Much to Celebrate and Mourn

The following is an excerpt from River of January: Figure Eight

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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 at Amazon.com

That’s All

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Colonel Clark used to bring his young son down to the dojo where my brothers took judo lessons. My grandfather had enrolled my older brother first, and then my two younger brothers when they were old enough. I sometimes came along to watch these lessons because, first of all, it was something to do on a boring school night, and I liked to look at the cute boys dressed in their gi (white gear).

My Grandpa Ray always sat with Colonel Clark, if the old gent happened to be present. That meant I sat with Colonel Clark, too, not fun for a twelve-year-old, boy-crazy girl. The two old men would talk and talk, seated next to one another, though their eyes remained on their boys training on the mats. They never seemed to look each other, but still seemed absorbed in their conversation.

My own attention span, something close to that of a hummingbird, only caught snippets of the quiet discussion. “MacArthur, Wainwright, and Bataan,” were among the many utterances exchanged by my Grandpa and the Colonel. And despite my commitment to shallow-minded teen angst, I sensed something grave, something momentous had happened in the back and forth of these two old men.

My brother later translated the mysterious conversation I unwillingly witnessed. Colonel Clark had been left on the Bataan Peninsula when General Douglas MacArthur was evacuated from the Philippines in 1942. Under the new command of General Jonathan Wainwright some 22,000 Americans surrendered to Japanese occupiers, among them young Clark. The Japanese forced this defeated army on a death march (along with their Filipino comrades) some sixty miles in the jungle. The men suffered from heat exhaustion, and dehydration, staggering on, hat-less and barefoot. When a captive stumbled, or fainted, the penalty meant an immediate beheading.

Colonel Clark had witnessed this nightmarish brutality, forced to suffer in ways words fail to recreate.

In defiance of considerable odds, Colonel Clark survived his ordeal. And that was the ordinary older man who spoke quietly with my Grandfather, watching a young son he should never, in reality, have sired.

I am a much better listener today, and recognize that valiant warriors everywhere are frequently disguised as harmless old men. Listening to these elderly gents has enriched my understanding of the past far more than I thought possible.

For example there was George, the high school janitor. For many years he pushed a mop down the halls where I taught American history. Sporting two hearing aids, this diminutive man wielded a mop that was wider that he was tall. All told, George looked like a gentle and harmless grandfather.

I’d often find George standing outside my classroom door listening to me blather on about the Second World War, as if I understood. Later I discovered that that mild mannered 80-year-old had once packed a M-1 Garand, shivering aboard one of those Higgins boats motoring toward Omaha Beach in 1944.

“So George, what do you remember most about D-Day?”

“It was awful early, and the water was awful cold.”

Then there was Roy. Smiling, white-haired Roy.

As a teenager he had gone straight from the Civilian Conservation Corps right into the US Army.

“What do you remember most about D-Day, Roy?”

“I lost everyone in my outfit. I was real scared. Later I was regrouped with survivors from other platoons. You see that was bad because I’m Mexican, and my first platoon got used to me, and stopped calling me Juan or Jose. I had to start all over with the new bunch. For days, as we moved inland, these new boys were giving me the business. One guy said, ‘Mexicans can’t shoot.’ I said that I could. So he said, ‘Ok Manuel. Show me you can shoot. See those birds on that tree branch up ahead? Shoot one of those birds.’ I lifted up my rifle and aimed at the branch and pulled the trigger.” Roy begins laughing.

“I missed the branch, the birds flew away, and twelve Germans came out of the grove with their hands up.”

Astounded, I couldn’t speak. Roy simply chuckled.

Colonel Clark, George, and Roy. They were just boys who found their lives defined in ways we civilians can never comprehend. They were scared, and hot, and cold, and hungry, and suffering, and ultimately lucky. They returned home.

That’s All.

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

Go Get ‘Um

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The date was June 5, 1944, and General Dwight D Eisenhower had made the decision to begin the Allied invasion of France the next morning. Christened “Operation Overlord” the massive campaign required disruption inland from the Normandy coast to insure a solid beach-head. The task fell to soldiers of the US 82nd Airborne, the US 101st Airborne,  and members of the 6th British Airborne. The mission was to impair the Wehrmacht’s ability to move their Panzer units toward the five invasion points.

General Eisenhower met informally with soldiers of the 101st, chatting and encouraging, to build morale. He must have felt an enormous responsibility sending these young Americans on such a hazardous and vital mission. While he mingled with the men, Ike suddenly wondered, “Is anybody here from Kansas?” A voice replied from the crowd, “I’m from Kansas, sir.” Ike looked the boy in the eye and responded, “Go get ‘um, Kansas.”

That story always leaves me teary. I don’t cry in movies, poetry doesn’t move me, and books have to be awfully emotional to elicit a sob out of me. But that moment of raw, honest regard, with so much at stake, hits me in the heart.

Washington at Trenton, Grant at the Wilderness, Doughboys in the Argonne, GI’s at the Bulge, Marines at Hue: the devotion to duty chokes me up. Every time.

But today Americans seem somehow lessened, cheapened. There are no Eisenhowers, or Washingtons, or Lincoln’s to describe what we represent. The institutions that inspired countless young people to lay down their lives are now attacked by an ersatz strongman from within. How could this happen? How can citizens of good conscience condone this very real threat? Where is our collective honest regard for our past, present , and future?

Makes me want to cry.

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

Mistinguett

Sun Valley Idaho is especially beautiful in the fall. We had driven to the resort through steep, intimidating mountain passes, to finally descend among groves of whispering Aspen trees. We had traveled over for a book presentation on “River of January,” the first volume of my two-part memoir at the local Library. We had arrived with hours to spare.

With tons of time to kill we walked the boarded walkways of Blaine County’s most famous community. My eyes were peeled for a glance of the the rich and famous; perhaps Arnold, maybe Bruce, or Demi, or even Tom and Rita. They pop up once in a while to relax in the natural beauty, away from the rat race.

Wandering, we chanced across a dress shop, and I slipped inside the glass door, leaving my husband sitting on a bench outside. The clothes were beautiful; plaids in silky fabric, and fashionable shoes among displays of accessories. The owner was on her phone, behind the counter, speaking to what sounded like a potential customer.

And she was clearly French.

I continued to browse the merchandise, but was more taken with the French lady. I had a good reason.

She soon closed her call, then addressed me. “May I help you?,” the lovely woman trilled.

“Well, maybe.” I replied. “I’m a writer. In fact, I’m here to discuss my new memoir at the library. By any chance have you heard of Mistinguett?”

The shop owner stopped, and looked into my eyes. “Oo La La!” she gasped. “She is a legend.” I smiled, my day made.

Mistinguett was a French music hall entertainer, born late in the 19th Century. At one time this singer-dancer was the highest paid entertainer in Europe, best remembered for her torch song, Mon Homme. Americans might recognize the tune better as My Man, a hit, first for Ziegfeld headliner, Fannie Brice, and later Barbra Streisand.

A fun fact about Mistinguett is she had her legs insured for 50 Francs during her prime. Another fun fact is she discovered Maurice Chevalier, pulling him from the chorus, and making him a star.

The best news about Mistinguett concerns Helen Thompson. Just a girl, this American dancer who’s life story appears in “River of January,” toured with the “Oo la la” French legend from 1932-33.

Enjoy this film clip of the iconic entertainer, dated 1936, and look for Helen in the cast photos of Viola Paris, the Mistinguett variety show from three years earlier.

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Mistinguett sits in front holding flowers. Helen Thompson is in the top row center right–the blonde wearing the fur-collared coat.

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Here Mistinguett is wearing a giant head dress, and Helen is second girl to the right.

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

I Want My GOP

This post originally appeared in early 2016. Cassandra award?

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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 nation. 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, but 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.” He was wrong—dead wrong. Slavery had, by 1860 become an issue impossible to solve. And it was here, underestimating the power of the slave issue, that the Illinois Senator imploded his party and his career.

The new Republican Party had formed six years earlier in Wisconsin, established on one central principle—slavery would not extend into the western territories, period. And this new party grew fast. Composed of splinter groups, this now fully unified party maintained that free labor was an integral component of free market capitalism. The presence of slavery in growing regions of the West would devalue free labor, and undermine future economic 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 in the fire 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, exact language guaranteeing the extension of slavery in 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 move forward.

Southern Democrats moved on as well. In a separate Richmond, Virginia convention Southern Democrats nominated Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.

In Baltimore, Douglas indeed gained the Democratic nomination, preserving his precious principle of local elections determining the western expansion of slavery. Bolting Democrats in Richmond went further adding an absolute protection of slavery to their platform. Middle ground vanished.

Though a long shot, a third faction of the Democratic Party broke ranks calling themselves the “Constitutional Union Party.” I’m not sure what they stood for, but clearly it wasn’t support for Douglas or Breckinridge. Convening in Baltimore as well, in May of 1860, 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, so loudly 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 Democratic Party, and launched 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, social unrest, and racial strife. This is truly a cautionary tale for today’s splintering Republican Party.

Zealots do not compromise, and leading GOP candidates are spouting some pretty divisive vitriol. Southern Democrats self righteously rejected the 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. Now its true that no party can be all things to all citizens, nor should hardened splinter groups run away with the party.

The American public demands measured and thoughtful candidates—and both parties are expected to provide 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.

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

Fighting Joe

Gail Chumbley

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His name was Joseph Andrew Tucker, and he was my grandpa–my mom’s biological father. We didn’t see him very often growing up in Spokane, and I can’t say that I ever felt particularly close to this grandparent. Yet, purely by instinct, I found that I did respect him. There seemed to be an aura of dignity surrounding Grandpa Joe, along with an abiding cloud of cherry pipe tobacco, that also swirled around him. Yet, other than my youthful impression, I knew very little about Joe.

The following is what I’ve pieced together from my family.

Joe Tucker arrived in Spokane, Washington in 1937. He came west from Arkansas following his five-year-old daughter, when his ex-wife settled in the Pacific Northwest. A short time later, Joe found work with the Great Northern Railroad, as Spokane was, and still is, ribboned across the middle with busy, screeching rail lines. At about the…

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