Read River of January for the story behind the pictures.
Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, a memoir, also available on Kindle. Watch for the sequel, “River of January: Figure Eight” out in November.
Reno is situated in a golden bowl below mountains that separate Nevada from California. This enormous basin pulsates with life; upscale strip malls, flashy casinos, and relentless traffic following endless suburban growth.
To the north, off the beltway circling the “Biggest Little City,” sits Stead, Nevada, a locale clearly not touched by the same affluence as the rest of the region. A boarded up Catholic church, a Title-I elementary school and a Job Corps Center secured behind a grim, chain link fence, indicate that the very poor live world’s away from the prosperous south.
But at the end of this impoverished section of road, the world changes. Parachutists drift overhead in swatches of white, zigzagging through a deep blue autumn sky. Aircraft of every model and engine size wait, tied down on the asphalt, wing to wing. Vintage bi-planes, silvery jets, oddly shaped experimental aircraft, and muscly aerobatic planes flash in the brilliant sunlight. Thrilled attendees weave through the rows, admiring and discussing these miracles of flight. The owners relax inside the shade of hangars–a protective eye on their aircraft, monitoring visitors with a mixture of casual diligence and satisfied pride.
We, my husband and I, watch the action from inside a tented gift shop in the pits. How the gods of fortune placed us among the elite of the Reno Air Races, in the pits, is a miracle of another kind. In waves, the chosen, carrying pit passes, ebb and flow from our tent. When the Blue Angels blast down the runway, rising in a series deafening concussions, the tent empties. As the spectacle comes to a roaring close, and these seraphs return to earth, the shop once again fills with customers.
These pilots can’t seem to keep themselves from staring at our table. The oversized trophy Chum won in 1933, placed at the center of our book display, captivates these Twenty-first Century flyers. “Can I get a picture of this?” one man asks. “How much would you take for the trophy?” asks another. “They don’t make them like this anymore,” says another. “You need to take care of this one.”
Conversations soon turn to the race itself, 1933’s “Darkness Derby.” For this Depression-era contest pilots flew, one by one, into the eastern twilight. Beginning in Glendale California, nearly twenty intrepid aviators ascended, stopping first in Albuquerque, then north to Wichita, then sprinting to the finish at Roosevelt Field, Long Island. This event celebrated both “Roosevelt Field Days,” and a new Helen Hayes, Clark Gable film titled, “Night Flight.”
Beside the tarnished trophy, we display a framed glossy of Miss Hayes presenting Derby winner, Mont Chumbley, with the very same trophy, at her movie’s premier.
Reactions varied. One pilot gushed that my father-in-law was a bonafide aviation pioneer. Enthused the admirer added, that your father-in-law managed to find his way through the blackness and win the race was incredible–he had no flight instruments. I smile because I already know, and this visitor’s wonder matches my own. I also smile because for the first time, since publishing “River of January,” I’m with people who understand the profound significance of his victory.
Another visitor tells us he edits an aviation magazine out of Ohio, and would like me to submit a piece regarding the “Darkness Derby.” This editor promises us that he will see to it that the race is officially recorded for posterity. My husband and I are very pleased with this assurance, as well. We’d always hoped to get Chum’s accomplishment recognized by fellow aviators and officially recorded.
Happily, Chum isn’t the only recipient of accolades. Equal attention and interest are directed to Chum’s future wife, a lovely girl also named Helen, Helen Thompson. Her photograph lights up our table with timeless beauty and glamor. She smiles from a vintage, Hollywood glossy emitting a radiance that seems to add to Chum’s luster. I quickly add that this girl’s glamor masked her own courage and ambition in the world of entertainment. Helen Thompson too, took enormous professional risks, performing across three continents during the tumult of the early 1930’s. It was in Rio de Janeiro, in 1936, while dancing at the Copacabana Casino, she met her dashing aviator.
In Reno my husband and I stepped into the world of avid flyers, and they understood our purpose in sharing “River of January.” With all the adulation paid to our exhibit, all the books we sold and signed, Chum and Helen’s story is carried on to inspire future generations of adventurers.
I cannot recall the words I used to soothe my juniors on that horrible day. However, the soul-deep pain remains remarkably sharp in my emotional memory.
Vaguely I can see my son, a senior at the same high school, enter my classroom to check on his mom, the American History teacher. Seeing his face, I wanted to go to pieces.
It was later, in the local newspaper, that I discovered not only the words I shared with my students but the transforming pain they endured watching their country attacked.
(For the writer’s privacy I’ve deleted their identity)
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” both available on Kindle.
The deck had been stacked, and the odds always favored management.
I grew up in a union household. My dad, an active member of the United Steel Workers, tended white-hot pots of molten metal for Kaiser Aluminum. Because of his job, and union activities, I, his only daughter earned a university degree, and found a fulfilling, professional calling.
Because of the time and the place, (1950’s, Spokane) my dad provided for me the luxury of opportunity, with options neither my mother nor grandmother enjoyed. College, a degree in American History, and a professional career as a teacher.
I am eternally grateful.
Of course at the time, I didn’t fully grasp the actual price paid for my good life, but that four-year degree studying the past opened my eyes.
A fierce drama had played out generations before. Courageous and determined workers faced relentless dangers, and open violence litters America’s industrial past. Eventually the sacrifice contributed to the nation’s emergence as the world’s mightiest economic power with the highest standard of living.
Organizing could be particularly lethal. Union backers were threatened, assaulted, and eventually blacklisted, meaning no one else would hire them. It didn’t help that the general public bought into “The Gospel of Wealth,” a secular-sacred creed that insisted the rich were chosen by by God, and entitled to lord over the working class. equating laborers as no more than a cheap commodity, a disposable cog in the wheel of production.
Government at all levels fell in line with powerful owners, quashing any attempt by workers to organize, let alone strike for better conditions.
Andrew Carnegie particularly detested the working class, and even more the activists who threatened his control. For example, as a remedy to thwart organizers, he placed workers of different nationalities next to one another in his steel mills. Language barriers effectively frustrated organizers. Then there were corporate spies, and hired guns. When those measures failed, Carnegie locked out strikers, filling jobs with scab labor.
The Injunction proved a particularly nasty legal measure owners used. A state governor would claim interference of interstate commerce; meaning the Feds could move in to ensure the free transfer of mail and freight. Once sanctioned, federal troops were deployed, guns blazing into crowds of strikers, not much different than recent Civil War battles.
The most significant use of the injunction concerned the Pullman Strike of 1894. Workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company (think Wild Wild West railcar) sold their freedom to the company’s powerful owner, George Pullman. Laborers lived in his company town, Pullman, Illinois, where their wages were docked for utilities, rent, and other fees each month. During the Panic of 1893, when hourly wages were drastically cut, Mr. Pullman still deducted his same monthly payments. Demanding leniency the Pullman workers voted to strike.
Union leaders knew they had to avoid an injunction or the game was up. Seeking to avoid the possibility of military intervention, strikers took extra care that the trains continued to roll through Illinois. In solidarity, rail workers helped by unhooking Pullman Cars, parking them on side tracks, and reconnecting the rest of the train. Off they chugged leaving Mr. Pullman unamused.
Inevitably, the U.S. Attorney General at the time issued an injunction, ordering federal troops into the fray. Soldiers poured out of rail cars and opened fire, killing some thirty strikers, and wounding many more. The strike was broken, but the heavy-handed tactics used by Pullman left the general public uneasy.
Not that he cared.
Could a land that aspired to liberty, also check the tyranny of powerful industrialists?
Other disputes followed the same pattern; The Haymarket Riot, the Homestead Strike, the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, and the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 which killed nearly 150 immigrant girls.
Still, despite many violent setbacks, change began to come about for the working class. When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, he championed some real reforms. In 1902 when a coal strike threatened the coming winter supplies, TR stepped in.
At first the mine owners refused to recognize the United Mine Workers as an authority and refused to budge.
In response, Roosevelt essentially sided with the mine workers. He threatened the owners, warning he was willing to send the army in, but this time to work coal fields, and calm a worried public. In short the owners were obliged to sit down with leaders and negotiate.
This President was not blind to the threat of social and economic unrest in Europe, and he did not want it to happen here.
Today Unions are still vilified by many. But organized labor has played an important role in the nation’s development. The suffering and sacrifice of those before, must be remembered.
In partnership with capital, unions shaped an American middle class where a blue collar guy could send his daughter to college.
BTW, industrial workers demanded and won the right to hold the Sabbath as a day of worship, not work. Those of the Jewish faith and Christian, securing the tradition of weekends, Saturday and Sunday.
Have a thoughtful Labor Day
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.
I grew up in a union household. And truth be told, the benefits of the Steel Workers Union saw me through college, making my career in education possible. Through a combination of post-war prosperity, cheap hydro power from the Columbia River, and full industrial production at Kaiser Aluminum, my life took an affirming and enriching path. Of course at the time, I didn’t understand the real cost paid for my good life, until I taught Labor History to high school juniors. What I found in my research was a story of real people enduring violence and intimidation that, in the end, made possible the emergence of America as the world’s greatest economic power.
Labor strikes in the 19th Century were especially bitter, bathed in violence and bloodshed. Operating under the creed of “The Gospel of Wealth,” entitled industrialists viewed workers as a cheap and plentiful commodity, no more than a…
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