I Want My GOP

This post originally appeared in early 2016. Cassandra award?

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A divided national party . . . voices of extreme rhetoric . . . an ugly, contentious primary season. Does this spell doom for two-party system?

Sounds modern, doesn’t it? But the year was 1860, and the party in question was founded by Thomas Jefferson, and shaped in the image of Andrew Jackson: The antebellum Democratic Party.

On the eve of Civil War, the future of the Union appeared in fatal doubt. Political leaders in the Deep South: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida had all but washed their hands of the centrally powerful United States. Adding to the precarious atmosphere, a faction of Democrats in the North promoted a policy to permit slavery into the western territories under the principle of Popular Sovereignty, or direct vote. Others voices in the northern branch of the Democratic Party believed the Southern States should depart the Union in peace. And these pro-secession advocates became the most worrisome threat for Senate leader, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1860.

Douglas found himself in a hell of a spot. He fervently burned to lead his party to the White House and save his nation, dangerously poised on the verge of civil war. As the principal heir to Senate leadership, Douglas had spent over twenty years in Congress working to stave off Southern secession, taking over when Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” died. Clay had also spent most of his earlier career drawing up one concession after another in a noble attempt to preserve the Union. Eventually the effort wore him out, and Senator Douglas pick up the cause.

As far as Douglas was concerned, slavery wasn’t a moral issue, merely a bump in the road. The issue could easily be decided by the good folks migrating west. Douglas believed if settlers didn’t want slavery, they would decline to establish laws necessary for supporting the “peculiar institution.” But the Senator was wrong—dead wrong. Slavery had, by 1860 become an issue impossible to fix. And it was this miscalculation, underestimating the power of the slave issue, that the Illinois Senator imploded both his party, and his career.

The new Republican Party had organized six years earlier in Wisconsin, founded on one central principle—slavery would not extend into the western territories, period. And this new party spread quickly. Composed of splinter groups, this now fully unified alliance insisted that free labor was an integral component to a flourishing free market economy. The presence of slavery in sprouting regions of the West would devalue free labor, and undermine future commercial growth.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these Republicans did not sing Kumbaya or braid their hair. These men did not believe in equality between the races—they were not abolitionists. Economic principles drove their political platform, (Emancipation came later with the transformation of President Lincoln through the caldron of war).

For Stephen Douglas the approaching 1860 election meant vindication for his support of popular sovereignty, and reward for his faithful political service. And Douglas was no political hack. He fully understood the solvency of the Union lay in the delicate art of sectional balance, and his ascendancy to the White House as a Democrat would go a long way to placate the Southern hotheads. But this Illinois Senator failed, once again, to fully comprehend the temper of the nation, or of his own party. The era of seeking middle ground had passed—America’s course had been set toward industrial modernity with no place for an antiquated, barbaric labor system.

Charleston, South Carolina, was selected as the site of the 1860 Democratic convention. Chaos immediately broke loose on the convention floor. While Southern Democrats demanded strict, precise language guaranteeing the extension of slavery into the territories, Northern Democrats and those from California and Oregon pushed for Douglas’ popular sovereignty. This tense deadlock forced the latter faction to walk out and reconvene in Baltimore where party business could function.

Southern Democrats moved on without Douglas or his faction. In a separate, Richmond, Virginia convention, Southern Democrats proceeded to nominate Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.

Back in Baltimore, Senator Douglas indeed gained the Democratic nomination, preserving his precious principle of local voters determining the western migration of slavery. Meanwhile, the Democrats in Richmond took a step further, adding the absolute protection of slavery to their platform. Middle ground had vanished.

Though a long shot, a third faction of the Democratic Party broke ranks with both Douglas supporters, and the Richmond faction. Calling themselves the “Constitutional Union Party,” this coalition nominated John Bell of Tennessee.

So what can we make of this 1860 fiasco today, in 2016? If I could attempt a bit of divination I would suggest that the political party that can present the most united front will prevail in the general election. If current Republican candidates continue to employ such wide-ranging, and scorching tones to their rhetoric, and stubbornly defend the innocence of their loose talk, the party may run head long into oblivion, as did the Democrats of 1860. If the roaring factions, currently represented by each GOP aspirant goes too far, the fabric of unity will shred, crippling the Republican’s ability to field serious candidates in the future.

Looking at the past as prelude much is at stake for the unity of the GOP. In 1860 party divisions nearly destroyed the Democrats, propelling the nation into a bloody civil war. And though Republicans at that time elected our greatest Chief Executive, Abraham Lincoln, the Democrats suffered for decades, marginalized as the party of rebellion. And even the best lessons left by the past are still forgotten in the heat of passion, by those who know better. (The Democrats shattered their party unity once again a hundred years later, splintered by the Vietnam War.) This is truly a cautionary tale for today’s turbulent Republican Party.

Zealots do not compromise, and leading GOP candidates are spouting some pretty divisive vitriol. Southern Democrats self righteously rejected their national party, certain it no longer represented them, and ultimately silenced the party of Jefferson and Jackson for decades. The lesson is clear for today’s Republicans. By tolerating demagoguery, extremism, and reckless fear-mongering in their field of contenders, the RNC may indeed face a similar demise.

Though it is true that no party can be all things to all citizens, malignant splinter groups should not run away with the party.

The American public demands measured and thoughtful candidates—and both parties are expected to field candidates of merit and substance.

We deserve leaders worth following.

As Senator Stephen Douglas refused to recognize that the political skies were falling around him, and his party, the modern Republican Party must not.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight a two-part memoir. Available on Kindle

Tyler Too?

This was the situation in April, 1841. Newly inaugurated president, William Henry Harrison died after only a month in office. The aged Harrison apparently succumbed to pneumonia after delivering an exceptionally long inaugural address in the rain. Harrison, the first Whig to win the presidency, was also the first chief executive to die in office, and the Constitutional protocol of succession had never before been exercised.

Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, moved quickly upon learning of the President’s demise. He located a judge to administer the oath of office, and moved into the White House. When members of Harrison’s cabinet informed Tyler they would take care of the daily business of governing, he cooly responded that they could either work with him, or resign.

Tyler had been an odd choice for the Whigs to make. The party had gelled during the Jackson administration, promoting financial and internal developments over sectionalism and states rights. The Whigs further found slavery not only inconsistent with liberty, but also an obstacle to the growth of a modern nation-state. Foremost among this group was the Whig Party’s greatest voice, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay had first been a presidential candidate in 1824, and again in 1836. However, when the Whigs met in Harrisburg, PA to choose their 1840 candidate, Clay failed to gain the  nomination, and declined the second spot in a regrettable moment of pique.

Though John Tyler had been a Virginia Democrat, he had broken with Andrew Jackson over Jackson’s misuse of presidential power. In particular, Tyler objected to Jackson’s threats against South Carolina in the Nullification Crisis, leading Tyler to forsake the Democrats, but not the philosophy of states’ rights, or the protection of slavery.

The Whigs decided that Tyler’s opposition to Jackson was good enough to offer him the second spot on the Whig ticket, and Tyler accepted. Then a month into his term, Harrison died, and this Southern Democrat, a wall-to-wall sectionalist assumed the presidency.  From there, events quickly unraveled.

If the Whig Party hoped to realize their platform of national economic growth, their hopes died under President Tyler’s veto pen. Predictably, the Whig cabinet soon grew frustrated, then disgusted with presidential obstruction. Members began to resign. Only Secretary of State Daniel Webster hung on, as he was in the middle of boundary discussions with the British. Then he, too, submitted his resignation. Shortly after the cabinet fled, the Whigs formally expelled Tyler from the party.

To their credit the Whig leadership didn’t excuse Tyler, or defend his contrary actions. No one said ‘let Tyler be Tyler.’ They publicly broke and denounced the President’s antics, though the cost, for the Whigs, came due ten years later when they disbanded. 

Yet, the story doesn’t end with the death of the Whigs, but begins anew with a stronger and more principled political movement. For, from the ashes came the birth of the Republican Party, much like a rising Phoenix. And that party still exists today, if they don’t squander their good name on the shoals of Trumpism. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January:Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle and at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Same, But Different

On a cable news program, author, Brenda Wineapple argued that the impeachment of Donald Trump resembles that of 19th Century President, Andrew Johnson. Applewine’s position may be true, to the extent that Johnson was under attack from the opposition party, however, the events that brought about the trial of Johnson were not centered on presidential corruption.

Abraham Lincoln had invited Tennessee Democrat, Andrew Johnson, onto his 1864 ticket as a conciliatory gesture toward the South. As Senator, Johnson had remained staunchly loyal to the Union, despite Tennessee becoming the final state to secede in 1861. Lincoln made clear with his VP choice that he intended to deal judicially with erring brothers below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Throughout the final year of the war, a philosophical rift had been growing between President Lincoln and the Radicals in his party, over post-war policy. Lincoln believed that Southern States had only attempted to secede, but had failed in that effort; General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox snuffing out the attempt. Since secession had been foiled, Lincoln maintained that his pardoning power provided him the authority to deal perpetrators of the rebellion.

Countering that argument were the Radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House, and Charles Sumner in the Senate. This faction insisted that when the Southern states seceded, they had, indeed, committed political suicide. This, Congress maintained, gave them the authority to shape post-war policy, for, per the Constitution, they were the body that admitted new states, .

The conflict between the Executive and Legislative branches grew fierce in mid-April of 1865, when Abraham Lincoln was murdered by an assassin, elevating Andrew Johnson to the Presidency.

When it came to interpreting the Constitution Johnson not only agreed with Lincoln over Reconstruction policy, but was also a traditional ‘strict-constructionist’. In other words, his understanding of the law did not go much past the Twelfth Amendment.

Vetoing many Republican bills, including legislation creating the Freedmen’s Bureau, Johnson, refused to support civil rights of any kind for the newly emancipated. However, as fast as Johnson vetoed bills, Congress overrode his vetoes.

Born in poverty, and illiterate most of his life, Johnson’s malice also extended to Southern aristocrats. Keeping somewhat to Lincoln’s view, Johnson enjoyed nothing better than reading letters from Southern planters pleading for his pardon.

Rubbing nearly all the wrong way, Andrew Johnson plainly was not a savvy politician, and became an ever increasing nuisance to the Radical majority, who fully intended to punish the white South, and elevate the lives of Freedmen.

Animosity came to a head when Congress passed the “Tenure of Office Act” in 1867. This legislation aimed to tie the President’s hands by stating Johnson could not remove any members of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, without the approval of the Senate. Knowing his Constitution well, Johnson knew this bill didn’t pass legal scrutiny, and promptly fired Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.

The House immediately fired back with eleven articles of impeachment.

Once the inevitable impeachment reached the Senate for trial, equivocating Senators felt intense heat from their Radical colleagues. Various hold-outs, uncomfortable with the flimsy case, proved difficult to sway. The central sticking point was that the Act was no more than a trap for a President who would not get out of the way. To one Kansas Senator, Edmund Ross, the whole episode was a flagrant setup. Ross believed that there was too much noise, too much turmoil, and not enough real evidence of wrongdoing.

Sensing reluctance in the ranks, the Republican majority bought more time by taking a ten-day delay on the vote. Members like Ross and other hesitant Senators, were threatened with investigations for bribery if they didn’t toe the line. However, neither stalling, nor threats changed any positions. In the end the vote to convict failed, 35-19, not the 2/3 majority required by law.

Andrew Johnson was broken by the ordeal. He quietly waited out the remainder of his term, finally to be replaced by the Ulysses S Grant in 1869. (Now Grant’s terms witnessed a lion share of corruption!)

That Andrew Johnson proved unequal to the task of governing goes without question. He was bigoted, petty, and stubborn. But this man was not corrupt, and his impeachment was more a product of tragedy, turmoil, and a struggle for national power. No overseas hotels, no bowing to foreign dictators, no obstruction of subpoenas.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Books are available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle. For more email Gail at gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Almost Cable Guy

Some of you may recall that we signed an option a while back with Falls Park Entertainment in South Carolina. Brett Kanea, the executive producer found our script, very exciting and anticipated a successful film. Unexpectedly dear Brett died recently. As you can see he was too young to leave us, and our hearts go out to his family and loved ones. 
The morning he first called to discuss film production I believed he was the cable guy we expected later that morning. We laughed about that snafu for months. 
Though our future in film is unclear, Brett’s warmth, humor, and confidence lingers on. 
Godspeed Brett, the almost cable guy.

Defining Magic

It been over thirty years, but the memory is vividly clear. I leveled a stereo needle onto a record, then an ethereal voice crooned,

Heavenly shades of night are falling

It’s twilight time

Out of the mist your voice is calling

‘Tis twilight time . . .”

All at once a bedroom door blew open, and my grandmother waltzed into the living room, cigarette balanced in her fingers. She smiled at me as she swirled. “Your grandfather and I danced to this,” she explained, and glided off in her reverie. I watched, amused, enjoying my grandmother’s response to the music, wondering why the melody had her behaving so out of character. 

A similar, unexpected episode occurred a few years later, this time concerning my daughter. It was afternoon, after school, when I heard the front door open, and little feet tromp down the hall. While calling out, how was your day? her bedroom door slammed, and deep wailing erupted from her bedroom. Alarmed I opened the door, and found her face down on her bed. She could hardly speak, issuing huge sobs, so I rocked her until she settled down. When I asked her what happened, what upset her, she gasped out that they were studying Native Americans in class, and watched the film, “I Will Fight No More Forever.” This movie depicts the Nez Perce Wars in Idaho. And what had set her off was the patent injustice suffered by America’s first peoples. She had encountered a long ago atrocity, and intuitively understood the grave wrong doing. She was only eight. 

Two distinct generations impacted by the power of music and film.

In John Vogel’s superb new book, A Spiritual Exploration Of The Literary And Performing Arts, Volume I: Philosophy, I found some answers. In a lively, brief 100 pages Vogel literally defined magic.

A seeker of truth, the author methodically offers a case for the transformative power of the Arts; how film, the stage, and music calls to us, elevates our spirits, and imparts universal lessons. In clear language Vogel asserts persuasively that, as human beings, we are made better by embracing the sentiment intended for our souls.

This book takes on the task of explaining inspiration through the works of the masters. Vogel considers standards such as the musical Show Boat, assorted characters from Shakespeare, the Greek poet, Homer, and even Jimi Hendrix to provide object lessons. Each example is fleshed out to illuminate the dynamic power of performance- a realm where imagination, intuition, morality and spirituality reside. Particularly poignant to this reader was author’s discussion of a scene from the film Gandhi, and its lesson on personal redemption. 

Lively and fascinating, A Spiritual Exploration is also a cautionary tale. Vogel reminds us through the performing arts that a lust for temporal power and wealth is spiritually lethal, as revealed in the tragedy of Macbeth. More timeless examples are offered reiterating that hate produces nothing of value, and worse restricts our humanity; the essential lessons of humility, reason, spirituality, and justice. Moreover, Vogel makes a persuasive case that the Arts are the guardrails of orderly society, imparting the message that through literature and music were a taught to be human.

This is a short read with a long title, made even weightier for the philosophy it imparts.  As I read  Vogel’s words I intuitively knew that he was right about the sublime power of the unseen. 

A Spiritual Exploration is a work that speaks to the timeless and universal.

John Vogel’s book is available at:

 https://www.amazon.com/Spiritual-Exploration-Literary-Performing-Arts/dp/1081615699/ref=sr_1_2?crid=2GZWNC2WDGCOP&keywords=john+vogel+books&qid=1566516179&s=gateway&sprefix=John+vogel%2Caps%2C218&sr=8-2#customerReviews

Gail Chumbley is a playwright and author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both books are available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

History and a Rollicking Romance

A nice review is a welcome gift for any writer. John Vogel of Preserve Old Broadway graciously published this piece today.

We were supposed to start our exploration of The Vagabond King today. It is a wonderful operetta that is based on the life of Francois Villon, a French poet who allegedly rallied the people of Paris to defend the city against the attack of the Duke of Burgundy. In saving the city, Villon also preserved the monarchy in France, in the person of Louis XI.

My plan has been interrupted by an interesting turn of events. I have just finished reading two books, River of January, Part One, and River of January, Figure Eight. If you love history and a rollicking good romance, you need to read these two books, written by Gail Olson Chumbley.

But well you may ask, how did I come to know about these books and its author?

Shortly after I started posting comments and music on this FB page, I noticed a new visitor to the page, Gail Olson Chumbley. I looked her up and found out that she was an award-winning teacher at Eagle High School, Toppenish, Washington before she retired. She met her second husband, Chad Chumbley, in 1994, and Chad regaled her with stories about his parents, Chum and Helen Chumbley. Eventually, Gail, the history teacher, became curious and dug through boxes of old correspondence and pictures and finally interviewed Chum before his death in 2006. What she found was even more impressive than Chad’s stories, because the lives of Montgomery (“Chum”) Chumbley and Helen Thompson Chumbley were intertwined with key events in American history from 1925 to 1955.

Not ever having written a book before, Gail started the arduous task of translating dead archives back into living human beings. This daunting task was made easier because of her two love affairs: she loved Chum and Helen and she loved their son, Chad. Her writing was a labor of love.

I promised I would read her books one day, but my schedule was busy and “one day” kept moving to the right. Gail ended my procrastination by mailing me both books; and at night before I went to sleep, I would read through 30 or 40 pages. Gail didn’t start to write until she wrote these two splendid books, but what comes through is a historian’s love for detail and context. Gail gives the reader both the overview of history (the big picture) and the personal details of the two people she follows. We follow both Chum and Helen separately until 1936, when they met in Rio de Janeiro and fell in love.

Chum enlisted in the Navy and eventually won a spot in Flight Training in Pensacola, FL. He stayed in the Naval Reserves, even after he left active duty, and began a career that revolved around Waco Aircraft, an early pioneer in aircraft design and manufacturing. Chum was one of the few early aviators who came after WWI but was ready to serve once WWII came into focus. He was one of a handful of pilots who started in planes made of wood and ended in the jet age.

Another pilot, who trained at the Army base at Brooks Field, Texas, was Alexis Klotz. Lex also was involved in delivering the mail, although Lex started on the West Coast. Lex ended his career with TWA and offered to show me around the cockpit of the new Constellation when they went into service. Flying the mail from west to east in the winter was hazardous, and many good but not great mail pilots went down in bad weather. In winter, forced landings almost always resulted in death.

When Chum and Lex flew airplanes, the cockpits were open (it got cold at higher altitudes), and the planes had little if any navigation or communication equipment. Many pilots learned the ground terrain, the railroad tracks and other identifying ground markers to guide them during their many hours in the air. Flying was more art than science.

One the other hand, as Gail explains to us, these pilots loved to fly and may have been more comfortable in the air than on the ground.

But that is only half of the story. The other half of the story involves Helen Thompson who, from an early age, was pushed by her mother, Bertha, into dance. Luckily, Helen learned to love to dance and to perform, in general. From ballet, Helen moved into vaudeville routines and eventually ice skating with skating stars like Sonja Henie. 

But Helen’s career is only part of her story. At each turn in her career, she met famous people and witnessed key events. Coming home from a European tour, Helen performed onboard at the Captain’s request, alongside another performer named Maurice Chevalier. What was more important was the fact that both performers sat at the Captain’s table. Helen dined with the former President of France, Edward Herriot, on his way to Washington DC to confer with FDR in the mid-1930’s.

It is this constant integration of the big picture of history (Chevalier jokingly asking Herriot if he could save the world from Hitler) with the details of Helen’s dance program that make the two books so charming and engaging. We are reading history from the bottom up, living through periods of time through the eyes of Chum and Helen. And it is a wonderful way to learn and was used successfully by Kenneth Roberts in his many books on the American revolution.

For all of you history buffs who like a good romance story, put away David McCullough for a bit and pick up River of January, Part One, and River of January, Figure Eight.

For more from John Vogel visit Preserve Old Broadway on Facebook.

Gail’s books are available at http://www.river-of-january.com, and on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

That’s All

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Colonel Clark used to bring his young son down to the dojo where my brothers took judo lessons. My grandfather had enrolled my older brother first, and then my two younger brothers when they were old enough. I sometimes came along to watch these lessons because, first of all, it was something to do on a boring school night, and I liked to look at the cute boys dressed in their gi (white gear).

My Grandpa Ray always sat with Colonel Clark, if the old gent happened to be present. That meant I sat with Colonel Clark, too, not fun for a twelve-year-old, boy-crazy girl. The two old men would talk and talk, seated next to one another, though their eyes remained on their boys training on the mats. They never seemed to look each other, but remained absorbed in their conversation.

My own attention span, something close to that of a hummingbird, only caught snippets of the quiet discussion. “MacArthur, Wainwright, and Bataan,” were among the many utterances exchanged by my Grandpa and the Colonel. And despite my commitment to shallow-minded teen angst, I sensed something grave, something momentous had happened in the back and forth of these two old men.

My brother later translated the mysterious conversation I unwillingly witnessed. Colonel Clark had been left on the Bataan Peninsula when General Douglas MacArthur evacuated the Philippines in 1942. Under the new command of General Jonathan Wainwright some 22,000 Americans surrendered to Japanese occupiers, among them young Clark. The Japanese forced this defeated army on a death march (along with their Filipino comrades) some sixty miles in the jungle. The men suffered from heat exhaustion, and dehydration, staggering on, hat-less and barefoot. When a captive stumbled, or fainted, the penalty meant an immediate beheading.

Colonel Clark had witnessed this nightmarish brutality, forced to suffer in ways words fail to recreate.

In defiance of considerable odds, Colonel Clark survived his hell. And that same ordinary older man murmuring quietly with my Grandfather, fondly attending a young son he should never, in reality, have sired.

I am a much better listener today, and recognize that valiant warriors are everywhere, and frequently disguised as harmless old men. Also listening to these elderly gents has enriched my understanding of the past far more than I thought possible.

For example there was George, the high school janitor.

For many years this little old fellow pushed a mop down the halls where I taught American history. Equipped with two hearing aids, this diminutive man wielded an immense mop across litter-strewn floors that was wider than he was tall.

To a passing eye George appeared a friendly, gentle, and harmless grandfather.

I often found the old fellow paused outside my classroom door, mop in hand, listening to me blather on about the Second World War, as if I understood. Later I learned that this mild mannered 80-something had once packed a M-1 Garand, shivering aboard one of those Higgins boats heaving and crashing toward Omaha Beach in 1944.

Me “So George, what do you remember most about that June morning?” 

The aged warrior rasped in a high, faded voice, “It was awful early, and the water was awful cold.”

Then there was Roy Cortes, the jovial, open-faced father of our Student Resource Officer. Smiling, white-haired Roy.

As a teenager he enlisted straight from the Civilian Conservation Corps into the US Army.

Me “What do you remember most about the morning of the invasion, Roy?”

The affable elder smiles slightly, then a cloud passes over his expression. “I lost everyone in my outfit. I was real scared. Soon I was regrouped with other survivors. You see, that was bad because I’m Mexican, and my first platoon got used to me, and stopped calling me Juan or Jose. I had to start all over with this new bunch. For days, as we moved inland, these boys were giving me the business. One guy said, ‘Mexicans can’t shoot.’ I said that I could. So he said, ‘Ok Manuel. Show me you can shoot. See those birds on that tree branch up ahead? Shoot one of those birds.’ I lifted up my rifle and aimed at the branch and pulled the trigger.” Roy again begins chuckling.

“I missed the branch, the birds all flew away, and twelve Germans came out of the grove with their hands up.”

Astounded, I couldn’t speak. Roy simply smiled and shrugged.

Colonel Clark, George the Janitor, and Roy Cortes. They were just boys who found their lives defined in ways we civilians can never comprehend. They were scared, and hot, and cold, and hungry, and suffering, and ultimately lucky.

They came home.

That’s All.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight, a two-part memoir www.river-of-january.com. Also available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Hampton Roads, 1928

This excerpt comes from River of January, the first volume of the two-volume memoir available on Kindle, and at http://www.river-of-january.com

Two weeks later, a nervous and sleep-deprived Mont Chumbley reported for flight elimination exercises. He joined 125 other candidates; smartly lined up on a long dock, facing the gray, choppy seas of Hampton Roads. From this windy spot would-be pilots underwent demanding instruction in ten-hour heats on various flight maneuvers. Day one: morning-takeoff, afternoon-landings. Day Two: mornings- turns, including the figure-eight, afternoon-climbing and descending turns—all in Curtiss NC4 seaplanes. Their instructors rated them at each step, either passing or failing, with no second chances. The pool of candidates became smaller with each roll call.

Feeling the pressure, the young sailor took special pains to follow protocol. Climbing around on wet pontoons fixed to the underside, Chum examined the biplane as it bobbed on the rolling water. He talked himself through each required procedure, so he wouldn’t overlook any step.

“Oil leaks? Negative,” Chum recited as he performed his pre-flight inspection. “Rudder locks off? Affirmative.”

He continued crawling around the aircraft until he was sure his check was thorough. After the meticulous exterior inspection, he settled into the cockpit.

“Controls? Check. Stick?” He jockeyed the stick left to right then up to down, “Check.” “Ailerons? He wagged the panels, “Check. Gauges?” He examined the calibrations closely. “Check.”

Concluding the pre-flight list, the student-pilot ignited the motor as another crewman propped the biplane’s propulsion blades, quickly, hopping back to the dock.

Chum, still repeating all he was taught, lifted the plane from the rollicking waves and then leveled the wings using the needle ball as he reached altitude. Momentarily surprised with the ease of his lift, Chum relaxed, in control of the little trainer.

“This isn’t that complicated!” the astonished young man marveled. The thrum of the engine seemed calming, and he could practically feel the buoyant pontoons below the fuselage.

“Flying makes sense,” he reflected. “Pull the stick this way, up, reverse the stick that way, down.”

A sense of wonder filled the young man. As if born to fly he intuitively grasped the mechanics. “Flight requires gravity, logic, instinct, and sound equipment.”

The Curtiss biplane read Chum’s mind, rising on a line, descending on an angle, turning on an invisible anchor point. The little aircraft did what he desired.

Of the 126 flight hopefuls, only nineteen succeeded— including Mont Chumbley. The washouts returned to Norfolk to ship out to sea, to labor on the hellacious coal burning tugboats or other maritime duties. Chum gratefully headed for warmer climates—flight training with his class, 37C, in Pensacola, Florida.

Thinking of Commander Seymour Chum had to smile, “Radio school would probably have been too difficult.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Hard copies are available at http://www.river-of-january.com, and on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com