May 23, 2004

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You know, that time the kids and I appeared in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine.

 

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

Look for volume two, “River of January: The Figure Eight,” due out this Fall.

The Ice Vanities

 

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1939

Arms twined around skaters on each side, Helen balanced nervously in the shadows. In V-shape formation, costumed in tall Hussar caps, and military jackets resplendent with gold brocade, the line stood expectantly in the dark. She shivered from a combination of excitement and the frigid draft wafting from the ice. Her ears thudded, inundated by the echoing din from the impatient audience. Much louder than a theater, she absently noted.

Positioned at the apex of the two wings stood Czech Olympian, Vera Hruba—one of three women headliners in the new production. When the last measures of an orchestral stringed overture faded to a close, the house lights darkened, and the arena fell silent for an expectant moment. With a commanding flourish, the opening bars of a military march surged to all corners of the house. Spotlights swept over the glittering skate-line, as Helen pushed off her left foot, in sync with the tempo. Following two more beats, Hruba burst from the crux of the V, and raced the circumference of the rink, spotlights holding tight to her revolutions. The audience roared in appreciation with waves of echoing applause. Helen’s first ice show had begun.

If rehearsals were any gauge, she already felt great confidence in the show’s success. The dance line often lingered along the rail, chatting, stretching—waiting for the director to call them onto the ice. “That’s ViVi-Anne Hulton, she’s Swedish,” Clara Wilkins leaned in whispering, both studying the soloist on the ice. “She’s been skating since she was ten,” Clara nodded, as Hulton executed a perfectly timed waltz jump. “Boy, that little Swedish meatball knows her footwork.” The girls standing nearby murmured in awed agreement.

Chestnut-haired Lois Dworshak sprinted past the attentive chorus line. Helen automatically glanced again at her well-informed friend and Clara didn’t disappoint. “She, Lois there, is a bit of a prodigy. She skated a little as a kid in Minnesota but, actually hasn’t skated professionally all that long. She’s good too, huh?”

“Jeepers, you can say that again,” Helen muttered.

“But, the real story in this cast is Vera Hruba.” This time, May Judels, head line-skater, spoke up from the other side of Eileen. Listening eyes shifted toward May. “Vera met Hitler, just like Sonja Henie did, at the Olympics in Berlin. She finished her freestyle routine, and came in pretty high, I think. Vera didn’t medal or anything, but still skated a pretty good program.

“So what happened?” asked another girl, Margo.

“Hitler says to her, ‘How would you like to skate for the swastika?’ And Vera, (she doesn’t much like Germans), told him she’d rather skate on a swastika!” Heads turned in unison, watching as Hruba completed a flying camel. “So,” May sighed, “to make a long story longer, Vera and her mother left Prague in ’37 as refugees, the Hun’s marched in, and Hitler made a public statement that Vera shouldn’t wear Czech costumes or skate to Czech folk songs. He said Czechoslovakia was gone, never rise again. Vera then responded, publicly rejecting the Fuehrer’s comments, saying she’d always be a Czech, and that Hitler could, in so many words, go fly a kite.”

“Their own little war . . . now that’s guts,” Helen’s eyes returned to center ice. “Makes Henie even more of an apple polisher.”

“A swastika polisher,” Margo corrected, as the director motioned the giggling chorus to center ice.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, also available on Kindle. The second volume, The Figure Eight is due out in September 2016

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Time and Words

We have gained much with instant communication, but have lost the intimate and unique mark of the individual.

Gail Chumbley

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Written records have provided a wealth of information for my book, River of January.  It’s rather interesting that I have carefully read and analyzed these letters composed in ink and soft lead, and they have taken me into vibrant lives, flowing with adventure and color.  So much feeling lives in those envelopes–devotion, pain, fear, reassurance all scribed into hand written correspondence.

A character in the story, Elie Gelaki, a Belgian boy who pines for Helen, produced volumes of letters and postcards.  Just picking up a handful of his letters are vivid proof of his perpetual love.  Helen’s letters to her mother bear updates, stories, and news (and promises of money) filling 4 plastic containers.  I can see that her mother was important to her, just by looking at her blizzard of correspondence.  In the same vein, Chum’s letters to Helen, are steeped in longing, with loving language that…

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