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)
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…
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