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 surrounding 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 that circles the “Biggest Little City,” sits Stead, Nevada, a locale clearly not enjoying the same affluence as the rest of the area. A boarded up Catholic church, a Title-I elementary school and a Job Corps center secured behind chain link fence indicate that the very poor reside far away from the prosperity to the south.
But at the end of this impoverished section of road, the world changes. Parachutists drift overhead, swatches of white traversing against a deep blue sky. Aircraft of every model and engine sit posed below on the asphalt, row by row, wing to wing. Bi-planes, jets, experimental aircraft, and aerobatic planes all preen in the brilliant sunlight while thrilled attendees weave through, admiring and discussing these miracles of flight. The owners sit back in the shade of the hangars, with friends and family–a diligent eye toward their planes, monitoring the crowds with casual diligence and satisfied pride.
We, my husband and I, watch the action from inside the gift shop in the pits. How the gods of flight placed us among the elite of the Reno Air Races in the pits, is a miracle of another kind. In waves, the select few holding pit passes ebb and flow from our tent. When the Blue Angels trundle down the runway and rise in a deafening boom of delayed sound, the tent empties. When the exhibition comes to a roaring close, and these beauties return to earth, the shop once again fills with customers.
These pilots can’t seem to help themselves from gaping at our table. The oversized trophy Chum won in 1933, perched at the center of our book display, draws these Twenty-first Century flyers over. “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.” This Depression-era contest required pilots to compete only after dusk, taking off from Glendale California, with verified stops in Albuquerque, Wichita, then concluding at Roosevelt Field, Long Island. The race was organized as part of “Roosevelt Field Days,” and also as publicity for a new Helen Hayes, Clark Gable film titled, “Night Flight.” And if the tarnished old trophy wasn’t enough to catch a patron’s eye, we displayed a framed glossy of Miss Hayes presenting Chum with the same trophy, at the movie’s premier.
One pilot explains to me that my father-in-law was a bonafide pioneer in aviation. That Monty Chumbley managed to navigate through the night sky and prevail in the derby is noteworthy–considering he had no instruments. I smile because I know that already. And it’s nice that for the first time since publishing “River of January,” I’m with others who understand the profound difficulty and significance of his feat.
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 assures 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 the female lead in “River.” A lovely girl also named Helen, Helen Thompson, lights up our table with her beauty and glamor, smiling out from a vintage photograph. Her radiance seems to add to Chum’s luster–endorsing the romance of flight in its infancy. I quickly explain that this young lady was no slouch when it came to courage and commitment. Helen Thompson too, took enormous risks in life, performing across three continents in the early 1930’s, eventually meeting her future husband in Rio de Janeiro.
My husband and I stepped into the world of avid flyers, and they understood our efforts in promoting “River of January,” perhaps better than we do. With all the attention and fuss paid to our exhibit, all the books we sold and signed, Chum and Helen’s story is carried on to 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)
Enjoy the weekend, compliments of the Labor Movement.
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…
View original post 659 more words