A Wave of Enthusiasm


A visitor with the “Darkness Derby” trophy


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.


Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January. Also available on Kindle. Look for “River of January: Figure Eight” this fall.



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