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At almost 102, a globe-trotter wears her wanderlust on her sleeve

ST. PETERSBURG

Before Trudy Gash leaves her room for dinner at 5:30 p.m., she puts on red lipstick and checks her outfit in the mirror.

The 101-year-old resident of the Princess Martha retirement home has a closet full of exotic print dresses from all over the world.

The dresses are proof of a love of travel. Rather than fly or sail by luxury cruise, Gash chose cheap freighter travel, often sleeping in a tiny cabin and dining with the crew. She had no destination; she went wherever the cargo ships needed to stop.

One of the dresses from her journeys is a teal silk frock with silver cap sleeves converted from a sari she bought in India. Another is a long-sleeved, high-necked black and orange print dress made from Malaysian cloth.

She sewed them herself while sitting on the decks chatting with the crew about places she'd been.

"I've traveled to every country in the world but one," Gash said. "People ask me, 'Well, what have you got against Finland?' And I say, 'Nothing, I just didn't get there.' "

When docked in ports, she'd walk around sightseeing and people-watching. The ships would carry 12 passengers at most on monthslong journeys, and Gash would dine with the captain and crew.

"We were like a big family," she said. "Sometimes the captain would let me steer the ship."

In 2000, when she was 92, she settled down in St. Petersburg.

Fellow Princess Martha resident and friend Maggie Bevacqua-Geddes said Gash is the best-dressed resident there.

"When she comes down to dinner, everybody looks to see what she's going to wear," Bevacqua-Geddes said. "She has on a different beautiful dress every day."

• • •

"Life began for me one year before my 40th birthday," Gash writes on Page 1 of her memoirs. "After a brutal, unhappy marriage, I rebelled, leaving all possessions and booked passage on a ship to foreign countries. That was the beginning of my long love affair with travel and especially with ships."

Gash, who turns 102 on March 14, escaped the abusive marital clutches in 1947.

They'd been married for 17 years, living in a quiet old house in Evanston, Ill., near the Northwestern University campus. She had two miscarriages during their marriage. One was from causes unknown. The other was his fault, a shove to the wall.

When his abuse became too much to bear, she and a friend from college named Ruth sailed to Buenos Aires on a whim. Ruth was in search of love; Gash, in search of hope.

Gash got a job in Buenos Aires as a secretary to the vice president of United Press International. At the time, Juan Perón was just rising in Argentina, and UPI was constantly being shut down by his regime for unflattering articles about his politics.

When Perón was overthrown in 1955, Gash moved into a spacious penthouse overlooking the Plaze de Mayo, where the leader's brother had lived. She reluctantly gave it up for a job with the U.S. Information Service, bouncing from Vietnam to Laos and Saigon during the Vietnam War.

"There was constant shooting and the noise level was deafening," Gash said. She was reassigned to South America when she couldn't handle it anymore. "But in Paraguay it was so just so quiet. I felt I'd go crazy."

Her retirement was planned years in advance. She'd read a book on freighter travel by Fredric E. and Norman D. Ford and spent the next 20 years on ships, never keeping a permanent home.

There were Polish ocean lines and Greek cargo ships, Yugoslav and Dutch. The crew rarely spoke English, but that never bothered Gash. She spoke the universal language of a world traveler, and communication flowed easily.

She vowed she'd go back to Vietnam one day to see it again in peaceful times, and booked the trip a year in advance.

"I decided that would be my last freighter journey," Gash said. "Then my agent in Hamburg called me and told me they don't take passengers on freighters anymore. I was so disappointed."

The agent made a phone call to the ship's captain, explaining that Gash was 82 and had to see Vietnam one more time.

"It was my last voyage, and I stayed in the owner's suite," she said.

Gash traveled for 10 more years by plane, but it was nothing like her beloved ships.

• • •

Born on March 14, 1908, Trudy Gash was the youngest of six children on her family's farm in Kearney, Neb. Their mother died of diphtheria when Gash was 3. Though raised speaking German at home, they forced themselves to forget it during World War I when sentiment against Germany ran high.

The former farm girl from Nebraska never thought she'd see so much of the world.

The names of the ships and dates she sailed them are neatly written in a yellowing notebook she got in Penang, Malaysia. Here's just part of one entry: Hellenic Splendor Greek ship, Nov. 1, 1972, to May 17, 1973: Persian Gulf — Jeddah, Kuwait, Karachi, Bombay, N.Y.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, Norfolk, New Orleans, Houston.

At port Gash loved to walk around and meet people in cafes and markets and on the street. Her favorite country is Australia, for the kind people there.

"I would just be walking down the street and somebody would invite me over to dinner," she said.

But mostly she loved the ships.

"I spent a lot of time out on the deck," Gash said. "Even when it was storming I'd still be out there. The boys on the ships would be afraid of the crashing waves, but I loved it."

At night she'd be alone in her cabin, rocked to sleep by the sea. She still dreams of ships and ports, of deckhands and captains, of people she met.

Her dresses document a well-traveled life, each telling part of her story.

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Tania Karas can be reached at tkaras@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8707.

At almost 102, a globe-trotter wears her wanderlust on her sleeve 03/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 2, 2010 5:15pm]

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