Contact

 

Typically, the second chapter of American History texts cover 16th Century exploration. Columbus gets his cash from Queen Isabella, and sails off in command of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. Making landfall somewhere in the Bahamas, Columbus initiated the 1492 hemispheric transaction known as the Columbian Exchange. 

In my classroom I strayed a bit from the “discovery” aspect of European conquest, opting instead to focus on the consequences of imperial contact. In particular we examined the exchanges between the Old and New World: precious metals, agricultural goods, livestock, and infectious diseases. For example, corn and potatoes crossed to Europe, while horses and barley were introduced to the Americas. 

Other things, both seen and unseen, passed between the conquistadors and the native peoples, forever redefining both. Religion, racism, rape and disease set the narrative for hundreds of years.

From Dias, to Magellan, to Cortez, ocean routes linked far-flung corners of the globe back to Spanish ports. Though the voyages were perilous, mortality rates high, and the impact upon indigenous people fearsome, vast fortunes were realized, and Spain grew wealthy. 

It is hard to pinpoint which explorer first grasped the deadly impact of small pox on native populations. What is known is that Hernando deSoto, in particular, recognized the dynamic quickly. Leading his band of mercenaries, complete with packs of dogs, deSoto tromped through what is today the Gulf States. His band of conquerers passed through native villages, and recrossed them again, searching for riches. Upon retracing their steps desolation greeted the Spaniards, of dead and dying men, women, and children-all from small pox. deSoto, a quick study, deliberately weaponized the pestilence, spreading virus wherever his war party advanced. 

This disease literally scorched North America, extinguishing life in its path. By the time the Declaration of Independence (1776) was signed in Philadelphia, small pox had already exterminated countless coastal peoples from Puget Sound to Cook Inlet in the Gulf of Alaska. 

In what is present-day New Mexico, the Pueblo people inadvertently protected themselves against the virus for ten years. In Pope’s Revolt, a decisive 1680 battle against Spanish forces, the inhabitants defeated the invaders and preserved their lives from contagion for a time.

The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic didn’t actually begin in Spain. One story tells how the virus began among Doughboys training at Fort Riley, Kansas once America entered World War One. 

Soldiers swapping microbes in military camps is nothing new. During the Revolution General Washington took measures to see his army inoculated for smallpox. Washington ordered a rolling rotation of inoculations, so that only a portion of his troops were ill at one time. When his army finally came out of winter camp in Morristown, New Jersey, they were armored with immunity to English-borne germs. (By the way, inoculations required a small cut in the skin, followed by wiping live pus into the incision.)  

During the Civil War “camp fevers” were a persistent problem. In Ken Burns “Civil War,” one account describes the coughing of waking soldiers drowning out reveille. The truth is more Rebs and Yanks died from communicable diseases than bullets. 

In the case of the Spanish Flu the viral cocktail sailed aboard troop ships to England. One theory holds that an encampment situated on a rail stop ignited the spark that led to millions dead worldwide. British soldiers had established gardens dating from the beginning of the war in 1914. Not only were vegetables available from these patches, but also swine and poultry. The viral combination from Fort Riley and further transference from pigs at the rail stop exploded into a rare strain of contagion. 

All too soon these exposed soldiers were shipped across to France, and into the trenches. German veterans later accused the Americans of unleashing germ warfare upon them, forcing the November, 1918 Armistice.

In the end all are still pawns to the Columbian Exchange. As New World tomatoes, and Old World wheat make pizza, microbes swirl and mutate, rendering deadlier fare. The passage of time makes no difference to our fragile susceptibility to disease. Though viruses travel by fuselage today, rather than wooden ships, there is no alteration to the deadly outcome. 

Gail Chumbley is a history educator, and the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Becoming A Pilot 2

Following his celebrated success in the Darkness Derby, Chum found his charter business more hectic than ever. Student pilots, passengers, and acquaintances from the nearby press office, particularly from United Press International, and International News Photos, crowded the Waco Office looking to hire Chum. 

In early September, 1933,  a reporter tasked with covering a train derailment near Elmira, New York, hired Chum for a middle of the night flight. It was dark, and a wet, thick fog had settled over Roosevelt Field. Filled with doubt, Chum only reluctantly agreed to take the fare from the desperate reporter, and very soon regretted his decision to fly. 

An impenetrable cloak of fog, blending into a thick darkness, confronted the pilot as he prepared to land near Elmira. Probing his way down, Chum set down hard and immediately slid across the drenched airstrip. Slipping over the edge of the field his Waco thudded hard against a power pole, damaging one side his biplane. The reporter had a waiting automobile at the airfield, and sped away to the train derailment, leaving Chum to sort out the accident. He deduced his Waco was still airworthy, and later in the morning returned with his passenger to Long Island facing an expensive fix. Ten days later, adding insult to injury, he opened a letter from Associated Gas & Electric charging him $16.30 for repairs to the power pole. Lesson learned . . .almost.

Two weeks after the mishap in Elmira, Chum took another risky flight. His friend and patron from the Stock Exchange, (see part one of this article) had given notice that Chum was to keep Monday, September 25th open for passenger trip. This wealthy investor was an avid horse enthusiast, and Chum had shuttled the gent to various racetracks around the northeast. On this particular day a last minute phone call sent Chum hurrying from Roosevelt Field to Red Bank, New Jersey, and his waiting client. 

Three men climbed aboard Chum’s Waco Cabin near Newark, breathlessly directing him to aim for Havre de Gras’ Racetrack, near Baltimore. These men had a horse on the race card, and were anxious to reach their destination before post time. As the Waco neared the track his passengers grew increasingly impatient. Chum’s patron insisted that instead of landing on a nearby rural field, the pilot needed to land directly on the infield of the horse track. Chum balked at the idea, but his client insisted, vowing to pay for any damage or fines that might result. Folding under pressure, the pilot threw good sense to the wind, and again lowered the nose of his aircraft for a risky landing. 

Connecting with the grassy infield, the Waco bumped down the entire length of the infield. By the time Chum rolled to a stop, track officials and the police had surrounded the Waco. In the end, with a lot of fast talking from his influential friend, and perhaps a little cash changing hands, the biplane was allowed to remain. In fact, he and his passengers spent a glorious day enjoying the races. Later, after the stands were emptied of spectators, Chum rolled up the length of the racetrack returning to the sky and home 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         For Chum night flying became a particular pleasure. He mentioned in a later interview how peaceful he found the experience. In March, 1934, when Howard Ailor asked him to deliver a new Waco C to West Palm Beach, Chum gladly took the overnight job. Coursing through the twilight he made his way south from New York. Landing in Richmond, Fayetteville, Charleston, and Jacksonville, Chum eventually touched down in West Palm Beach by late morning. 

A bit worn, the pilot unbuckled and completed his log of the flight. Still seated in the cockpit, he noticed a tall gentleman come out of a hangar and head toward the biplane. Chum instantly recognized the man, as he was a famous aviator in his own right. It was Howard Hughes, and the millionaire was not happy. 

Hughes wasted no time in telling Chum that the engine in this biplane was used, and that he wouldn’t buy it. For his part, the young pilot assured Hughes that that simply wasn’t the case, but that Hughes would have to take it up with Howard Ailor back at Roosevelt Field. With that, the exchange of telephone calls between Florida and New York ensued. Back and forth the two businessmen squabbled. As the war of long distance calls heated up, Chum repeatedly requested a ride to the train station. He told Hughes that he, too, had a business to run, and needed to return to New York. After a day of back and forth, Hughes informed Chum he wouldn’t buy the Waco Cabin, but he would hire Chum to come work for him. Astonished, Chum agreed with the unexpected offer, lured by Hughes prominence and by the good salary. 

For two weeks Chum worked at Hughes West Palm hangar. The other mechanics were easy to know, and he enjoyed watching Hughes and his entourage come and go. The only sticking point to this new job was that there was nothing to do, except watch Hughes. The new Waco Cabin sat inside Hughes hangar without any resolution. 

After two weeks of inactivity, salvation arrived in the form of a long distance phonecall. Called to take the call in Hughes empty office, Chum issued a polite hello. The voice on the other end belonged to Hugh Perry from the Waco Factory in Troy, Ohio. Momentarily taken aback, the young pilot discovered that Perry wanted him for a sales position in South America. Pleased, Chum couldn’t say yes fast enough. And not waiting around to give Hughes notice, Chum simply walked to the train station and bought a ticket for New York. 

He never knew the fate of that Waco Cabin. (#NC 13402)

Chum set sail on the Munson Cruise Liner The Western World in April of 1934. To say Chum was thrilled doesn’t do justice to his excitement. The farm boy from the foothills of the Allegheny’s, caught in the worst economic crash in memory, boarded a luxury ship for Brazil. He felt on top of the world. 

After two weeks at sea, the pilot arrived in Rio de Janeiro and set to work at once. The Brazilian Air Ministry had shown some interest in the Waco CTO, complete with Browning machine guns mounted on the wings. He later said he couldn’t understand why the country needed such armaments, but the customer was always right, and Brazil was the customer.

Mont Chumbley took his first flight over Rio on May 4, 1934, piloting another Waco C. By the 7th he was testing and demonstrating other models, including the CTO. Becoming acquainted with officers from the ministry, he learned the government was determined to develop the vast jungle interior of the country, answering his unspoken question of why machine guns might be needed. Obstacles stood in the way deep in Amazonia. In the end the ministry opted not to make the purchase, though other biplanes met their approval. 

Chum did very well in sales to the government of Brazil, and also in Argentina.

Chum lived and worked in Rio for almost three years. In that time he earned his reputation as one of the most successful Waco sales representative in the company’s history. However, by spring of the 1936 he had met, and become engaged to a beautiful American dancer, Helen Thompson and decided to leave South America. Chum later said he left Waco in the fall of 1936 to find a more predictable job in aviation, one more suitable for a married man. 

By the end of October, 1936, Chum returned to New York for good. He had considered a job offer from Pan American, but declined when he learned he’d have to train at Dinner Key, Florida, Pan Am headquarters for a year. 

The next month Chum returned to Waco, but this time stateside.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Both available on Kindle.