” Bloomingdale (1941-2001) and her partner of 15 years, Barbara Gard (1948-2001), set out from this house in March 2001 on what they planned as a round-the-world journey in the twin-engine Aero Commander they shared and piloted. Twenty-eight days of the five-month circumnavigation were to be spent as participants in the London-to-Sydney Air Race. Bloomingdale, upper left in the photo, was a great-granddaughter of Lyman G. Bloomingdale, cofounder of Bloomingdale’s department store in New York. She had practiced law in Boston and was deeply involved in efforts leading to the passage in 1989 of a statewide law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, credit and services.
Gard was a veteran of the Marine Corps, a retired major in the National Guard and an experienced mechanic. Bloomingdale bought this 12-year-old, 4,500-square-foot house in 1992 for $385,000. For a time, the couple ran an aviation-themed shop called Last Flight Out, which first opened in the Aquariium Mall. They also owned and operated Willie Air Tours. But they threw themselves into community service, as well. Gard worked at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies and served on the Zoning Board of Appeals. Bloomingdale served on the Airport Commission and the Cape Cod Commission, and was also active in the governance of the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House. Though the two women were not married — it was not yet possible — they both wore rings inscribed: “Dare. Dream. Discover.”
Inspired by a National Geographic article on the 1919 air race from London to Melbourne, Gard and Bloomingdale began making plans for their own adventure. They purchased and reconditioned a 1973 Rockwell Shrike Commander (also known as an Aero Commander). They planned an itinerary that would take them to Keflavik, Iceland, and then to Biggin Hill Airport, south of London, where the race would begin. After finishing the race and crossing the Pacific, they planned to participate in a second competition, the cross-country Air Race Classic for women pilots, on their way home.
“Their departure from Provincetown had been rushed because the weather had put them behind schedule,” Heather Baukney wrote. (“Last Flight Out,” The Provincetown Banner, 15 March 2001.) “‘They didn’t have time for real good-byes that day,’ says Gerry Desautels, a close friend and trip publicist. ‘When I went down to the airport to see them off it was cold but bright. I remember seeing Barb upside down in the cockpit tinkering with the plane. They were both immersed, as usual.’ So it was a farewell that day, a see-you-soon.”
They took off from Keflavik on the morning of 6 March 2001 and climbed to 15,000 feet. At 8:55 a.m., a radio signal from the plane was received by authorities in Iceland. About five minutes later, the aircraft disappeared from their radar screens. What happened in the cabin during those five minutes will never be known. The next contact with the Aero Commander was as wreckage off Westman Island, along Iceland’s southern coast. The bodies of Gard and Bloomingdale were recovered.
“The 6,750-pound plane dropped from the sky on a cold, windy morning, killing them and tearing the fabric of the community into which they were inextricably woven,” Baukney wrote. “As word spread of their deaths — through quiet Provincetown streets blanketed with snow — the shock was seismic, the disbelief pervasive, and the sadness palpable.”
Gard was buried in Indiana. Bloomingdale was buried in the Town Cemetery, under an orb-topped monument inscribed: “Dare. Dream. Discover.” It is a lovely and heartening epitaph. But something else Bloomingdale said struck me as a fitting valedictory, too. Before she and Gard departed, she was asked by The Banner what could possibly come next after a round-the-world journey.
“We’ll probably find the next road out there on our trip,” she answered, “somewhere along the way.”
• Assessor’s Online Database ¶ Posted 2013-06-23