You probably never heard of Gordon but when he died recently the local papers, East Hampton Star and the Independent, devoted more space to his obituary than they might do for a famous writer or an old-time movie star with Hamptons connections.
It is people like Gordon who give this place its spine, its moral and ethical core, and the tough, homespun values the town is currently acknowledging in its 350th anniversary year.
Gordon Vorpahl was an auto mechanic. Then a couple of years ago, he was elected a town trustee. He was also captain of Company One of the East Hampton Fire Department. The Star called him a man of immense good will. The Independent headline read: "Voice of Reason Stilled."
And he kept right on being an auto mechanic, working with his nephew Billy Vorpahl at T&B, the auto repair shop they had down a muddy unpaved lane in Amagansett. Gordon was a mechanical genius, "more like a natural engineer," really, said his brother Stuart. That was a side of him I knew best. As Stuart put it, "Gordon was the doctor who would say to his patient, `Now tell me where it hurts.' "
You took a car in to T&B and Gordon would listen to the motor and before lifting the hood, he knew precisely what was missing and where it was going wrong.
I wrote once that he could tell from a brief scrutiny of your wiper blades, how many miles you had on your left rear tire. And he made house calls. Earlier this spring with my kids and grandchildren out for the weekend, I stupidly ran down the battery of the Blazer. There we were, a Saturday morning in spring, and I called Gordon. He arrived about 10 minutes later in the pickup.
It took no time to figure out the problem, give me a jump with his starter cables, and come in the kitchen for a cup of coffee and say hi to the kids in their jammies. "How much, Gordon?" I asked. He waved a dismissive hand. "Oh, have a good weekend. Thanks for the coffee . . ."
In winter he and some of the other trustees, folks who know good ice and liked to skate, would go down to the village pond on a cold night, shovel the ice clean, and get a fire truck to hose down the surface so the next day the kids would have good skating. We don't have a Zamboni out here in East Hampton; we had Gordon.
In spring and fall the trustees would "open the gut." That was at Georgica Pond where some of the richest people in the world live but where, when the pond gets too high, they get water in their wine cellars. So the trustees would bulldoze a cut through the dunes for the pond to drain. "Opening the gut" got to be such a popular spectator entertainment, Gordon told me, they had to keep secret when they were going to do it, to avoid the crowds.
A fellow fireman, Steve Lynch, said, "He was wonderful with kids, the Cub Scouts, a Little Leaguer coach, with the juniors' program at the East Hampton Fire Department. He had a way with people."
Two years ago when a local fisherman died, capsizing in a storm, Gordon and Billy Vorpahl were among those who brought in the body and later Gordon, on his own, flat-bedded the dead man's boat back to its dock. You go down there on Bluff Road to the little marine museum we have and you'll see generations of sea-going Vorpahls on the walls. He drove a lobster truck for a time, hauling lobster down from Nova Scotia, and he loved auto racing, taking his wife Sandra DeBoard Vorpahl on trips to the Indy 500 and the Daytona races. And when he died the other day it was while working in the pits for his cousin Harvey Bennett, at the Riverhead Raceway.
He didn't have to be in the driver's seat, they said. He was happy just working on the car. I used to go down there to T & B before 8 in the morning to get in there early and buy the cardboard cups of coffee at the convenience store, and watch him work on my car and listen to him talk about the old days and the generations of family out here, long before the glitz and the famous.
Gordon leaves his wife and a son, Ernest, and a daughter, Samone, and four grandchildren. He was only 46 years old and had had a heart bypass nine years ago. On the Wednesday night they waked him at Williams Funeral Home, and the next morning at the service, you couldn't get into the place. And when they buried Gordon, it was the Company One fire engine that carried the casket with its American flag, passing slowly by the fire house on Cedar Street and under two aerial ladders.
The eulogies were plain, but meaningful. Said his brother Stuart, "He could mediate two hornets fighting in the middle of the road." Said Mr. Bennett, "He was . . . a great mechanic, who could have been on Rusty Wallace's crew, big-time stuff." And though I didn't know it at the time, I wrote my own eulogy when I put Gordon in a book, and when I told him, he shook his head and laughed at my foolishness.
I'll always be glad I did that.