History and a Rollicking Romance

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.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Panama 1932

Author Note: The following excerpt was drawn from extended interviews with veteran aviator Mont Chumbley (1909-2006), discussing his training in the interwar Navy. For the rest of the story read “River of January” available on Kindle.

Later, with his flight training securely behind him, Seaman Montgomery Chumbley received his first official orders. He and his class were assigned to Torpedo Squadron 3, located in Coco Solo, on the Atlantic coast of Panama. Chum joined his fellow novices as they shipped out southward aboard the USS Shawmont.

Watching from the deck as the Florida base vanished, the pilot silently rejoiced at this milestone. He also celebrated the fact that he didn’t have to return in disgrace to Virginia. That euphoric detail made the sky somehow bluer, the clouds somehow more feathered and graceful. The young man felt nearly giddy.

After two pleasant days at sea, the Shawmont cruised into the Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to refuel. Chum was enchanted by the beauty of the jungle and continued to marvel at the colorful sea life and assortment of exquisite birds circling the ship for handouts. The vast horizons he used to imagine, were becoming reality.

The Squadron’s final destination lay near Colon, Panama. Coco Solo was a vast, busy American naval installation, surprising the young pilot with its colossal size. The arrivals boarded a transport for delivery to their quarters, gawking out their bus windows in wonder at the enormity of the American base.

His awe continued after he and the boys were escorted to the adjacent submarine facility to tour that installation.

Returning to the field, the group sat through their initial military briefing, Chum, next to Win, listened as the instructor addressed the new aviators. The captain explained that a 1929 War Department directive assigned the US Navy the task of protecting the Atlantic zone of the Panama Canal from hostile threats.

“The Army’s Fort Gulick sits adjacent to us in Coco Solo, and shares our same mission,” he explained. “As some of you may already know, to the southwest, other military bases dot the entire 51 miles of the canal—all the way to where it meets the Pacific.

After the session, Chum remarked to his buddy, “I feel strangely noble defending the canal. It’s as though we all are part of a bigger picture, with America expanding into both oceans.”

“But what country would be nuts enough to attack us?” Win wondered.

War games made up much of Chum’s Panama duty. The flyers were the “red” team, attacking from the air, while the “blue” team lay in wait, aboard ships “guarding” the canal. The pilots executed their orders during these simulations, but off-duty they grumbled about the Navy’s outdated and seriously flawed maritime battle plans.

“I can’t believe they have us flying so near enemy ships!” Chum groused, crunching over a gravel path after morning exercises. Win paced alongside as they headed toward the base canteen.

“So near? What do you mean? How else could we release our torpedoes?” His friend asked as they ordered sodas at the commissary’s cafeteria.

“Think about it, Win. A torpedo aims more accurately if it detaches directly above the ocean’s surface. And it’s not the steep dive on approach that’s fatal—it’s pulling up after releasing the torpedo. That maneuver is potentially fatal. The belly of the plane is too close to enemy guns. Any surface ship could blow us to kingdom come.” He smacked his palms loudly for effect.

“But, Chum, hold on! There’s smoke laid down on the surface by the first two T3M’s. That smoke blankets us.”

“Yeah, if all goes as planned. If the smoke is laid down close enough to the water, if it doesn’t rise too fast, and if the wind doesn’t blow in too hard. That’s a lot of ifs. Think about it. 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.”

The two flyers stared at their icy drinks. Perhaps Win could see his own plane exploding into the cold depths, just as Chum had already envisioned.

“Anyhow, the scuttlebutt says the brass is taking a second look at that line of attack,” Win disclosed. “The Navy wants to remodel the torpedo bombers into patrol biplanes, replacing the ordnance with fuel tanks. Can’t come fast enough for me—you’ve made me a believer,” his friend admitted.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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

Los Angeles 1940

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Quebec City 1939

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Thing Leads to Another

 

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PanAm Flying Boat 

 

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

On Kindle https://www.amazon.com/s?k=river+of+january&ref=nb_sb_noss_2

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

Photo credit, Mary Sederstrom Smith

gailchumbley@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

99 Cents

The Kindle version of “River of January: Figure Eight” is on sale today for only 99 cents. Step right up and enjoy the flight.

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