“So buddy, I was wondering if you have any plans tonight,” Fred Murphy said as the Mariner throttled to the Alameda dock. “It’s nice to head over to San Francisco when the opportunity presents.”
“What did you have in mind, Murph?” asked Chum.
“Is that a yes? Because there is this place pilots really like—but it’s a kind of a surprise, and you’re gonna have to trust me.”
“You, Fred? Trust you? Should I pack my service revolver?”
“Just trust me, Chum.” Murphy smiled.
That evening, a yellow taxi crawled up the steep incline of Telegraph Hill in the drizzling rain—Coit Tower front and center in the foreground. From his vantage point in the cab, Chum studied the illuminated monument—the raindrops and the wipers making it an abstract, streaky blur one moment, a defined structure the next. Their cabbie downshifted, doubling horsepower for the uphill climb to a line of apartment buildings stacked along Montgomery Street. The taxi stopped at a plain stucco building, the simple design a contrast from the adjoining buildings with ornate wrought iron balconies. Murphy paid the cab fare.
“This doesn’t look like much of a nightclub, Fred,” Chum remarked.
“Trust, remember? Besides, this is the best place in the Bay Area for fellas like us, pal. You just wait—she’s gonna love you.”
“You know I’m married, Fred.”
“Ha! Funny, Chum. So am I.”
The men ducked under the stoop and Fred gave a quick knock on the door. After a moment, a small Asian woman opened the door. She’s smaller than Bertha, Chum thought. The maid maybe?
“Lieutenant Murphy! Welcome back, welcome back,” The woman’s smile transformed in warm recognition. “You have escorted someone new to meet me, I see. Is he as skilled as you, my dear lieutenant?” Chum felt his jaw drop. Murphy laughed.
“Hello, Mother.” Murphy stooped and pecked the woman’s cheek.
Under her wire-framed spectacles, “Mother” shifted her appraising eyes back to Chum. “Welcome to my home, Lieutenant. And you are . . . ?”
Still unsure about why he was there, Chum stumbled over his answer. “Chumbley, ma’am. Lieu . . . Lieutenant Montgomery Chumbley. But please call me Chum.”
“Delighted to meet you, Lieutenant Chum. I can see that Fred did not prepare you for this visit.” Mother’s eyes returned to Murphy, conveying a light reprimand. To Chum she said, “I am Doctor Margaret Chung, but as you have already witnessed, all my sons refer to me as ‘Mother.’ Lieutenant Murphy has brought you here tonight to not simply meet a nice Chinese lady, but—I would guess—for your formal adoption into my family. Please come in, come in.” Dr. Chung gestured down a long, cluttered hall, and the two pilots complied.
Presented with such a confusion of artifacts, it was hard to know where to look first. Framed glossies of smiling aircrews, salvaged pieces from Nakajimas and Zeros—propellers, pieces of fuselages, wings—graffiti-strewn flags bearing the distinctive rising sun, spent torpedo casings, Hellcat and Corsair unit insignias, and hundreds of news clippings and snapshots of smiling pilots . . . her walls a chaotic collage of air war memorabilia. Dr. Chung studied Chum’s incredulous face as he absorbed the massive collection, visibly pleased with his reaction.
“Please find a seat, gentlemen, and allow me to explain my haphazard museum to our guest,” Dr. Chung said. Chum slumped into a stuffed wingback chair, his eyes still sweeping the memorabilia. “As you already know, Lieutenant Chum, China is presently suffering under the cruel occupation of the Japanese Empire. You need look no further than the barbarism that took place in the city of Nanking to understand my natural revulsion.”
Chum nodded. He had seen newsreels of the butchery in that city.
Dr. Chung’s eyes reflected both tragedy and determination. “I have made it my mission to raise not only awareness but also funds for the suffering people of China. It is men like you, our skilled pilots, who are striking most directly against the foe, and that kind of bravery has made you one of my dearest sons.”
Dr. Chung dropped her gaze and reached over to an end table, picking up a leather-bound ledger. She shuffled through the pages, passing inscribed signatures, finally chancing on a blank space. Holding her fountain pen, Mother began scribbling into the register. “There—done.” She glanced at Chum. “You, Lieutenant Chum, are now officially a member of the Fair Haired Bastards. Ah, let me see”—Dr. Chung silently calculated—“you are son number three hundred and ninety-two.”
She extracted a small card from a drawer in the end table and carefully filled in the blank lines. Finished, the surgeon rose and, with a handshake, presented the card to her new visitor. Chum read:
This is to certify that
Is a member of Dr. Margaret Chung’s Fair Haired Bastard’s Club, San Francisco
Margaret J. Chung MD
Her intense eyes softened, her smile gentled. “Remain safe in those dangerous skies, Lieutenant Chum. I don’t want to lose any more of my sons.”
Chum glimpsed over to his co-pilot, then back to his exceptional hostess, grappling for something to say. “Thank you, ma’am. This is an unexpected honor, and I will do my best to defeat our enemy.”
At that, Dr. Chung beamed, offering the boys a beer. More relaxed, the doctor inquired about their aircraft, their primary duties, and what they had seen of the fighting.
“Doctor Chung, ma’am,” Chum said, still inspecting the cluttered walls. “I just have to ask. Who is Fair Haired Number One?
“Ah.” She nodded, producing a wry smile. “An excellent pilot, and he’s from this area—from San Francisco. You may know him, Lieutenant Chum. His name is Lieutenant Bancroft, Stevens Bancroft.”
Of course he is. Chum threw his head back and laughed. “Oh yes, I know him, ma’am.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January” and River of January: Figure Eight.” Books are available at www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.