Citizen Interview

Gail Chumbley

An avid history junkie from a young age, Gail Chumbley never meant to be a writer. She spent the first half of her life clocking in 33 years as an American History teacher before retiring from Eagle High School in 2013. Along the way, she married Chad Chumbley, who, she said, told stories about his father the pilot and his mother the showgirl, which were almost too fantastical to be true. Favorite accounts included how Montgomery “Chum” Chumbley and Helen Thompson met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Chum sent a note backstage; the time Helen acted alongside Bela Lugosi before turning her sights to ice skating; and the day when Chum, not yet a World War II pilot, shared his cockpit with Katharine Hepburn. Eventually, Helen’s dancing career and Chum’s military service disrupted their marriage.

The stories were true, confirmed by endless boxes of photographs and papers Chad had saved and an oral history Gail conducted with her father-in-law before he passed away. While Gail found the tale of star-crossed lovers compelling, it wasn’t until Chad was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2010 that she decided share it.

Sitting at the kitchen table in her Garden Valley home, Gail opened up about the eight years of writing and research that resulted in two self-published books—River of January (2014) and River of January: Figure Eight (2016)—and a movie script. Chad, largely recovered from his cancer, sat in, and her script writing partner Ray Richmond joined the conversation by phone from Los Angeles.

click to enlargeHelen Thompson sent this signed photo to Chum from Rio on one of the many occasions they were separated.  - GAIL CHUMBLEY

  • Gail Chumbley
  • Helen Thompson sent this signed photo to Chum from Rio on one of the many occasions they were separated.

Ray, let’s start with your role. What got you on board with turning Gail’s books into a script?

Ray: I could see [the story] on a screen when I was starting to read it. We have a pioneer aviator, we have a dancer from the golden age of entertainment and vaudeville and, you know, my only questions when I was reading were how [Helen] had managed to avoid murdering her mother, because I thought, this woman is just a natural, wonderful villain … and why this movie wasn’t made 20 years ago. It’s got the war as a backdrop, it’s got Hollywood, it’s got all of these great names in aviation, it’s got a little bit of Amelia Earhart, a little bit of Howard Hughes. It’s like history just jumps off the page.

Was it difficult to combine two books into one script?

Ray: Not really. It’s mostly about the second book … It’s really about their relationship and the whole backdrop [of WWII]. There’s a lot of female empowerment and disempowerment here. And there are so many different tentacles to that, because you’ve got the meddling mother-in-law who knows best, and the problem is, she really does know best, but she’s a harridan and horrible in the way she comes across while she’s conveying it. She did know that her daughter shouldn’t be with this guy who wanted a traditional life, and that [Helen] was destined to be a great dancer.

click to enlargeIn his signature, Chum wishes Helen "success and happiness always." - GAIL CHUMBLEY

  • Gail Chumbley
  • In his signature, Chum wishes Helen “success and happiness always.”

Gail, how did you make the decision to start writing your in-laws’ love story?

Gail: I’d look at [the photos and papers] and put them back and say, “I’ve got to write this book.” I meant it, and I didn’t mean it. I knew I should, but I didn’t know how. Then Chad got so sick and nearly died—he was in the ICU for eight days. I won’t let him show you his belly, but it just ran out of real estate for all the stuff they had hooked to him … it was horrible. I didn’t know what to do with any of that. Teaching worked to a point, because that’s sort of my living room, and I could really get comfortable, but when it came right down to it, I had all this unvented anxiety and fear and just PTSD. And I knew it. I knew I was crazy, and I knew I was feeling really nuts. When I got home at night, I was just a wreck. So the summer he started chemo and radiation … I was sitting up here every day going through all these letters, trying to make sense of it. [The draft] was horrible, and [my editor] fired me, but I wouldn’t give up because I couldn’t. I had no choice. I read Ron Chernow’s biography of [George] Washington, and there’s a line there he used that really resonated with me. It’s “the clarity of desperation.” I had the clarity of desperation.

You ended up writing the books.

Gail: I wanted someone else to [write Chum and Helen’s story] so badly. I tried to talk a bunch of people into doing it for me that were really good writers, but it’s like, you’re going into labor and no one else is having that baby. You’re going to do it. No one else was going to do this. It fell to me, and in a way that was wonderful, and in a way, it was a sentence.

What was it like transitioning from teaching to being a writer?

Gail: You hear about people who are in the military or the public service, and they retire and decide to teach. And I always thought, ‘Are they crazy? It’s hard work!’ Now, that’s rich. I go from one hard job, thinking writing would be a nice way to pass my job retired—and that’s hard work! I mean, there is no easy cheesy way to go into your retirement.

click to enlargeOver the course of his flying career, Chum flew everything from military planes to aerobatic aircraft for competitions. - GAIL CHUMBLEY

  • Gail Chumbley
  • Over the course of his flying career, Chum flew everything from military planes to aerobatic aircraft for competitions.

What was the research process like, going through Helen and Chum’s old papers?

Gail: The history part wasn’t hard for me. What was hard was to give voice to Helen, to give voice to Chum. Now Chum was easier, because I interviewed him. I had like 15 hours of oral history with him, and I knew him. I didn’t know Helen [who died in 1993].

But considering what happens at the end of the books, there must have been some difficulty in talking about Helen and Chum as parents.

Gail: [Chad] didn’t have a very happy childhood in that house … I think there’s something to that, sometimes really famous people are really lousy parents. Chum and Chad ended up very close though, because he died here, he died in Boise in 2006, and Chad was there every day.

Will you ever write another book?

Gail: I’ve thought about writing a book about generals who were very jealous of each other in wartime, and how those personal quirks and jealousies impeded the war effort. Like between Henry Halleck and Ulysses S. Grant … I feel like writing is the most basic form of communication that you can share without speaking, it’s as unique as a person’s fingerprint, and I think it’s really cool to do.

And Ray, what’s next for the script?

Ray: Well, what’s next is that I have some contacts at the Hallmark Channel, and I’m trying to convince them that they don’t need to make every movie about Christmas … But I really feel good about this. If it’s a great story and it’s meant to be, and it’s got so many vivid elements to it and such great characters, it’s going to be done.

Before They Were Men

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“It’s hard to remember that they were men before they were legends, and children before they were men..” Bill Moyers, A Walk Through the Twentieth Century. 

For Presidents Day I’ve been putting together a lecture series for my local library. These talks surround the childhoods and later experiences, of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

The thinking behind each, was that early life for all four men presented serious challenges. Complications in health, painful family tragedies, and economic circumstances seemed to shape the world view of these future presidents. It was how each overcame these difficulties, and how that endurance came to influence their presidencies that is the focus of the series.

This is a brief synopsis of what I found.

Behind the image mythologized in “The Life of George Washington, by writer, “Parson” Weems, lived a reality of a more nuanced, and complex Virginia boy. Born on February 22, 1732 in Pope’s Creek, George Washington came into the world as the first son of a planter, but from a second marriage. His position in the family line left him without any claim to his father’s estate. In a strictly ordered society that followed the rules of primogeniture, only the eldest son inherited, and young Washington could claim nothing, aside from the Washington surname. His father, Augustine Washington had two sons from his first marriage, and Lawrence, the eldest, stood to inherit all.

Augustine in fact died in 1743, when George was only eleven years old,  the boy not only lost his father, but also learned he wouldn’t have the formal English education his older brothers had enjoyed. That particular shortcoming marked George permanently, leaving him self conscious and guarded through his early life.

So he pretended. Over time, with practice, Washington clothed his persona in dignified, and formal conduct. Carrying himself with decorum effected his natural behavior, and, in the the end defined his life.

The Revolutionary War that Washington valiantly won, also cost young Andrew Jackson his family. Born on the frontier, in a region paralleling North and South Carolina, young Andrew arrived into the world without his father. Jackson Sr had died prior to his birth, leaving Andrew’s mother, Elizabeth, and his two older brothers in poverty.

At thirteen Andrew, along with his brother Robert joined the Patriot ranks, were eventually caught, and imprisoned by the British. When a red-coated officer ordered young Andrew to polish his boots, the boy declined, protesting that he was a “prisoner of war, and demanded to be treated as such.” The officer replied by whipping his sword across Jackson’s insolent head and forearms, and a diehard Anglophobe was born. (In early 1815, Colonel Andrew Jackson meted out his revenge on the Brits at the Battle of New Orleans).

The end of the Revolution found young Andrew alone-the only survivor in his family. His brother Robert had succumbed to camp fever from imprisonment, followed by his mother three weeks later. For the rest of his long life, Andrew Jackson lashed out at life, perceiving any disagreement as a challenge to his authority. He governed with the desperate instincts of a survivor.

Of a mild, more genial temperament, Abraham Lincoln came to being in the wilds of Sinking Springs, near Hodgenville, Kentucky. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was a hard scrabbling farmer, while his loving mother Nancy Hanks, lived only until Abe reached the age of nine. Hard work and ever-present death seemed to permeate Lincoln’s young life, and as he grew Abraham grappled with bouts of melancholy.

Exhibiting a quick and curious mind, he struggled to learn on the frontier, finally grasping the rudiments of reading and spelling. But his father saw reading as not accomplishing any chores and young Lincoln had to find tricks to do both, such as clearing trees then reading the primer he kept handy.

His step-mother, Sarah Bush Johnston reported that Abe would cipher numbers on a board in char, then scrape away the equation with a knife to solve another.

By young adulthood Lincoln left his father’s farm, and relocated to central Illinois, and made a life in New Salem. Over time Lincoln grew remarkably self-educated, studied law and passed the Illinois bar in 1836.

Of all the resentments he felt toward his father, it was Thomas’s clear lack of ambition and self improvement that nettled the son the most. Upward mobility was America’s greatest gift, and young Lincoln pursued it with relish.

From his first gasping moments Theodore Roosevelt struggled merely to breathe. A child of rank, privilege and wealth, he suffered from debilitating, acute asthma.  His parents, Theodore Sr and Mitty Bullock Roosevelt, stood helplessly over his sick bed, fearing that their little boy wouldn’t survive childhood. Later TR recalled how his father would carry him from his bed, bundle him into an open carriage for a ride through the moist Manhattan darkness. Small for his age, and nearly blind, young Teedee as he was called, began an exercise regime in a gym, built by his father on the second floor of their palatial home on East 20th Street in New York. Over time, using a pommel horse, the rings, and a boxing speed bag to build up his little frame, Theodore Jr visibly grew.

As for his eyes, a hunting trip finally proved to his family that he just couldn’t see. With new glasses, a self made physique and a dogged determination, Theodore Roosevelt brought his indefatigable zest and energy into his presidency.

Today is Presidents Day, 2018, and there is great value in remembering those who have served in this experiment in democracy. All four of these presidents left a distinctive signature of governance, schooled by earlier experience. And all, even Andy Jackson, governed in the spirit of service, believing they could make a contribution to this boisterous, ever-evolving nation.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Also available on Amazon.com.

Hat In The Ring (2)

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Captain Eddie Rickenbacker poses with an aircraft bearing the emblem of the 94th Aero Squadron. Image courtesy of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force via Youtube.

This is World War One flying ace, Eddie Rickenbacker. Young Rickenbacker soared the deadly skies over France as a member of the 94th Aero Squadron. He engaged in dogfights piloting Nieuports and Spads, earning the distinction of most decorated American pilot of the war. The insignia of the 94th was the “Hat In The Ring,” seen above.

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Here is Captain Rickenbacker in the 1950’s while he was president of Eastern Airlines. He is lunching with Mont Chumbley, a proud career pilot for Rickenbacker’s “Great Silver Fleet” from 1940 until retirement in 1969. Mont, known as “Chum” is the subject of my two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.”

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And here stands Mont Chumbley next to his Pitts Special Aerobatic plane in the 1980’s. In memory of his famous employer, “Chum” stenciled the “Hat In The Ring” to his sports plane.

Gail Chumbley is the author of both titles available at http://www.river-of-january.com. Also on Amazon.com.