Blind Dates

If I were to pick up the thread that eventually led to River of January and retrace the steps, the book actually began with a blind date.

A good friend of mine, a fellow teacher, introduced me to my husband.  She was originally from Miami and had moved west to get away from the crime and congestion.  My husband-to-be had followed them out on a visit and it was during that visit that we got together.

He came to my house with stories of his parents and their adventures.  Mostly he talked of his father, Mont Chumbley and “Chum’s” exploits in flight.  From his wallet my gentleman caller produced a couple of pictures proving his claims.  Next he told of his mother and her career as a dancer before and during WWII.   He knew less of her story, but shared it with the same enthusiasm as Chum’s.  My beau was careful to add that his father was still alive and that I would enjoy meeting him. (And that part was true, I did meet him and was charmed.)

Each time we met, following that first date, he brought more and more mementos to show me.  Photo stills of a handsome man posing proudly before his airplane, and of a girl with smoky mascara-smudged eyes, smoking a cigarette.  I grew increasingly curious with each new find.

Eventually, we married and his father, Chum, died.  By that time I had a large closet filled to capacity with his family mementos.  All of those letters, pictures, playbills, air show programs, were saved, in my opinion, for a reason, and perhaps that was to piece them all together into a book.

My husband courted me, a history teacher with historic materials, and sifting through those stacks made the decision to write obvious.  The responsibility fell to me and hopefully I have done their fascinating lives justice.

You Had to be There

Through the writing process I had to learn to stop telling the story, and instead visually show each episode.  Describing, over telling, took a bit of time to incorporate into my writing.  Most of the works I’ve read over the years are telling by nature–straight non-fiction books, biographies, historical narratives and other factual stories of that nature. 

When making the change-over to creative non-fiction, description grew vital to relating an interesting and readable story.  In my head I started to imagine myself in the room, or within earshot of my characters.  That necessity required placing myself in rooms, houses, city streets, restaurants, and theaters I’ve passed through over time.  I visually remembered all sorts of tables, different kinds of flooring, from wood to tile, stage lighting to low lit lounges, to living room lamps, to garish lit repair shops.  My own images revived of my grandparents homes, apartments, and automobiles– my own romantic memories of brief visits to the tropics, and finally falling back on my training in American History.  I couldn’t seem to make anything up, the backdrop had to be real to me. 

I suppose I am re-inventing the wheel in this blog entry.  Or I’m admitting my limits as a writer.  George Lucas sure came up with that Death Star, Gene Roddenberry created Mr. Spock, JK Rowling evolved port keys and apparating.  Not me.  I have no talent to generate believable fantasy.  But that’s okay.  It’s been kind of cool to visit my grandmother’s tiny kitchen, and wearing ballet slippers again.  I hope that this authenticity comes through my writing in River of January.

 

Waiting is the Hardest Part

My son forwarded a Huffington Post story featuring the rejections endured by prominent authors.  I know that he meant it as a kindness, that everybody struggles in the book business.  Still, despite his good intentions, the story brought me down.  The business end of publishing always leaves me with a chill.

Writing, though sometimes a struggle, has been an affirming experience for me, delving into a story of risk and adventure.  I’ve been in the cockpit in an air race, suffered through butterflies waiting to go on stage in Paris, London, and Buenos Aires.  Now that the story is with the editor, I have to face the next battle–getting noticed by a publisher.  That arena is about money, markets, and deal-making.  And though I understand there are other options for getting River of January out there, those alternative routes are just as mystifying.

For any of us trying to get a manuscript before the public, we have to find some confidence to persevere through this difficult effort.  While the book moves its way through the process of finding interest, I need to cope with my uncertainty.  I can only fall back on believing in this project, that this story is unique, and powerful, and worthy of attention.  Tom Petty had it right–the waiting is the hardest part.

“Clubbing vs. Hitting the Bars”

A noteworthy feature emerged researching my book, River of January.  Helen and Chum’s mementos, particularly the photos, depict style and class–a sense of decorum and politeness that seems as faded as the old pictures.  I can’t help but wonder what happened to end the sense of self control and refinement in our social interactions.  And the sad conclusion points the damning finger at my generation.   We Boomers ushered in a coarsening of manners.

I won’t go into the brutality of the Vietnam experience, or the duplicity of Nixon’s Watergate escapades, but the era not only shaped my generation, but beat the hell out of us in the process.  Contrary didn’t cover my resistance to conventional expectations during my formative years.  If something was only done one way, I found another means.  I can’t help but remember the old bumper sticker that read, Question Authority.

At twenty, Helen wore fitted suits, wool or linen, silk stockings, fashionable hats, netting on the front, and stylish heels.  When she went on a rare date, (between her protective mother and working, her nights were busy,) the girl enjoyed going out clubbing.  Her drink was bourbon, and she smoked cigarettes from a silver case.  Her music was glamorous jazz, and her dances consisted of prescribed steps, face to face, and romantic.

I wore jeans.  I wore sweaters from thrift stores, or flannel shirts from my dad’s closet.  I liked Red Wing logging boots, and drank beer.  I loved Bobby Kennedy and the Beatles. The lead guitar, especially in the magic hands of Hendrix, to me was the summit of music.  And I hated conformity.

At the movies, my world changed when I witnessed a man cut in half in a scene from Catch 22.  Our evenings out consisted of beer at the drive-in, and dancing at country-rock taverns.  We hit the bars.  We closed the bars down.  Vonnegut was the visionary, and Lennon McCartney supplied the soundtrack. 

I believe that the youth movement made the effort to right wrongs in America, but Helen and Chum’s time actually accomplished more, enduring economic depression and defeating Fascism.  All the while looking and sounding, and behaving with grace.

Angels

Image

Today is Chum’s turn.  He’s the smiling, handsome fellow.  The man he is standing with is Howard Ailor, the New York distributor for Waco Aircraft Company, out of Troy, Ohio.  I chose to post this picture because of Ailor’s important role in young Mont’s start.

Some believe we all have angels who arrive when we need them, and set us in our life’s direction.  Howard Ailor was just such a man for Chum.

Following Chum’s discharge from the Navy in 1933, little opportunity–actually no opportunity beckoned in Depression-era New York City.  Enter Howard Ailor.  After making the rounds of all the existing air carriers in the city, Chum paid his last call out at Roosevelt Field, on Long Island.  A smiling, all-knowing, Ailor took one look at the young pilot and told him he’d have to make his own luck.  America was fresh out.

Crazy at it may seem, Howard convinced Chum to buy his own plane, start his own business, and for good measure moved stuff around in the Waco office, so the young man could have office space, too.  And that act of kindness made all the difference in Mont Chumbley’s life.

When I was a kid we played “Blind Man’s Bluff,” a game that began by spinning the person who was “IT.”  Blindfolded, the kid had to find everyone scattered around without looking.  In that same vein, Chum couldn’t see.  He was blinded by his uncertainty, a devastated economy, and no network of friends.  Howard Ailor stopped the spinning and sent the young man into the right direction.

Plastics

One-Word-Plastics

In Mike Nichols classic, The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s character is the guest of honor at his own graduation party.  Shaking hands, thanking well-wishers, one attendee herds him outside and says, “One word.  Plastics.”  There is no context or warning for the advice, and the exchange is well timed–very funny.

Turns out that the recommendation from the film was sage advice.

My husband was diagnosed with throat cancer back in the spring of 2010.  Following seven weeks of daily radiation, and powerful opiates, combined with a freighter load of other drugs, his colon ruptured by August.  Simultaneous to the colon perforation, chaos erupted as well.  The next twelve fateful hours involved a life-flight trip on a helicopter over the mountains, life and death surgery, followed by eight harrowing days in the hospital ICU.  In summary his recovery took better than three years, as he was literally coming back from the dead.

My husband’s body, initially ravaged by potent cancer drugs now pulsed lethal septic contamination . . . his mortality dangerously uncertain.

In a miniscule corner room, a broad aluminum apparatus, looking a bit like a spinning skeletal umbrella dropped from the ceiling. Numerous hooks dangled from this suspended fixture, but apparently not enough to treat his severe condition.  Hatstand-style steel poles were wheeled in, circling the raised, mechanical bed.  Every hook bore multicolored plastic bags, upside down, metering in good stuff while other plastic tubes, secreted beneath, drained out the bad stuff. The overall impression of the set up reminded me of an underwater documentary, featuring clouds of transparent jellyfish, crisscrossing uncountable tendrils. Easily fifty miles of plastic tubing splayed from above, inserted into all of his orifices-all of them.

When the medical staff ran out of natural holes, they manufactured more conduits using hypodermic needles. Blue and green plastic portals were punched into his wrists and upper arms. Threaded in were additional plastic tubes that pumped fluids, battling to purge his body of poison.

The liquids pushing through those tubes, out paced the liquids draining out, leaving his body strangely distorted.  Bloated, his eyes had swollen shut and his nose stretched broadly across his cheeks–fingers like frankfurters. As he hovered between life and death, his distended condition revealed the herculean battle against toxins within.

What my eyes could see in that little cubicle, my mind failed to process. This ordeal–his grim condition, the possibility of his death, the suddenness of the disaster became more that I could grasp.

I stopped eating, struggled to find sleep, and wandered through my days in a daze. The plastic lattice work draped over that distorted stranger removed any conscious balance of a normal life. When living in my own skin reached critical mass I realized my sanity had reached a breaking point. There was no solace to be found, no help, nothing but a mental abyss–and that couldn’t continue. I had a husband and family who needed me.

So I began writing my first memoir, River of January. I had idly contemplated starting this project for many years, telling myself that someday I’d commit the story of Helen and Chum to paper. Now, living in the middle of a nightmare, writing became a necessity, and the book began to take shape. And as dreadful as those early drafts were, I kept at it, white knuckling each word, sentence and paragraph. Somehow, in that silent struggle, I eventually began to recognize my face in the mirror again. I felt a little hungry and started to eat real food now and then.

Since that horrible episode in 2010, I can announce that he lived. I can also attest to the restorative powers of writing. (Therapeutic magic as far as I’m concerned).

But that creepy ‘suit’ portrayed in “The Graduate” offered up a great career tip. I think owning some hot plastic stocks might have covered the medical bills accrued from his difficult, extended stay. Hospitals go through plastic products like nothing I’ve ever witnessed. I can still see those icicle-like plastic bags and webs of tubes dangling in every direction from the ceiling, weaved across and under his bloated torso. A synthetic product that aided in saving a life.

Correction–saving two lives and creating a memoir.