You know, that time the kids and I appeared in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine.
Look for volume two, “River of January: The Figure Eight,” due out this Fall.
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.
Each school year, by spring break, my history classes had completed their study of the Kennedy years, 1961-1963. We discussed the glamor, the space program, civil rights, his charisma and humor with the press, and most importantly, JFK’s intense struggle with Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev.
In a provocative challenge to America, Khrushchev ordered the building of the Berlin Wall, and construction of nuclear missile sites in Cuba. This second and more dangerous challenge prompted the 1962 Missile Crisis.
After tying up the loose ends of the administration, we further probed the delicate diplomacy that, after 13 days, settled the incident peacefully. For years I closed the unit joking, “aren’t you glad Andrew Jackson wasn’t president?” That line always drew a good laugh.
But really it isn’t funny. Not in today’s political climate.
America’s seventh president was a mercurial character. He loved blindly and hated passionately. If convinced his honor had been besmirched, the man dueled—sometimes with pistols, sometimes with knives. It all depended upon his mood.
The provocation behind most of these confrontations touched upon Jackson’s wife, Rachel, who had, years before, married Jackson before her divorce from her abusive first husband had completed.
In one deadly episode, Jackson challenged a man named Charles Dickinson, a celebrated marksman. Dickinson apparently uttered Rachel’s name in a tavern, a deliberate provocation. The future president donned an oversized cape for the dueling grounds to disguise the location of his heart. He knew that Dickinson would take deadly aim on his upper left chest, and needed to conceal the target. The ploy worked. Jackson did indeed take a slug in his left shoulder, but remained long enough on his feet to shoot and kill his adversary.
In another episode, Jackson determined that Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, was his greatest enemy.
During the hotly contested election of 1828 a Cincinnati newspaper resurrected and published the old scandal of Rachel’s bigamy. As it happened, the newspaper editor was a friend of Senator Clay’s. Worse, Rachel read the article about her infamy—the resulting shock apparently killing her. For the rest of his life Jackson blocked Clay at every political turn, coolly remarking later that one of his regrets was not shooting the Senator.
Andrew Jackson went on to destroy the Second Bank of the United States, the central financial institution of the young country. Old Hickory then deposited the government’s money into pet banks, local private, unregulated concerns across the country. Mismanaged, these banks collapsed, propelling America into one the longest, deepest depressions in American history.
An astounded Senate formally censured President Jackson for this reckless deed, officially condemning Jackson’s conduct. Jackson later had the black mark removed from the Congressional Record.
In another, darker moment, Congress, a bastion of Jacksonians, passed the 1832 Indian Removal Act, aiding the State of Georgia in ridding themselves of the Cherokee.
When the Supreme Court ruled that the Natives could remain in the State, Jackson didn’t bat an eye. He ordered the US Army to force, not just the Cherokee, but other tribes onto the “Trail of Tears.” Moreover, as master of the “Hermitage,” near Nashville, Jackson held sway over some 500 black souls who tended his lands over the years.
The power King Andrew exercised rivaled the Almighty’s.
So the joke regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 resonated with my high school juniors. JFK’s skillful restraint in that perilous moment would certainly have resolved differently in the hands of the hotheaded, autocratic, Andrew Jackson.
But today the joke isn’t so funny.
Again America is saddled with an impulsive autocrat who’s hunger for authority tests us all. Moreover, this Commander in Chief shows little understanding of America’s legal tradition–of basic high school civics. Much like Andrew Jackson, this current president carries himself as a wannabe monarch.
Most of us have been raised to avoid talking politics with friends and family as rude. But this is no ordinary moment in America.
The pertinent question this tale raises is this; what could this petulant president, with little impulse control do in the turmoil of a similar crisis?
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle, or at http://www.river-of-january.com.
We have gained much with instant communication, but have lost the intimate and unique mark of the individual.
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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