Mistinguett

Sun Valley Idaho is especially beautiful in the fall. We had driven to the resort through steep, intimidating mountain passes, to finally descend among groves of whispering Aspen trees. We had traveled over for a book presentation on “River of January,” the first volume of my two-part memoir at the local Library. We had arrived with hours to spare.

With tons of time to kill we walked the boarded walkways of Blaine County’s most famous community. My eyes were peeled for a glance of the the rich and famous; perhaps Arnold, maybe Bruce, or Demi, or even Tom and Rita. They pop up once in a while to relax in the natural beauty, away from the rat race.

Wandering, we chanced across a dress shop, and I slipped inside the glass door, leaving my husband sitting on a bench outside. The clothes were beautiful; plaids in silky fabric, and fashionable shoes among displays of accessories. The owner was on her phone, behind the counter, speaking to what sounded like a potential customer.

And she was clearly French.

I continued to browse the merchandise, but was more taken with the French lady. I had a good reason.

She soon closed her call, then addressed me. “May I help you?,” the lovely woman trilled.

“Well, maybe.” I replied. “I’m a writer. In fact, I’m here to discuss my new memoir at the library. By any chance have you heard of Mistinguett?”

The shop owner stopped, and looked into my eyes. “Oo La La!” she gasped. “She is a legend.” I smiled, my day made.

Mistinguett was a French music hall entertainer, born late in the 19th Century. At one time this singer-dancer was the highest paid entertainer in Europe, best remembered for her torch song, Mon Homme. Americans might recognize the tune better as My Man, a hit, first for Ziegfeld headliner, Fannie Brice, and later Barbra Streisand.

A fun fact about Mistinguett is she had her legs insured for 50 Francs during her prime. Another fun fact is she discovered Maurice Chevalier, pulling him from the chorus, and making him a star.

The best news about Mistinguett concerns Helen Thompson. Just a girl, this American dancer who’s life story appears in “River of January,” toured with the “Oo la la” French legend from 1932-33.

Enjoy this film clip of the iconic entertainer, dated 1936, and look for Helen in the cast photos of Viola Paris, the Mistinguett variety show from three years earlier.

 

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Mistinguett sits in front holding flowers. Helen Thompson is in the top row center right–the blonde wearing the fur-collared coat.

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Here Mistinguett is wearing a giant head dress, and Helen is second girl to the right.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Also available on Amazon.com

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 nation. 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, but 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.” He was wrong—dead wrong. Slavery had, by 1860 become an issue impossible to solve. And it was here, underestimating the power of the slave issue, that the Illinois Senator imploded his party and his career.

The new Republican Party had formed six years earlier in Wisconsin, established on one central principle—slavery would not extend into the western territories, period. And this new party grew fast. Composed of splinter groups, this now fully unified party maintained that free labor was an integral component of free market capitalism. The presence of slavery in growing regions of the West would devalue free labor, and undermine future economic 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 in the fire 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, exact language guaranteeing the extension of slavery in 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 move forward.

Southern Democrats moved on as well. In a separate Richmond, Virginia convention Southern Democrats nominated Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.

In Baltimore, Douglas indeed gained the Democratic nomination, preserving his precious principle of local elections determining the western expansion of slavery. Bolting Democrats in Richmond went further adding an absolute protection of slavery to their platform. Middle ground vanished.

Though a long shot, a third faction of the Democratic Party broke ranks calling themselves the “Constitutional Union Party.” I’m not sure what they stood for, but clearly it wasn’t support for Douglas or Breckinridge. Convening in Baltimore as well, in May of 1860, 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, so loudly 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 Democratic Party, and launched 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, social unrest, and racial strife. This is truly a cautionary tale for today’s splintering Republican Party.

Zealots do not compromise, and leading GOP candidates are spouting some pretty divisive vitriol. Southern Democrats self righteously rejected the 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. Now its true that no party can be all things to all citizens, nor should hardened splinter groups run away with the party.

The American public demands measured and thoughtful candidates—and both parties are expected to provide 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

Mont Chumbley: Night Flyer

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Sure he was far behind, Mont Chumbley pushed his Waco Cabin C through the night sky. Fresh from the Navy, the young aviator found himself wondering why in the world he’d agreed to enter this “Darkness Derby” competition in the first place.

Called “Chum” by his friends at Roosevelt Field, the pilot had begun a civilian career out of a Western Aircraft Company (Waco) hangar near Mineola, Long Island. Transporting press photographers and reporters to breaking news locations, plus teaching flight to the rich and famous, including Jaqueline Cochrane and Kathryn Hepburn, he found his niche. A 1933 flight to a horse track in Maryland set Chum’s course for the night race he now anxiously questioned.

 

Richard Ross, a financier who held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, was the horse fancier who hired Chum. Ross needed a quick hop to Harve De Grace Track outside Baltimore, Maryland for a horse he had going on the afternoon card. Extremely impressed by the young pilot’s skill, (Chum landed his Waco in the track’s infield) Ross soon offered to pay for modifications to Chum’s Waco if the flyer would agree to enter the transcontinental Darkness Derby. Considering $1,500 in prize money that could really help him out, the young aviator agreed to enter.

Chum set off on September 29th, heading west, flying cross-country to his final destination—Glendale California’s Grand Central Terminal, the starting point for the air race.

Seeded second in a slate of seven planes, positions rated by horsepower and speed, Chum lifted into the growing dusk on October 1, 1933. Guided by a compass and tracking a full moon, the determined young pilot found conditions perfect, the clear night air permitting his Waco a smooth passage.

Before takeoff, Chum studied his competitors, becoming familiar with the pilots and aircraft he had to beat. Merle Nelson of Los Angeles flew a Stinson Cabin powered by a 200 hp Lycoming engine, and looked tough. Frank Bowman of El Paso, Texas in his 90 hp Lycoming engine Monocoupe appeared to be a contender as well. His own Waco Cabin purred with a 210 hp Continental engine, and Chum knew he could open it up to over 130 miles an hour, if necessary.

The moon as his guide, the Mojave Desert illuminated below, the little Waco pushed onward. Setting the aircraft down in Albuquerque, the pilot dutifully checked in with the ground judges, and then hurried to re-fuel. Making small talk with the teenager servicing his plane, Chum was told someone else had already landed and gone. Panic stricken, he cut the conversation short, and returned to the air as fast as he could. It was now that he pushed that plane full bore, resolved to catch up and beat any opponent.

At 9:37am, Mont Chumbley taxied onto the ground in Wichita, completing the first leg of the race in 12 hours and 17 minutes. There had been no other plane, at least not in this race. The kid in Albuquerque had been wrong. Four hours later Nelson arrived, and three other planes still in contention lagged far behind. Following a bit of rest at the field, then carefully inspecting the soundness of his equipment, the derby leader once again rolled down the runway, lifting off into the eastern sky.

Following another quick stop in Indianapolis to check in and fuel his Waco, the pilot learned he still held on to the lead. Satisfied, he returned to the darkness, fairly certain of a pending victory. However, that assurance evaporated when layers of cloud-cover compounded with darkness convinced the pilot that he had become utterly lost. Pushing on, buffeted about by worsening conditions, Chum began to worry he was squandering valuable time. Wracking his brains for deliverance, his aviator eyes suddenly spotted a break in the thick swirling mist. Not hesitating a moment, the Waco slipped through the hole that fortune had sent his way.

Underneath, clearly defined in the infinite blackness beamed a tiny, dim light. One. Chum decided to take his chances and try to figure out where he was. The landing didn’t go well. In swells of bumps, the Virginia farm boy realized his wheels were pounding on furrows of newly cleared fields. Drawing closer to that isolated light, Chum made out the side of a house, with an extended porch. Someone had to be inside.

 

He rapped on the weathered door, and waited. Sounds of scraping and thumping grew louder until the door opened revealing an equally weathered farmer, and his disheveled wife holding a candle. Chum smiled through the entryway, and in a friendly voice explained his dilemma. The farmer stared a moment, measuring the stranger’s sincerity, then decided to let him in.

As the wife poked the coals in the wood stove, and reached for the coffee pot, the farmer spread out maps on the table. Chum soon learned he had landed in western Pennsylvania, and wasn’t too far off course. Profoundly relieved, the young man stuffed cake in his mouth, downed a cup of coffee, and in a rush of heart-felt thanks again bumped over the dark fields back into the sky.

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The darkness soon transformed to early morning, and Chum wondered again where his fellow competitors were located. He knew he hadn’t lost too much time with his unexpected stop, but still fretted, uncertain about the status of the other flyers. Worried about the constant cloud cover that didn’t want to clear, he decided, as a last resort, he’d head out over the Atlantic, look for another break, and duck through. But once again luck smiled, and in the perfect light of morning, a providential clearing appeared and Chum took advantage.

On October 4, 1933 Montgomery Chumbley landed on Roosevelt Field #2, seeming the winner of the 2006 miles long Darkness Derby. However, judges and spectators rushed the plane, arms waving, and clipboards flashing to warn him he’d landed on the wrong strip! Shutting down his plane would have meant disqualification. Without a pause, Chum quickly taxied to Field #1, then turned off his engine, and in 24 hours, 12 minutes (two added for the last minute taxi) won the transcontinental air race.

 

The competition had been set as a preliminary event leading to Roosevelt Field’s National Air Pageant. The widely lauded landing launched the festivities planned for the rest of the week, including an exhibition by German stunt pilot, Ernst Udet. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the pageant, with proceeds earmarked for her charities, and Warner Brothers shared by premiering their newest film “Night Flight,” starring Helen Hayes and Clark Gable. On the evening of October 5, in a theater filled with flyers, Miss Hayes presented Chum with a trophy and his winnings, before screening the film. (Merle Nelson received $750 for second place, and Bowman $500 for coming in third.)

 

As for Chum in the days and weeks after the race? He became a minor New York celebrity, with aspiring students and eager press lining up for his flying services. In 1934 Waco hired him sending him to Rio de Janeiro to sell equipment to the Brazilian, and Argentine air ministries. By the time the Night Flight winner returned to the States in 1936, Mont Chumbley was the most prolific overseas salesman Waco employed.

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Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” a memoir. Look for “River of January: Figure Eight” out in November, 2016. Visit “River’s: home page at http://www.river-of-january.com.   

 

Crossing The Atlantic

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Dear Mother,
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
Be?”
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?

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

Available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Amazon.com

Dancing To Faust

The visuals seemed odd.

While researching my first book, River of January, I discovered that Helen, a professionally trained dancer, and central figure in the memoir, performed with a professional troupe in the opera, Faust. The 1932 engagement, in Erba, Italy had been booked back in New York through the William Morris Agency before the girls set sail.

What hung me up was Satan needing backup dancers, and I wrote the episode in that spirit. Grand jetes’ and Beelzebub made strange stage partners.

Then, out of nowhere, I heard the opera played on NPR–specifically the ballet piece, composed by Charles Gounod. Listening to the music piqued my interest in finding video footage of the ballet. And I got lucky thanks to YouTube. Below is a clip of the ballet with a central character, Marguerite, Faust’s love, who has taken vows in a convent. And the dancing is beautiful.

It is lovely.

 

Helen (lower left) and her mementos from the performance in Erba, September, 1932

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight, available at www.river-of-january, and also available on Amazon.com

Citizen Interview

Gail Chumbley

An avid history junkie from a young age, Gail Chumbley never meant to be a writer. She spent the first half of her life clocking in 33 years as an American History teacher before retiring from Eagle High School in 2013. Along the way, she married Chad Chumbley, who, she said, told stories about his father the pilot and his mother the showgirl, which were almost too fantastical to be true. Favorite accounts included how Montgomery “Chum” Chumbley and Helen Thompson met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Chum sent a note backstage; the time Helen acted alongside Bela Lugosi before turning her sights to ice skating; and the day when Chum, not yet a World War II pilot, shared his cockpit with Katharine Hepburn. Eventually, Helen’s dancing career and Chum’s military service disrupted their marriage.

The stories were true, confirmed by endless boxes of photographs and papers Chad had saved and an oral history Gail conducted with her father-in-law before he passed away. While Gail found the tale of star-crossed lovers compelling, it wasn’t until Chad was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2010 that she decided share it.

Sitting at the kitchen table in her Garden Valley home, Gail opened up about the eight years of writing and research that resulted in two self-published books—River of January (2014) and River of January: Figure Eight (2016)—and a movie script. Chad, largely recovered from his cancer, sat in, and her script writing partner Ray Richmond joined the conversation by phone from Los Angeles.

click to enlargeHelen Thompson sent this signed photo to Chum from Rio on one of the many occasions they were separated.  - GAIL CHUMBLEY

  • Gail Chumbley
  • Helen Thompson sent this signed photo to Chum from Rio on one of the many occasions they were separated.

Ray, let’s start with your role. What got you on board with turning Gail’s books into a script?

Ray: I could see [the story] on a screen when I was starting to read it. We have a pioneer aviator, we have a dancer from the golden age of entertainment and vaudeville and, you know, my only questions when I was reading were how [Helen] had managed to avoid murdering her mother, because I thought, this woman is just a natural, wonderful villain … and why this movie wasn’t made 20 years ago. It’s got the war as a backdrop, it’s got Hollywood, it’s got all of these great names in aviation, it’s got a little bit of Amelia Earhart, a little bit of Howard Hughes. It’s like history just jumps off the page.

Was it difficult to combine two books into one script?

Ray: Not really. It’s mostly about the second book … It’s really about their relationship and the whole backdrop [of WWII]. There’s a lot of female empowerment and disempowerment here. And there are so many different tentacles to that, because you’ve got the meddling mother-in-law who knows best, and the problem is, she really does know best, but she’s a harridan and horrible in the way she comes across while she’s conveying it. She did know that her daughter shouldn’t be with this guy who wanted a traditional life, and that [Helen] was destined to be a great dancer.

click to enlargeIn his signature, Chum wishes Helen "success and happiness always." - GAIL CHUMBLEY

  • Gail Chumbley
  • In his signature, Chum wishes Helen “success and happiness always.”

Gail, how did you make the decision to start writing your in-laws’ love story?

Gail: I’d look at [the photos and papers] and put them back and say, “I’ve got to write this book.” I meant it, and I didn’t mean it. I knew I should, but I didn’t know how. Then Chad got so sick and nearly died—he was in the ICU for eight days. I won’t let him show you his belly, but it just ran out of real estate for all the stuff they had hooked to him … it was horrible. I didn’t know what to do with any of that. Teaching worked to a point, because that’s sort of my living room, and I could really get comfortable, but when it came right down to it, I had all this unvented anxiety and fear and just PTSD. And I knew it. I knew I was crazy, and I knew I was feeling really nuts. When I got home at night, I was just a wreck. So the summer he started chemo and radiation … I was sitting up here every day going through all these letters, trying to make sense of it. [The draft] was horrible, and [my editor] fired me, but I wouldn’t give up because I couldn’t. I had no choice. I read Ron Chernow’s biography of [George] Washington, and there’s a line there he used that really resonated with me. It’s “the clarity of desperation.” I had the clarity of desperation.

You ended up writing the books.

Gail: I wanted someone else to [write Chum and Helen’s story] so badly. I tried to talk a bunch of people into doing it for me that were really good writers, but it’s like, you’re going into labor and no one else is having that baby. You’re going to do it. No one else was going to do this. It fell to me, and in a way that was wonderful, and in a way, it was a sentence.

What was it like transitioning from teaching to being a writer?

Gail: You hear about people who are in the military or the public service, and they retire and decide to teach. And I always thought, ‘Are they crazy? It’s hard work!’ Now, that’s rich. I go from one hard job, thinking writing would be a nice way to pass my job retired—and that’s hard work! I mean, there is no easy cheesy way to go into your retirement.

click to enlargeOver the course of his flying career, Chum flew everything from military planes to aerobatic aircraft for competitions. - GAIL CHUMBLEY

  • Gail Chumbley
  • Over the course of his flying career, Chum flew everything from military planes to aerobatic aircraft for competitions.

What was the research process like, going through Helen and Chum’s old papers?

Gail: The history part wasn’t hard for me. What was hard was to give voice to Helen, to give voice to Chum. Now Chum was easier, because I interviewed him. I had like 15 hours of oral history with him, and I knew him. I didn’t know Helen [who died in 1993].

But considering what happens at the end of the books, there must have been some difficulty in talking about Helen and Chum as parents.

Gail: [Chad] didn’t have a very happy childhood in that house … I think there’s something to that, sometimes really famous people are really lousy parents. Chum and Chad ended up very close though, because he died here, he died in Boise in 2006, and Chad was there every day.

Will you ever write another book?

Gail: I’ve thought about writing a book about generals who were very jealous of each other in wartime, and how those personal quirks and jealousies impeded the war effort. Like between Henry Halleck and Ulysses S. Grant … I feel like writing is the most basic form of communication that you can share without speaking, it’s as unique as a person’s fingerprint, and I think it’s really cool to do.

And Ray, what’s next for the script?

Ray: Well, what’s next is that I have some contacts at the Hallmark Channel, and I’m trying to convince them that they don’t need to make every movie about Christmas … But I really feel good about this. If it’s a great story and it’s meant to be, and it’s got so many vivid elements to it and such great characters, it’s going to be done.

Hat In The Ring (2)

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Captain Eddie Rickenbacker poses with an aircraft bearing the emblem of the 94th Aero Squadron. Image courtesy of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force via Youtube.

This is World War One flying ace, Eddie Rickenbacker. Young Rickenbacker soared the deadly skies over France as a member of the 94th Aero Squadron. He engaged in dogfights piloting Nieuports and Spads, earning the distinction of most decorated American pilot of the war. The insignia of the 94th was the “Hat In The Ring,” seen above.

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Here is Captain Rickenbacker in the 1950’s while he was president of Eastern Airlines. He is lunching with Mont Chumbley, a proud career pilot for Rickenbacker’s “Great Silver Fleet” from 1940 until retirement in 1969. Mont, known as “Chum” is the subject of my two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.”

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And here stands Mont Chumbley next to his Pitts Special Aerobatic plane in the 1980’s. In memory of his famous employer, “Chum” stenciled the “Hat In The Ring” to his sports plane.

Gail Chumbley is the author of both titles available at http://www.river-of-january.com. Also on Amazon.com.