Tragedy Under the Radar

A student, Joe, sauntered into my classroom, smacked his books down on his desk, wheeled around and headed back toward the door.  Before he crossed the door frame, he looked at me as an afterthought, mentioning, “A plane crashed into the World Trade Center when I left my house.”  Taking my cue from his demeanor, I casually replied, “Oh, a small plane?  Pilot error?”

“Dunno,” was the boy’s articulate farewell.

With his heads-up as a cue, I turned on the news to find out more on what I thought was a small tragedy.  Horribly, the television flashed on at the same time the second jet hit the second tower.  And if you are of an age to be aware, that nightmare attack triggered a shower of consequences all Americans continue to debate.  The Iraqi invasion, the Afghan invasion, prisoner abuse, civilian murders, airport security measures, the death of Bin Laden, and now the arguments over Syrian intervention.

Another kind of tragedy, private tragedy, is a central theme in my book, River of January.”  Silently, out of the sight of others, consequences tentacled out into the future from a series of tragedies beginning around 1900.  The losses of a lone, little girl shaped the lives of others until, well, now. 

That little girl, who readers meet as an adult in the book, suffered the tragedy of her mother’s early death, her father, no more than a stranger living in Kentucky, and later, her husband’s sudden death in Queens, New York in 1925.  From her tragedies, the now, grown woman believed that those she loved, she lost.  And that core belief held dire consequences for her two children, particularly the youngest daughter.

This sad life, heavy with suffering from crushing, dramatic losses, bore strange fruit in the woman’s inability allow her children their own lives.  Her youngest daughter was not permitted any self-agency in her profession or any personal life.  As a mother, the lost little girl demanded to be the center of her children’s world, and she was the gate-keeper of their lives.  She couldn’t comprehend sharing her family with outsiders, especially the young man who came to marry the youngest.

A tragedy under the radar. 

Amelia Earhart?


Piecing this story together didn’t come easily.  Though I have had the benefit of volumes of letters, telegrams, and pictures, among other sources, I still have struggled to get the story right.  The picture posted today provides an example of the most exciting finds I’ve made, but still shrouded with some doubt.

The girl in the center, in front of the Waco airplane, is Francis Marsalis Harrell.  From Chum’s thick scrapbook and an interview I conducted with him, I know her to have been his girlfriend.  They dated for a about a year after he left the Navy, and I believe he cared deeply for this young lady.  What brought me to that conclusion was piecework and conjecture.  First, during my interview sessions with Chum he lightly mentioned that his girlfriend used to time his trips into Manhattan from Long Island, but only when he drove female flight students into the city.  Second, when he looked through his ancient scrapbook, coming across her picture, he had to get up and walk around on his old legs, getting water from the kitchen and using the bathroom, before we could begin taping again.  I remember that clearly.

While researching my book, River of January, I gained a brief education in early aviation history.  I learned that there was a group of women who closely gathered in a league known as the “Ninety-Nines.”  This association of female aviators was a tight-knit assemblage, drawn together to survive in the male dominated world of flight.  These women resolutely broke ground for future generations of women to find their place in the cockpit.   These girls were enthusiastic and fearless pioneers.

Returning to the picture again, I found that three of these women pilots, all horsing around on roller-skates signed the photo.  Francis signed it “To Navy,” her pet name for Chum. The girl on her belly and the other one on her rear end are Betty Gilles and Elvy Kalep, other Ninety-Niners.  So the question for me has been, who is the fourth girl wearing her mechanic’s togs?

One morning, staring at this picture for the millionth time, the scales fell from my eyes and I saw Amelia Earhart.  You might see her clearly too and wonder how I missed the obvious, or think I’m nuts for believing it’s her.  So I ask myself, “Is the time right?  Is the place right? Are there other pictures from this publicity shot?”

The answers are all yeses.

This picture came from a google search of Elvy Kalep.

In the effort to reconstruct the past there exists uncertainty and conjecture.  However, thank goodness, also there exists logic and probability.

Boy, this has been fun.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January. Also available on Kindle


I was waiting for a flight to Portland yesterday, at the airport.  Watching my surroundings at the gate, I began to muse about the flight aspect of my book, River of January.  In the narrative, Chum left the Navy in 1933 finding there were only a handful of disparate companies that handled air cargo.  These businesses had  tried their hand at passenger travel in the 20’s, but costly overhead expenses put an end to that option.

Then Congress stepped in, underwriting airmail flights, and consolidating routes, that ended in the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration by the late 1950’s.  Travel after that boost, was best characterized by glamor and style.  People enjoyed spacious seating, formal dining on small white tablecloths, glass plates and silverware.  The food was fresh and hot–served by attentive stewardesses.

Now, I watch an over sized middle aged biker, sporting a wormy little ponytail pounding a pinball machine in an alcove.  He is clad in a loose, black t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, and his jeans riding on his butt crack.  Another woman is chattering loudly on her cell phone with great enthusiasm.  She’s clearly an open, affable lady.  Most of the other few folks booked on this flight are eating cold food, purchased from overpriced vendors dotted beyond the security gate.  The area feels more like a bus depot.

Then abruptly, out of the floor to ceiling windows, a small canary yellow biplane soars across the glass, piloted by a loan aviator.

It’s nice to know that for some, like Mont Chumbley, the wonder of flight has remained timeless.

Driving the Frontage Road

Now, I know the story that I am writing.  I know it so intimately, that the original manuscript, weak as it read, neared 600 pages.  I then faced a Solomon-like decision to divide my baby in two.  And as difficult as that dissection felt, I soon recognized the virtue of that decision.  Simply stated, concentrating on one volume at a time made editing so much easier, first for me, then for my editor.  But now I am looking at the same task for volume two.

Again, I know the plot of this narrative, I know where the story ends.  But writing each sentence, crafting each paragraph, delineating each chapter is tremendously challenging.  The true events placed into the manuscript need special attention to convey the fresh, authentic feel of each episode.  Re-writing volume two, which is essential, feels like starting over.  Volume one reads easily, like the speeding down an interstate, while volume two reads more like detours onto a bumpy frontage road.

I read a portion of the manuscript, attempt to perk up the conversations, then I reread it again, to liven the descriptive language.  “Was,” as a verb lays flat.  I think I hate “was.”  I need to percolate more active language.  “She was frightened,” hardly raises an eyebrow.  “Curled into a shadowed corner, the desperate child’s fingers nearly scratched through the drywall,” says fear a reader can feel.

The scenario for me is to write, re-read, write again, re-read, write again, give up, come back, re-read . . . repeat.

So I know where I will end the trip, but these detours, by-passes, and frontage road slow downs are tough to weather.  I have to use my meandering method until it reads just right.  That means re-writing each sentence in River, until a shape emerges that does the story justice.

But I Had Other Plans!

I clearly remember the day my husband told me he had throat cancer.  The news was so impossible to believe that I honestly wanted to reply, “No, Chad, you don’t, we don’t have time for cancer.”  I tend to resist any emergency that I can’t package up and manage, or eliminate by a force of will.

As he stood in the kitchen, his hands resting on the sides of the sink, tears filled his eyes.  I read in those tears that he had given up and accepted his medical condition, and that made me mad.  We weren’t going to lay down and admit that the big scary C-word would take center stage in our lives.  It wasn’t convenient–medical procedures would be scheduled when I had to work, or had other commitments to fulfill.

I couldn’t see past the treatments, the financial burden, or the fear a cancer diagnosis leaves in its wake.  We had much better things to do with our time, like going to our cabin, feeding the deer, hiking.  Cancer would interfere with our plans.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross developed a model for accepting the unacceptable, in her five stages of grief.  1. Denial. (I resemble that remark) 2. Anger (Oh, yeah) 3. Bargaining (Huh?) 4. Depression (Medication for that) 5. Acceptance (Huh? Never!)

I am still pissed off that cancer darkened our door, and forced me to do things I hated doing.  Cancer compelled me to walk through my daily life frightened to my core.  Cancer physically shaped my husband into a skeletal invalid, restrained in a hospital bed, generally incoherent, bathed by CNA’s barely out of high school, and cancer made me a slave to beeping monitors and physicians who had no reassurances.

I never passed phase two in the Kubler-Ross schematic, however, somehow I converted that raw pain into a readable narrative that restored my sanity.