A general mystery

 

A general mystery

 

Date: July 22, 2009
by: Robin Hartill | Community Editor

 
 

Ten years had passed since anyone had lived in the house at 631 Broadway in the Longbeach Village.

The 95-year-old Longboat Key home had major structural flaws, out-of-date wiring and a damaged roof. It was set to be demolished July 15, 2008.

Ina Baden knew a little bit about the house when she drove there with her husband, Nick, on a summer morning last year.

She knew it was one of the oldest on Longboat Key; and she knew it belonged to Kathryn Holt Ashley’s aunt, former Longboat Key postmistress Helen Holt.

Ashley had hired Baden, who owns Palma Sola Appraisals & Sales Inc., to sell some items in the home that had been moved into the garage before the demolition. The home had been in the family since 1941.

The Badens removed oak and mahogany furniture — some of those pieces had belonged to Holt’s parents.

They removed a 1964 Buick from the larger part of the garage, which was connected to the house. The car belonged to Gen. Richard Montgomery, a retired Air Force general, former Longboat Key town commissioner and Holt’s longtime companion. Before his death in 1987, he and Holt drove the Buick for everyday errands.

But in the other part of the garage, which was detached from the home, they found a smaller car, a 1974 Bradley GT model. Sleek, sporty and gold with gull-wing doors, it looked like it could be a racecar. The front vanity plate read “The Gee Bee.” The rear license plate said “Gee Bee,” as well.

The car had belonged to Montgomery. It was his toy, the car he and Holt drove for special occasions and Sunday drives down the Key.

It stood on cylinder blocks. It hadn’t been moved since 1987.

“What a cool-looking car,” Baden thought.

A long road
Dave McKeever noticed from a distance a trailer towing a car onto the Baden property. He laughed to himself. He thought his friend, Nick Baden, had bought himself a new toy.

It was March, eight months after Holt’s house was demolished, and McKeever was working, probably doing inspections, at Geraldson Community Farm, in Bradenton, where he is community coordinator.

From afar, McKeever thought the car at the Baden home, located next to the farm where he works, could have cost six figures.

McKeever was curious. The car looked like something James Bond would drive — not his friend, Nick Baden, a Bradenton attorney who normally preferred pickup trucks to sports cars.

McKeever didn’t think much about the car over the next couple of weeks until he ran into his friend.

“Nick, I’ve gotta ask you something,” he said. “What in the world is a little James Bond car doing in your driveway?”

The car didn’t belong to him, Nick Baden explained. He and his wife had removed the car, along with a 1964 Buick, from a house on Longboat Key.

The Buick had sold quickly (to Jimmy Seaton, who owns Longboat Limousine). But Ina Baden hadn’t found a buyer yet for the Bradley GT.

Nick Baden invited McKeever to take a closer look. The car had four flat tires. Twenty years of Florida heat had damaged the car’s gaskets and rubber fixtures.

“For $500, it’s yours,” Nick Baden told him.

Ina Baden told McKeever what she knew about Holt and the home from which the Bradley GT had been removed. Later, McKeever mentioned the car to Euphemia Haye owners Ray and D’Arcy Arpke. They told him that they remembered the car and its owner, Montgomery, whom they remembered as a military man.

At 53, McKeever had never bought a car. He had always driven company cars or his wife, Melanie’s, hand-me-downs. The Bradley GT intrigued him. So did the car’s nickname, “The Gee Bee.” What did it mean?

“I deserve to have a nice toy,” he thought.

On April 23, McKeever paid $500 cash for the car. That day, as part of the deal, Nick Baden towed it to Northwest Garage, in Bradenton. McKeever asked mechanic Ed Panzarella how long it would take to repair.

“One month if you’re lucky,” Panzarella said. “Three months if you’re not.”

The car needed new fuel tanks, brakes and tires, plus a tuneup. But the engine ran well, to Panzarella’s surprise.

Over the next few days, McKeever looked through a manila envelope filled with papers and booklets Ina Baden found inside the car.

The car was originally sold as a kit. Montgomery put it together himself. He paid just over $4,000 for the kit plus add-ons in 1974.

The owner’s manual, which was included in the envelope, described the Bradley GT as “a car a man can respect because he builds it himself.”

The papers included every bill related to the car. And, inside the envelope, McKeever found a brown datebook, which Montgomery used to record the car’s history in painstaking detail.

Later, McKeever would discover another notebook in the car’s glove compartment — a complete record of the miles per gallon the car got. Of the 9,161 miles on the car’s odometer, the first 8,715 are documented in the two notebooks.

In the details
That attention to detail was characteristic of Montgomery, according to those who knew him.

One day in 1981, shortly after they met, Rolland “Bud” Freeman noticed Montgomery and Holt in Montgomery’s Lincoln Continental Mark V.

“Boy, what a pretty car,” Freeman said.

“You like it?” Montgomery asked with a smile.

They never spoke about the car again. Six years later, after Montgomery died, Holt called Freeman to tell him that Montgomery had left him the car in his will.

In the Lincoln’s glove compartment, Freeman found the same meticulous notes as McKeever had.
Freeman, also retired from the Air Force, can’t be sure, but he suspects that Montgomery kept similar records of the planes he flew.

Ashley said he kept similar notes on just about everything — cars, finances, home repairs.
In the Bradley GT, Montgomery wrote reminders to himself such as “get battery case” and “seat belts — return.”

Montgomery also wrote down questions about the car.

“Long bumper bolts inside firewall?” Montgomery asked. He crossed out the question. “YES,” he wrote in capital letters.

In some notes, Montgomery included dates.

“April 9. Talked to Rick. He will send speedometer.”

“June 17. Talked to Bruce. Returned speedometers.”

And on March 24, 1975, he wrote several different options for his vanity plate: “GEE – BEE; RMM – GB; GB RMM.”

Code names
The “RMM” part was obvious. Those were the initials of Gen. Richard M. Montgomery.

The real mystery was the meaning of “GB” or “Gee Bee.”

To McKeever, the detailed notes confirmed that Montgomery was someone with a military background. He found Montgomery’s archived obituary in the New York Times.

Montgomery graduated in 1933 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and rose to the rank of lieutenant general in the Air Force. In 1962, he became vice commander in chief of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe. He retired in 1966.

McKeever also researched Web sites such as acronymfinder.com and militaryjargon.com for clues about the meaning of “GB.”

He found that the letters could stand for “ground based,” something that could have been a possibility for a retired Air Force general.

But “Granville Brothers” — a line of racing airplanes nicknamed “Gee Bees” — seemed more likely. The airplanes had won the National Air Races in 1931 and two consecutive Thompson trophies in 1931 and 1932, before the manufacturer went bankrupt in 1934. It seemed plausible — Montgomery was a student at
West Point at the time of the Gee Bee victories. Maybe he had flown a Gee Bee.

McKeever wrote to a Granville Brothers enthusiast he found online who responded, saying that the “Gee Bee” nickname could be related to the 1930s airplanes.

But further research revealed that Montgomery was not named in the historic data that list pilots who had flown the planes.

Others say the story could be simple.

Freeman said the nickname is probably a variation on the name “Bradley GT.” He vaguely remembers Montgomery telling him that “Gee Bee” stood for “Grand Bradley” or something similar.

Ashley also thinks that Montgomery and her aunt, who died March 27, made up the nickname because of the way it sounded. Bradley GT turned into “The Gee Bee.” She said it probably doesn’t have any significance. The couple liked to make up nicknames. They made up names for Holt’s house and other cars. The nicknames were usually private — their secrets.

They didn’t publicly proclaim them the way they did for “The Gee Bee.”

In the driver’s seat
Ashley said she’s happy that the Bradley GT went to someone who will love it. Her children, both teenagers, begged her to keep the car last year. They thought it was “cool.” She sold it, knowing that the repairs would be both costly and lengthy.

But she still remembers the one and only time she rode in the car. She estimates she was in the seventh grade.

Montgomery, behind the wheel, drove the car slowly as they headed down the Key. All eyes were on the GT Bradley and its passengers as they drove down Gulf of Mexico Drive.

McKeever still hasn’t driven his Bradley GT. But, any day now, his phone could ring with news that the car is ready.

More than two decades have passed since Montgomery’s death. Freeman still keeps the notebooks about the Lincoln inside its glove compartment.

McKeever, too, will probably keep the notebooks in the car. He knows he is unlikely to keep the extensive records Montgomery kept about the car. But he feels an obligation to try.

He feels like the notes are a part of the car’s history, the rest which has yet to be written.

 

 

 

THE MAN BEHIND THE WHEEL

On Sept. 3, 1987, The Longboat Observer ran the headline: “Town mourns death of Gen. Dick Montgomery.” He had died the week before on Aug. 27, of complications following brain surgery. He was 75.

The article listed his accomplishments: West Point graduate. Retired Air Force lieutenant general. More than 11,000 pilot hours on 84 planes. Two Distinguished Service medals. Two Legion of Merit medals.
Longboat Key town commissioner. Recipient of the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce Patriotism Award.

“Montgomery’s hobbies included antique firearms, photography, airplanes and rebuilding a GT sports car,” the article stated. “He was distinguished by his white handlebar moustache, his winning smile and his robust laughter.”
 

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