Halfway Measures

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America’s affluence appears to have successfully nurtured a national indifference to the meaning of America. A quick look into our comparatively short history reminds us all that this is nothing new.

Ten years following the founding of Plymouth came the mass of New England’s settlers. Titled the “Great Puritan Migration” thousands of religious refugees stepped onto dry land at Massachusetts Bay. These newcomers didn’t exactly seek religious freedom, but aimed to school Old England on how a Godly society ought to run. The Massachusetts Bay Governor, John Winthrop described the mission of the colony as establishing “A City on a Hill,” a Godly utopia.

Particularly focusing on the Book of Leviticus, behavior was carefully regulated in Puritan New England. From the eldest male down to the lowliest servant, every individual was compelled to attend church and follow a strict code of behavior. For example, if one was to gossip or speak untruths, a hot nail through the tongue might be inflicted. Missing hours-long Sunday services could earn a date in the town square stocks, to suffer public ridicule and humiliation. These Puritans were not messing around.

Settlers from Provincetown to Lawrence resided in closely set houses, domiciles that circled the local Congregational meeting house. Any notion of personal privacy did not exist in any modern sense. The “Elect,” as they referred to themselves monitored their neighbors for righteous conduct, and individuals were admonished to put God before any other concern. One could not eat too much, drink too much, quarrel too much, or appear flashy in any way. Those decadent distractions kept believers from deep contemplation of The Lord. 

So how does this set of historical circumstances reflect the America of today?

The New England Way meant self restraint, and self denial. Any extreme was frowned upon by the Church. The only aspect permitted and even encouraged was industry, productivity and the accumulation of wealth. The Puritan Work Ethic, direct from the Book of Proverbs loomed large in Colonial New England. 

The point is Massachusetts Bay grew steadily more affluent and more secular. Moreover, the people of that moment embraced wealth as a  righteous manifestation of God’s approval and favor.

Around 1660 the lifespans and prestige of first generation New Englanders began to ebb. The City on the Hill was losing its reach. Children born in the New World did not fully appreciate the harsh ordeal their forebears endured. This second generation, born and raised in America, only knew material comforts, and were, for lack of a better word, spoiled. 

I am the grandchild of the “Greatest Generation,” raised on stories of Depression-era hunger, and amphibious beach landings at Normandy. Moved by the purposeful lives my grandparents led, I chose for my career history education. I understood early on that if kids aren’t informed, they won’t know, and are susceptible to self-satisfied entitlement; meaning this moment is all there is. Material abundance doesn’t help, either. Gifting creature comforts is no substitute for nurturing proportion and a deeper appreciation for what came before. 

As a kid I vacationed at Disneyland, watched the Flintstones, and went through about a million Barbie dolls. But those indulgences were leavened by my elders who freely shared about once living only on turnips for a week, and watching school friends of Japanese descent sent away during the war. 

Outcomes in America’s past were not preordained, but the result of a hell of a lot of work. The stories, passed down from age to age, reveal different takes on shared experiences that sustain our national character. America is much bigger than this one moment, and material things only momentary distractions.

The past is not a foreign land. 

To preserve what they left us cannot be realized with halfway measures. A realistic appreciation of what went before illumines what can be done with today. Essentially we are our history and should get acquainted.

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.”

Both books are available on Kindle.

Reputation

Colonial Virginia valued real estate as much as family bloodlines, or polite manners and form. Land determined one’s social position in the Tidewater and vast estates were controlled by the very few; an aristocracy that shaped Chesapeake society. 

George Washington came of age in this exacting culture, and naturally yearned for acreage to set his mark as a gentleman, fueling his earliest ambitions.

This zeal for land had crossed the Atlantic in the first ships from Great Britain. In the British Isles only gentlemen of the highest status possessed “parks” where they and their guests could hunt, and fish, with acreage left over for tenancy. Landed Cavaliers in the Tidewater quickly fancied themselves equal to any landed gentleman residing in Kent or Sussex. A cursory reading of Jefferson’s Declaration illustrates this sentiment. The “All Men Are Created Equal,” passage in the document affirms Jefferson’s opinion regarding an equality of station. 

Washington’s older, half-brother, Lawrence, the heir of their deceased father’s estate, tried to help the twenty-year-old find his way. Lawrence first looked to secure George a commission in the Royal Navy, but Mary Ball, George’s widowed mother refused to permit it. With no money for young Washington to pursue a formal education, he settled on a career as a surveyor. 

Making use of his father’s instruments, and with  aid of Lord Fairfax, his neighbor and patron, George received an appointment in the Virginia Militia, then trekked into the wilds with his party of frontiersmen to the Ohio River Valley asserting Virginia’s land claims. 

The year was 1754 and a historic wilderness clash awaited the young surveyor.

Virginia claimed virtually all territories north by northwest of the colony. At the same time the French had staked claim to the entire region, as well. An initial engagement at the Great Meadows had gone wrong, when Native allies of Washington’s attacked a sleeping party of French soldiers. In the melee, Half King, a Catawba leader, killed a French diplomatic courier, which was, and still is, an international no-no. 

French soldiers at Fort Duquesne struck at once.

As the French pressed down on Washington’s party, the young militia officer made a some bad decisions. In the ensuing “Battle of Fort Necessity,” Washington was easily whipped and forced to surrender when his hastily erected stockade filled with rain, making defense impossible. 

Thoroughly humiliated, Washington surrendered to the French on July 4, 1754. In his capitulation, young George unknowingly admitted he murdered the French diplomat. Lacking a gentleman’s education, which included an understanding of the French language, he didn’t realize what he had signed.

His disgrace was complete. 

Fast forward to 1794 and a return to the site of old Fort Duquesne. 

Much for Washington had changed. As Commanding General, Washington had won the Revolutionary War, and been elected the first President of the United States. For the nation Washington was fully redeemed through his leadership and valor. 

Still, for the man himself, the misadventures from forty years earlier still rankled. Though Washington’s name was universally lauded, nods and winks continued to echo about his pivotal role in starting the French and Indian War. 

The scene of Washington’s earlier bumbling had changed, as well.

The French Fort, Duquesne, had been renamed Fort Pitt, after the English Primes Minister who had made victory possible over the French. After the Revolution the growing town was simply called Pittsburgh. 

And it was in the proximity of Pittsburgh that a new challenge to Washington emerged.

Congress has passed an excise bill on distillers of whiskey. The infant federal government was burdened with debt from the Revolution. Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton had proposed the tax as a way to for the Treasury to settle its financial obligations. But distillers out near Pittsburgh stubbornly refused to pay the tax. Whiskey rebels rose up, attacking tax collectors who attempted to do their jobs. By summer of 1794, one collector had been tarred and feathered, and another was burned out of his home by a violent mob.

President Washington wasn’t having any of this defiance. He raised an army, placed Hamilton at the head, and sent them to the site of his earlier disgrace .

The rebels melted away like snow in April, bringing this challenge to federal authority to a speedy close. 

Washington flexed federal power in what was the Constitution’s real first challenge. That Washington may have felt some sense of personal absolution, considering the location, is understandable.

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

Contact

Typically, the second chapter of American History texts covers 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 heralded the 1492 global transaction called the Columbian Exchange. 

In my classroom I deviated from the “discovery” aspect of European conquest, opting to focus on the consequences of imperial contact. In particular we examined the transactions 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, 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 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, then recrossed them again, searching for riches. Upon return desolation greeted the Spaniards, of dead and dying men, women, and children-all from small pox. deSoto 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.

The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic didn’t actually begin in Spain. One story tells how the virus began with Doughboys training at Fort Riley, Kansas after America’s entrance into 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 gardens, but also swine and poultry. The viral combination from Fort Riley and further transference from pigs at the rail stop burst into a rare strain of contagion. 

All too soon these 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 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 difference in the deadly outcome. 

Gail Chumbley is 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.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Becoming A Pilot

His was an unlikely life, shaped through perseverance, and a healthy dose of good fortune. That Mont Chumbley became a pilot at all stood in stark contrast to his rustic, Virginia beginnings.

Born in 1909, young Mont spent his early years on a farm that reflected more the 19th Century than the 20th. The eldest son of the eldest son, Mont, as a matter of custom, was expected to follow his father as the next patriarch of the family spread—as had generations before him. But, to his father’s dismay, the boy showed no interest in tending the land. He had other passions; school, sports, and life in town distracted the boy, producing enough friction that Mont ran away from the farm in 1924.  

Following a harrowing ordeal in the West Virginia coal mines, Mont returned home, moving in with relatives in Pulaski, Virginia. He graduated from Pulaski High School in 1927, a football star, and class valedictorian. Determined to become a pilot, Mont set his cap on entering in the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. 

While still a child, the boy had been dazzled by a barnstormer who visited his rural community. From that early episode, Mont knew what he wanted from life; a place in the cockpit. When he failed to secure an academy appointment, the young man quickly realized his only way to Norfolk was by enlisting. As simple as that seemed, Mont learned his father had to sign his enlistment papers, and that the old man would not do. If the heir did not want to farm, his father would not consent to a Navy career.

This family impasse did not resolve until Mont’s mother stepped in and threatened her husband with legal action. Mont’s mother hired a lawyer and prepared to seek consent from a judge. The stunned father apparently knew when he was beat, and reluctantly endorsed his son’s enlistment papers. Mont entered the US Navy in 1928. 

A hearty boy, the rigors of Naval training proved no issue for Seaman Recruit Mont Chumbley. He happily drilled, and trained, reveling in a life he had chosen. What he didn’t count on was the nightmare of serving on colliers, coal-burning vessels. The work was filthy and endless, and not what the young man desired. Mont aimed for the sky.

In the late 1920’s the Navy had no rules limiting enlisted men from flight, but the odds were still formidable. How the young man earned a spot in flight elimination training beggars belief. Through a series of chance encounters, Mont became a babysitter for the director of schools at Norfolk Naval Station. Through tending the officer’s children, Mont developed a friendship with the Commander. That connection made the difference, and Mont, now called “Chum” by his fellow enlistees,  progressed to flight elimination exercises at Hampton Roads.

The short version is that Chum survived elimination, testing on amphibious Curtiss NC4’s. By 1930 he and his class of pilot-trainees, 37C, found themselves in Pensacola training, not on  seaplanes, but in aircraft with conventional landing gear.  Following his time in Florida, his class moved on to Coco Solo, Panama.

Life in the Canal Zone was a universe of its own. Military bases dotted the nearly 50 mile stretch of canal, in a mix of both Naval and Army installations. Coco Solo, anchored by the Navy, commanded the Atlantic side, and trained largely in T3M’s, Martin Torpedo Bombers. In war games, the aircraft would dive until parallel with the sea, then Chum and his fellow pilots would release virtual “payloads” level with vessels. In later interviews, an elderly Chum expressed his reservations about the maneuver as far too hazardous for aircraft.

Unexpectedly, by 1933, Chum up and decided to leave the Navy, remaining only in the Naval Reserves. When asked why, after so much trouble to enlist, he did not stay, he admitted, “I didn’t much like taking orders.” 

Shipping an old Chevy he bought in Panama, Chum cruised into New York Harbor in May, 1933. Eager for work, he paid calls on air carriers from Eastern Transport to National Airways.  The young man quickly learned there was no one hiring. The country, deep in Depression had nothing to offer the hopeful, young pilot.

A part of Chum’s search directed his Chevy to Roosevelt Field, and a meeting with a figure who would change the direction of his life. Howard Ailor, sales representative for Waco Aircraft, took a shine to Chum. Explaining again that the country was broke, Ailor counseled the young man to make his own luck. A tireless salesman, Ailor added that what Chum needed his own equipment, and convinced him to buy a brand new Waco C cabin biplane. 

And that purchase made all the difference.

Building his own charter service, Mont Chumbley soon generated a thriving enterprise. With clients from the press, student flyers from downtown, and weekends barnstorming at carnivals and fairs, Chum found his footing. He also forged friendships with other aviation enthusiasts including Amelia Earhart, Broadway producer Leland Haywood, and the wealthy Harry Guggenheim. In an interview Chum later referred to one-time passenger, Katharine Hepburn as a ‘nice girl.’ 

By Fall of 1933 Chum found himself a contender in a transcontinental night race, though participating had not been his idea. A client who worked on the New York Stock Exchange, and believed Chum the new Lindbergh, agreed to fund the necessary modifications to his Waco C, if only the young man would enter.  Chum agreed. 

His biplane readied, Chum winged his way to Glendale, California, flying much of the trip by moonlight for practice. Resting much of October 2, 1933, Chum, seeded third in line, finally pushed his Waco into darkening eastern skies. Checking in at a stop in Albuquerque,  he was told another plane had already been and gone. Concerned he was lagging behind, the young pilot hastened to the night sky, opening the throttle full bore to catch up. Reaching Wichita by before dawn, the weary pilot discovered he was actually the first entrant to arrive. Only two other participants had made it past Albuquerque, making this a three-way race.

Spotted 2 hours and 10 minutes for his first place Wichita landing, a poorly rested Chum returned to the late afternoon Kansas sky. A further stop brought his Waco to Indianapolis, and from there he was free to push on to New York. But there were problems. Cloud cover began to  collect over western Pennsylvania, and he had a feeling he was off course, perhaps even lost. At nearly the same time a small break below his aircraft revealed a lone light on the ground, so he took a chance.

Executing a bumpy landing on a farm field, the young pilot stumbled through the dark and dirt, finding a  farmhouse. Thumping on the door, Chum roused a farmer and his wife, apologizing while explaining his situation. It was a bewildered couple that kindly let him in, and while the wife perked coffee, and fed him, the farmer got out his maps and showed Chum his location. With heartfelt thanks, he apologized once again, then returned to the night sky, righting his direction toward New York and victory.

Still, cloud cover continued to challenge the young flyer. Dawn had broken, but visibility hadn’t improved. Running options through his mind, he decided if conditions didn’t get any better, he’d take his Waco Cabin out over open ocean and look for a break. His contingency plan set, Chum buzzed eastward, checking and rechecking his wristwatch. 

That was when a sudden gap in the mist gave him the edge he needed.  

Rolling down landing strip number 1 at Roosevelt Field, Chum brought his Waco to a full stop, satisfied he had prevailed. But his race had not ended. Officials rushed the field, shouting and waving, indicating not all was settled. From the cockpit window the pilot was informed he was on the wrong landing strip, and if he shut off the motor he would be disqualified. Promptly, without a word, Chum taxied swiftly to landing strip number 2, then switched off his biplane.

He had won. 

Seven planes had initially lifted off into darkening California skies. Of the seven only three found their way to Roosevelt Field. Chum’s Waco cabin had journeyed across the sleeping continent in 24 hours and 26 minutes; two minutes added by his last minute dash across the field. His victory awarded $1,500, enough to reimburse the patron who had funded him, and he also paid off his airplane. Not a bad payday for a young man struggling through the worst year of the Great Depression.

The race had kicked off Roosevelt Field’s “National Air Pageant.” Chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the event celebrated flight and also raised funds for the First Lady’s special charities. In addition, the Darkness Derby, Chum’s competition, promoted “Night Flight” a new Metro Goldwyn Mayer film which premiered at the Capitol Theater the following night. One of the film’s stars, Helen Hayes was on hand for the opening, and formally presented Chum with his trophy prior to the screening. 

The Transcontinental Air Race was a heady moment for the 24-year-old. Chum realized that his decisions, combined with a little luck had been worth all the risk, and that a promising career in flight lay before him. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. Both titles are available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.

Riding The Back Of The Tiger

At the start of the Kennedy administration, back in 1961, the story goes that JFK invited in a group of historians to the White House. The new president wanted to chat. What Kennedy asked these scholars was what elements insured a great presidency, and the answer from these learned gents was simple: a war.

Kennedy’s own war experiences in the South Pacific, and the ensuing menace of nuclear armageddon left JFK unconvinced. America’s situation on the world stage was just not as simple as war and peace. The lessons of  Nazi appeasement, especially by his own father, Joe Kennedy, compelled the new president to draw a hardline against Communism, and check its growth around the world. 

Caught in the eye of that dilemma; to appear tough, while preserving the lives of young Americans, Kennedy attempted a middle ground. Reluctant to fully commit US forces in Southeast Asia,  he also engaged in discreet negotiations with the Russians to settled the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a wounded veteran himself, JFK pursued a cautious and flexible foreign policy.

Not all presidencies have demonstrated such restraint.

President Madison succumbed to war cries after mediation with Great Britain looked to have collapsed, sparking the War of 1812. In reality the English had agreed to cease much of the abuse that brought about the war, before Madison’s declaration. Sadly news of accommodations from London did not arrive in time, and two futile years of warfare ensued. At the end of hostilities the United States made no measurable gains from the fight. The only red meat served came compliments of Andrew Jackson in his victory over the British in New Orleans. The war had been over two-weeks by the start of that battle. 

Most agree Madison is better remembered as the “Father of the Constitution,” than for his lackluster presidency.

“All of Mexico” resounded across young America in 1844. A toxic, but powerful combination of racism and hubris plunged America into another conflict-the Mexican American War. An unapologetic new president, James K. Polk, publicly stated in his campaign he would lead America into war, though he meant against Britain in his “54, 40, or Fight” slogan. Waged from 1846 to 1848  Polk ordered the invasion of Mexico, and defeat of the Mexican Army. 

A third war with the British never materialized, as the US opted to negotiate claims to Oregon. Though not gaining all of Mexico, America still claimed Texas to the Rio Grande, the southwest region known as the Mexican Cession, and all of California. In the aftermath of war, slave holders spilled westward in search of fertile new lands. In turn, national tensions escalated, both politically, and morally, erupting into Civil War by 1861. 

No other President extended American power, more than William McKinley, and no president was less eager to do so. As a young sergeant in the Civil War, McKinley had witnessed the truly  horrific bloodbath at Antietam Creek, surviving the bloodiest single day of the Civil War.  By the time of McKinley’s election in 1896, he faced a growing threat of a new war with Spain, this time over the Spanish possession of Cuba. Events careened out of control when a Navy gunboat, the USS Maine, sent by McKinley to protect American sugar interests, exploded in Havana Harbor in February, 1898. The disaster of The Maine forced the President’s hand, and he asked for a declaration of war from an enraged Congress. 

Though fought only from April to August, this conflict gave America island possessions from the Philippines to Puerto Rico. The United States had now officially entered the race to become an imperial power. This war extended fueling ports for the growing US Navy from across the Pacific, to the Caribbean. New markets and resources for American business opened up a fortune in profits. Filipinos, in particular, were left unhappy, switching from Spanish overlords to American authority. A bloody 3-year insurrection, fought in dank jungles, exploded, taking the lives of some 4,000 American combatants.

Sadly, in less than twenty years, the world-wide lust for colonies and riches brought America into the trenches of World War One. Decades-long rivalries for land and resources, particularly by Germany and Austro-Hungary, triggered a ruthless international competition that proved to history how industrialization could bleed young men. Not surprisingly this “war to end all wars” did not benefit Commander in Chief, Woodrow Wilson. In the end, the struggle killed him too.

As World War One ushered World War Two into being, World War Two led to the escalating tensions of the Cold War. First Truman in Korea, then Lyndon Johnson into Vietnam. Perhaps as stepchildren to Imperialism and the Cold War, GW Bush’s blunder into Iraq has assured his low position in history. 

The inescapable truth, Mr Trump, is that war does not make a presidency. With the exceptions of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and to some degree, Harry Truman, war has sullied more administrations than enhanced. Blind militarism may titillate your base, but you’re a damn fool to believe you can cheat history. Wars take on a life of their own, and as President Kennedy cautioned, “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”

Gail Chumbley is the author the historic play, “Clay,” and the two-part memoir, River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. Both books are available at http://www.river-of-january.com or on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com