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.
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.
Gail’s books are available at http://www.river-of-january.com, and on Kindle.
Colonel Clark used to bring his young son down to the dojo where my brothers took judo lessons. My grandfather had enrolled my older brother first, and then my two younger brothers 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 gear).
My Grandpa Ray always sat with Colonel Clark, if the old gent happened to be present. 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 their eyes remained on their boys training on the mats. They never seemed to look each other, but remained absorbed in their conversation.
My own attention span, something close to that of a hummingbird, only caught snippets of the quiet discussion. “MacArthur, Wainwright, and Bataan,” were among the many utterances exchanged by my Grandpa and the Colonel. And despite my commitment to shallow-minded teen angst, I sensed something grave, something momentous had happened in the back and forth of these two old men.
My brother later translated the mysterious conversation I unwillingly witnessed. Colonel Clark had been left on the Bataan Peninsula when General Douglas MacArthur evacuated the Philippines in 1942. Under the new command of General Jonathan Wainwright some 22,000 Americans surrendered to Japanese occupiers, 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. The men suffered from heat exhaustion, and dehydration, staggering on, hat-less and barefoot. When a captive stumbled, or fainted, the penalty meant an immediate beheading.
Colonel Clark had witnessed this nightmarish brutality, forced to suffer in ways words fail to recreate.
In defiance of considerable odds, Colonel Clark survived his hell. And that same ordinary older man murmuring quietly with my Grandfather, fondly attending a young son he should never, in reality, have sired.
I am a much better listener today, and recognize that valiant warriors are everywhere, and frequently disguised as harmless old men. Also listening to these elderly gents has enriched my understanding of the past far more than I thought possible.
For example there was George, the high school janitor.
For many years this little old fellow pushed a mop down the halls where I taught American history. Equipped with two hearing aids, this diminutive man wielded an immense mop across litter-strewn floors that was wider than he was tall.
To a passing eye George appeared a friendly, gentle, and harmless grandfather.
I often found the old fellow paused outside my classroom door, mop in hand, listening to me blather on about the Second World War, as if I understood. Later I learned that this mild mannered 80-something had once packed a M-1 Garand, shivering aboard one of those Higgins boats heaving and crashing toward Omaha Beach in 1944.
Me “So George, what do you remember most about that June morning?”
The aged warrior rasped in a high, faded voice, “It was awful early, and the water was awful cold.”
Then there was Roy Cortes, the jovial, open-faced father of our Student Resource Officer. Smiling, white-haired Roy.
As a teenager he enlisted straight from the Civilian Conservation Corps into the US Army.
Me “What do you remember most about the morning of the invasion, Roy?”
The affable elder smiles slightly, then a cloud passes over his expression. “I lost everyone in my outfit. I was real scared. Soon I was regrouped with other survivors. 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 this new bunch. For days, as we moved inland, these 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.” Roy again begins chuckling.
“I missed the branch, the birds all flew away, and twelve Germans came out of the grove with their hands up.”
Astounded, I couldn’t speak. Roy simply smiled and shrugged.
Colonel Clark, George the Janitor, and Roy Cortes. They were just boys who found their lives defined in ways we civilians can never comprehend. They were scared, and hot, and cold, and hungry, and suffering, and ultimately lucky.
They came home.
This excerpt comes from River of January, the first volume of the two-volume memoir available on Kindle, and at http://www.river-of-january.com
Two weeks later, a nervous and sleep-deprived Mont Chumbley reported for flight elimination exercises. He joined 125 other candidates; smartly lined up on a long dock, facing the gray, choppy seas of Hampton Roads. From this windy spot would-be pilots underwent demanding instruction in ten-hour heats on various flight maneuvers. Day one: morning-takeoff, afternoon-landings. Day Two: mornings- turns, including the figure-eight, afternoon-climbing and descending turns—all in Curtiss NC4 seaplanes. Their instructors rated them at each step, either passing or failing, with no second chances. The pool of candidates became smaller with each roll call.
Feeling the pressure, the young sailor took special pains to follow protocol. Climbing around on wet pontoons fixed to the underside, Chum examined the biplane as it bobbed on the rolling water. He talked himself through each required procedure, so he wouldn’t overlook any step.
“Oil leaks? Negative,” Chum recited as he performed his pre-flight inspection. “Rudder locks off? Affirmative.”
He continued crawling around the aircraft until he was sure his check was thorough. After the meticulous exterior inspection, he settled into the cockpit.
“Controls? Check. Stick?” He jockeyed the stick left to right then up to down, “Check.” “Ailerons? He wagged the panels, “Check. Gauges?” He examined the calibrations closely. “Check.”
Concluding the pre-flight list, the student-pilot ignited the motor as another crewman propped the biplane’s propulsion blades, quickly, hopping back to the dock.
Chum, still repeating all he was taught, lifted the plane from the rollicking waves and then leveled the wings using the needle ball as he reached altitude. Momentarily surprised with the ease of his lift, Chum relaxed, in control of the little trainer.
“This isn’t that complicated!” the astonished young man marveled. The thrum of the engine seemed calming, and he could practically feel the buoyant pontoons below the fuselage.
“Flying makes sense,” he reflected. “Pull the stick this way, up, reverse the stick that way, down.”
A sense of wonder filled the young man. As if born to fly he intuitively grasped the mechanics. “Flight requires gravity, logic, instinct, and sound equipment.”
The Curtiss biplane read Chum’s mind, rising on a line, descending on an angle, turning on an invisible anchor point. The little aircraft did what he desired.
Of the 126 flight hopefuls, only nineteen succeeded— including Mont Chumbley. The washouts returned to Norfolk to ship out to sea, to labor on the hellacious coal burning tugboats or other maritime duties. Chum gratefully headed for warmer climates—flight training with his class, 37C, in Pensacola, Florida.
Thinking of Commander Seymour Chum had to smile, “Radio school would probably have been too difficult.”
The supper club was cavernous. The Cocoanut Grove’s maître d’ cordially welcomed the couple and directed them through a tropical arbor of tall potted palms, sheltered under an enormous Bedouin striped tent. Moorish archways separated a dimly lit lounge from the contrasting bustling dining area and its polished dance floor. From a raised stage, a full orchestra engaged the swaying crowd with a smooth rendition of “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way).” Those not dancing strolled among the tables—greeting friends, laughing, and sipping their cock- tails. Intrepid photographers, dodging harried waiters and pretty cigarette girls, snapped photos of the diners.
Helen shimmered, gowned in flowing black silk, easily melding into her chic surroundings. Chum found himself, once again, bowled over by her beauty. “You take the cake, Helen,” he said, as he pulled out a chair for her. She gave him a puzzled glance as she sat down. “What I mean is,” he clarified, “how does a girl pick beach sand out of her ears in the afternoon and transform into a dreamboat by eight?”
She smiled. “It’s all in the face powder—covers up sand, salt, sunburn, bird droppings . . . the works. You know, Chum, with all this flattery, I think you ought to stick around more . . . maybe reconsider this employment idea.”
Chum disagreed by a shake of his head. “Helen, there are two things in this world I love. One is escorting you to nightspots like this one. And two—”
“Flying,” she finished.
“Right-o. And now that we have cleared up that little matter, would you like to dance with your husband? You see, dancing with you is the other benefit I get from nightclubbing. And I promise I will flatter you more. That’s one of the reasons I married you.”
Chum circled the table and drew back her chair. The bandleader gently snapped his fingers in a leisurely four count, the orchestra striking up “Moonlight Serenade” on the downbeat. A rich trombone solo beckoned the couple toward the floor, quickly accompanied by a melodic blend of clarinets and saxophones.
Chum clasped Helen around the waist, holding her close, her left hand in his right.
“Now this is a box step, honey,” Helen murmured. “Just do what I showed you and keep your eyes up. Don’t look at your feet. Feel the rhythm,” she coached.
“I’ll give it my best.” His eyebrows cinched together as he concentrated. After a few steps he grumbled, “I’d like to see you fly an airplane.”
When dinner ended, Helen leaned closer to Chum, and they quietly spun idyllic visions of their future. Out of the corner of her eye, Helen noticed a well-dressed gentleman making his way toward their table. She sat up.
“Chum?” inquired a tall, dark-haired, opened-faced man.
“Russell!” exclaimed a genuinely pleased and surprised Mont Chumbley. He hopped up, stretching out his right hand. “What do you say, Russell? What brings you to Los Angeles?”
Chum’s words rushed in his surprise. “Helen, this is Russell Thaw, an old friend from my air rac- ing days. Russ, this is my wife, Helen.”
Politely shaking his hand, her mind worked to place his familiar name. Thaw . . . Thaw. Why do I know that name?
“Please join us, Russell.” Chum gestured to an empty chair. “Would you like a drink?”
“Sure, but just for a moment, buddy. I don’t want to intrude on your evening.” Thaw smiled sheepishly toward Helen. “What is it you’re doing with yourself, Chum? Last I heard you were working for Lindbergh at TWA.”
“Quit,” he declared, chuckling. “Teeny Weenie Airlines wasn’t for me.”
Thaw smiled at his friend’s candid reply. But his expression quickly shifted, growing seri- ous. “You need to get back to New York, Chum. The sooner the better. Eastern Airlines is hiring. They’ve got a lock on airmail routes from the government, and Captain Eddie’s hurting for pi- lots. You would do well for yourself. That is, if you want to live back in New York.”
Chum’s relaxed expression sharpened at once. He sat up straighter. He took a long look at Helen, trying to read her expression. Turning back toward Thaw, he replied, “I heard something about that. So Rickenbacker’s honestly hiring? I’d heard he had his choice of pilots.”
“Eastern is still throwing out their nets, and you two”—his gesture included Helen—“should get going and visit the Eastern office. See, time matters. Once you make that seniority list, you’re vested—you are in. The clock is vital, here. Take my advice, Chum—it’s time to get on board, literally.”
Chum sat still for a moment, rolling his cigar in his fingers. He remembered the twelve-hour seniority difference that sent him to San Francisco when he worked at TWA. “You going to ap- ply, Russ? You sound like a pitchman for the company.”
“Naw.” Thaw laughed. I just came from New York, and it is the talk all over Long Island. I fly Harry and the rest of the family around now. We’re heading back day after tomorrow. It’s a good job for me.”
The old friends talked over drinks. Thaw caught Chum up on his life, and the two remi- nisced about long-gone days at Roosevelt Field. Their visitor finally looked apologetically to- ward Helen as he stood up to leave. “Sorry to have interrupted your evening, but it was lovely meeting you. Chum’s a lucky fellow.”
“No, no,” she assured him. “It was my pleasure. I’ve come to realize that my husband has made some awfully nice friends along his way.”
Chum smiled, pleased with her compliment. He stood and shook his friend’s hand in farewell. “Thanks, Russell. First, for coming over to say hello, and secondly, for the job advice. Tell Harry hello.”
“Sure will. It was swell seeing you again, Chum. Helen.” Thaw nodded her way.
The couple watched Thaw as he disappeared into the crowd, swirling around the dance floor. Chum spoke first. “Well, what do you make of that?”
“Make of which that? Running into Russell Thaw or the Eastern Airlines news? And honey, who is Captain Eddie? I’m a little in the dark.”
“Eddie is Eddie Rickenbacker. He’s a pilot and he bought Eastern Airlines a couple years ago.”
“Oh, right. I know who he is. The World War One ace. And I also know who Russell Thaw is,” Helen announced coolly.
“Okay, Helen.” Chum folded his hands, amused. “I’m listening. What’s the dope?”
“Well, it’s legendary. The rumors made the rounds backstage of almost every theater I played in New York.” She moved closer, lowering her voice. “Your friend’s mother”—Helen gestured the direction Thaw left—“was a dancer named Evelyn Nesbitt. And she was quite a no- torious girl—carried a real checkered reputation.”
Chum, surprised, leaned in to hear her better as the orchestra struck up new number. Helen continued. “So this Evelyn met and married a wealthy New Yorker, Harry Thaw.” Chum auto- matically glanced around looking for Russell, intrigued.
“Unknown to Thaw, though everyone else in New York knew, Evelyn had had this torrid af- fair with the architect who designed Madison Square Garden.”
“Jiminy Crickets! Russell’s mother, you say?”
“Uh-huh. True story, cross my heart,” she declared. “So, Thaw Senior finds out his wife’s not-so-secret past of catting around, and shoots the architect, dead as a doornail. Later, at his murder trial, the jury acquitted Thaw of murder,” Helen finished, looking at her husband.
“Holy mackerel, I’d never heard any of that before. Poor Russell. I sure can’t blame him for wanting to keep that story quiet. Wonder if the Guggenheims know?”
“The Guggenheims? You mean the New York Guggenheims? You’ve lost me, Chum, how do they figure?”
“Harry Guggenheim is the guy Russell flew out here. He’s the family’s private pilot.”
“Are you trying to tell me that you know Harry Guggenheim?” Helen sat back, astounded.
“He flies too, honeybunch.” Chum patted her arm. “Harry was another regular out at the field.”
Helen paused for a moment, then asked, “Do you know President Roosevelt?” She was only half teasing.
Chum threw back his head and laughed out loud. “He is a navy man—that much is true. But he likes boats. FDR doesn’t fly airplanes, as far as I know.”
“That’s a relief.” Helen smiled. “Don’t know what Eleanor and I would talk about.”
The couple then fell into a contemplative silence, busily weighing the evening’s tidings. Af- ter a few moments, Chum dispelled the mood. “Ready to head home?”
“Sure, honey. I’m ready,” she replied, reaching for her bag.
Chum rolled down the windows in the Chrysler, the night breeze flowing smoothly inside the car. It was a quiet drive. He eased the sedan into their parking spot and hopped out, circling the car to open Helen’s door.
At their apartment, Helen could no longer contain herself. “Did your friend convince you? Are you going to try and work for Eastern? Are we going home?”
Chum sighed. His shoulders slumped slightly, understanding what she was truly asking. “I’m going to place a call to New York in the morning.”
Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both books are available on Kindle, and in hard copy at http://www.river-of-january.com
The following is an excerpt from River of January: Figure Eight
For three anxious days reports trickled in from the Pacific, dispatches that were spotty, vague, and inconclusive. When details emerged of this first-ever clash in the sky, the United States Navy found much to celebrate and, tragically, as much to mourn.
The particulars surfaced days after the attack, presenting a clearer picture of the Battle of Midway. At a morning briefing, base personnel learned firsthand the events surrounding this aerial showdown. “The Imperial Japanese Navy,” began an officer Chum recognized as Lieutenant Commander Kirby, “in an attempt to eliminate US forces on Midway Island, launched multiple airborne assaults. The number of enemy aircraft carriers present in the attack has convinced the Department of War that the Japanese military intended to occupy the island in order to menace US installations farther west in Hawaii.” Kirby paused, somberly measuring his words. “The Empire of Japan has utterly failed in their effort.” The lieutenant commander smiled faintly. “Of the six Japanese carriers under Admiral Yamamoto’s command, four now sit at the bottom of the central Pacific.”
For a moment, the gathering seemed to hold its collective breath, pondering the lieutenant commander’s words. When the full significance sank in, the men jumped to life, roaring in satisfied approval. After the shouting and fraternal backslapping, the crowd finally stood together in a rousing standing ovation.
Kirby couldn’t help but grin at the enthusiastic response, but quickly quelled the celebration with a brief “As you were.” When everyone was seated again, he continued. “Ahem. Yes, this is good news, good news.” Glancing down at his notes and taking a deep breath, he said, “Gentlemen, this great triumph has come at a grim price for the navy. Fellas, we have lost the USS Yorktown. An enemy sub took the old girl down. She was too disabled from the Coral Sea campaign to maneuver away. Our losses so far are sobering—over three hundred casualties at latest count.”
Kirby’s eyes scanned the crowd. “Among the dead, five squadrons of Devastator torpedo bombers from both the USS Enterprise and the USS Hornet. These bombers were utterly blown from the sky while executing attacks on Japanese vessels. The Department of the Navy verified the few who survived the shelling were slaughtered in the water by the enemy rather than rescued. Initial reports from Honolulu indicate that Wildcat fighters, assigned to protect these torpedo bombers, lost all contact, leaving the Devastators hopelessly exposed to Japanese ordnance. Boys, we lost them all, all of our torpedo bombers and pilots—but one, a pilot from Texas.”
The room fell silent, as if there had been no good news at all, no victory in the Pacific. Kirby concluded the briefing with, “Their brave sacrifice made it possible for the rest to find and sink those Japanese carriers.”
Seated among his fellow pilots, Chum shook his head sadly, reminded of a conversation nearly fifteen years before, when he was just a boy—a Seaman, First Class. After a morning of training—of war games—he and a buddy were perched on stools at the base canteen in Panama. Flying his torpedo bomber yards from service vessels had left him unsettled, and he said to his friend, “We approach in low formation, drop our payload and bank, while dangerously showing our undersides to the enemy. We’d be lucky to keep our asses dry, Win. Makes me wonder what desk genius dreamed up this idea. It’s a suicide mission.”
“A suicide mission,” he repeated, in a hopeless whisper, coming out of his reverie.
“Permission to speak, sir,” came a voice from the rear of the hall.
Kirby responded, “Permission granted.”
“How does a sailor go about transferring to the Pacific, sir? With all due respect to our mission here in New York, I want to whip those Japs bad.” Murmurs of agreement swept across the room.
“Fill out the proper paperwork, son.” The lieutenant commander sounded weary. “Complete with your commanding officer’s signature.”
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 or on Kindle
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 V 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.
This post originally appeared in early 2016. Cassandra award?
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.