From The Top Balcony

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A gentleman called the house last week asking to speak to me. Since I was out, my husband began chatting with the caller, and once again, as has so many times before, something magic happened related to my books.

This man had discovered “River of January: Figure Eight,” through a series of clicks on social media, and found enough information to phone our home. He had hoped to gather more about the professional Ice Shows at Center Theater during the war in New York. The reason he asked was that his aunt had skated in the productions, (created by Sonja Henie, and choreographed by ballet mistress, Catherine Littlefield) and that his aunt was still living!

On Sunday night, following my own conversation with the nephew, I had the honor of speaking to Gertrude, “Trudy” Schneider, now a young 93 years old. This grand lady, residing in Canada, apologized that she had only known Helen Thompson, my central character in the memoir, from the theater dressing room. Though Trudy skated evenings with Helen, she attended school during the day, as she was only sixteen years old. That made sense since Helen was close to thirty when she began the show, and a mother by that time.

Trudy further detailed her life story, adding that she and her family, with relatives already in America, came to the country from Vienna in 1939. Under Nazi occupation, Austria was not a safe place for Jews any longer, and so she, her parents, and one brother made their way to the US. A skater since childhood, she had been ‘discovered’ skating at Madison Square Garden, and promptly signed by the Center Theater front office. Her parents weren’t thrilled about their daughter working, but according to her nephew, Trudy earned $45.00 a week, making her income vital.

I also found out that one of my favorite character’s in “Figure Eight,” Vera Hruba, a Czech skater,  advised Trudy to always remember her false eyelashes. According to Hruba that was all a girl needed.

As our conversation progressed she seemed to recall more details about her experience at the theater, including how a typical rehearsal transpired. Catherine Littlefield, the  choreographer mentioned above, would climb to the top tier of the fourth balcony and critique the final run-through from her lofty perch. Trudy implied an aura of imperial omnipotence in Miss Littlefield’s seating choice, judging the performance from on high.

Conversing with Trudy felt like time travel; that I had reached back and touched 1943 New York. When I find this book business overwhelming–when I wonder why I bothered to take on the project, a “Trudy” moment presents itself.

Then I remember.

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Helen Thompson (Chumbley) first girl on right, Trudy Schneider, second girl from right.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight, a memoir in two volumes.

 

 

 

The Last Flight

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Chum returned to uniform by August 1941. Luckily he had worked for Eastern Air Lines exactly one year, vesting his employment, ensuring a job when he returned from the war. But that raises an interesting question, what war? There was no American war. Six more months transpired until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The answer to this intriguing question reads something like this; President Roosevelt instituted the preparations he could–Cash and Carry,The Destroyer Deal, quickly followed by the Lend Lease Act in 1941. America’s first peacetime draft had already been activated the year before, in 1940. Everybody knew what was coming, except for the bulk of the American population. They found out the hard way, later, across the Pacific, on a mild Hawaiian Sabbath.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January, and the forthcoming sequel, River of January: The Figure Eight.

River of January is also available on Kindle.

Isn’t it great to be in Miami!

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“River of January: The Figure Eight”

Out this Fall, 2016

River of January, volume one is available at www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle

That’s All

Worth a second look.

Gail Chumbley

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Colonel Clark used to bring his son down to the dojo where my brothers took judo lessons. My grandfather had registered my older brother first, and then my two younger brothers enrolled when they were old enough. I sometimes came along to watch these lessons because, first of all, it was something to do on a boring school night, and I liked to look at the cute boys dressed in their gi (white uniforms.) Grandpa Ray always sat with Colonel Clark, if the old gent happened to be seated in the chairs around the mats. That meant I sat with Colonel Clark, too–not fun for a twelve-year-old, boy crazy girl. The two old men would talk and talk, seated next to one another, though they kept their eyes on their boys competing out on the mats. They never seemed to look each other in the eye, but still seemed caught…

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That’s All

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Colonel Clark used to bring his son down to the dojo where my brothers took judo lessons. My grandfather had registered my older brother first, and then my two younger brothers enrolled when they were old enough. I sometimes came along to watch these lessons because, first of all, it was something to do on a boring school night, and I liked to look at the cute boys dressed in their gi (white uniforms.) Grandpa Ray always sat with Colonel Clark, if the old gent happened to be seated in the chairs around the mats. That meant I sat with Colonel Clark, too–not fun for a twelve-year-old, boy crazy girl. The two old men would talk and talk, seated next to one another, though they kept their eyes on their boys competing out on the mats. They never seemed to look each other in the eye, but still seemed caught up in their conversation.

With the attention span of a hummingbird, I only caught snippets of the quiet discussion. “MacArthur, Wainwright, and Bataan,” were among the many utterances exchanged by Grandpa and the Colonel. And despite my commitment to shallow-minded teen angst, I sensed something grave, something momentous in the back and forth of these two old men.

My brother later translated the mysterious conversation I involuntarily witnessed. Colonel Clark had been left on Bataan when General Douglas MacArthur was ordered from the Philippines in 1942. Under the new command of General Jonathan Wainwright some 22,000 Americans surrendered to the Japanese victors, among them young Clark. The Japanese forced this defeated army on a death march (along with their Filipino comrades) some sixty miles in the jungle, suffering from heat exhaustion, deprived of water, barefoot and hat-less. When a captive stumbled, or fainted, the penalty meant an immediate beheading. Colonel Clark had witnessed that brutality and suffered in ways words fail to capture.

In defiance of any odds, Colonel Clark lived. And that was the man who murmured with my Grandfather, watching a young son he should never, in reality, have sired.

Now I know today is the anniversary of D-Day, “Operation Overlord,” the Second Front promised by FDR and Churchill to relieve Stalin and his Red Army. I am a much better listener now, and realize that valiant warriors cleverly disguised as old men, have enriched my understanding of the past more than I thought possible.

For example there was George, the janitor. He pushed a mop after the lunch hour at my school. This mop was wider that he was tall. I’d often find George standing outside my classroom door listening to me blather on about the Second World War, as if I understood. Later I discovered that mild mannered George had once carried, not a mop, but a M-1, deployed on one of those Higgins boats aimed at Omaha Beach. “So George, what do you remember most about D-Day?” “It was awful early, and the water was cold.”

Then there was Roy. Smiling white-haired Roy. As a teenager he had gone straight from the Civilian Conservation Corps right into the Army. “What do you remember most about D-Day?” “I lost everyone in my outfit. I was real scared. Later I was regrouped with survivors from other platoons. You see that was bad because I’m Mexican, and my first platoon got used to me, and stopped calling me Juan or Jose. I had to start all over with the new bunch. Days after, the boys were giving me the business. One guy said, ‘Mexicans can’t shoot.’ I said that I could. So he said, ‘Ok Manuel. Show me you can shoot. See those birds on that tree branch up ahead? Shoot one of those birds.’ I lifted up my rifle and aimed at the branch and pulled the trigger. I missed the branch, the birds flew away, and twelve Germans came out of the grove with their hands up.” Astounded, I couldn’t speak. Roy simply chuckled. These were just boys who defined their lives in ways civilians can never absorb. They were scared, and hot, and cold, and lucky, and irrevocably changed. That’s All.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, a memoir. Also available on Kindle.