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Order River of January Now
The Silver Fleet in a Golden Age!
This photo is a DC3, part of Eastern Airlines “Great Silver Fleet” of passenger liners. The plane is on display in the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian. We had suspected that Chum had flown this aircraft, but weren’t quite certain. Finally, I had the chance to look over his logbooks and matched the tail number to this plane. Chum captained this particular aircraft in February, 1946, six months after the war ended. If you find yourself on the National Mall, you can duck into the Air and Space, where you’ll find this beauty still on exhibit.
From the new memoir, River of January . . .
Booked at the Palace Hotel in Brussels, the show’s new variety lineup fused seamlessly. First the star, Mistinguett, with the ballet troupe opened the evening program. Helen, unable to dance both with her friends and in her solo, chose the latter. Happily, it became a crowd favorite. Though she would have liked to dance with the company, Helen knew the ovations she garnered were well worth watching the opening from the wings. Next on the bill was synchronized dancing from American Earl Leslie and his line of hoofers, followed by the other company entertainers and their specialties.
The program closed with the full cast in a colorful, peacock-inspired, extravaganza. It featured Mistinguett center-stage, supporting a headdress of colossal feathered plumes of blue, turquoise, and purple, shimmering above her blonde hair. Her “Beauties” were costumed in silvery tutus, sequined halters, and tight, sparkling caps, each sprouting over sized silver feathers, flanking their star from both sides.
The male dancers, in black tuxedos, peeked out between each feathered girl. Under the dazzling lights, the symmetrical tableau moved patrons to their feet, applauding and shouting for more.
For a second night more flowers appeared, and this time a note accompanied the gift on Lillian’s dressing room table. As she again picked up the vase and turned toward the trash bin, Carmen stopped her, “At least read the note first, Lillian.”
“Yeah Lil, c’mon!” the other dancers chanted.
“Who wrote it?” asked Grace.
“Is it signed?” wondered Carmen.
Rolling her eyes, the dancer huffed dramatically, then slit open the note with a nail file and read in a flat, monotone:
You were really wonderful in your solo specialty and all through the review and I do want once again to ask you if you will let me pilot you through town in my car when and for as long as you may care. Should you not care to see or know me, please allow these flowers to tell you of my admiration, and remember that you have a person who cares for you in the little city of Brussels.
“But I didn’t have a solo,” Lillian exclaimed. “The only one who had a solo was…”
The girls stood silently, and then all eyes shifted to Helen. Lillian laughed once—a bit annoyed, and handed the vase to her friend, saying, “I believe these belong to you.”
Banter erupted again, now aimed at Helen.
“Jeepers girl, he admires you!” and “Wonder who it is that cares for you in this little city, kid?”
Helen took their teasing in stride, curtsying and blowing kisses. But when the dancers began chatting about the imminent cast party, Helen lowered herself onto a rickety stool and read on. “I feel I must say that I am not an ‘old butter and egg man’ … I am just twenty-eight and not too ugly … My only fault is that I think you are my ideal.”
Her eyes lingered on the words “my ideal.” Unexpectedly charmed, Helen appraised this communiqué with new eyes, and decided to follow the mysterious sender’s written instructions on how and where to meet him.
She dressed quickly and quietly to avoid any friendly needling. Helen hurried out the dressing room, heaving open the steel stage door into the quiet alley behind the theater.
Stepping to the corner of the building, she peeked around to the snow-lined, busy street. Helen carefully studied the faces of the bundled up after-theatre crowd crunching by, and scrutinized moving and parked automobiles. From her vantage point, She soon spied a grey Packard, emitting white-blue exhaust from a quietly idling engine. Scanning the note again, Helen felt certain that the young man would be waiting in that car. Her stomach faintly roiling, she stepped forward, trying to distinguish the driver through his frosty door window.
Helen realized, “Oh, he looks nice,” and shyly continued to approach his vehicle. The driver stepped out of his door, all smiles.
“You must be Lillian,” he beamed, “I am Elie. Elie Gelaki,” he added, bowing to kiss Helen’s gloved hand. She noticed that the young man’s voice formally articulated his clear English.
She bashfully smiled and felt her face grow warm. “Actually, I’m Helen,” she clarified. “I do hope that I am the one the message was meant for…”
Elie Gelaki unexpectedly gazed at her forcefully. “I meant you.”
The two stood self-consciously beside the running automobile.
“Why don’t I take you inside this café? It is quite cold tonight.”
“That would be lovely, Mr. Gelaki,” Helen smiled, more relaxed.
The young man gently took hold of her arm, explaining, “I’m Elie, and this street is quite icy.” He courteously escorted the dancer into a nearby coffee house.
“So you are the Helen Thompson on the bill, not Lillian Ward,” he said after they were seated. “I am sorry about the confusion. I hope it was of no embarrassment to you.”
“No more than usual,” the dancer laughed. “My friends spend more time teasing each other than dancing.” She paused, changing the subject. “Tell me about yourself, Elie.”
“I am a native of Palestine. But now I live here, in Brussels, with my mother and two sisters. My dear father has been for dead for some time.” He noticed Helen suddenly frown. “Did I say something offensive?”
“No. I’m sorry. My father died some years ago, too.” Helen’s own grief abruptly gripped her heart. After Floyd Thompson died, after his funeral, she knew something truly good had vanished forever from her world.
Her frown turned into a sympathetic smile. His face glowed in reply
Elie changed the subject. “I have recently founded a new photo company. I call it Polyfoto International,” he stated proudly. “At this time I am expanding my interests in Europe, across North America, and on into Asia.
“What type of photography do you specialize in?” Helen politely asked.
“ I will accompany you into my studio and photograph your lovely face. Then you will know,” Elie responded.
While he chatted about his life and work, Helen studied the Belgian. He wasn’t terribly tall, and had a clear complexion, subtly suggesting a childhood of freckles. His thick hair ranged from light brown to dark blonde and he combed it back off of his forehead. Elie gazed at her from olive green eyes speckled with glints of brown and gold. Though he seemed a serious man, he smiled broadly as he spoke in his appealing English, and his laughter was deep and friendly.
“Would you consider joining me for lunch tomorrow?” he asked. “I would be happy to guide you on a personal sightseeing tour of the city afterward.”
“Love to,” she answered promptly, drawn toward this young man. Elie thanked her with a happy grin.
The troublesome doubt dawned on her later, as she tiptoed into her dark hotel room.
“He’s Jewish,” she whispered to herself. “My mother would just die if she knew I was seeing a Jew.”
Yet, despite all the prejudice against Jewish people, she liked Elie and decided to give the young man a chance. He seemed nice, and she wanted to see the sights around Brussels.
These are my folks. Today is their 62nd anniversary, and unlike my last anniversary post, mom and dad are still alive and kicking, arguing about the same trivial nonsense in the same house where I grew up.
Example-Dad:We drove to Minnesota in ’68 in that black Chevy. It’s just before we bought the white one.
Mom: (condescendingly) Dave, you had sold that truck already, we drove the white one.
And so it still continues, even into their eighties. It’s that kind of banter that seems to keep them young. And it’s funny, but that is how they endure in my memory, as young parents, with small children. Though I was one of the brood of four, the two of them remain youthful, and optimistic in my mind’s eye, raising their family in the heady years of JFK’s New Frontier.
After their almost teenage marriage, Dad and Mom bought a modest house on a modest street. My dad worked shifts at Kaiser Aluminum, sweating over pots of white-hot molten ore, spewing the kind of heat that would have made Andrew Carnegie happy. If my father could snag a “double,” stay on for an extra shift to earn more cash, he would jump at the opportunity. Dad wasn’t really a workaholic, because he was foremost a family man, and played as hard as he labored. Still, at the same time he sought financial security, and knew ‘all blessings flowed’ from contract negotiations, remaining a proud member of the Steel Workers Union.
In contrast my mother preferred staying home. She still does. Her home has been, and always will be her sanctuary. She is an interesting individual. As a teacher I can state for certain, if there had been aptitude testing for school children in the 1930’s, my mother would have qualified for a gifted and talented program. No joke–if we analyzed the hours the woman has spent reading, her eyes have scanned print more than looking at my dad. Mom’s face is available in both hard cover and paperback, (no e-book format yet). I think that if she couldn’t read, my mother would wither up and blow away.
Well, after some difficulties in those early years, my older brother arrived on February 10, 1954. And they named him Dale for my mother’s uncle. The next year, I showed up on February 10, 1955. It seemed to make some sort of cutesy sense that I should be called Gail. The timing of our precisely dated births convinced my mother, and maybe even my dad, that all God’s children naturally arrived on February 10th. (You’d think birthday parties would have been easier to plan, but my mom says no).
The path they have tread through the years was not exactly paved with gold. My dad’s employer, Kaiser Aluminum semi-regularly initiated lay offs as the metals market waned. But, was he daunted? Not by a long shot–he had a trick or two up his plaid flannel sleeve. My father, at heart, was not a factory drone, he was an outdoors man, a tree expert to be precise, equipped with winches, come-alongs, Swede saws, augurs, and thermoses of bad coffee. Dad just started his own business, a tree removal and yard clean-up enterprise. And though he actually made more money than at the plant, his practical, family-man side, the side that considered his wife and children, sent him back for the medical insurance and a retirement pension.
My dad always knew how smart my mother was, and instead of feeling intimidated, he was proud. Even today the woman can clear the board on “Jeopardy,” faster than Alex Trebeck with his cheat sheet. In the early years of the 1960’s, he convinced her to challenged the Postal Civil Service Exam, which she passed in spades. Instead of resenting Mom going to work, he encouraged her natural smarts and her remarkable abilities as a positive thing.
Now my mom wasn’t as convinced. Like I said before, she liked being a haus frau. However, her talents shined from the beginning, drawing attention from the postal hierarchy, who saw her as management material. So, after the birth of my youngest brother in 1962, mom entered the workplace and blossomed, eventually becoming a supervisor and working, for the most part with air mail at the airport. She memorized every air route, every airport designation, every schedule, with few mistakes. Her memory skills are almost scary. (I don’t know why he still bothers to argue with her).
So today my young, Kennedy-era parents are celebrating their 62ned wedding anniversary. They will eat dinner at 4:00, and chat about some earlier vacation . . . perhaps the Mesa Verde, the Custer Battlefield, or the semi annual holy pilgrimage to Minnesota, the land of his people. Maybe they’ll reminisce about the time I dropped her diamond watch into the toilet, or the chronic illness that plagued my younger brother through his childhood. Maybe they’ll laugh about the sauna they built, proud to have imported the authentic stove all the way from Sweden. After waiting weeks for the package to arrive it finally came by post. Opening the box they read it was made in Bellevue, Washington, five hours away by interstate.
I think their marriage just might be a good one.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir River of January.
This couple married 78 years ago today. On Friday the 13th. In New York City. Defying traditional convention. Archaic superstitions were of no interest to this modern couple, that kind of thinking belonged to the past.
Mont “Chum” Chumbley, and his bride, Helen Thompson Chumbley only looked forward, challenging and prevailing over old horse and buggy thinking. Theirs was a new era, a dynamic era, one of flight and of film. And this powerful force of optimism rendered one life time together too brief. So now their spirits carry on in my head, and in the pages of my book, River of January.
To say Helen and Chum were happy together would be shallow pandering–and an insult to the complexity of their distinctive temperaments. Still, their story has power, enduring power, pressing me on, returning time after time to their papers, searching for signposts of truth and direction.
A Flemish Bend, the title of this piece, ironically does have its roots in the distant past. The Bend is a sailors knot, also known as a square or figure eight knot. The same shape in mathematics is the symbol for infinity. The love Helen and Chum shared, as imperfect as it seemed at times, was powerful, and proved to be endless.
I too have been snared in those powerful cords, and for better or worse speak for their remarkable lives, lives too dynamic to have died with their passing.
And I’m grateful. It’s an honor. Happy anniversary Helen and Chum.
Order River of January, and enjoy the journey.
From August, 2013
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…
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The following is an excerpt from River of January, Crossing The Atlantic
I am sorry to write to you in a crisis, but I have dreadful news. Please keep what I’m about to tell you a secret—not a word to my Mother or my sister, please. We’ve been fired! I know—it’s horrible. I don’t know what we’ll do. Jans says he can fix it, but I’m not so sure. I may have to come home early. I am writing to you because I can’t say a thing to my Mother—you know how she gets. But I may need a little money to get home. I do promise to pay you back when I get on my feet.
We made our first trip to the Palladium, they lettered my name on the billboard “Helen Thompson, Our Saucy Soubrette” whatever that means. I thought it was cute. Anyhow, we entered the theatre through the back entrance and met a lot of the cast. Such nice people, too. They told us that “The Crazy Show,” that’s what they call it, has been coming back to the Palladium for years. This group of comedians is known, together, as the “Crazy Gang” and made us feel very welcome. They explained that the same crowds return each season to see their old friends in the show.
We felt pretty excited opening night when Jans and Whalen took the stage after the all-cast extravaganza and began their routine. Harry Jans told the one about the soldier who had survived mustard gas and pepper spray becoming a seasoned veteran. No on laughed. The audience hated them. No one booed, and they clapped a little when Jans played and sang, “Miss Porkington Would Like Creampuffs.” Remember that silly song? Other than that polite response, not a snicker sounded in the whole house.
Then I went on stage and performed a widow comedy monologue; black gown, the whole bit, and I bombed too. With all those spotlights trained on me, if it hadn’t been for the coughing and murmuring I would have thought the theater empty. It was horrible— nauseating— I couldn’t believe how miserably we failed. WE LAID AN EGG!
After the show some of the regulars took us out for drinks. I wanted to run back to the hotel and hide. They led us to a nice pub, but I felt so shook up I could hardly light my cigarette. They explained that English audiences often don’t understand American humor. In particular, my widow act seemed more offensive than funny.
“Too many widows after the Great War,” one comedian named Eddie Gray told me. “Not funny to families with loved ones who died in the trenches.”
That never crossed my mind, Dot. It’s been almost 15 years, for goodness’ sake. So we were ready to make the changes the boys in the cast suggested. No prohibition jokes, no dead jokes, more songs, and lighter skits. When we arrived for rehearsal the next morning letters were pinned to the dressing room doors that we were to clean our things out—that the management would no longer honor our contract. By the way, the Times critics gave us a lambasting, too. I got to feel mortified all over again.
So, dear Dorothy, that is how the situation stands. Whalen won’t come out of his room. Jans is ready to murder the guy in the front office, and I may drag out my trunk and mail myself home. Just let me know if you can cover my passage. But, don’t do anything yet.
Thanks oodles and oodles and mum’s the word.
My Dear Friend Dorothy,
Salvation! We have been kept on the bill, at least for a couple of small bits. So thanks for agreeing to help me home, but Jans did take care of things. I swear, Dot, Harry Jans could coax the English rain back into the gray English clouds.
It all happened so quickly, but this is how events turned. We were shocked, and then worried, as I’m sure you could tell. Then Jans remembered that our contract explicitly stated we were to make $1000 dollars a week regardless of circumstances. He marched into the manager’s office and wouldn’t leave until he received a check for $4000 dollars, or our reinstatement to the show. The manager balked and then Jans reiterated that the contract was clear. My partner gets a little fierce when he’s riled and I think he scared the fellow. The manager said he’d discuss it with his investors.
But that’s not the best part. The whole cast refused to go on until we were back on the billing! Their leader, Teddy Knox, told the manager that one night wasn’t fair, and that until we went on again, they would wait. All of them! Bless their hearts! Guess they are crazy. Later, I caught up with Teddy Knox in the green room and told him how grateful I was. I guess I just hugged him and cried.
So all is well, and Bertha still calm. I will tell her, but will word my letter so that she doesn’t blow her stack. Thanks again, Dot. You are such a swell friend!
We have had quite a hectic week. We opened on Thursday night and were fired Friday morning. Can you believe that? But don’t panic, we’re back on the bill now. It was all a misunderstanding; apparently people in England and people in the States laugh at different things, so we changed our act a bit. Should be all right now. Jans and Whalen are keeping a close eye on me so don’t worry. I will send a money order in my next letter and hopefully more news. Don’t worry Mother. Things here are fine. Love to Eileen.
I don’t understand how you could take firing lightly. If there are any further problems you catch the first ship home. You tell Harry Jans that I mean it. Now take care, and make sure you keep me informed of any other issues.
I hope that you aren’t too cross with me. We won’t be gone long, and I will be home very soon. The three of us are back in the lineup. Jans and Whalen play toreadors in the opening number, and I am in a black and white feather costume complete with white boots. The outfits are very snazzy. We sing the show’s theme song, “Come Round London with Me,” then “God Save the King.” We had to rehearse them both, and the audience stands up and sings along when “God Save the King” begins. Can you believe it?
Jans and I finally are doing our own skit. I wear my tap shoes, a short flared skirt with suspenders and a huge pink bow in my hair. On cue I timidly step to center stage (everyone can hear each tap). Under the spotlight Jans, says “Did you come out to sing a song for the nice people?”
I point to my throat and croak out “l-a-r-y-n-g-i-t-i-s.”
Jans answers, “Oh, that’s a shame we all were looking forward to your number.”
I lean over and whisper into Jans’ ear. Jans then says loudly “You want to whisper the words to me, and I sing the song? Yes, yes, a grand idea! I would love to!” He announces “This song is called “Where on Earth could all the Fairies Be?”
I whisper in his ear, he sings a line, next whisper, he sings, and then Jans finishes, arms opened wide belting the out the refrain, “Where on Earth could all the Fairies Be?”
A spotlight quickly hits Jimmy Naughton, (he’s a Brit) planted up in the balcony who calls out in an effeminate voice,
“Oh, my, where aren’t they?” The lights cut to black and the crowd roars with laughter. Cute, huh?
Did you receive the money I mailed?
It won’t be long now,