I Couldn’t Help Myself

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River of January

This wasn’t my idea. The completion of River of January has been as much a surprise to me as to anyone. I never presumed to be any kind of writer, ever. In fact, I spent my entire career as an American History teacher who told stories, not wrote them. But when River of January came into my life, the story took root, soon dogging my every step. Forget the fact that I didn’t know how to write, or understand the first thing about publishing–River of January made it clear that those deficiencies were my problem.

This project flowed into motion after meeting and coming to admire my story’s central figure. Mont Chumbley, one of two major characters in the River of January, was a real flesh-and-blood man full of irresistible charm. He was also my father-in-law, and as such generously shared hours of gripping storytelling, regaling tales of his fascinating life. His personal anecdotes exquisitely depicted the golden age of aviation, leaving me humbled and honored—in awe of his singular and astonishing career. Delightful episodes included flyers, Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes, among many other colorful characters that populated Roosevelt Field. Chum became my own Peter Pan, guiding me on a magical journey to an America full of promise and opportunity.

Next a treasure trove of Chumbley memorabilia surfaced that verified his stories. This archive touched not only his life, but that of his wife, Helen Thompson Chumbley. An accomplished dancer, Helen preserved every memento related to her equally remarkable career. Steamship tags, playbills, performance reviews, baggage stickers, and photos of an eager, happy girl costumed in an array of attire for stage productions or film sets. Helen too, aimed to preserve her accomplishments saving pictures, lists of business contacts, and letters home to her mother–all depicting a clear narrative of Helen’s own artistic path. Her passport, for example tells of extended junkets to Europe in 1932, London, 1934, and Brazil in 1936. All journeys illustrated with glossies, more letters home, and snapshots of a young dancer having the time of her life.

Their lives unfolded before me only to shift and refocus with each new piece of evidence. This composition grew so immense that only one book became impossible. Inevitably I had to find a fitting close, and then resume the tale in a second volume. Chum’s early years, for example, required a deeper examination of the aviation industry; complete with the serious obstacles he met attaining his wings. It also became crucial to explore the larger story of America, understanding the national barriers Chum overcame to see through his goals.

The same hurdles held true for Helen. Readers had to be reminded that the decades presented in River of January were years of careless economic boom followed by a devastating bust, leaving her path that much more daunting. Moreover, her mother required financial support in an era with no Social Security or Medicare. The burden fell completely on young Helen and her sister. With talent and fortitude, Helen’s grit loomed large in this story, tinged by a real fear of devastating consequences.

This author had formidable obstacles to overcome, too. The most profound drawback, the greatest obstruction–I had absolutely no idea how to write– not in any vibrant or intimate style. If the truth be told, creating River of January felt much like building a car while driving it down the street. River’s first drafts were so awkward and flat, that my first editor fired me as a lost cause. Mortified, I wanted to crawl under my bed, and never write again. And worse, I couldn’t disagree with this editor because I honestly had no idea what I was doing. Still, the book didn’t care. River wasn’t interested in my shortcomings, and the story refused to go away. Despite feeling an amateur fool, I bravely soldiered on.

Every family has a story waiting to be unveiled. In this instance the flow of narrative arrived from three directions. First, and most significantly, was my marriage to Chad Chumbley, the eldest son of Mont and Helen Chumbley. It was he who initially conveyed there was a tale to tell. With what little Chad knew of his father’s career and his mother’s accomplishments, my husband was certain of an epic waiting to appear.

The abundance of primary documents sealed my fate as my in-laws biographer. And again, though I didn’t recognize the forces at work, sifting through each item from that vast collection boosted the project forward. And this couple saved EVERYTHING! Air show tickets, menus from European eateries, pressed flowers, telegrams, his logbook!

By 2005 we coaxed Chum to come west and take up residence in an assisted living facility. He soon became the most popular, most charming tenant in the place. And it was in his room, 18 months later that we sadly attended his death. A mighty Virginia pine had fallen, and the era of his extraordinary life died with him. For me, that could not stand—Chum’s story deserved to be remembered, and no one else was going to see that job through. Nor could Helen be forgotten. Her qualities of greatness cast as large a shadow as her husband’s. I had no choice but to ignore my doubts and get to work piecing together their lives–from youth to marriage.

Not all members of the family were keen with my project. And I am sensitive to their concerns. But, Chum and Helen lead such astonishing lives, and achieved such great accomplishments, that I decided to forge ahead and make River of January a reality.

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