History and a Rollicking Romance

A nice review is a welcome gift for any writer. John Vogel of Preserve Old Broadway graciously published this piece today.

We were supposed to start our exploration of The Vagabond King today. It is a wonderful operetta that is based on the life of Francois Villon, a French poet who allegedly rallied the people of Paris to defend the city against the attack of the Duke of Burgundy. In saving the city, Villon also preserved the monarchy in France, in the person of Louis XI.

My plan has been interrupted by an interesting turn of events. I have just finished reading two books, River of January, Part One, and River of January, Figure Eight. If you love history and a rollicking good romance, you need to read these two books, written by Gail Olson Chumbley.

But well you may ask, how did I come to know about these books and its author?

Shortly after I started posting comments and music on this FB page, I noticed a new visitor to the page, Gail Olson Chumbley. I looked her up and found out that she was an award-winning teacher at Eagle High School, Toppenish, Washington before she retired. She met her second husband, Chad Chumbley, in 1994, and Chad regaled her with stories about his parents, Chum and Helen Chumbley. Eventually, Gail, the history teacher, became curious and dug through boxes of old correspondence and pictures and finally interviewed Chum before his death in 2006. What she found was even more impressive than Chad’s stories, because the lives of Montgomery (“Chum”) Chumbley and Helen Thompson Chumbley were intertwined with key events in American history from 1925 to 1955.

Not ever having written a book before, Gail started the arduous task of translating dead archives back into living human beings. This daunting task was made easier because of her two love affairs: she loved Chum and Helen and she loved their son, Chad. Her writing was a labor of love.

I promised I would read her books one day, but my schedule was busy and “one day” kept moving to the right. Gail ended my procrastination by mailing me both books; and at night before I went to sleep, I would read through 30 or 40 pages. Gail didn’t start to write until she wrote these two splendid books, but what comes through is a historian’s love for detail and context. Gail gives the reader both the overview of history (the big picture) and the personal details of the two people she follows. We follow both Chum and Helen separately until 1936, when they met in Rio de Janeiro and fell in love.

Chum enlisted in the Navy and eventually won a spot in Flight Training in Pensacola, FL. He stayed in the Naval Reserves, even after he left active duty, and began a career that revolved around Waco Aircraft, an early pioneer in aircraft design and manufacturing. Chum was one of the few early aviators who came after WWI but was ready to serve once WWII came into focus. He was one of a handful of pilots who started in planes made of wood and ended in the jet age.

Another pilot, who trained at the Army base at Brooks Field, Texas, was Alexis Klotz. Lex also was involved in delivering the mail, although Lex started on the West Coast. Lex ended his career with TWA and offered to show me around the cockpit of the new Constellation when they went into service. Flying the mail from west to east in the winter was hazardous, and many good but not great mail pilots went down in bad weather. In winter, forced landings almost always resulted in death.

When Chum and Lex flew airplanes, the cockpits were open (it got cold at higher altitudes), and the planes had little if any navigation or communication equipment. Many pilots learned the ground terrain, the railroad tracks and other identifying ground markers to guide them during their many hours in the air. Flying was more art than science.

One the other hand, as Gail explains to us, these pilots loved to fly and may have been more comfortable in the air than on the ground.

But that is only half of the story. The other half of the story involves Helen Thompson who, from an early age, was pushed by her mother, Bertha, into dance. Luckily, Helen learned to love to dance and to perform, in general. From ballet, Helen moved into vaudeville routines and eventually ice skating with skating stars like Sonja Henie. 

But Helen’s career is only part of her story. At each turn in her career, she met famous people and witnessed key events. Coming home from a European tour, Helen performed onboard at the Captain’s request, alongside another performer named Maurice Chevalier. What was more important was the fact that both performers sat at the Captain’s table. Helen dined with the former President of France, Edward Herriot, on his way to Washington DC to confer with FDR in the mid-1930’s.

It is this constant integration of the big picture of history (Chevalier jokingly asking Herriot if he could save the world from Hitler) with the details of Helen’s dance program that make the two books so charming and engaging. We are reading history from the bottom up, living through periods of time through the eyes of Chum and Helen. And it is a wonderful way to learn and was used successfully by Kenneth Roberts in his many books on the American revolution.

For all of you history buffs who like a good romance story, put away David McCullough for a bit and pick up River of January, Part One, and River of January, Figure Eight.

For more from John Vogel visit Preserve Old Broadway on Facebook.

Gail’s books are available at http://www.river-of-january.com, and on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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