The Poetry of Protest

ImageAlice Paul

Today’s posting has nothing to do with my book.  Instead I am moved to comment on today’s news.

The news of Pete Seeger’s passing is popping up everywhere on all my personal media settings.  And I, as millions of others loved the music of Pete Seeger.  I always have.  The beauty of his voice alone, or with his group, “The Weavers” still echoes compellingly in my mind.

Yet, today, with his passing, I’m not thinking of the silenced music.  As essentially American as his voice and lyrics resonated, the lessons I learned from Pete Seeger are more linked to political conviction and courage.  His was the voice of the non-conformist, the social and political critic who challenged conventional beliefs.

Seeger served in uniform during World War Two.  Though he was a young man when he soldiered, his participation says a great deal about the justness of America’s struggle against totalitarianism.  But after the war, Seeger seems to have instantly grasped the politics of the Cold War for was it was, an excuse to stifle the voice of opposition.  Seeger suffered for his convictions.  When popular thought demanded unified anti-Communist behavior, Seeger did not comply.  It was justice he sought, and in the days of racism and blind war mongering, Seeger would not close his eyes and pretend America practiced equality and liberty.  And his beliefs landed him in political hot water.

His banjo and singing voice were his only sword and sidearm– yet still he made himself a dangerous man to an American government that demanded wall to wall consensus.  This troubadour appeared to be fearless in expressing his thoughts, singing anywhere and everywhere he saw injustice.

The Vietnam War provided Seeger and a growing segment of Americans a broader platform to protest Johnson-Nixon policies in Southeast Asia.

I remember that he was to appear on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and sing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, an anti-war song.  Such a powerful message!  The lyrics at bottom called out the man in the White House as a “big fool.”  CBS pulled Seeger from the show out of fear of retribution from stock holders, sponsors and hawkish politicians.  To their credit, the Smothers Brothers refused to go on until Seeger was allowed back on the show.  CBS caved, Seeger appeared, the feelings of America soured more on the war, and for a wide variety of reasons America withdrew from that nightmarish miasma.

This blog is a tribute to other voices of opposition across many generations of Americans.  The list is long of patriotic citizens who understood the First Amendment meant what it said.  We should honor the lives of those who resisted the tyranny of a majority they believed misguided.

William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Helen Hunt Jackson, Homer Plessy, Jacob Riis, Henry George, Lewis Hine, “Mother” Mary Harris Jones, Ida Tarbell, Ida B. Wells, Eugene V. Debs, Alice Paul, Big Bill Haywood, Phil Ochs, Mario Savio, Cesar Chavez, Bobby Kennedy, Diane Nash, Bayard Rustin, Daniel Ellsberg, Harvey Milk, and the other thousands of names left off this list.

Hoist one tonight for Pete Seeger and the multitude of others who braved the currents of popular thought, for there is nothing more American than to question the status quo.

Define Truth

One question raised about River of January is,”Are my characters brushes with the famous true?”  The short answer is yes.  Helen dined with Maurice Chevalier, and they performed on the same stage.  Chum crossed paths with Amelia Earhart regularly at Roosevelt Field.   The celebrity passages are factual.  I have their pictures with the famous, references from documents, and proof in aviation logbooks.

Creative non-fiction appears to be a new genre in search of defining itself.  Where exactly is the line between creative and non-fiction?  Though I need to tell this story, I certainly wasn’t alive at the time.  Frankly who knows what the characters precisely uttered to one another at any given time.  I tried to rely on personal and business letters, quoting at length when I could, to add tone, cadence and a feel for the era.  I am adding a lot of pictures for readers to visually connect to the characters, and the sights they photographed on their travels.  Additional color had to come from my imagination, with clues found  in the archive of family memorabilia.

My personal preference in reading is non-fiction history.  I have lived on a strong steady diet of biographies and general histories.  Still I wonder how any scholar concludes their work without feeling uneasily incomplete.  The subtleties of human interaction, the nuances of personal connection are more than left out.  We simply can’t know all facets of historic lives.  Our only alternative is to flesh out the tale with what we understand about the human condition.  And of course every writer struggles with their own blinders, biases, and preconceived notions.

For example the age old question of General Washington’s taciturn exterior has intrigued historians for two centuries.  Was he grave and somber because his teeth hurt?  Possibly.  Did he wish to hide his false teeth due to the fact they were unsightly,  fashioned out of a number of materials–ivory to human–to wood.  Are both theories wrong?  Did Washington remain stoic in appearance to evoke nobility and dignity?  Maybe.  In fact, all of the above could pass scrutiny.  Different historians have differing opinions.

I am not too troubled about shaping feelings in ways I think makes sense.  I’ve fallen in love, held my own in arguments, and felt more regrets than I care to claim.  That is the truth I rely upon to craft the creative element in this historical narrative.

I think all biography and history  possess an element of the unknown.  Whether the history is filtered through professional scholars such as Robert Remini, Doris Kearns Goodwin, or Miss Nobody Gail in her Idaho cabin, we are analyzing viable evidence to apply shape and logic to past lives.

Did Helen meet Sophie Tucker.  Yes.  She told us in a letter.  What did she say to her?  How did she act around her?  I ask myself what would I have said as an American to another famous American performing in London?  That’s the creative portion of this non-fiction format.

All things considered, creative non-fiction is an exciting new canvas for writing.  I feel like a kid in a candy store each time I turn over another photo or letter.

Have Book Will Travel


The book’s progress is coming along.  At this writing, we are looking at the end of March for publication.  Cross your fingers.  There are details still dangling such as a book cover, interior design, inserting pictures and printing hard copies.  I’m not sure about Kindle or Amazon ebooks, but my publisher seems to think those options are do-able.

Marketing seems to be the real work.  Any of you that have published in the past are most likely aware of the immensity of the task.  I would love to hear from readers of any venue, mom and pop bookstores, reading groups, service groups, or any organization that would enjoy a book talk.  I am open to suggestions and compiling a list of likely outlets.

I live near Boise and can drive to most locations in the Pacific Northwest.  For other locations some planning would be necessary, and books shipped ahead.

I believe in River of January.  The story did not fall into my lap by accident and I have nothing but respectful awe for my protagonists, Helen and Chum.  Their story deserves to be told.  It must be told.  They did things in their lives I’m not sure can be repeated today.  In the earliest days of show business and aviation one needed heart and guts, not a masters degree.  Added to the tale is the compelling story of America during 20th century, a hundred years of growth, change and world leadership.

I thank you for sticking to the blog all these months, and the kind support you have extended.

This writer is open to (nice) suggestions.

The Extraordinary


It is very easy to look out on a classroom and see average kids, gridded in average desks.  The first day of school felt as if I was corralling colts to lock up in a pen.  Students were all the same–feisty, noisy, exuberant, in need of order and compliance.  That was the initial view from the front of the room.

Yet, over the next days, weeks and months their little eggs cracked, and conformity ceased.  Each individual emerged through comments, reactions, and casual conversation.  In the place of the “American Teenager,” sprouted pretty cool people.  Through the course of many years I became acquainted with nationally ranked athletes, cancer survivors, opera singers, bowling proteges, dancers, and kids who’d been cast in feature films.  From generic outward appearances sprang unique and captivating individuals.

What separates the ordinary from the singular?  In reality is it a shortsightedness I placed upon myself at the start of the year?  I saw rows and columns instead of the garden blooming before me.  It fell upon the kids to show me who they were, whether in outright admission or inadvertent comments.  Do we all suffer from blind first impressions?

I came to understand that my two major characters in River of January worked hard to rise from the ordinary.

For Chum, his progress was the product of driven, conscientious mastery.  He flew so often, so much, that life on the ground wasn’t nearly as satisfying!  In Helen’s case she not only adored dance and studied hard, but had her mother at her side pushing from childhood.

There were reverses in their efforts.  Chum’s father refused to see the boy’s uniqueness, refused to recognize the son was meant for something more than steering a plow.  Helen’s willful mother was a source of such external pressure it spilled over into her life off the stage.

Both figures reached enormous heights in their respective pursuits.  Chum’s air race proved to the aviation world that he had indeed arrived, and Helen’s professional career took her across three continents.

The central reason I wrote this book was to share two exceptionally eventful lives.  Sifting through the volumes and volumes of their records it became clear these were no ordinary people.  Helen and Chum were unusually accomplished .  The better I came to know them through the things they left behind, the more impressed I became.  These two deserve to be remembered.  They raised the bar of living life to extraordinary levels.

And I don’t want them to be forgotten.

Women of All Nations

“Women of All Nations,” was a 1931 Twentieth Century Fox film, starring Victor Mclaglen and Greta Nissen. Helen Thompson, a central figure in the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” appeared in a number of scenes in this film, including this closeup.

Helen had made her way to Los Angeles and auditioned for every studio possible in Depression-era Hollywood. Here Helen appears as the harem girl without the veil. The sheik is played by the legendary Bela Lugosi, the Silver Screen’s original Dracula. Bogart appeared in this film somewhere too, but isn’t readily identifiable.

It’s the only film footage of Helen that I can find.


Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Books are available at and on Kindle.

Living Life Forward

It was the night of February 9, 1964, a Sunday, when my older brother and I had to make a crucial decision.  We were both over stimulated, frantic, not one of our four feet remaining long on the floor. The house vibrated with our excitement and the weight of our impossible dilemma. For starters our birthday was the following day–the 10th, (though we’re not twins–he’s a year older). Still, that pre-birthday fuse had already ignited and by the 9th the two of us were banking off the walls.

The quandary we faced that Sunday night was whether to watch “Davy Crockett at the Alamo,” starring Fess Parker on Disney (The Alamo!), or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. This was that first historic Beatles broadcast, live on American television, and we agonized between the two choices.

In 1964 there were no video players, no DVD players, no home computers, or dvr’s, in fact televisions were the size of Volkswagen’s and transmitted in glorious, flickering black and white. This difficult decision counted because there was no rewind, there were no do-overs. One gain meant one loss.

We liked Davy Crockett an awful lot.  We had watched all the previous episodes, and Davy biting the dust in San Antonio was the much anticipated grand finale. But, oh, the Beatles! And the adoration was real, palpable, an injection of adrenaline without the needle. We worshiped at the warmth of our bedroom radios, perpetually tuned in to our local AM radio station. Reverent silence accompanied replays of “She Loves You,” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

What could two grade schoolers, sick with anticipation do with such a weighty conundrum?  It was 1964 and we had to choose.

Before the proliferation of electronic media, this little girl of the 1960’s viewed momentous events as they beamed across the screen. MLK’s elocution at the Lincoln Memorial, President Kennedy’s inaugural address, his assassination, and the escalating war in Southeast Asia–all experienced as reported at that moment.

In an earlier era, when Chum flew in his air race, and Helen danced in Rio at the Copacabana, there were no camcorders or Iphones. His signature landing and Helen’s near disastrous opening night grew silent as the applause subsided, then faded in time. Much like my brother and myself in 1964, they lived life forward, one opportunity at a time.

Silent photos and written records are all that remain verifying Chum’s aerial dash through darkened skies, and Helen’s energetic dance routines. They lived life forward, embracing events as they unfolded–experienced once, then gone. I would love to see footage of Chum’s Waco airplane lifting off at dusk, or watch Helen spring across the stage. But those wishes are pipe dreams, never to happen. No vintage film or recording, (except one I found by accident) exist in the historic record. The best I can do for myself, and for readers, is try to recreate the magic of the first time around in the pages of my River of January.

Oh, by the way, I’ve never seen “Davy Crockett at the Alamo.”

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

Reverses in January

I recall a quote, used everywhere it seems, that January is the Sunday month of the year.  Where we live the weather becomes more gray than sunny, and the snow isn’t quite as exciting or welcome as in December.  This is a tough month for disappointment, too.  Shoulders girded, body braced, we of the upper latitudes plow forward to survive the dismal weeks of January.  The last thing any of us need is outside disappointments or frustrations.

I was married.  I was.  Not the other person.  And I had two little children.  It was January, and he had overdrawn our bank account once again.  I didn’t realize that as fast as I wrote checks for bills he went to the bank and took out the cash.  Checks bounced.  We had overdrafts and poverty.  And my little boy had a birthday coming up, and this man, who was supposed to be a responsible father had spent all our money.

I tried to sew up a little pair of brown pants made of corduroy but they turned out to be too short.  I had some remnants left and had to turn the fabric the opposite direction to lengthen and make wearable his little birthday present.  That was all I had to give him that year.  It was a painful and memorable January.

Much has changed since then, life is stable, the ex-husband a bad memory and that little boy is turning 30 with plenty of clothes.

I didn’t share this tale to illicit a pity-party.  Part of my motivation is that it is indeed January, and my boy is indeed turning 30.  The other reason is how unwelcome impediments, and other barriers crop up constantly.  And they appear at the worst times, times when we feel we can’t handle another disaster.  And it feels to me that the first of the year is the toughest time to cope with problems and losses.

In terms of my book title, River of January, remember the name is translated from the Portuguese Rio de Janiero.  That was the place Chum met Helen, and where they subsequently fell in love.  As I write, I see that the high today in Rio will be 91 degrees.  I wonder, are problems easier to handle when January is a summer month?

Could I have kept my little boy in shorter pants?

Mentally Constipated

Writing isn’t a skill that comes naturally to me.  And I know what good writing looks like when I read it.  I have had students who were naturals, fashioning well constructed sentences, laced with alluring imagery.  I have friends who make words sing, in fact some have earned their living producing written words for money.  Many teaching colleagues who literally drip poetry were my neighbors in nearby classrooms.  Not me.  Not this kid.  When this story, River of January, fell into my lap I didn’t know where to turn.  The idea of me writing a book was laughable, astonishing, the last thing an old girl like me would take on.

I tried to outsource the effort at first.  I beat the bushes to get help from a number of people. who would essentially write it for me.  You know those friends.  The one’s who would love to put their lives on hold to unravel my convoluted sentences.  And in fairness, some individuals actually did that for me, I am deeply grateful and indebted to them.

Still, sitting down at the keyboard, I know what it is I want to say.  I know there is passion, anguish, ethereal joy.  But my brain flushes, just like a toilet.  The harder I push, the more words elude me.  It’s as though English becomes somehow unintelligible, and foreign.  I thumb through Roget’s, scan Webster’s, and finally have to walk away leaving my mental firewall to soften up.

Much later, while making my bed, eating red licorice, or watching “The Fatal Attraction of Adolf Hitler” on the Military Channel the words form in my mind, elegantly phrased.  Then look out, I’ve got to jot them down before they evaporate, never to reappear.

I figure this writing business is a lot like golf, not that I play golf, mind you.  But my husband does.  He’ll come home from eighteen holes and it’s easy to see how his day passed.  I get a tapping Fred Astair through the front door when the links played well, or he stomps in cussing, fit to be tied with frustration.

Can any of us control the flow of magic when it visits?  Can any of us make magic appear at will?  I can’t.  That neuron synapse-ed mess I call my brain does not tolerate fools.  It shuts tight when I squeeze too hard.  And we have words, my brain and I, when the disconnect seals off from my head to my fingers.

To finish this bathroom-themed post, I must return to the natural.  Writing isn’t easy to fake.  I can push and bargain and swear, but the fluency of truth, of an honest phrase or an essential certainty is a gift of grace, not a product of stress.  When I am anchored to my spirit, not my head, the magic has half a chance.