This Land Is Your Land


Below is a letter that I recently sent to the Idaho Senate. The upper house of the legislature was considering a bill to provide vouchers for private education. My thoughts centered on the role public schools play in ensuring an American identity.

Good Morning,

My name is Gail Chumbley, and I am a retired teacher now living in Garden Valley. Those of us who spent our careers working with children know we always remain teachers, and why I write to you this morning.

Public schools were established in early America as a place where children learned the tools of literacy; reading, writing, and computing numbers. The thinking behind these first American schools was to prepare contributing members of society, insurance for the continuity of the community.  Enlightened self-interest guided public instruction, confident that the future rested in good, capable hands.

During the 19th and 20th Centuries schools spread across the growing nation to continue investing in the future, and curriculums added more courses that created citizenship. History provided a sense of belonging and common cause, while Civics added the structure of the political system, explaining the “how” of active participation. Students pledged the flag, sang patriotic songs, and shared in the remarkable story of our shared experiment in self-government.

Today this common foundation of America is crumbling. With so many choices for education, a crazy quilt of competing curriculums, home schooling, online classes, magnet schools, alternative schools, and private schools increasingly fray the fibers of our shared American experience. And this morning you have the option to approve another blow to all of us , vouchers for private schools.

HB590 has threatened not only legal problems, but ethical issues which concern not only our State but our Nation’s unity. Public schools have historically provided a vital link for students; our children find more that bind them together, than tear them apart. The growing exclusivity of “choice,” has had a dire outcome socially and economically.

As educators of America’s past have recognized, our kids deserve to learn what holds them together as a people, and in that understanding ensure Idaho’s and America’s future are left in steady hands.

Please vote no on HB590


Gail Chumbley

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, and at

Crossing The Atlantic


Dear Mother,
I hope that you aren’t too cross with me. We won’t be
gone long, and I will be home very soon. The three of us are
back in the lineup. Jans and Whalen play toreadors in the
opening number, and I am in a black and white feather
costume complete with white boots. The outfits are very snazzy.
We sing the show’s theme song, “Come Round London with
Me,” then “God Save the King.” We had to rehearse them
both, and the audience stands up and sings along when “God
Save the King” begins. Can you believe it?
Jans and I finally are doing our own skit. I wear my tap
shoes, a short flared skirt with suspenders and a huge pink bow
in my hair. On cue I timidly step to center stage (everyone can
hear each tap). Under the spotlight Jans, says “Did you come
out to sing a song for the nice people?”
I point to my throat and croak out “l-a- r-y- n-g- i-t- i-s.”
Jans answers, “Oh, that’s a shame we all were looking
forward to your number.”
I lean over and whisper into Jans’ ear. Jans then says
loudly “You want to whisper the words to me, and I sing the
song? Yes, yes, a grand idea! I would love to!” He announces
“This song is called “Where on Earth could all the Fairies
I whisper in his ear, he sings a line, next whisper, he sings,
and then Jans finishes, arms opened wide belting the out the
refrain, “Where on Earth could all the Fairies Be?”
A spotlight quickly hits Jimmy Naughton, (he’s a Brit)
planted up in the balcony who calls out in an effeminate voice,

“Oh, my, where aren’t they?” The lights cut to black and the
crowd roars with laughter. Cute, huh?


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

Available at and on

Dancing To Faust

The visuals seemed odd.

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

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

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

It is lovely.


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

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

Citizen Interview

Gail Chumbley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was it difficult to combine two books into one script?

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

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

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

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

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

You ended up writing the books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you ever write another book?

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

And Ray, what’s next for the script?

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

Before They Were Men

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“It’s hard to remember that they were men before they were legends, and children before they were men..” Bill Moyers, A Walk Through the Twentieth Century. 

For Presidents Day I’ve been putting together a lecture series for my local library. These talks surround the childhoods and later experiences, of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

The thinking behind each, was that early life for all four men presented serious challenges. Complications in health, painful family tragedies, and economic circumstances seemed to shape the world view of these future presidents. It was how each overcame these difficulties, and how that endurance came to influence their presidencies that is the focus of the series.

This is a brief synopsis of what I found.

Behind the image mythologized in “The Life of George Washington, by writer, “Parson” Weems, lived a reality of a more nuanced, and complex Virginia boy. Born on February 22, 1732 in Pope’s Creek, George Washington came into the world as the first son of a planter, but from a second marriage. His position in the family line left him without any claim to his father’s estate. In a strictly ordered society that followed the rules of primogeniture, only the eldest son inherited, and young Washington could claim nothing, aside from the Washington surname. His father, Augustine Washington had two sons from his first marriage, and Lawrence, the eldest, stood to inherit all.

Augustine in fact died in 1743, when George was only eleven years old,  the boy not only lost his father, but also learned he wouldn’t have the formal English education his older brothers had enjoyed. That particular shortcoming marked George permanently, leaving him self conscious and guarded through his early life.

So he pretended. Over time, with practice, Washington clothed his persona in dignified, and formal conduct. Carrying himself with decorum effected his natural behavior, and, in the the end defined his life.

The Revolutionary War that Washington valiantly won, also cost young Andrew Jackson his family. Born on the frontier, in a region paralleling North and South Carolina, young Andrew arrived into the world without his father. Jackson Sr had died prior to his birth, leaving Andrew’s mother, Elizabeth, and his two older brothers in poverty.

At thirteen Andrew, along with his brother Robert joined the Patriot ranks, were eventually caught, and imprisoned by the British. When a red-coated officer ordered young Andrew to polish his boots, the boy declined, protesting that he was a “prisoner of war, and demanded to be treated as such.” The officer replied by whipping his sword across Jackson’s insolent head and forearms, and a diehard Anglophobe was born. (In early 1815, Colonel Andrew Jackson meted out his revenge on the Brits at the Battle of New Orleans).

The end of the Revolution found young Andrew alone-the only survivor in his family. His brother Robert had succumbed to camp fever from imprisonment, followed by his mother three weeks later. For the rest of his long life, Andrew Jackson lashed out at life, perceiving any disagreement as a challenge to his authority. He governed with the desperate instincts of a survivor.

Of a mild, more genial temperament, Abraham Lincoln came to being in the wilds of Sinking Springs, near Hodgenville, Kentucky. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was a hard scrabbling farmer, while his loving mother Nancy Hanks, lived only until Abe reached the age of nine. Hard work and ever-present death seemed to permeate Lincoln’s young life, and as he grew Abraham grappled with bouts of melancholy.

Exhibiting a quick and curious mind, he struggled to learn on the frontier, finally grasping the rudiments of reading and spelling. But his father saw reading as not accomplishing any chores and young Lincoln had to find tricks to do both, such as clearing trees then reading the primer he kept handy.

His step-mother, Sarah Bush Johnston reported that Abe would cipher numbers on a board in char, then scrape away the equation with a knife to solve another.

By young adulthood Lincoln left his father’s farm, and relocated to central Illinois, and made a life in New Salem. Over time Lincoln grew remarkably self-educated, studied law and passed the Illinois bar in 1836.

Of all the resentments he felt toward his father, it was Thomas’s clear lack of ambition and self improvement that nettled the son the most. Upward mobility was America’s greatest gift, and young Lincoln pursued it with relish.

From his first gasping moments Theodore Roosevelt struggled merely to breathe. A child of rank, privilege and wealth, he suffered from debilitating, acute asthma.  His parents, Theodore Sr and Mitty Bullock Roosevelt, stood helplessly over his sick bed, fearing that their little boy wouldn’t survive childhood. Later TR recalled how his father would carry him from his bed, bundle him into an open carriage for a ride through the moist Manhattan darkness. Small for his age, and nearly blind, young Teedee as he was called, began an exercise regime in a gym, built by his father on the second floor of their palatial home on East 20th Street in New York. Over time, using a pommel horse, the rings, and a boxing speed bag to build up his little frame, Theodore Jr visibly grew.

As for his eyes, a hunting trip finally proved to his family that he just couldn’t see. With new glasses, a self made physique and a dogged determination, Theodore Roosevelt brought his indefatigable zest and energy into his presidency.

Today is Presidents Day, 2018, and there is great value in remembering those who have served in this experiment in democracy. All four of these presidents left a distinctive signature of governance, schooled by earlier experience. And all, even Andy Jackson, governed in the spirit of service, believing they could make a contribution to this boisterous, ever-evolving nation.

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

Hat In The Ring (2)


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

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


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


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

Gail Chumbley is the author of both titles available at Also on



And He Stood Up


This post is a reprint from a few years ago. They young men mentioned are now other places in their careers. Their names are used with permission.

Asked by my old high school, I had the privilege of speaking to young people on the eve of Veterans Day. My remarks appear below.

Thank You for inviting me today—It’s good to be back at Eagle High.

On October 23rd, a few weeks ago, U.S. Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler of Oklahoma was fatally wounded in a rescue mission freeing Isis-held hostages in Iraq. He died after rushing into a firefight to support the allied Kurdish soldiers he had trained and advised. Secretary of Defense, Asthon Carter, later described the chaotic events that cost this soldier’s his life.

“As the compound was being stormed, the plan was not for U.S. … forces to enter the compound or be involved in the firefight. However, when a firefight ensued, this American did what I’m very proud that Americans do in that situation . . . he ran to the sound of the guns and he stood up. All the indications are that it was his actions and that of one of his teammates that protected those who were involved in breaching the compound and made the mission a success.”

The death of Master Sergeant Wheeler spared the lives of 70 Isis prisoners scheduled for mass execution the following morning.

Wheeler ran to the sound of the guns. Now I can’t speak for our service men and women, and when I was asked to give this talk, I had to confer with those who have made that solemn commitment. My questions were misleadingly simple . . . why did you choose a military career? What persuaded you to risk yourself for potentially dangerous service?
I wanted to try and understand that burning force of purpose, of unquestioned focus to duty, detach from self preservation for the welfare of others. I wondered how personal fear could be swallowed when, as Secretary Carter explained, “Wheeler involved himself in the firefight.” Where does this nobility of character draw from? Where do these individuals come from—the few that can’t sit on the sideline when duty calls them from their homes?

The answer, strikingly enough, is right here, in this auditorium. Home. Here. No, not someone else from somewhere else. Here. And people, that is where America has always found It’s defenders, from every town and city.

A number of Eagle students have, from many graduating classes, chosen the disciplined military life. Once wiggly kids who, warming the same seats you now occupy, resisting, as you most surely are, the urge to check your cell phones, daydream about the newest version of Halo, or wonder if Bogus Basin ski hill will open before Thanksgiving. They were kids just like you.
Now I don’t pretend to know the name of every Eagle Mustang who has volunteered for service, but I’d like to mention a few.

After earning a college degree as a civilian, 2004 EHS graduate Captain Greg Benjamin was commissioned an Infantry Officer, sending him north to Ft. Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska. From this first posting, Greg has served, so far, two Central Asian tours, first in southern, then in eastern Afghanistan. He wants you to know that he loves the training opportunities he’s experienced so far–Ranger School, Airborne, and Air Assault Schools, and leadership training. When I asked Greg, now married with small children why he chose to place himself in harm’s way, he replied, “I want to take the fight to our country’s enemies, leading America’s finest young men and women in combat and training. And change the lives of people in some of the worst places on the planet.”

Captain Joe Peterson, EHS class of 2005, made his decision after high school too. “I had a number of teammates from Eagle’s Lacrosse team one year ahead of me go to a service academy . . . and this kicked-off my thought process in a serious manner. I’d always held the belief of service, but this made the choice tangible for me . . . I received an invitation to visit the University of San Francisco and their ROTC department. I decided to accept.” Joey was posted in installations ranging from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to Ft. Lewis, Washington, across the Pacific to South Korea, and Central Asia as a platoon leader in Kandahar, Afghanistan overseeing all aircraft and artillery surrounding that area. Reflecting for this talk Joe added, “It was trying at times, but . . . I am proud of my service and it added a value and perspective to my life . . . it has opened doors that are unbelievable.”

Second year West Point Cadet, Colt Sterk described his heartfelt desire to be part of something he termed, “Larger than myself.” Cadet Sterk, EHS class of 2013 explained, “When I was 14 I was given the honor of presenting a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, (in Arlington Cemetery). The nameless soldier in that tomb willingly lay down his life for me, a stranger. I felt a debt of gratitude. Since then I’ve always felt I was called to serve. A senior cadet told me when I was a freshman, ‘Colt in everything you do leave a footprint.’ By that he meant make an impact even if it’s only a little bit. Is it hard? Absolutely. But I know it’s where I’m meant to be.” Colton wants you to know that he visited Israel last summer for ten days studying the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and the implications in that region for the United States, and for the US Army. This semester Colt is attending the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado on cadet exchange—jumping out of airplanes, and on gliding tactics. He just earned his jump wings after completing the requisite five jumps.

Colby Hyde, EHS Class, 2010 shared a different response. He said, “We are fortunate in this country that military service is not an obligation. We are unfortunate, however, in that we do not often appreciate the sacrifice of those who volunteer on our behalf. Eventually I realized that I didn’t want to be comfortable. Comfort leads to boredom and ignorance, I thought, and life is too short to accept either of those. When someone suggested applying to West Point, I could not resist. I applied, was accepted, and have never left. My life now is not comfortable by any means, and I know the hardships are yet to come. That said, I am more satisfied with my life than I ever was before. I have taken part in New York City memorials for fallen 9/11 responders, and traveled with active duty units to the deserts of Death Valley to help them prepare for combat in Afghanistan. I have traveled across Southern China, can speak, read, and write Mandarin Chinese.

I am thankful for everyone who has served me along the way, from my parents to my teachers, and I only hope I can return the favor in the years to come.” At the end of his letter, Colby added, “I have not done anything for our country yet, but I promise I will. Cadet Colby Hyde graduates from the Military Academy at West Point in 2016.

Tomorrow is Veterans Day. Now I am not here to tell anyone to enlist in military service. Truly, the life of a soldier, marine, or sailor isn’t suited for everybody. At this point in your life you should be dreaming about double diamond ski runs, video games, and Harry Potter marathons with your best friends. And also, to be frank with you, that depth of courage and commitment to duty blooms in the hearts of only an extraordinary few.

What I do want you to reflect upon when you exit this auditorium is that Captain Greg Benjamin, Captain Joey Peterson, Second year Cadet, Colton Sterk, and third year Cadet, Colby Hyde, and many, many other Eagle High School alum have solemnly sworn to protect you. And consider as well, that this oath assures these few will run toward the sound of danger–for us—just as Master Sergeant Josh Wheeler of Oklahoma.

We have remained the land of the free, because we are also the home of the brave.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight, a memoir in two volumes.