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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
For three anxious days reports trickled in from the Pacific, dispatches that were spotty, vague, and inconclusive. When details emerged of this first-ever clash in the sky, the United States Navy found much to celebrate and, tragically, as much to mourn.
The particulars surfaced days after the attack, presenting a clearer picture of the Battle of Midway. At a morning briefing, base personnel learned firsthand the events surrounding this aerial showdown. “The Imperial Japanese Navy,” began an officer Chum recognized as Lieutenant Commander Kirby, “in an attempt to eliminate US forces on Midway Island, launched multiple airborne assaults. The number of enemy aircraft carriers present in the attack has convinced the Department of War that the Japanese military intended to occupy the island in order to menace US installations farther west in Hawaii.” Kirby paused, somberly measuring his words. “The Empire of Japan has utterly failed in their effort.” The lieutenant commander smiled faintly. “Of the six Japanese carriers under Admiral Yamamoto’s command, four now sit at the bottom of the central Pacific.”
For a moment, the gathering seemed to hold its collective breath, pondering the lieutenant commander’s words. When the full significance sank in, the men jumped to life, roaring in satisfied approval. After the shouting and fraternal backslapping, the crowd finally stood together in a rousing standing ovation.
Kirby couldn’t help but grin at the enthusiastic response, but quickly quelled the celebration with a brief “As you were.” When everyone was seated again, he continued. “Ahem. Yes, this is good news, good news.” Glancing down at his notes and taking a deep breath, he said, “Gentlemen, this great triumph has come at a grim price for the navy. Fellas, we have lost the USS Yorktown. An enemy sub took the old girl down. She was too disabled from the Coral Sea campaign to maneuver away. Our losses so far are sobering—over three hundred casualties at latest count.”
Kirby’s eyes scanned the crowd. “Among the dead, five squadrons of Devastator torpedo bombers from both the USS Enterprise and the USS Hornet. These bombers were utterly blown from the sky while executing attacks on Japanese vessels. The Department of the Navy verified the few who survived the shelling were slaughtered in the water by the enemy rather than rescued. Initial reports from Honolulu indicate that Wildcat fighters, assigned to protect these torpedo bombers, lost all contact, leaving the Devastators hopelessly exposed to Japanese ordnance. Boys, we lost them all, all of our torpedo bombers and pilots—but one, a pilot from Texas.”
The room fell silent, as if there had been no good news at all, no victory in the Pacific. Kirby concluded the briefing with, “Their brave sacrifice made it possible for the rest to find and sink those Japanese carriers.”
Seated among his fellow pilots, Chum shook his head sadly, reminded of a conversation nearly fifteen years before, when he was just a boy—a Seaman, First Class. After a morning of training—of war games—he and a buddy were perched on stools at the base canteen in Panama. Flying his torpedo bomber yards from service vessels had left him unsettled, and he said to his friend, “We approach in low formation, drop our payload and bank, while dangerously showing our undersides to the enemy. We’d be lucky to keep our asses dry, Win. Makes me wonder what desk genius dreamed up this idea. It’s a suicide mission.”
“A suicide mission,” he repeated, in a hopeless whisper, coming out of his reverie.
“Permission to speak, sir,” came a voice from the rear of the hall.
Kirby responded, “Permission granted.”
“How does a sailor go about transferring to the Pacific, sir? With all due respect to our mission here in New York, I want to whip those Japs bad.” Murmurs of agreement swept across the room.
“Fill out the proper paperwork, son.” The lieutenant commander sounded weary. “Complete with your commanding officer’s signature.”
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Available at http://www.river-of-january.com or on Kindle
The following is an excerpt from “River of January: Figure Eight, available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.
Costumed in tall Hussar caps and military jackets resplendent with gold brocade, the skaters stood expectantly in their V-shape formation in the shadows. Helen, arms twined around the skaters beside her, shivered from a combination of excitement and the frigid draft wafting from the ice. Her ears thudded, inundated by the echoing din from the impatient audience. Much louder than a theater, she thought.
Vera Hruba—a Czech Olympian who was one of the three women headliners in the new production—was positioned at the apex of the V. When the last measures of the orchestra’s overture faded to a close, the house lights darkened and the expectant spectators fell silent. With a commanding flourish, the opening bars of a military march surged to all corners of the house. Spotlights swept over the glittering skate line as Helen pushed off with her left foot, in sync with the tempo. Following two more beats, Hruba burst from the crux of the V and raced the circumference of the rink, spotlights holding tight to her revolutions. The audience roared their appreciation in waves of echoing applause. Helen’s first ice show had begun.
If rehearsals were any gauge, Helen was confident the show would be a success. The chorus line often lingered along the rail, chatting and stretching, as they waited for the director to call them onto the ice. “That’s Vivi-Anne Hulten. She’s Swedish,” Clara Wilkins whispered, leaning in, as she and Helen studied the soloist on the ice. “She’s been skating since she was ten,” Clara added, as Hulten executed a perfectly timed waltz jump. “Boy, that little Swedish meatball knows her footwork.” The girls standing nearby murmured in awed agreement.
Chestnut-haired Lois Dworshak sprinted past the attentive chorus line. Helen glanced again at her well-informed friend and Clara didn’t disappoint. “She, Lois there, is a bit of a prodigy. She skated a little as a kid in Minnesota, but hasn’t actually skated professionally all that long. She’s good too, huh?”
“Jeepers, you can say that again,” Helen muttered.
“But the real story in this cast is Vera Hruba.” This time, it was May Judels, the head line skater standing next to Eileen, who spoke up. All eyes shifted toward May. “Vera met Hitler, just like Sonja Henie did, at the Olympics in Berlin. She finished her freestyle routine and came in pretty high, I think. Vera didn’t medal or anything, but still skated a pretty good program.”
“So what happened?” asked another girl, Margo.
“Hitler says to her, ‘How would you like to skate for the swastika?’ And Vera—she doesn’t much like Germans—told him she’d rather skate on a swastika!” Heads turned in unison, watching as Vera completed a flying camel. “So”—May sighed—“to make a long story longer, Vera and her mother left Prague in ’37 as refugees. Then the Huns marched in, and Hitler made a public statement that Vera shouldn’t wear Czech costumes or skate to Czech folk songs. He said Czechoslovakia was gone, never to rise again. Vera responded, saying she’d always be a Czech and that Hitler could, in so many words, go fly a kite.”
“Their own little war . . . now that’s guts,” Helen said, her eyes returning to center ice. “Makes Henie seem like even more of an apple polisher.”
“A swastika polisher,” Margo corrected, as the director motioned the giggling chorus to center ice.
Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.
Strutting through the broad, reflecting doors, beneath the black and gold insignia of his building, the President acknowledged well wishers, reporters, and staff. Happy to be back in New York, he looked forward to his familiar apartment and comfortable bed. The President felt it a hardship to live in such an old structure in Washington, though the prestige made it tolerable.
He aimed directly to the elevator, his closest aids and Secret Service agents in tow. The Chief Executive marched into the lift, with a triumphant gait, gracing photographers with a last thumbs up, as the gilt doors sealed.
Soon enough, the elevator car slowed to a silent halt, the opening doors revealing an opulent penthouse. His entourage emptied first into the golden rooms, Secret Service staff sweeping for any dangers that might threaten the Commander in Chief. After the officers cleared the master bedroom, the President loosened his tie, slipped off his suit jacket and kicked off his designer shoes. Exhaling onto his grand bed, a sudden movement caught his eye.
A tall man, of regal bearing stood by the window, surveying Midtown from on high. Attired in a blue uniform, trimmed with buff lapels and cuffs, the man’s hair looked powdery white, and was bound in a queue at the nape of his neck.
Stunned, gasping at this extraordinary vision, the President froze, too astonished and frightened to speak.
“I’m very fond of New York,” the officer began. “During the War for Independence I remained in the vicinity waiting to reclaim it from British occupiers.” He glanced at the frightened man, now burrowing under his bedclothes. “As Chief Executive, I served both terms of office here in New York.”
The President could hear his heart pounding, and idly worried about his blood pressure.
“I, too, struggled with temptation,” the officer continued. In my youth I pined for the advantages of the wealth that surrounded me.” The apparition glanced at the President. “Land, military rank, social standing, . . . these were the empty ambitions I embraced as valuable.”
The President began to feel his heart rate slow, the adrenaline somewhat dissipating, and found the courage to speak. “Ho, . . . how did you get in here?”
But the soldier did not reply, turning again toward the view of Manhattan.
“Over time, particularly once the war commenced, I discovered my assumptions slowly crumbling. The sacrifices endured by the fine men in my command taught me that there were more important ideals than fleeting treasure,” the specter sighed, emotion enforcing his revelation. “You must realize,” the officer turned again toward the President, eyes blazing with conviction, “all a man truly possesses is reputation. In the end, that is all that matters!”
Dread again filled the President, clutching tightly his golden comforter, but finding no comfort. He wished the apparition gone, praying with all his might that a staffer would hear and rescue him.
“You must understand,” the visitor continued, “I, too, struggled to master my avarice and envy. It was through a determined practice of self-restraint, a mastering of my baser desires, that I learned to be of service to more than myself.” The soldier paused a moment, studying the frightened man grasping his bedding. “Did you know that Article Two in the Constitution was written for me?”
Hearing this, the President forgot his fear for a moment.
“For you?” he managed to murmur.
“When I relinquished my command after the war, and returned to my home in Virginia, Congress judged my character upright. In truth I was weary, lonely for my family, and yearning for a peaceful life,” the General smiled sadly. “However, when I gave up power I earned honor, trust—a good name—and contentment.”
“Why are you bothering me? You should leave,” the President moaned, wishing he had flown instead to Florida. But his visitor seemed not to hear.
“When the Constitutional Convention set to work, only one day was devoted to defining the role of president. One day,” the visitor repeated. “You see, the delegates wanted no more of arbitrary rule, believing only those of good character would occupy the office.” The apparition looked directly at the President,”
“Please go,” the President whimpered. “I’ll call my men . . .”
The General interrupted, “they are not yours, Sir. And therein lies the problem, and the purpose of my visit.” The soldier frowned deeply. “These deputies work for the American people, as do you, sir. The presidency is a position of service and trust.” He paused. “We have all noted your general deficiency in this aspect.”
“We all?” gasped the President, concerned with his pumping heart.
The General approached the vast bed, the President shrinking deeper with each step. “The President is entrusted with formidable powers, that must not be mishandled. In this you have fallen short.”
“As I am remembered in the annals of America for quiet dignity and fidelity to country, you will only be recalled as a moneychanger who profited from foreigners and plutocrats.”
A knock at the bedroom door startled the cocooned President, breaking the spell. His elaborate, golden bedroom was empty.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle or in hardcopy at http://www.river-of-january.com.
This post originally appeared in early 2016. Cassandra award?
A divided national party . . . voices of extreme rhetoric . . . an ugly, contentious primary season. Does this spell doom for two-party system?
Sounds modern, doesn’t it? But the year was 1860, and the party in question was founded by Thomas Jefferson, and shaped in the image of Andrew Jackson: The antebellum Democratic Party.
On the eve of Civil War, the future of the Union appeared in fatal doubt. Political leaders in the Deep South: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida had all but washed their hands of the centrally powerful United States. Adding to the precarious atmosphere, a faction of Democrats in the North promoted a policy to permit slavery into the western territories under the principle of Popular Sovereignty, or direct vote. Others voices in the northern branch of the Democratic Party believed the Southern States should depart the Union in peace. And these pro-secession advocates became the most worrisome threat for Senate leader, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1860.
Douglas found himself in a hell of a spot. He fervently burned to lead his party to the White House and save his nation, dangerously poised on the verge of civil war. As the principal heir to Senate leadership, Douglas had spent over twenty years in Congress working to stave off Southern secession, taking over when Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” died. Clay had also spent most of his earlier career drawing up one concession after another in a noble attempt to preserve the Union. Eventually the effort wore him out, and Senator Douglas pick up the cause.
As far as Douglas was concerned, slavery wasn’t a moral issue, merely a bump in the road. The issue could easily be decided by the good folks migrating west. Douglas believed if settlers didn’t want slavery, they would decline to establish laws necessary for supporting the “peculiar institution.” But the Senator was wrong—dead wrong. Slavery had, by 1860 become an issue impossible to fix. And it was this miscalculation, underestimating the power of the slave issue, that the Illinois Senator imploded both his party, and his career.
The new Republican Party had organized six years earlier in Wisconsin, founded on one central principle—slavery would not extend into the western territories, period. And this new party spread quickly. Composed of splinter groups, this now fully unified alliance insisted that free labor was an integral component to a flourishing free market economy. The presence of slavery in sprouting regions of the West would devalue free labor, and undermine future commercial growth.
Now, don’t get me wrong, these Republicans did not sing Kumbaya or braid their hair. These men did not believe in equality between the races—they were not abolitionists. Economic principles drove their political platform, (Emancipation came later with the transformation of President Lincoln through the caldron of war).
For Stephen Douglas the approaching 1860 election meant vindication for his support of popular sovereignty, and reward for his faithful political service. And Douglas was no political hack. He fully understood the solvency of the Union lay in the delicate art of sectional balance, and his ascendancy to the White House as a Democrat would go a long way to placate the Southern hotheads. But this Illinois Senator failed, once again, to fully comprehend the temper of the nation, or of his own party. The era of seeking middle ground had passed—America’s course had been set toward industrial modernity with no place for an antiquated, barbaric labor system.
Charleston, South Carolina, was selected as the site of the 1860 Democratic convention. Chaos immediately broke loose on the convention floor. While Southern Democrats demanded strict, precise language guaranteeing the extension of slavery into the territories, Northern Democrats and those from California and Oregon pushed for Douglas’ popular sovereignty. This tense deadlock forced the latter faction to walk out and reconvene in Baltimore where party business could function.
Southern Democrats moved on without Douglas or his faction. In a separate, Richmond, Virginia convention, Southern Democrats proceeded to nominate Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.
Back in Baltimore, Senator Douglas indeed gained the Democratic nomination, preserving his precious principle of local voters determining the western migration of slavery. Meanwhile, the Democrats in Richmond took a step further, adding the absolute protection of slavery to their platform. Middle ground had vanished.
Though a long shot, a third faction of the Democratic Party broke ranks with both Douglas supporters, and the Richmond faction. Calling themselves the “Constitutional Union Party,” this coalition nominated John Bell of Tennessee.
So what can we make of this 1860 fiasco today, in 2016? If I could attempt a bit of divination I would suggest that the political party that can present the most united front will prevail in the general election. If current Republican candidates continue to employ such wide-ranging, and scorching tones to their rhetoric, and stubbornly defend the innocence of their loose talk, the party may run head long into oblivion, as did the Democrats of 1860. If the roaring factions, currently represented by each GOP aspirant goes too far, the fabric of unity will shred, crippling the Republican’s ability to field serious candidates in the future.
Looking at the past as prelude much is at stake for the unity of the GOP. In 1860 party divisions nearly destroyed the Democrats, propelling the nation into a bloody civil war. And though Republicans at that time elected our greatest Chief Executive, Abraham Lincoln, the Democrats suffered for decades, marginalized as the party of rebellion. And even the best lessons left by the past are still forgotten in the heat of passion, by those who know better. (The Democrats shattered their party unity once again a hundred years later, splintered by the Vietnam War.) This is truly a cautionary tale for today’s turbulent Republican Party.
Zealots do not compromise, and leading GOP candidates are spouting some pretty divisive vitriol. Southern Democrats self righteously rejected their national party, certain it no longer represented them, and ultimately silenced the party of Jefferson and Jackson for decades. The lesson is clear for today’s Republicans. By tolerating demagoguery, extremism, and reckless fear-mongering in their field of contenders, the RNC may indeed face a similar demise.
Though it is true that no party can be all things to all citizens, malignant splinter groups should not run away with the party.
The American public demands measured and thoughtful candidates—and both parties are expected to field candidates of merit and substance.
We deserve leaders worth following.
As Senator Stephen Douglas refused to recognize that the political skies were falling around him, and his party, the modern Republican Party must not.
Guards manned the numerous doorways along the wide hallway, as clusters of tourists gradually progressed through the storied, color-coded rooms. Upstairs the President listened to the public commotion with satisfaction, not for the house, not for the job, which, in truth, had become tiresome, but for the knowledge he could drop down and set all their bourgeois hearts aflutter.
After a moment, he made his decision, slipping down an interior stair case, planning to surprise a group lingering inside the regal, oval-shaped Blue Room. While his hands automatically smoothed his hair, the President emerged, sidling up beside a class of fidgety school children restlessly whispering and snapping cell phone pictures.
“And who are you?,” the president teased with pleasure, anticipating their rambunctious joy. The president half closed his eyes, and paused, waiting for the gratifying response to erupt.
But he heard nothing.
Bemused, the President opened one eye, then the other. The chatty children paid him no mind, in fact were moving away, following their guide out into the hallway.
“Wait,” he found himself calling. “It’s me, the President. I’m here.”
He repeated, “The President of the United States is here.”
But the children didn’t hear, deserting him in the Blue Room, his hair acceptably smooth.
He didn’t understand and he thought very hard, searching for a rational explanation for the children’s indifference to his surprise appearance. Very soon it occurred to the President that the room had remained empty, no visitor had entered, though streams passed by the doorway.
He remained unnoticed and alone.
It was at that moment that he heard a voice, quite near, and quite annoyed.
“Am I to understand you are a New Yorker?”
The President wheeled around toward the sound. Before him, no more than an arm’s length away stood a mustachioed gentleman, wearing pinz nez spectacles across the bridge of his nose, and sporting a shining top hat. The man’s eyes blazed behind the thick round lenses, and the astonished President detected a trickle of cold sweat trace down the back of his thick neck. He had no words.
“I say, are you, or are you not, a New Yorker?” The stern man inquired in a nasally, patrician voice.
“Ahem. How did you get in here,” the President demanded. “Where are my guards?”
“Supercilious pup,” the man in the top hat shouted. “They tell me that YOU are from New York, and are president! A common side show huckster, President.”
The President, though frightened and confused, replied reflexively, “I’m in real estate. I made my fortune in New York real estate.” Only the muffled din of passing tourists kept the President from panic.
“Real Estate!” The man in spectacles scornfully shouted. “I’d say you are another scoundrel from the wealthy criminal class. Swindlers like you are a dime a dozen in New York City. I made a career of exposing rascals like you.”
The man, attired in a three-piece suit, a watch fob draping his ample waist, bore a deep scowl. “But you found your way into this office of trust. Intolerable.”
Though bewildered, the President, unaccustomed to such personal insults, felt his pique rising. “I was elected President by the largest margin in American Hist . . .”
“Poppycock,” the specter interrupted. “It is my understanding the decision rested upon a mere tilt in the Electoral system, and that foreigners interfered to make certain of your victory.”
The strange visitor moved closer. “I’d say that you are a compromised puppet of outsiders, and give not one damn for the American people.”
At this point the President had heard enough, and tried to move his legs. He wanted very much to escape the Blue Room, and this disquieting figure who seemed scornfully unimpressed by his importance.
“i have things to do, you need to go,” the President announced, trying to sound more assured than he felt.
The apparition narrowed his intense eyes, and took another step toward the unnerved President.
“I claim more authority to this House and Office than your mercenary greed could ever comprehend. You belong with Tweed, Plunkitt, Fisk, Conkling, and the rest of New York’s good-for-nothings. You have brought dishonor to the Presidency, with your womanizing, graft, and unsavory business connections.” The fierce apparition fixed an intense, menacing gaze. “You do not belong here, with your procession of lackeys and opportunists. Shame and chagrin will mark your place in the history of this great residence.”
Suddenly the sound of foot traffic grew louder, and when the President again glanced toward his unwelcome visitor, he found him gone, the Blue Room empty.
Alarmed by what he had experienced, the President escaped up the stairs to the second floor.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-volume memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” both available on Kindle.
Hard copies are available at http://www.river-of-january.com