Roxy’s Friend

Maria GambarelliThis lovely lady is Maria Gambarelli, prima ballerina. Miss Gambarelli was well known to New York audiences in the 1930’s for her dazzling performances at the Roxy Theater. In addition, she regularly appeared on Roxy Rothafel’s popular radio program, “Roxy’s Friends.” In 1932 the dancer organized a troupe of New York ballerinas for a grand tour of European cities, to promote America’s cultural image. Helen auditioned for Miss Gambarelli and won a part in the production.

Arriving in Paris the company, christened the “American Beauties,” opened at the exclusive “Le Ambassadeurs” dinner theater to favorable reviews. However, in a contract dispute with the William Morris Agency in New York, in association with the Lartique Agency in Paris, Miss Gambarelli abruptly quit. The eleven American ballerinas were left abandoned, facing an uncertain future on the continent.

For more of the story read River of January, available at www.river-of-january.com

Partly The Mob

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The room was hot, and humid, but the old man would not turn on the air. He said that it cost too much money.  The fact that this was Miami and July made no difference,that ancient swamp cooler remained silent in the living room window. To emphasize his granite determination to deny Florida Power and Light an extra penny, Chum dressed each morning in long pants, a belt, and a long sleeve shirt, cuffs buttoned. Mont Chumbley did not project the South Beach image favored by the city’s Chamber of Commerce.

However his strict rules of economy were cast aside the summer I flew down to record his story. And I do mean record, as in tape recorded interviews which lasted, in all, five days. And when I needed quiet the most (for quality purposes,) he decided to switch on that neglected, thundering swamp cooler, providing a Phil Specter-esque ‘wall of sound’ which muffled his fascinating story.

We were both nervous. I hadn’t been married to his son long, and my husband hadn’t come along on this trip. It was just the two of us: new father-in-law talking with new daughter-in-law. But I couldn’t let the awkwardness get in the way, I had traveled three time zones to get the story, and we had to soldier on despite our mutual jitters.

I hit record on the tape player, and immediately he began anxiously whacking a nearby phone book with a pencil. We now had a beat to the swamp cooler’s roar. And he did that for my comfort. How courteous.

I tried to play back the sessions right away to transcribe the contents. It’s safe to say that deciphering his voice from the background clatter grew to be a problem. Imagine the musical “Stomp,” with people trying to converse over crashing trashcan lids.

After a couple of days of this fidgeting he settled down, and to be completely honest, I did too. Chum even forgot to turn on the air once or twice. And his story in aviation began to unfold, carrying us away from noisy appliances; to days before there were such things as air conditioners–to the skies of another era.

Wow.

One story that made it into the book tells of his hair raising landing on the infield of a Maryland horse track. Later I had to hit the replay button a half dozen times to get the name right, listening hard to his phonetic pronunciation, buried beneath screeching layers of white noise. Shaped by his Virginia drawl, I deciphered, Har-Day-Graw.

I typed HardayGraw into a search engine. “Do you mean Havre de Grace?” quickly popped up . Hmm. Well, I guess I do. Maybe.

Lo and behold, Havre de Grace was a horse racing track between Washington DC and Philadelphia, tucked into the Maryland countryside. The web site indicated that this track evolved as a joint venture, owned partly by the town of the same name, and partly by the mob.

Partly by the Mob? Are you serious? And everybody knew? I had to look a little deeper.

Apparently in an agreement with the Governor of Maryland, and a former congressman, in a partnership with mobster, Arnold Rothstein, Havre de Grace came to life. And this was no small time nag fest, either. Among the thoroughbreds who graced, Havre de Grace were legends, Man ‘o War, his son, War Admiral, and the indomitable, Seabiscuit, You can’t make this stuff up.

That week in hot, sticky Miami has grown into one of the most pivotal of my life. I felt like Wendy clasping Peter’s hand for her flight to Neverland. But in my case Chum piloted the yoke to “Yesteryearland.”

This Havre de Grace anecdote, with Arnold Rothstein, and a hair raising unauthorized landing from the sky, merged with many, many other episodic rivulets that flowed into this fascinating river of narrative. This “River of January.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January

#riverofjanuary

Spud Manning

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Only six years had passed from Lindbergh’s Atlantic flight, when Chum won the cross-country Darkness Derby in October of 1933. Public wonder and oodles of press coverage followed aviators across the country, and around the world. Pilots were viewed as rustic pioneers risking the unforgiving rules of gravity. Hustling for every penny, Mont Chumbley used his rare talent for more than business, offering lessons during the week, and moonlighting weekends entertaining an aviation-crazy public.

County fairs proved a reliable source of pocket money, and he beat the bushes to find well attended events. In good weather he could charge $5 dollars for three passes over local fairgrounds; enough for gas, dinner and a little left over for his time.

It was on today, May 16, back in 1933 that Chum flew his Waco biplane to a fair in Binghamton, New York. He traveled north from New York looking for a little fun, and maybe a few extra bucks. He hit gold that day when he met up with famed parachute jumper, Spud Manning. Now Spud was a young guy, too, and much like Chum, had to make his luck to survive in Depression-era America. So what this enterprising gent challenged, was jumping from airplanes.

With Chum soaring at 15,000 feet, Manning, harnessed in his chute, clutched a bag of flour to his chest. In his fall Manning released the contents to trace his descent. The 25 year old’s shtick was to risk death by falling until the last possible moment, somewhere around 1000 feet, to pull his ripcord. He succeeded to scare the hell out of patrons and they paid him to do it again.

Presumably Spud carried out his jump the same way on that May 16th in Binghamton New York. Leaping for profits, Spuds and Chum performed the stunt as long as it paid. Spuds leaped into the sky, likely accumulating a dusty, white face as the flour plumed up from his arms. Rolling on the ground, grappling with his chute, he jumped to his feet delighting the dazzled crowds.

That May 16th must have left hundreds of Binghamton fair goers in awe. Clear blue weather, excited customers, viewing their landscape from the Waco in three memorable passes; all capped off by the heart stopping jumps of Spud Manning.

Sadly, Chum’s afternoon associate had less than four months to live. Spud was killed that September when, as a passenger on experimental aircraft, he crashed into Lake Michigan. His body and two others washed up on shore ending a massive search over the water.

Chum clearly understood death accompanied each flight, but he loved flying more than dwelling on his fears. Presumably Spud Manning too, resigned himself to the possible price of repeated defiance to the forces of gravity.

Somehow the miracle of the sky rendered the hazards irrelevant.

Gail Chumbley is author of memoir River of January

Personal Earthquakes

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My mother worked for the US Postal Service. She went to work in the early sixties, when we were still in grade school and stayed on until her retirement at age sixty five. The woman had four kids and a house, and a yard, and she probably was pretty overwhelmed—something I now understand. To get an extra pair of hands my parents decided to house a student each term who attended a business school in Spokane called Kinman Business School. Lord knows what kind of credential awaited these secretaries-in-training after completion, but these girls ended up learning shorthand, typing, and office skills like that.

The first girl who lived with us stayed in the second bedroom off the hall. I think her name was Corrine. I can’t remember exactly because it was around 1965 or 1966, and we were pretty young. Corrine was from Alaska, and I remember she was part Filipino or Native American, which I thought was pretty cool. Her hair was long, thick, dark, and she ratted up a poofy top bubble in a clip while letting the rest fall in black curls. My hair looked a lot like Ramona’s from the Beverly Cleary books, and I admired her thick tresses all the more.

Our house was constantly in a state of chaos, with noise, messes—people coming and going and generally a hectic backdrop of activity. But walking into Corrine’s small quarters felt like a completely different world, a world of order and gravity. All of her things were neatly stowed away, her bed carefully made, and the space even smelled differently than the rest of the house. I loved visiting her room, as it felt like an oasis of tranquility in a sea of crazy disarray. And it was in her little sanctuary that serene Corrine shared her life with me just a little.

She told me about the terrible Alaska earthquake a couple of years prior, how her house in Cordova had been damaged; and that Anchorage was split nearly in two by the tremors. Her narrative made a big impact on me because I had just read about the Alaska quake in an issue of National Geographic. Corrine lived through an event memorialized in National Geographic! Corrine was part of a bigger, unpredictable world.

There was also a picture on her dresser of a boy. When I asked who he was, she told me he was Ty, and that they planned on getting married in a few years. Married! I never knew a girl who had plans to get married! The only people I knew who were married were parents, and they were boring. She explained to me that her boyfriend’s name, Ty, was short for Tyrone, and he was visiting Spokane soon because he was in the Army and heading to a country called Vietnam. Tyrone wanted to see his girlfriend, and future wife before shipping out to Asia.

Marriage, Ty for Tyrone, Vietnam, Earthquakes . . . Corrine fascinated me.

Now my memories are a little sketchy concerning Ty’s visit to our house. I do remember he was white, an interesting contrast to her dark, exotic appearance, but he had dark hair, too. They sat on the couch in our living room and held hands which struck me as very interesting. I am sure that there were deeper emotions at play with his visit, but whatever happened fell below my 11-year-old radar. He did spend a lot of time with her in her room, with the door closed. But who knows?

And then Ty was gone.

The school term ended, and apparently in a successful manner. Corrine packed up most of her things and returned to Cordova for the summer. I’m not sure of the agreements or adult discussions, but she did return the next fall. Her room remained a wonderful respite from the cacophony of the rest of the house, and the same picture of Ty’s remained on her dresser. Letters began to arrive in the mail written on onion-skin parchment, imprinted AIR MAIL. I’d never seen stationary like that, and she told me that was the best way she and Ty could exchange letters overseas. The paper was light blue, and felt like stiff tissue, but held its shape without creasing. Corrine had stacks of it, both fresh and received—the only sign of clutter in her neat little world.

And then one day Ty came back to our house, and this visit was very different from the first meeting. The couple did not sit on the couch and hold hands. Not this time. My pre-teen sensibilities were scandalized to see this grown man lying across her lap sobbing like his heart had broken. Poor Corrine! She too, was dissolved in tears, red, puffy eyes behind her glasses. Ty couldn’t stop, he could not compose himself, and he wouldn’t let go of her either. The whole scene seemed very surreal. I didn’t understand how a grown man could fly apart like that, and in front of everybody.

That episode happened a very long time ago. And it was also only yesterday.

I grew up, went to college, majored in American History and became a teacher. For years and years I taught a unit on the Vietnam War to high school juniors. I know the facts surrounding America’s entrance into that long, long, conflict. The 1954 French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva Accords that split the country at the 17th parallel, the Marines landing at Danang in 1965, the devastating Tet Offensive in 1968, The My Lai Massacre, the Paris Peace Accords, the protests on the home front, the bombing operations (all by name), and finally the controversy over The Wall. But in all my teaching of those facts, of all the stories from Veterans of that war, after all of the analysis by historians regarding the War in Vietnam—nothing about those years affected me as deeply as the change in that boy from Alaska, utterly destroyed by his year-long deployment when I was eleven years old.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January