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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, 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 week’s promotion of “River of January” turned out a glorious success. My central purpose in researching and writing this first installment was to honor what transpired in America before our time. I hope all of the Kindle readers who downloaded the memoir are stirred by this true account, and return for the sequel, “River of January: Figure Eight.”
Excerpt from “River of January,” free on Kindle until Tuesday, April 2, 2019.
Chum glanced up from Ailor’s desk, where he was adding up airtime in his logbook. A well-dressed gentleman, clearly from the city, faced him. The caller had quietly stepped through the door, surprising the pilot, intent on his figures.
“You found him, sir,” Chum smiled warmly.
“My name’s Rosenbaum, Richard Rosenbaum, but I go by Ross. The man extended his hand, as Chum hopped up. “Say, I need a reliable passenger plane for hire, with a good pilot at the helm. Your name was given to me over at the AP office.”
“Uh huh,” Chum answered casually, privately pleased at the referral. “Where exactly would you need me to fly, Mr. Ross?”
But Ross answered something else. “I have a chair on the stock exchange, but don’t hold that against me,” he volunteered—Chum gawked, and Ross laughed, “I know. You’re surprised I have the guts to state my occupation. We Wall Street types aren’t exactly popular with the public these days, are we?”
The flyer chuckled at the businessman’s blunt honesty.
“Well, I won’t crash the plane, if that’s what worries you. The market crashing is enough for now,” Chum joked back.
With the ice broken, Chum and Ross got down to business, discussing rates and various destinations. Sensing Ross could become a first-rate client, he offered, “Would you like to go up for a spin, Mr. Ross or Rosenbaum?”
The client laughed again. “Love to— love flying.”
Twenty minutes later, the plane eased down, trundling to a gentle stop on the airstrip. As he released his safety straps the broker remarked, “Thanks for the test ride. You know, you’re quite the pilot—may I call you Mont?”
“Nooo, sir. My friends call me Chum,” the pilot answered.
“Well, Chum, I’d like you to plan on a pleasure trip next weekend. The boys and I need to get to Havre de Grace in Maryland. And I will stay in touch.”
The two men shook hands again, and Ross, whistling, walked over to his Chrysler Imperial, and motored away.
Promptly a week later, while jiggling his office key into the door, Chum heard Ailor’s phone ringing. He burst in, leaving the keys hanging in the lock, and seized the receiver.
“Hello, Chumbley here—hello?”
“Morning Chum,” flashed an urgent voice. “This is Richard Ross, and I am awfully glad I caught you at the office! We have a horse posted in the third race and need to get to Baltimore, fast.”
“Havre de Grace Race Track?”
“A horse in the third.”
“Wait, where are you calling from?” the young man asked.
“Newark. We’ll be waiting at the airfield for you to arrive.”
“Horse track, huh? Roger that. I’ll gas up the Waco and be over soon.” Jogging to the hangar Chum reflected, “This trip sounds like fun, especially if I make a couple of bucks.”
Taxiing down the runway, the flyer lifted off—his trip was just a short hop west—and Chum presently approached the New Jersey landing strip. From his windshield he could see three figures moving outside an office building near the tarmac.
“Must be Ross,” Chum mumbled. Touching down, the pilot slowed and turned the plane toward his passengers. But he noticed they were running toward the Waco. Ross was shouting something and waving his arms.
“We need to go, now, Chum!” the pilot finally heard above his roaring engine. Chuckling, as they clambered aboard, the flyer again turned and taxied down the same airstrip, quickly lifting off toward the southeast. His three passengers breathlessly discussed the upcoming race card. Thoroughly entertained by their excitement, Chum listened.
“That number six will be tough to beat,” and “I paid a call to those stables and I wasn’t that impressed.”
This flight wasn’t long either, but apparently too lengthy for the impatient stockbrokers. As Chum circled the county airfield, Ross reached up and patted his shoulder. “Not here, Chum. It’s too far from Havre de Grace. Land the plane at the track, put it down on the infield!”
Stunned, the pilot clarified, “At the horse track?”
“Yes sir! There’s no one better than you to pull off a landing like this one!”
As he doubtfully turned his plane around, dangerous images passed through Chum’s mind—in particular, the incident in Elmira. He understood, as every pilot understood, that potential disaster rode along with him on every flight.
Chum worried: What are the chances of cart-wheeling the plane? Can I regain lift if I come too close to the viewer stands? Will I be arrested?
Ross read Chum’s alarm and assured the pilot, “I trust you. The field is long enough for a good flyboy like you to manage. And we’ll pay for any mishap or damage.”
“How ’bout my broken neck?” the pilot half-joked.
The broker snickered.
Chum shrugged, lowered the nose of his Waco, and touched down firmly, bouncing on the grass, and smoothing out as the plane slowed. By the end of the infield, the Waco stopped, facing the viewing stands. Safe. No snags. Leaning over the yoke, he inhaled deeply realizing he’d held his breath through the approach, the landing, and the braking.
Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Available on Kindle and at http://www.river-of-january.com
From the advent of aviation to the stages of Vaudeville–spanning continents by air and sea, comes “River of January.” Enjoy this true, epic story.
“River of January,” part one of a two-part memoir is available, free on Kindle, from Sunday, March 31, through Tuesday April 2.
Click the link below.
Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” http://www.river-of-january.com
As many of you . . . some of you. . . well, none of you know, Jeff Bezos is out to get me. So jealous, is old Jeff, that he monkeyed with my book pricing on Amazon, charging upward to $600 for my $15.99 book, “River of January.” But I showed him. I not only took that title down, but the second part of the memoir, “River of January: Figure Eight” as well. Let him agonize that defeat. This blow could bring the company to its knees.
But, I am not without a trace of mercy. If one, or even two of you were inclined, both books can still be found on Kindle. If a reader’s taste runs toward nonfiction, with a yearning to relive an earlier era; a time of air races, world travel, Hollywood glamour, Vaudeville productions, Sonja Henie ice shows, and World War Two, I’ve got the story for you. Even Jeff understands blockbusters, like “River of January,” cannot be forever muzzled.
During this long overdue separation with Bezos, I’ve dabbled in another, new to me, format—writing plays. With my script writing partner, Ray Richmond, (yeah, we have written a script) we’ve committed to highlight historical figures who are important, but lesser known. Our first effort, still in progress, covers the life of Antebellum Senator, Henry Clay, and his herculean efforts to stave off Civil War. I’m not sure that writing plays is any easier than big girl chapter books, but I like the process better. And noble Henry Clay is an inspiring muse.
If anybody out there has wondered what became of Gail, and her endless accolades of Helen and Chum, I am quite well and still preaching the gospel of “River of January.”
Without the experience of writing these two books, playwriting would never have touched my life. Please watch for more announcements on “Clay,” and if you think “River” and “Figure Eight” is a good reading fit follow the hyperlink.
Together we will shall ‘mean girl’ Jeff Bezos.
For hard copy books, www.river-of-january.com
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight.
Photo credit, Mary Sederstrom Smith