Building his own charter service at Roosevelt Field, Mont Chumbley got right to work building a clientele. Though 1933 marked the low point of the Great Depression, photographers and reporters from the Associated Press, United Press International, continued to work, beating a path from Manhattan to hire his Waco. Adding student-pilots to his schedule, plus weekends barnstorming around the countryside, Chum made ends meet.
Friendships with other aviation boosters included Amelia Earhart, Broadway producer Leland Haywood, wealthy philanthropist Harry Guggenheim, and his first sweetheart, pilot Frances Harrel Marsalis. In a later interview Chum referred to a long ago passenger, Katharine Hepburn, as a ‘nice girl.’
By Autumn of 1933 Chum unexpectedly found himself a contender in a transcontinental night race, though it hadn’t been his idea. A prominent client who held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange believed Chum was New York’s answer to Lindbergh, funding needed modifications to his Waco C, if only the young man would enter. Chum, weighing his chances. finally agreed.
His biplane soon readied, Chum winged his way from Long Island to Glendale, California, flying much of the trip west by moonlight for practice. Resting in Los Angeles much of October 2, 1933, Chum was told he was seeded third for take off, and finally lifted his Waco into dusky eastern skies.
At his first stop, taxiing across a dark air field in Albuquerque, a fueler informed him another plane had already been and gone. A bit panicked, sure he was lagging behind, the young flyer hustled into the night sky, opening the throttle full bore to catch up. Just before dawn, the lights of Wichita appeared, where the spent pilot learned he was, in fact, the first entrant to arrive.
Weary as Chum felt, he couldn’t sleep. Keyed up by the excitement, he had to wait on those planes yet to arrive. And by late morning only two aircraft had cleared Albuquerque, a Monocoupe and a Stinson.
This night derby narrowed to a three-man contest.
Awarded 2 hours and 10 minutes for his first place in Wichita, Chum coaxed his Waco upward against the lengthening shadows of a Kansas sky. Hours later, at his last checkpoint in Indianapolis, Chum pushed on for New York.
However, the weather wasn’t cooperative.
Through western Pennsylvania, the bi-plane’s windshield began to pierce thickening clouds. Growing anxious, he thought he might be off course, or even worse, lost. But luck remained his co-pilot, when he glimpsed a small break in the inky mist. A lone light flickered below in the blackness, and he slipped down through the pocket.
Executing a bumpy landing on a farm field, the young flyer stumbled through darkness and dirt, making his way toward the light pole, and a modest farmhouse. Urgently thumping on the door, Chum roused a farmer and his wife, breathlessly apologizing for his intrusion.
Explaining his predicament the bewildered couple kindly let him in. As the wife perked coffee, and laid out food, 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 hopes for victory.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.
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.
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.
Oh, Amazon, anarchy is thy name! Part 1 of my two-part memoir is listed on Amazon books for $15.99 plus shipping. But cyber guerilla’s have used copies priced from $40. to $864.00. Can I get a witness?
Dear readers, if you would like a copy of ROJ got to www.river-of-january.com. That’s where gravity still functions. The book is available at a reasonable price. I’ll sign it if you wish.
Also book 2, River of January: Figure Eight is available on Kindle for .99 cents. The sale continues until February 2.
BTW, Amazon says the book price lists fine on their end.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight
Mont “Chum” Chumbley is a pilot. He’s a natural, and he lives to fly. Helen Thompson is a dancer. She’s a natural, and she lives to dance. They come from different worlds and have nothing in common. Yet they are very much alike and destined to be together.
In her 2014 award-winning biography, River of January, Gail Chumbley follows the lives of her husband’s parents from 1927 through 1936. Using their letters, shared stories, and interviews, along with her own storytelling skills, Chumbly has created an informative and entertaining book that reads more like a novel than a biography. It details the struggles of not only the individual characters, but of the world through the Great Depression and events leading to WWII.
River of January includes historical details of the entertainment business from the decline of vaudeville to the emergence of talkies (motion pictures with sound). As well, the book reveals how developments in aviation also moved quickly in the 1930s. Chumbly adeptly follows those drastic historical changes.
Having both come from humble beginnings, Helena and Chum each choose career paths eventually lead them to their first meeting.
At 18, Chum joins the Navy with the hopes of becoming a pilot. He works his way through the military bureaucracy, getting assignments everywhere, it seems, other than at flight school. His lack of education holds him back, but he’s determined to fly.
He has something to prove to his family, to himself. So, when an opportunity presents itself Chum accepts it.
“A nervous and sleep-deprived Mont Chumbley reported for flight elimination exercises.” Everyone expects him to wash out; after all, he has failed the entrance exams more than once. But Chum knows all he needs is a chance to prove himself.
Meanwhile, Helen has her own struggles. While confident and self-assured on stage, off stage she is a pawn of her controlling mother’s insecurities and personal dreams. The only way Helen seems able to escape—while keeping her mother at least somewhat satisfied—is to accept jobs that take her away from her New York home. She finds herself traveling with dance troops throughout Europe.
This need to escape home and family in order to discover and develop their true potential is one thing Helen and Chum have in common, though the way they deal with it is very different.
Eventually, the stock market crash throws the whole world into economic turmoil, which leads to political turmoil, and Helen and Chum are caught up in it all as the entertainment business and the technology of aviation transform.
Chum finds himself, restless and bored, with a job in West Palm Beach, Fla. He jumps at an opportunity to demonstrate Waco Aircraft Company’s new fighter plane for the Brazilian government down in Brazil.
Meanwhile, Helen is back in New York as 1934 slides into 1935, working in a three–person act under her mother’s watchful and domineering presence. Helen, too, is getting restless and ready for change. “She also knew her time had come to move on from their partnership. She hoped her mother would see it the same way.”
Helen flees New York on a ship to Brazil and lands a gig dancing in a club regularly frequented by Americans. “Three young men seated near the dance floor caught her eye, clearly American by their dress and relaxed posture.” One of those young men is Chum, and he catches her attention immediately.
“This new girl, this sparking, compelling blonde on the stage, radiated a magnetism that surprised him.” In a moment, as their eyes meet, the pilot and the dancer connect. And although they try to be together as much as possible, they each have careers and obligations that take them in different directions.
Eventually, Chum proposes, and Helen accepts. They plan to live in Rio de Janerio, but it isn’t that simple.
Between Helen’s mother, who disapproves of their union, and the war, the young couple’s letter transcripts reveal their struggle against seemingly unmovable objects to continue their love and establish a life together.
In 2016, Chumbley published River of January: Figure Eight, picking up where the award-winning River of January dramatically left off. In the sequel, she tells the story of their continued courtship, marriage, and struggle to keep their love intact, despite the challenges of WWII and the unrelenting interference of Helen’s mother. It is the realism of the story—the struggles and successes, the bad times and the good, as well as the author’s narrative—that keeps readers enthralled and turning pages. These two books are more than a family biography. In telling the story of these two intriguing and imperfect people, Chumbley has captured and preserved the history of an era.
Chumbley is a retired history teacher. In 2005, she received the Outstanding Teacher of American History from National Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington DC. A native of the Pacific Northwest, the author was born and raised in Spokane, Wash., and earned a history degree from Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. Chumbley and her husband currently live near Boise, Idaho. She received the 2016 Idaho Author’s Award for Memoirs and Biography for River of January.
I hope that you aren’t too cross with me. We won’t be
gone long, and I will be home very soon. The three of us are
back in the lineup. Jans and Whalen play toreadors in the
opening number, and I am in a black and white feather
costume complete with white boots. The outfits are very snazzy.
We sing the show’s theme song, “Come Round London with
Me,” then “God Save the King.” We had to rehearse them
both, and the audience stands up and sings along when “God
Save the King” begins. Can you believe it?
Jans and I finally are doing our own skit. I wear my tap
shoes, a short flared skirt with suspenders and a huge pink bow
in my hair. On cue I timidly step to center stage (everyone can
hear each tap). Under the spotlight Jans, says “Did you come
out to sing a song for the nice people?”
I point to my throat and croak out “l-a- r-y- n-g- i-t- i-s.”
Jans answers, “Oh, that’s a shame we all were looking
forward to your number.”
I lean over and whisper into Jans’ ear. Jans then says
loudly “You want to whisper the words to me, and I sing the
song? Yes, yes, a grand idea! I would love to!” He announces
“This song is called “Where on Earth could all the Fairies
I whisper in his ear, he sings a line, next whisper, he sings,
and then Jans finishes, arms opened wide belting the out the
refrain, “Where on Earth could all the Fairies Be?”
A spotlight quickly hits Jimmy Naughton, (he’s a Brit)
planted up in the balcony who calls out in an effeminate voice,
“Oh, my, where aren’t they?” The lights cut to black and the
crowd roars with laughter. Cute, huh?
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight.
“River of January,” and “River of January:Figure Eight” have garnered some recognition. Find out why today. Click this link www.river-of-january.com, and order your own copies, personally signed by the author.
Award winning history instructor, Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir River of January and Figure Eight.