Unexpected Inspiration

Dear Helen and Chum

I’ve neglected you since publishing your story, and I regret my doubt-inspired silence.

The delight of researching the both of you, made clear that you lived more life than I’ll ever see in mine. Risk, peril, glamor, and ambition. You put yourselves out there, and is the best story, ever.

I wrote those books wracked through with feelings of inadequacy. Possessing little experience as a writer, I took on both volumes largely on my own and finished them, impatiently pushing the story out to the world, mistakes and all.

Still, I’m not sorry to have narrated your journeys, it’s the most kick ass true story I’ve ever encountered. 

Fear and confusion froze this greenhorn in her tracks. I am guilty of getting in the way of sharing your adventures, and reliving your forever love story. Forgive me. I presumed this 20th century saga belonged to me, but that is not so. Truly, there would have been no books at all, without your daring and triumphs to inspire me.

These books were not a mistake. 

Chum, you squared your shoulders, took a deep breath and strapped into that cockpit, forging a career of monumental consequence. The victor of the 1933 Darkness Derby, you braved the night skies over a sleeping America. Flying your mighty Waco aircraft, you touched down at Roosevelt Field where Lindbergh and Earhart began their storied flights. Later, in defense of democracy, you piloted US invasion orders through a dangerous South Pacific typhoon, tossed and slammed by up and down drafts, to complete your mission.

And to you sweet Helen, though we never met in this life, you inspired the entire effort. It was that first visit to your Miami home when something stirred inside me. A unexpected inspiration. Remember that black and white glossy? The portrait of a sultry platinum blonde? You know the one. Chum had it up in his room until the end.

That photo triggered a spark, a slow burning fire I could not ignore. This story had to be shared. The European tours, dancing, dinner with Maurice Chevalier, cruises across the Atlantic on the SS I’le de France, vaudeville with comedians Jans & Whalen. Then off to Rio de Janeiro you sailed, opening at the Copa Cabana. And after your marriage to Chum, and the war broke out you took up ice skating, performing nightly for Sonja Henie’s productions at Rockefeller Center. My God! What a life.

“River of January” is done, as is the sequel, “River of January: Figure Eight.” Preserved in the pages is magic, whether in the sky, on the sea, under the footlights, and revolving across shimmering ice. This story crackles with your energy.

This won’t be neglected any longer. I’m getting out of your way.

With Love, and Eternal Admiration,

Gail

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.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

A Break In The Cover

Chum, Derby Winner.

Cloud cover continued to dog the exhausted flyer. Though dawn light saturated the sky, visibility hadn’t improved. 

Whirring through the gauzy gray, he weighed his options. If the weather didn’t improve, he would navigate out over open ocean and look for a break in the misty gloom. This contingency plan set, Chum streamed eastward, nervously checking and rechecking his wristwatch. 

From the corner of his eye, he spied a shifting break in the cover, and Chum didn’t hesitate. He pushed the yoke and slipped through the sudden gap.

A panorama of chalk-gray spindles greeted him. Automobiles the size of insects, inched along among the spires.The Waco soared above the Manhattan skyline.

Exhilarated and exhausted, Chum beelined over the East River, and on to Roosevelt Field.

Thundering down landing strip number 1, Chum slowed his Waco to a full stop, tired but satisfied he had prevailed. 

But the race had not ended.

Officials rushed the tarmac, urgently shouting and waving. Concerned about the commotion, he reached to turn the throttle off, and that was when he heard a chorus of NO above the din. Frantic hands pointed in the direction to another landing strip. If he shut down the motor he would be disqualified. Without a word, Chum promptly taxied to landing strip number 2, then shut down his biplane.

He had won.

Seven planes had ascended into darkening California skies. Of the seven only three found their way to Roosevelt Field. Chum’s Waco cabin had journeyed above the sleeping nation in 24 hours and 26 minutes; two minutes added by his last minute dash across the field. His victory award-$1,500, enough to reimburse the stock broker, and pay off his airplane. Not bad for a young man struggling through the worst year of the Great Depression.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Becoming A Pilot 1

His was a storied life of potential and opportunity.

With damn good luck and perseverance Mont Chumbley forged a career in the earliest days of aviation. And that he became a pilot at all stood in stark contrast to his rustic, Virginia beginnings.

Born in 1909, young Mont spent his childhood on a farm more 19th Century than 20th. As the eldest son of the eldest son, Mont, as a matter of custom, was expected to follow his father as the next heir of the operation—as had scores of Chumbleys in prior generations. But to the patriarch’s displeasure, the son showed little interest in tending fields.

Instead young Mont discovered other passions; school, sports, girls, and the excitement of town. This lack of enthusiasm for farming generated enough animosity, that the boy had to run away from the farm in 1924.

Mont was 14.

Following a horrifying ordeal in the depths of a West Virginia coal mine, the shaken young teen caught a train back to Virginia, but not the farm. Rather he found sanctuary in his aunt’s opulent home in town. Grateful for his unexpected deliverance, Mont blossomed, graduating from Pulaski High School in 1927, lettering in football and class valedictorian.

Through his academic and athletic achievements, Mont’s opportunities appeared endless, and he knew exactly what he wanted.

While still a little tyke Mont had witnessed a barnstormer set down a biplane in nearby fields. Hearing the roar of the plane’s engine, glimpsing the spinning prop as the aircraft winged above the fields, Mont discovered his calling. Inspired with this childhood memory, Mont set his cap on entering the United States Naval Academy in 1928.

However, he couldn’t crack admission exams, so his hopes for Annapolis vanished, leaving Mont only one option–enlisting as a seaman recruit.

As straightforward as that path appeared, the young man ran into an immediate hurdle; his father had to sign his enlistment papers, and that the old man would not do. If the heir did not want to farm, the father would not help.

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

A hardy boy, the rigors of Naval training proved no problem for Seaman Recruit Mont Chumbley. He easily adapted to drilling and training, initially pleased with the life he had chosen. What he didn’t expect was his first assignment below deck aboard a Navy collier, (coal-burning vessel). Shoveling endless black filth wasn’t what he had envisioned. Mont aimed for the sky.

The Navy of the 1920’s had no regulations excluding enlisted men from flight, but still the odds were daunting. How the young man earned a spot in Naval aviation beggars belief. Through a series of chance encounters, Mont soon served as a babysitter for the Commander of Schools at Norfolk Naval Station. Through tending this officer’s children, Mont developed a son-like attachment to the Commander, and felt courageous enough to ask for help. That single connection made all the difference, and Mont, now called “Chum” by his fellow enlistees, progressed to flight elimination exercises at Hampton Roads.

The short version of this tale is Chum survived flight-elimination trials competently handling amphibious Curtiss NC4’s. The next year, he and his compatriots, Class 37C, found themselves soaring over the Gulf in Pensacola, this time in wheeled aircraft. Later his class received their first assignment, shipping out to Coco Solo, Panama.

Life in the Canal Zone was a jungled 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 simulated war games, the pilots descended until parallel with the sea, then Chum and his fellow pilots would release virtual “payloads” into surface vessels.

In later interviews, an elderly Chum expressed his reservations about the maneuver as far too hazardous for aircraft.

Suddenly, in 1933, Chum up and decided to leave the Navy, though he remained in the Reserves. When asked why, after so much trouble to join, he admitted, “I didn’t much like taking orders.” 

Shipping an old Chevy he had purchased in Panama, Chum steamed into New York Harbor in May, 1933. Optimistic and eager to find work, he paid calls on various air carriers from Eastern Transport to National Airways. But no one was hiring. No one. The country and the world, deep in Depression had nothing to offer the young pilot.

Disappointed, Chum rumbled out to Roosevelt Field on Long Island, for a chance meeting with a figure who would change his life.

Howard Ailor, sales representative for Waco Aircraft, took a shine to the young pilot. Repeating the same gloomy job forecast Chum heard elsewhere, Ailor counseled him to make his own luck. The silver-tongued salesman, said what Chum needed was his own equipment, and talked him into buying a brand new Waco C cabin biplane. 

And that purchase transformed young Mont’s life.

Next time the Transcontinental Air Race.

Class 37-C, Mont Chumbley is on the far left

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.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Almost Cable Guy

Some of you may know that we signed a film option a while back with Falls Park Entertainment in South Carolina. Brett Kanea, the executive producer, read our script, “Dancing On Air,” then my two books that inspired “Dancing.” Brett found it original and exciting and anticipated producing a successful film. Unexpectedly dear Brett died before any filming began. As you can see he from this pic, he was too young to leave us, and our hearts go out to his family and loved ones. 
The morning he first called to discuss the property I thought he was the cable guy expected later that morning. We laughed about that snafu for months after. 
Though our future in film is unclear, Brett’s warmth, humor, and confidence lingers on. 
Godspeed Brett, the almost cable guy.

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Long Weekend

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A former student posted pictures yesterday of a cadet event at West Point. In a formal ceremony he and his classmates were presented with gold class rings in what looked like an annual military tradition. According to the post these rings were made from gold melted down from deceased former cadets, and shavings from the remains of the Twin Towers. A moving and inspiring affair for sure.

Parades on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, The Fourth of July, festooned with waving flags, highlight the modern veneration Americans feel for their warriors, past and present. But this honor and respect wasn’t always held for our fighting forces. In fact from the close of World War One in 1918 until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Americans across the country roundly rejected and criticized anything to do with the armed forces.

As I go about the Northwest, speaking on “River of January,” folks are consistently surprised with the contempt the public held for soldiers and sailors in the book’s setting. The central figure in the memoir, Mont Chumbley shared with me before his death that at the time he enlisted in Norfolk Virginia, signs appeared in city parks warning, “dogs and sailors keep off the grass.” And it is that quote that draws stunned reactions from listeners.

The killing fields of World War One dragged on for three bloody years until America joined on the side of the Allies. Woodrow Wilson, the sitting President betrayed his earlier campaign promise of, “He kept us out of the war,” quickly changing his mind about Europe. He ultimately asked Congress for a declaration of war in April, 1917 to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.” This idealist Chief Executive sent American boys across the Atlantic to remake the world in the image of America’s republican system.

American soldiers, “doughboys,” weren’t in any way ready to deploy, quickly activated and barely trained. Still the recruits and draftees were promptly loaded onto troop ships landing in time to stave off a final German offensive. Gung ho and naïve, US forces made the difference almost at once, charging enemy trenches in blind innocence, with a faith in their youthful invincibility. The exhausted, war-weary combatants, particularly the German “Huns,” soon collapsed, requesting an armistice in November of 1918, ending hostilities.

World War One had unleashed unthinkable horrors in tactics and weaponry. Foul sewage-filled trenches, poison gas, machine guns, aerial bombing, torpedo launching u-boats, tanks, barbed wire, and “no man’s land,” sickened the American people. An outraged sense of being duped into war by big business and self-serving politicians became universal.
Beleaguered President Wilson attempted to salvage purpose from the unspeakable carnage with his “Fourteen Point” peace plan, including his “League of Nations,” a forerunner to the United Nations. Citizens universally rejected Wilson’s efforts to remake a peaceful world. In fact, Americans rejected any form of internationalism whatsoever. War was pointless, and the nation resolved to never venture abroad again, period.

An attitude of isolation gelled and hardened into popular opinion for years to come. Any boy who joined the service was considered a no account scoundrel with no ambition, or self respect. It was in this hostile atmosphere Mont Chumbley bucked popular opinion choosing to join the Navy and ultimately fly airplanes.

It came as no surprise that his family vehemently opposed his enlistment plans. The entire clan closed ranks, certain the family name and reputation was at stake, and the boy could not be permitted to sully the rest of them. And that is only a single anecdote of one family in a nation appalled by anything military.

All three branches faced draconian budget cuts in the 1920’s, with more slashed during the Great Depression. Military leaders hustled to find ways to justify their shrinking budgets before Congress. Military planners were met with answers such as that concluded by Congressman Gerald Nye. Results of Representative Nye’s study determined the US only entered the World War to enrich munitions manufacturers and bankers. The Navy had already taken an earlier hit when a moratorium was placed on building any new battleships. America didn’t need them anymore, the country would never go to war ever again.

And that attitude persisted from 1919 to 1939 until Hitler’s blitzkrieg shattered the peace. But even then the US did not involved itself, even as England stood alone before the Nazi onslaught. Instead Congress passed Neutrality Acts tying the President’s hands to help the English. American entry into that war didn’t occur until the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor two years later, in December of 1941.

The “Long Weekend” starved America’s military for twenty years. That Mont Chumbley managed to join at all, and managed to fly the few aircraft the Navy possessed is nothing less than a miracle. That farm boy from Virginia overcame immense barriers; stiff family opposition, social ridicule, and crossing an immense chasm to become a Navy pilot.

But he did.

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

Any questions? Reach me at gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Archive Story

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Amelia Earhart (left)

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Enjoy!

Video-The Family Archive

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” www.river-of-january.com Both books are also available on Kindle.

Quebec City 1939

The following is an excerpt from “River of January: Figure Eight, available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.

Costumed in tall Hussar caps and military jackets resplendent with gold brocade, the skaters stood expectantly in their V-shape formation in the shadows. Helen, arms twined around the skaters beside her, shivered from a combination of excitement and the frigid draft wafting from the ice. Her ears thudded, inundated by the echoing din from the impatient audience. Much louder than a theater, she thought.

Vera Hruba—a Czech Olympian who was one of the three women headliners in the new production—was positioned at the apex of the V. When the last measures of the orchestra’s overture faded to a close, the house lights darkened and the expectant spectators fell silent. With a commanding flourish, the opening bars of a military march surged to all corners of the house. Spotlights swept over the glittering skate line as Helen pushed off with her left foot, in sync with the tempo. Following two more beats, Hruba burst from the crux of the and raced the circumference of the rink, spotlights holding tight to her revolutions. The audience roared their appreciation in waves of echoing applause. Helen’s first ice show had begun.

If rehearsals were any gauge, Helen was confident the show would be a success. The chorus line often lingered along the rail, chatting and stretching, as they waited for the director to call them onto the ice. “That’s Vivi-Anne Hulten. She’s Swedish,” Clara Wilkins whispered, leaning in, as she and Helen studied the soloist on the ice. “She’s been skating since she was ten,” Clara added, as Hulten executed a perfectly timed waltz jump. “Boy, that little Swedish meatball knows her footwork.” The girls standing nearby murmured in awed agreement.

Chestnut-haired Lois Dworshak sprinted past the attentive chorus line. Helen glanced again at her well-informed friend and Clara didn’t disappoint. “She, Lois there, is a bit of a prodigy. She skated a little as a kid in Minnesota, but hasn’t actually skated professionally all that long. She’s good too, huh?”

“Jeepers, you can say that again,” Helen muttered.

“But the real story in this cast is Vera Hruba.” This time, it was May Judels, the head line skater standing next to Eileen, who spoke up. All eyes shifted toward May. “Vera met Hitler, just like Sonja Henie did, at the Olympics in Berlin. She finished her freestyle routine and came in pretty high, I think. Vera didn’t medal or anything, but still skated a pretty good program.”

“So what happened?” asked another girl, Margo.

“Hitler says to her, ‘How would you like to skate for the swastika?’ And Vera—she doesn’t much like Germans—told him she’d rather skate on a swastika!” Heads turned in unison, watching as Vera completed a flying camel. “So”—May sighed—“to make a long story longer, Vera and her mother left Prague in ’37 as refugees. Then the Huns marched in, and Hitler made a public statement that Vera shouldn’t wear Czech costumes or skate to Czech folk songs. He said Czechoslovakia was gone, never to rise again. Vera responded, saying she’d always be a Czech and that Hitler could, in so many words, go fly a kite.”

“Their own little war . . . now that’s guts,” Helen said, her eyes returning to center ice. “Makes Henie seem like even more of an apple polisher.”

“A swastika polisher,” Margo corrected, as the director motioned the giggling chorus to center ice.

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.

I Want My GOP

This post originally appeared in early 2016. Cassandra award?

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A divided national party . . . voices of extreme rhetoric . . . an ugly, contentious primary season. Does this spell doom for two-party system?

Sounds modern, doesn’t it? But the year was 1860, and the party in question was founded by Thomas Jefferson, and shaped in the image of Andrew Jackson: The antebellum Democratic Party.

On the eve of Civil War, the future of the Union appeared in fatal doubt. Political leaders in the Deep South: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida had all but washed their hands of the centrally powerful United States. Adding to the precarious atmosphere, a faction of Democrats in the North promoted a policy to permit slavery into the western territories under the principle of Popular Sovereignty, or direct vote. Others voices in the northern branch of the Democratic Party believed the Southern States should depart the Union in peace. And these pro-secession advocates became the most worrisome threat for Senate leader, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1860.

Douglas found himself in a hell of a spot. He fervently burned to lead his party to the White House and save his nation, dangerously poised on the verge of civil war. As the principal heir to Senate leadership, Douglas had spent over twenty years in Congress working to stave off Southern secession, taking over when Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” died. Clay had also spent most of his earlier career drawing up one concession after another in a noble attempt to preserve the Union. Eventually the effort wore him out, and Senator Douglas pick up the cause.

As far as Douglas was concerned, slavery wasn’t a moral issue, merely a bump in the road. The issue could easily be decided by the good folks migrating west. Douglas believed if settlers didn’t want slavery, they would decline to establish laws necessary for supporting the “peculiar institution.” But the Senator was wrong—dead wrong. Slavery had, by 1860 become an issue impossible to fix. And it was this miscalculation, underestimating the power of the slave issue, that the Illinois Senator imploded both his party, and his career.

The new Republican Party had organized six years earlier in Wisconsin, founded on one central principle—slavery would not extend into the western territories, period. And this new party spread quickly. Composed of splinter groups, this now fully unified alliance insisted that free labor was an integral component to a flourishing free market economy. The presence of slavery in sprouting regions of the West would devalue free labor, and undermine future commercial growth.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these Republicans did not sing Kumbaya or braid their hair. These men did not believe in equality between the races—they were not abolitionists. Economic principles drove their political platform, (Emancipation came later with the transformation of President Lincoln through the caldron of war).

For Stephen Douglas the approaching 1860 election meant vindication for his support of popular sovereignty, and reward for his faithful political service. And Douglas was no political hack. He fully understood the solvency of the Union lay in the delicate art of sectional balance, and his ascendancy to the White House as a Democrat would go a long way to placate the Southern hotheads. But this Illinois Senator failed, once again, to fully comprehend the temper of the nation, or of his own party. The era of seeking middle ground had passed—America’s course had been set toward industrial modernity with no place for an antiquated, barbaric labor system.

Charleston, South Carolina, was selected as the site of the 1860 Democratic convention. Chaos immediately broke loose on the convention floor. While Southern Democrats demanded strict, precise language guaranteeing the extension of slavery into the territories, Northern Democrats and those from California and Oregon pushed for Douglas’ popular sovereignty. This tense deadlock forced the latter faction to walk out and reconvene in Baltimore where party business could function.

Southern Democrats moved on without Douglas or his faction. In a separate, Richmond, Virginia convention, Southern Democrats proceeded to nominate Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.

Back in Baltimore, Senator Douglas indeed gained the Democratic nomination, preserving his precious principle of local voters determining the western migration of slavery. Meanwhile, the Democrats in Richmond took a step further, adding the absolute protection of slavery to their platform. Middle ground had vanished.

Though a long shot, a third faction of the Democratic Party broke ranks with both Douglas supporters, and the Richmond faction. Calling themselves the “Constitutional Union Party,” this coalition nominated John Bell of Tennessee.

So what can we make of this 1860 fiasco today, in 2016? If I could attempt a bit of divination I would suggest that the political party that can present the most united front will prevail in the general election. If current Republican candidates continue to employ such wide-ranging, and scorching tones to their rhetoric, and stubbornly defend the innocence of their loose talk, the party may run head long into oblivion, as did the Democrats of 1860. If the roaring factions, currently represented by each GOP aspirant goes too far, the fabric of unity will shred, crippling the Republican’s ability to field serious candidates in the future.

Looking at the past as prelude much is at stake for the unity of the GOP. In 1860 party divisions nearly destroyed the Democrats, propelling the nation into a bloody civil war. And though Republicans at that time elected our greatest Chief Executive, Abraham Lincoln, the Democrats suffered for decades, marginalized as the party of rebellion. And even the best lessons left by the past are still forgotten in the heat of passion, by those who know better. (The Democrats shattered their party unity once again a hundred years later, splintered by the Vietnam War.) This is truly a cautionary tale for today’s turbulent Republican Party.

Zealots do not compromise, and leading GOP candidates are spouting some pretty divisive vitriol. Southern Democrats self righteously rejected their national party, certain it no longer represented them, and ultimately silenced the party of Jefferson and Jackson for decades. The lesson is clear for today’s Republicans. By tolerating demagoguery, extremism, and reckless fear-mongering in their field of contenders, the RNC may indeed face a similar demise.

Though it is true that no party can be all things to all citizens, malignant splinter groups should not run away with the party.

The American public demands measured and thoughtful candidates—and both parties are expected to field candidates of merit and substance.

We deserve leaders worth following.

As Senator Stephen Douglas refused to recognize that the political skies were falling around him, and his party, the modern Republican Party must not.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight a two-part memoir. Available on Kindle

Why We Remember

Roosevelt Field Aviators,1933: Elvey Kalep, sitting right, Betty Gillies, on her stomach, Frances Marsalis, standing center, Amelia Earhart, at left looking down. “The Ninety Nines.”

This week’s promotion of “River of January” turned out a glorious success. My central purpose in researching and writing this first installment was to honor what transpired in America before our time. I hope all of the Kindle readers who downloaded the memoir are stirred by this true account, and return for the sequel, “River of January: Figure Eight.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available in hardcopy at http://www.river-of-january.com or on Kindle.

Free is Good

From the advent of aviation to the stages of Vaudeville–spanning continents by air and sea, comes “River of January.” Enjoy this true, epic story.

“River of January,” part one of a two-part memoir is available, free on Kindle, from Sunday, March 31, through Tuesday April 2.

Click the link below.

River of Januaryhttps://www.amazon.com/River-January-Gail-Chumbley-ebook/dp/B00N1ZLWZI/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=river+of+January&qid=1553962925&s=digital-text&sr=1-2

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” http://www.river-of-january.com

gailchumbley@gmail.com