On October 30, 1938, radio listeners tuned into Mercury Theater on the Air, a CBS radio program. The broadcast, scripted and narrated by actor Orson Welles, dramatically detailed a moment by moment invasion of Earth by Martians. To the folks who tuned in late to the program the events were construed as real, that indeed the planet had been attacked, followed with authentic panic erupting onto American streets.
Welles, and Mercury Theater producers intended the script to sound like breaking news, and real it had been received. Bedlam broke out, threaded through with stories of injury, and of suicides. The whole episode left Welles and his producers with a lot of explaining to do.
The following day, CBS Radio and young Welles, (23 at the time) made an on-air apology for the chaos. Eventually the story died down, relegated to an interesting moment of Depression-era America.
Much like October, 1938, mass hysteria has again let-loose upon the country. Only this time the alarm, and distraction is by design, jolting anew on a 24-hour news cycle. Cannibals, sex trafficking politicians, lizard people among royal families of Europe, and poisonous contrails find gullible believers who hang on every fearful word.
And the heaviest assault is lobbed directly at main stream media.
How? Don’t believe any of what you see and hear, unless endorsed by the Right-wing echo chamber. In a real world of Covid, climate change, and other pressing issues, the blaring noise of the propaganda machine has sabotaged progress creating more avoidable problems.
Unlike Orson Welles, the profitable rot pumped continually through cable, books and the internet is disseminated without a self conscience blush, let alone any apologies for damages done and lives lost. American consumption of news has degraded far below any sort of accuracy or structured analysis.
Sadly, a large segment of society cannot separate the wheat from the chaff. Consider those who died consuming ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, and even bleach. Misinformation and fear is lethal.
As the unvaccinated “do their own research,” and die, the insanity refuels every second across media platforms. Makes one long again for a time when truth and responsibility mattered, and mass-hysteria with all its dangers was to be avoided.
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. In addition Gail has also penned two stage plays, “Clay” on the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” examining the normalization of racism in America.
In his 1975 book, “The Russians,” author Hedrick Smith tells a story about a domestic fire in Moscow. He noticed passersby strolling along without a glance, despite urgent smoke and water damage. Neither Tass, nor Pravda covered the story–for Soviets, there was no bad news. This lack of public reaction, Smith concluded came from weary resignation. Citizens had long ago given up on honesty from Party authorities.
In stark contrast, an informed electorate founded the American system; information an essential component of our democracy. Cynical will not do. Without facts reported by a free press, it is game over.
Recognizing the influence of television as a news source, Congress, in 1949, codified equal time when broadcasts touched on public policy. The Fairness Doctrine the second of its kind (the first governed radio) was enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandating broadcasters to present equal sides of public information, or lose their license to operate.
And that doctrine governed news coverage until killed by the smiling, ever popular Ronald Reagan in 1987. His personal charm camouflaged the catastrophe his administration lobbed against journalism and, in turn, our democracy.
In 1968 when the most revered news anchor of his day, Walter Cronkite, returned from assignment in Vietnam, he broke with precedent by publicly admitting Vietnam a lost cause. Later the anchor conceded Woodward and Bernstein were probably on to something with Watergate. Cronkite’s statements spelled the end for both the war, and the Nixon Administration.
The modern GOP hasn’t cared much about the equal time component since Richard Nixon crashed and burned in 1974. From his earliest days “Tricky Dickey” gained attention as a ruthless Communist-hunter, first in the House, as a Senator, and then as Vice President. Following his 1960 loss to JFK, Nixon loathed the press and like Trump saw the media as “The Enemy of the People.” In Nixon V The New York Times, the White House challenged publication of the Pentagon Papers, and lost, then in US V Nixon, ruled the release of the disastrous tapes proving Nixon’s Watergate coverup.
Nixon and other Republicans believed reporters, the networks, and the media, in general, was out to get them.
Before his own 1973 resignation in a separate scandal, Vice President Spiro Agnew did not mince words concerning the press. Agnew referred to the media as the “Nattering Nabobs of Negativity.” Soon the press found there was quite a bit to natter on, when Agnew pleaded guilty to bribery and resigned.
Today, the far Right has capitalized on the end of the Doctrine, manipulating facts, and generally reporting misinformation, without even a blush.
In some respects the end of the Fairness Doctrine has set a course for gutting American democracy.
To hear about it now, the fiasco of January 6, 2021, according to the right-wing media, was no more than a pleasant tour group visiting the nation’s capitol. That violence we all witnessed, is just a misunderstanding. Bear spray, tear gas, and baseball bats used against the D.C police didn’t actually happen. The “Liberal” press exaggerates.
Perhaps before 1987 Americans actually wanted to know whether or not a national fire was raging.
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.
Russia and the US didn’t have much contact in the 19th Century. A rumor had once circulated insisting presidential candidate, John Quincy Adams had procured American virgins for the Russian Czar when a young diplomat. Not true, but there it is.
Still the political tyranny of Russia was widely understood in America. Lincoln condemned the racism and intolerance stateside, remarking that Russia’s oppression was, at least, less hypocritical. Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward later negotiated a purchase for Alaska with Russia. Seward’s Ice Box, 1867 newspapers scoffed.
Some sixty years later, during World War One, revolutionaries deposed the Czar, and later murdered him, and his family. The US shipped Doughboys to France, and dispatched American forces to Archangel, to aid the White Russians in defeating the Bolsheviks. The Whites failed.
In the newly founded USSR, Vladimir Lenin formed the Comintern with the express aim of exporting Communism worldwide, prompting the first American Red Scare.
Then came Depression and World War Two. Josef Stalin, a ruthless despot, struck a nonaggression deal with Hitler, splitting Poland as a buffer. Neither trusted the other, and in 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. End of alliance.
After Pearl Harbor the Russians found themselves allied to Britain and the US. Stalin didn’t trust Washington, and Washington didn’t trust Stalin. Not only had the Russians cut and run during WWI, but recently had signed this treaty with Hitler.
Before the Second World War ended, Stalin signaled his intentions by spreading the Red Army throughout Eastern Europe. Western allies relented and allowed Soviets forces first into Berlin, where Communists held that sector until 1989.
The second Red Scare hit America hard. Stalin’s operatives managed to lift atomic and hydrogen bomb intelligence. The Berlin Wall was built, and the entire Soviet Sphere of Influence made for an intense Cold War. Conflicts popped up in America, and around the world. Sputnik, the U2 incident, the Rosenbergs execution, Joe McCarthy hearings, duck and cover drills, and the black list ruining countless careers. Proxy wars cast a real chill over the free world.
Some of America’s greatest Cold Warriors included President Eisenhower, JFK, Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. These Chief Executives understood that any agreements with the Kremlin required verification. Our Soviet rivals were seasoned operatives, and no ally of the west.
So where does this story leave us? Clearly the Kremlin is no friend. Spy networks, election hackers, and embedded operatives are perpetual threats, that is for sure. Maria Butina, the little red groupie of the NRA, for one. So, when an American President smiles and pays court to Vladimir Putin the proof is clear.
The Russian government is patient, and that patience has paid off. Putin’s masterpiece? He elevated a Russian asset to the White House, and convinced GOP voters to look the other way.
Gail Chumbley is a history educator, and the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both available on Kindle.
Are the awful events of these last twelve months a once-off, bad patch of misfortune? Or is there a deeper explanation for the emergence of Trump, Covid, economic disaster, and civil unrest?
American History is steeped in a collection of pivotal moments, episodes that molded the nation’s continuing path. Can the events of 1776 stand alone as a turning point, or of 1865?
A long metaphoric chain links one scenario to the next, marked by momentary decisions, government policies, or beliefs, that surface at one point in time, and voila, America’s story fleshes out to the future.
Add chance circumstances to the narrative and predictability flies out the window.
Does 2020 stand alone as a singular event, or an inevitable outcome seeded somewhere in the past? Surely the march of history can be much like a chicken-egg proposition.
Mention 1776 and thoughts gravitate to the Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, and the emergence of General George Washington. But that struggle for freedom actually began at the end of the French and Indian War.
As for 1865, when the guns silenced at Appomattox Courthouse, Robert E Lee’s surrender affirmed America as a nation-state. But thirty years earlier, President Andrew Jackson’s administration had sparked the eventual war over the issue of slavery. Thinly disguised as the doctrine of states’ rights, the intractable argument of slavery festered. The “Peculiar Institution” is, was, and always be the cause of that bloodbath. In point of fact the fury of one man, John C Calhoun, South Carolina Senator, and former vice president, lit the fuse of war thirty years before Fort Sumpter.
As to the folly of Trumpism, arguably the roots are deeply burrowed in America’s collective past. Author, and historian Bruce Catton, wrote about a “rowdyism” embedded in the American psyche. Though Catton used that term in the context of the Civil War, his sentiment still resonates in the 21st Century, i.e., Proud Boys, and the like.
Closer to today, the Cold War seems to have honed much of the Far Right’s paranoia. The John Birch Society, for example, organized in the late 1950’s escalating anti-Communist agitation. Senator Joe McCarthy rode to fame on that same pall of fear, (with Roy Cohen at his elbow) only to fail when he went too far.
But the presidential election of 1964 seems to mark the most distinct shift toward the defiant opposition that fuels Trump-land.
Vietnam, in 1964 had not blown up yet. JFK had been murdered the previous fall, and his Vice President, turned successor, Lyndon Johnson was the choice of a grieving Democratic Party. The GOP fielded four major candidates in the primaries: three moderates and the ultra conservative, Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Senator Goldwater gained the nomination that summer with help from two men, conservative writer Richard Viguerie and actor Ronald Reagan.
Viguerie broke political ground through his use of direct mailing, and target advertising (what today is right wing news outlets). Reagan, once a New Deal Democrat, crossed the political divide and denounced big government in “The Speech,” delivered on behalf of Senator Goldwater. These two men believed Conservatism, and Laissez Faire Capitalism had been wrongly cast aside for liberal (lower d) democratic causes.
Their efforts struck a cord with legions of white Americans who felt the same resentment. The Liberal Media and Big Government from the Roosevelt years were Socialistic and anti-capitalistic. No urban problem, or racial strife or poverty appeared in their culdesacs or country clubs. And taxes to support Federal programs squandered and wasted personal wealth.
So many other issues shaped the modern New Right. Communism, the Cold War, Civil Rights, Vietnam, and progressive politics alienated the wealthy class.
But here’s the rub. Ultra conservative ideology is unworkable, an ideal that awards only a small, exclusive few, (today’s 1%). So 2020, and 2016 both have roots running deep in the core of the American experience.
2020 isn’t about this moment, not really.
Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” a two-part memoir available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle. Also the stage plays, “Clay,” and “Wolf By The Ears” (the second in progress.)
The night race kicked off “Roosevelt Field’s “National Air Pageant.” The event, chaired by First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, celebrated aviation and also raised funds for Mrs Roosevelt’s special charities. In addition, the Darkness Derby, competition, promoted “Night Flight” a new Metro Goldwyn Mayer film. The movie premiered at the Capitol Theater the following evening, and leading lady, Helen Hayes emceed the opening. And it was on the Capitol stage that Chum received his trophy from the actress.
This 1933 Transcontinental Air Race/Darkness Derby/Air Pageant/Film Premier, combined to make the moment a heady one for 24-year-old Mont “Chum” Chumbley. Armed with new friends and clients, and other air enthusiasts from the City, a promising future in flight lay before him.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle.
Building his own charter service at Roosevelt Field, Mont Chumbley got right to work building a clientele. Though 1933 marked the low point of the Great Depression, photographers and reporters from the Associated Press, United Press International, continued to work, beating a path from Manhattan to hire his Waco. Adding student-pilots to his schedule, plus weekends barnstorming around the countryside, Chum made ends meet.
Friendships with other aviation boosters included Amelia Earhart, Broadway producer Leland Haywood, wealthy philanthropist Harry Guggenheim, and his first sweetheart, pilot Frances Harrel Marsalis. In a later interview Chum referred to a long ago passenger, Katharine Hepburn, as a ‘nice girl.’
By Autumn of 1933 Chum unexpectedly found himself a contender in a transcontinental night race, though it hadn’t been his idea. A prominent client who held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange believed Chum was New York’s answer to Lindbergh, funding needed modifications to his Waco C, if only the young man would enter. Chum, weighing his chances. finally agreed.
His biplane soon readied, Chum winged his way from Long Island to Glendale, California, flying much of the trip west by moonlight for practice. Resting in Los Angeles much of October 2, 1933, Chum was told he was seeded third for take off, and finally lifted his Waco into dusky eastern skies.
At his first stop, taxiing across a dark air field in Albuquerque, a fueler informed him another plane had already been and gone. A bit panicked, sure he was lagging behind, the young flyer hustled into the night sky, opening the throttle full bore to catch up. Just before dawn, the lights of Wichita appeared, where the spent pilot learned he was, in fact, the first entrant to arrive.
Weary as Chum felt, he couldn’t sleep. Keyed up by the excitement, he had to wait on those planes yet to arrive. And by late morning only two aircraft had cleared Albuquerque, a Monocoupe and a Stinson.
This night derby narrowed to a three-man contest.
Awarded 2 hours and 10 minutes for his first place in Wichita, Chum coaxed his Waco upward against the lengthening shadows of a Kansas sky. Hours later, at his last checkpoint in Indianapolis, Chum pushed on for New York.
However, the weather wasn’t cooperative.
Through western Pennsylvania, the bi-plane’s windshield began to pierce thickening clouds. Growing anxious, he thought he might be off course, or even worse, lost. But luck remained his co-pilot, when he glimpsed a small break in the inky mist. A lone light flickered below in the blackness, and he slipped down through the pocket.
Executing a bumpy landing on a farm field, the young flyer stumbled through darkness and dirt, making his way toward the light pole, and a modest farmhouse. Urgently thumping on the door, Chum roused a farmer and his wife, breathlessly apologizing for his intrusion.
Explaining his predicament the bewildered couple kindly let him in. As the wife perked coffee, and laid out food, the farmer got out his maps and showed Chum his location. With heartfelt thanks, he apologized once again, then returned to the night sky, righting his direction toward New York and hopes for victory.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.
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.
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.
At the start of the Kennedy administration, back in 1961, the story goes that JFK invited in a group of historians to the White House. The new president wanted to chat. What Kennedy asked these scholars was what elements insured a great presidency, and the answer from these learned gents was simple: a war.
Kennedy’s own war experiences in the South Pacific, and the ensuing menace of nuclear armageddon left JFK unconvinced. America’s situation on the world stage was just not as simple as war and peace. The lessons of Nazi appeasement, especially by his own father, Joe Kennedy, compelled the new president to draw a hardline against Communism, and check its growth around the world.
Caught in the eye of that dilemma; to appear tough, while preserving the lives of young Americans, Kennedy attempted a middle ground. Reluctant to fully commit US forces in Southeast Asia, he also engaged in discreet negotiations with the Russians to settled the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a wounded veteran himself, JFK pursued a cautious and flexible foreign policy.
Not all presidencies have demonstrated such restraint.
President Madison succumbed to war cries after mediation with Great Britain looked to have collapsed, sparking the War of 1812. In reality the English had agreed to cease much of the abuse that brought about the war, before Madison’s declaration. Sadly news of accommodations from London did not arrive in time, and two futile years of warfare ensued. At the end of hostilities the United States made no measurable gains from the fight. The only red meat served came compliments of Andrew Jackson in his victory over the British in New Orleans. The war had been over two-weeks by the start of that battle.
Most agree Madison is better remembered as the “Father of the Constitution,” than for his lackluster presidency.
“All of Mexico” resounded across young America in 1844. A toxic, but powerful combination of racism and hubris plunged America into another conflict-the Mexican American War. An unapologetic new president, James K. Polk, publicly stated in his campaign he would lead America into war, though he meant against Britain in his “54, 40, or Fight” slogan. Waged from 1846 to 1848 Polk ordered the invasion of Mexico, and defeat of the Mexican Army.
A third war with the British never materialized, as the US opted to negotiate claims to Oregon. Though not gaining all of Mexico, America still claimed Texas to the Rio Grande, the southwest region known as the Mexican Cession, and all of California. In the aftermath of war, slave holders spilled westward in search of fertile new lands. In turn, national tensions escalated, both politically, and morally, erupting into Civil War by 1861.
No other President extended American power, more than William McKinley, and no president was less eager to do so. As a young sergeant in the Civil War, McKinley had witnessed the truly horrific bloodbath at Antietam Creek, surviving the bloodiest single day of the Civil War. By the time of McKinley’s election in 1896, he faced a growing threat of a new war with Spain, this time over the Spanish possession of Cuba. Events careened out of control when a Navy gunboat, the USS Maine, sent by McKinley to protect American sugar interests, exploded in Havana Harbor in February, 1898. The disaster of The Maine forced the President’s hand, and he asked for a declaration of war from an enraged Congress.
Though fought only from April to August, this conflict gave America island possessions from the Philippines to Puerto Rico. The United States had now officially entered the race to become an imperial power. This war extended fueling ports for the growing US Navy from across the Pacific, to the Caribbean. New markets and resources for American business opened up a fortune in profits. Filipinos, in particular, were left unhappy, switching from Spanish overlords to American authority. A bloody 3-year insurrection, fought in dank jungles, exploded, taking the lives of some 4,000 American combatants.
Sadly, in less than twenty years, the world-wide lust for colonies and riches brought America into the trenches of World War One. Decades-long rivalries for land and resources, particularly by Germany and Austro-Hungary, triggered a ruthless international competition that proved to history how industrialization could bleed young men. Not surprisingly this “war to end all wars” did not benefit Commander in Chief, Woodrow Wilson. In the end, the struggle killed him too.
As World War One ushered World War Two into being, World War Two led to the escalating tensions of the Cold War. First Truman in Korea, then Lyndon Johnson into Vietnam. Perhaps as stepchildren to Imperialism and the Cold War, GW Bush’s blunder into Iraq has assured his low position in history.
The inescapable truth, Mr Trump, is that war does not make a presidency. With the exceptions of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and to some degree, Harry Truman, war has sullied more administrations than enhanced. Blind militarism may titillate your base, but you’re a damn fool to believe you can cheat history. Wars take on a life of their own, and as President Kennedy cautioned, “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”
Gail Chumbley is the author the historic play, “Clay,” and the two-part memoir, River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. Both books are available at http://www.river-of-january.com or on Kindle.
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.