Becoming A Pilot

His was an unlikely life, shaped through perseverance, and a healthy dose of good fortune. That Mont Chumbley became a pilot at all stood in stark contrast to his rustic, Virginia beginnings.

Born in 1909, young Mont spent his early years on a farm that reflected more the 19th Century than the 20th. The eldest son of the eldest son, Mont, as a matter of custom, was expected to follow his father as the next patriarch of the family spread—as had generations before him. But, to his father’s dismay, the boy showed no interest in tending the land. He had other passions; school, sports, and life in town distracted the boy, producing enough friction that Mont ran away from the farm in 1924.  

Following a harrowing ordeal in the West Virginia coal mines, Mont returned home, moving in with relatives in Pulaski, Virginia. He graduated from Pulaski High School in 1927, a football star, and class valedictorian. Determined to become a pilot, Mont set his cap on entering in the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. 

While still a child, the boy had been dazzled by a barnstormer who visited his rural community. From that early episode, Mont knew what he wanted from life; a place in the cockpit. When he failed to secure an academy appointment, the young man quickly realized his only way to Norfolk was by enlisting. As simple as that seemed, Mont learned his father had to sign his enlistment papers, and that the old man would not do. If the heir did not want to farm, his father would not consent to a Navy career.

This family impasse did not resolve until Mont’s mother stepped in and threatened her husband with legal action. Mont’s mother hired a lawyer and prepared to seek consent from a judge. The stunned father apparently knew when he was beat, and reluctantly endorsed his son’s enlistment papers. Mont entered the US Navy in 1928. 

A hearty boy, the rigors of Naval training proved no issue for Seaman Recruit Mont Chumbley. He happily drilled, and trained, reveling in a life he had chosen. What he didn’t count on was the nightmare of serving on colliers, coal-burning vessels. The work was filthy and endless, and not what the young man desired. Mont aimed for the sky.

In the late 1920’s the Navy had no rules limiting enlisted men from flight, but the odds were still formidable. How the young man earned a spot in flight elimination training beggars belief. Through a series of chance encounters, Mont became a babysitter for the director of schools at Norfolk Naval Station. Through tending the officer’s children, Mont developed a friendship with the Commander. That connection made the difference, and Mont, now called “Chum” by his fellow enlistees,  progressed to flight elimination exercises at Hampton Roads.

The short version is that Chum survived elimination, testing on amphibious Curtiss NC4’s. By 1930 he and his class of pilot-trainees, 37C, found themselves in Pensacola training, not on  seaplanes, but in aircraft with conventional landing gear.  Following his time in Florida, his class moved on to Coco Solo, Panama.

Life in the Canal Zone was a universe of its own. Military bases dotted the nearly 50 mile stretch of canal, in a mix of both Naval and Army installations. Coco Solo, anchored by the Navy, commanded the Atlantic side, and trained largely in T3M’s, Martin Torpedo Bombers. In war games, the aircraft would dive until parallel with the sea, then Chum and his fellow pilots would release virtual “payloads” level with vessels. In later interviews, an elderly Chum expressed his reservations about the maneuver as far too hazardous for aircraft.

Unexpectedly, by 1933, Chum up and decided to leave the Navy, remaining only in the Naval Reserves. When asked why, after so much trouble to enlist, he did not stay, he admitted, “I didn’t much like taking orders.” 

Shipping an old Chevy he bought in Panama, Chum cruised into New York Harbor in May, 1933. Eager for work, he paid calls on air carriers from Eastern Transport to National Airways.  The young man quickly learned there was no one hiring. The country, deep in Depression had nothing to offer the hopeful, young pilot.

A part of Chum’s search directed his Chevy to Roosevelt Field, and a meeting with a figure who would change the direction of his life. Howard Ailor, sales representative for Waco Aircraft, took a shine to Chum. Explaining again that the country was broke, Ailor counseled the young man to make his own luck. A tireless salesman, Ailor added that what Chum needed his own equipment, and convinced him to buy a brand new Waco C cabin biplane. 

And that purchase made all the difference.

Building his own charter service, Mont Chumbley soon generated a thriving enterprise. With clients from the press, student flyers from downtown, and weekends barnstorming at carnivals and fairs, Chum found his footing. He also forged friendships with other aviation enthusiasts including Amelia Earhart, Broadway producer Leland Haywood, and the wealthy Harry Guggenheim. In an interview Chum later referred to one-time passenger, Katharine Hepburn as a ‘nice girl.’ 

By Fall of 1933 Chum found himself a contender in a transcontinental night race, though participating had not been his idea. A client who worked on the New York Stock Exchange, and believed Chum the new Lindbergh, agreed to fund the necessary modifications to his Waco C, if only the young man would enter.  Chum agreed. 

His biplane readied, Chum winged his way to Glendale, California, flying much of the trip by moonlight for practice. Resting much of October 2, 1933, Chum, seeded third in line, finally pushed his Waco into darkening eastern skies. Checking in at a stop in Albuquerque,  he was told another plane had already been and gone. Concerned he was lagging behind, the young pilot hastened to the night sky, opening the throttle full bore to catch up. Reaching Wichita by before dawn, the weary pilot discovered he was actually the first entrant to arrive. Only two other participants had made it past Albuquerque, making this a three-way race.

Spotted 2 hours and 10 minutes for his first place Wichita landing, a poorly rested Chum returned to the late afternoon Kansas sky. A further stop brought his Waco to Indianapolis, and from there he was free to push on to New York. But there were problems. Cloud cover began to  collect over western Pennsylvania, and he had a feeling he was off course, perhaps even lost. At nearly the same time a small break below his aircraft revealed a lone light on the ground, so he took a chance.

Executing a bumpy landing on a farm field, the young pilot stumbled through the dark and dirt, finding a  farmhouse. Thumping on the door, Chum roused a farmer and his wife, apologizing while explaining his situation. It was a bewildered couple that kindly let him in, and while the wife perked coffee, and fed him, the farmer got out his maps and showed Chum his location. With heartfelt thanks, he apologized once again, then returned to the night sky, righting his direction toward New York and victory.

Still, cloud cover continued to challenge the young flyer. Dawn had broken, but visibility hadn’t improved. Running options through his mind, he decided if conditions didn’t get any better, he’d take his Waco Cabin out over open ocean and look for a break. His contingency plan set, Chum buzzed eastward, checking and rechecking his wristwatch. 

That was when a sudden gap in the mist gave him the edge he needed.  

Rolling down landing strip number 1 at Roosevelt Field, Chum brought his Waco to a full stop, satisfied he had prevailed. But his race had not ended. Officials rushed the field, shouting and waving, indicating not all was settled. From the cockpit window the pilot was informed he was on the wrong landing strip, and if he shut off the motor he would be disqualified. Promptly, without a word, Chum taxied swiftly to landing strip number 2, then switched off his biplane.

He had won. 

Seven planes had initially lifted off into darkening California skies. Of the seven only three found their way to Roosevelt Field. Chum’s Waco cabin had journeyed across the sleeping continent in 24 hours and 26 minutes; two minutes added by his last minute dash across the field. His victory awarded $1,500, enough to reimburse the patron who had funded him, and he also paid off his airplane. Not a bad payday for a young man struggling through the worst year of the Great Depression.

The race had kicked off Roosevelt Field’s “National Air Pageant.” Chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the event celebrated flight and also raised funds for the First Lady’s special charities. In addition, the Darkness Derby, Chum’s competition, promoted “Night Flight” a new Metro Goldwyn Mayer film which premiered at the Capitol Theater the following night. One of the film’s stars, Helen Hayes was on hand for the opening, and formally presented Chum with his trophy prior to the screening. 

The Transcontinental Air Race was a heady moment for the 24-year-old. Chum realized that his decisions, combined with a little luck had been worth all the risk, and that a promising career in flight lay before him. 

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

Riding The Back Of The Tiger

At the start of the Kennedy administration, back in 1961, the story goes that JFK invited in a group of historians to the White House. The new president wanted to chat. What Kennedy asked these scholars was what elements insured a great presidency, and the answer from these learned gents was simple: a war.

Kennedy’s own war experiences in the South Pacific, and the ensuing menace of nuclear armageddon left JFK unconvinced. America’s situation on the world stage was just not as simple as war and peace. The lessons of  Nazi appeasement, especially by his own father, Joe Kennedy, compelled the new president to draw a hardline against Communism, and check its growth around the world. 

Caught in the eye of that dilemma; to appear tough, while preserving the lives of young Americans, Kennedy attempted a middle ground. Reluctant to fully commit US forces in Southeast Asia,  he also engaged in discreet negotiations with the Russians to settled the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a wounded veteran himself, JFK pursued a cautious and flexible foreign policy.

Not all presidencies have demonstrated such restraint.

President Madison succumbed to war cries after mediation with Great Britain looked to have collapsed, sparking the War of 1812. In reality the English had agreed to cease much of the abuse that brought about the war, before Madison’s declaration. Sadly news of accommodations from London did not arrive in time, and two futile years of warfare ensued. At the end of hostilities the United States made no measurable gains from the fight. The only red meat served came compliments of Andrew Jackson in his victory over the British in New Orleans. The war had been over two-weeks by the start of that battle. 

Most agree Madison is better remembered as the “Father of the Constitution,” than for his lackluster presidency.

“All of Mexico” resounded across young America in 1844. A toxic, but powerful combination of racism and hubris plunged America into another conflict-the Mexican American War. An unapologetic new president, James K. Polk, publicly stated in his campaign he would lead America into war, though he meant against Britain in his “54, 40, or Fight” slogan. Waged from 1846 to 1848  Polk ordered the invasion of Mexico, and defeat of the Mexican Army. 

A third war with the British never materialized, as the US opted to negotiate claims to Oregon. Though not gaining all of Mexico, America still claimed Texas to the Rio Grande, the southwest region known as the Mexican Cession, and all of California. In the aftermath of war, slave holders spilled westward in search of fertile new lands. In turn, national tensions escalated, both politically, and morally, erupting into Civil War by 1861. 

No other President extended American power, more than William McKinley, and no president was less eager to do so. As a young sergeant in the Civil War, McKinley had witnessed the truly  horrific bloodbath at Antietam Creek, surviving the bloodiest single day of the Civil War.  By the time of McKinley’s election in 1896, he faced a growing threat of a new war with Spain, this time over the Spanish possession of Cuba. Events careened out of control when a Navy gunboat, the USS Maine, sent by McKinley to protect American sugar interests, exploded in Havana Harbor in February, 1898. The disaster of The Maine forced the President’s hand, and he asked for a declaration of war from an enraged Congress. 

Though fought only from April to August, this conflict gave America island possessions from the Philippines to Puerto Rico. The United States had now officially entered the race to become an imperial power. This war extended fueling ports for the growing US Navy from across the Pacific, to the Caribbean. New markets and resources for American business opened up a fortune in profits. Filipinos, in particular, were left unhappy, switching from Spanish overlords to American authority. A bloody 3-year insurrection, fought in dank jungles, exploded, taking the lives of some 4,000 American combatants.

Sadly, in less than twenty years, the world-wide lust for colonies and riches brought America into the trenches of World War One. Decades-long rivalries for land and resources, particularly by Germany and Austro-Hungary, triggered a ruthless international competition that proved to history how industrialization could bleed young men. Not surprisingly this “war to end all wars” did not benefit Commander in Chief, Woodrow Wilson. In the end, the struggle killed him too.

As World War One ushered World War Two into being, World War Two led to the escalating tensions of the Cold War. First Truman in Korea, then Lyndon Johnson into Vietnam. Perhaps as stepchildren to Imperialism and the Cold War, GW Bush’s blunder into Iraq has assured his low position in history. 

The inescapable truth, Mr Trump, is that war does not make a presidency. With the exceptions of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and to some degree, Harry Truman, war has sullied more administrations than enhanced. Blind militarism may titillate your base, but you’re a damn fool to believe you can cheat history. Wars take on a life of their own, and as President Kennedy cautioned, “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Same, But Different

On a cable news program, author, Brenda Wineapple argued that the impeachment of Donald Trump resembles that of 19th Century President, Andrew Johnson. Applewine’s position may be true, to the extent that Johnson was under attack from the opposition party, however, the events that brought about the trial of Johnson were not centered on presidential corruption.

Abraham Lincoln had invited Tennessee Democrat, Andrew Johnson, onto his 1864 ticket as a conciliatory gesture toward the South. As Senator, Johnson had remained staunchly loyal to the Union, despite Tennessee becoming the final state to secede in 1861. Lincoln made clear with his VP choice that he intended to deal judicially with erring brothers below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Throughout the final year of the war, a philosophical rift had been growing between President Lincoln and the Radicals in his party, over post-war policy. Lincoln believed that Southern States had only attempted to secede, but had failed in that effort; General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox snuffing out the attempt. Since secession had been foiled, Lincoln maintained that his pardoning power provided him the authority to deal perpetrators of the rebellion.

Countering that argument were the Radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House, and Charles Sumner in the Senate. This faction insisted that when the Southern states seceded, they had, indeed, committed political suicide. This, Congress maintained, gave them the authority to shape post-war policy, for, per the Constitution, they were the body that admitted new states, .

The conflict between the Executive and Legislative branches grew fierce in mid-April of 1865, when Abraham Lincoln was murdered by an assassin, elevating Andrew Johnson to the Presidency.

When it came to interpreting the Constitution Johnson not only agreed with Lincoln over Reconstruction policy, but was also a traditional ‘strict-constructionist’. In other words, his understanding of the law did not go much past the Twelfth Amendment.

Vetoing many Republican bills, including legislation creating the Freedmen’s Bureau, Johnson, refused to support civil rights of any kind for the newly emancipated. However, as fast as Johnson vetoed bills, Congress overrode his vetoes.

Born in poverty, and illiterate most of his life, Johnson’s malice also extended to Southern aristocrats. Keeping somewhat to Lincoln’s view, Johnson enjoyed nothing better than reading letters from Southern planters pleading for his pardon.

Rubbing nearly all the wrong way, Andrew Johnson plainly was not a savvy politician, and became an ever increasing nuisance to the Radical majority, who fully intended to punish the white South, and elevate the lives of Freedmen.

Animosity came to a head when Congress passed the “Tenure of Office Act” in 1867. This legislation aimed to tie the President’s hands by stating Johnson could not remove any members of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, without the approval of the Senate. Knowing his Constitution well, Johnson knew this bill didn’t pass legal scrutiny, and promptly fired Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.

The House immediately fired back with eleven articles of impeachment.

Once the inevitable impeachment reached the Senate for trial, equivocating Senators felt intense heat from their Radical colleagues. Various hold-outs, uncomfortable with the flimsy case, proved difficult to sway. The central sticking point was that the Act was no more than a trap for a President who would not get out of the way. To one Kansas Senator, Edmund Ross, the whole episode was a flagrant setup. Ross believed that there was too much noise, too much turmoil, and not enough real evidence of wrongdoing.

Sensing reluctance in the ranks, the Republican majority bought more time by taking a ten-day delay on the vote. Members like Ross and other hesitant Senators, were threatened with investigations for bribery if they didn’t toe the line. However, neither stalling, nor threats changed any positions. In the end the vote to convict failed, 35-19, not the 2/3 majority required by law.

Andrew Johnson was broken by the ordeal. He quietly waited out the remainder of his term, finally to be replaced by the Ulysses S Grant in 1869. (Now Grant’s terms witnessed a lion share of corruption!)

That Andrew Johnson proved unequal to the task of governing goes without question. He was bigoted, petty, and stubborn. But this man was not corrupt, and his impeachment was more a product of tragedy, turmoil, and a struggle for national power. No overseas hotels, no bowing to foreign dictators, no obstruction of subpoenas.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Books are available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle. For more email Gail at gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Almost Cable Guy

Some of you may recall that we signed an option a while back with Falls Park Entertainment in South Carolina. Brett Kanea, the executive producer found our script, very exciting and anticipated a successful film. Unexpectedly dear Brett died recently. As you can see he was too young to leave us, and our hearts go out to his family and loved ones. 
The morning he first called to discuss film production I believed he was the cable guy we expected later that morning. We laughed about that snafu for months. 
Though our future in film is unclear, Brett’s warmth, humor, and confidence lingers on. 
Godspeed Brett, the almost cable guy.

Defining Magic

It been over thirty years, but the memory is vividly clear. I leveled a stereo needle onto a record, then an ethereal voice crooned,

Heavenly shades of night are falling

It’s twilight time

Out of the mist your voice is calling

‘Tis twilight time . . .”

All at once a bedroom door blew open, and my grandmother waltzed into the living room, cigarette balanced in her fingers. She smiled at me as she swirled. “Your grandfather and I danced to this,” she explained, and glided off in her reverie. I watched, amused, enjoying my grandmother’s response to the music, wondering why the melody had her behaving so out of character. 

A similar, unexpected episode occurred a few years later, this time concerning my daughter. It was afternoon, after school, when I heard the front door open, and little feet tromp down the hall. While calling out, how was your day? her bedroom door slammed, and deep wailing erupted from her bedroom. Alarmed I opened the door, and found her face down on her bed. She could hardly speak, issuing huge sobs, so I rocked her until she settled down. When I asked her what happened, what upset her, she gasped out that they were studying Native Americans in class, and watched the film, “I Will Fight No More Forever.” This movie depicts the Nez Perce Wars in Idaho. And what had set her off was the patent injustice suffered by America’s first peoples. She had encountered a long ago atrocity, and intuitively understood the grave wrong doing. She was only eight. 

Two distinct generations impacted by the power of music and film.

In John Vogel’s superb new book, A Spiritual Exploration Of The Literary And Performing Arts, Volume I: Philosophy, I found some answers. In a lively, brief 100 pages Vogel literally defined magic.

A seeker of truth, the author methodically offers a case for the transformative power of the Arts; how film, the stage, and music calls to us, elevates our spirits, and imparts universal lessons. In clear language Vogel asserts persuasively that, as human beings, we are made better by embracing the sentiment intended for our souls.

This book takes on the task of explaining inspiration through the works of the masters. Vogel considers standards such as the musical Show Boat, assorted characters from Shakespeare, the Greek poet, Homer, and even Jimi Hendrix to provide object lessons. Each example is fleshed out to illuminate the dynamic power of performance- a realm where imagination, intuition, morality and spirituality reside. Particularly poignant to this reader was author’s discussion of a scene from the film Gandhi, and its lesson on personal redemption. 

Lively and fascinating, A Spiritual Exploration is also a cautionary tale. Vogel reminds us through the performing arts that a lust for temporal power and wealth is spiritually lethal, as revealed in the tragedy of Macbeth. More timeless examples are offered reiterating that hate produces nothing of value, and worse restricts our humanity; the essential lessons of humility, reason, spirituality, and justice. Moreover, Vogel makes a persuasive case that the Arts are the guardrails of orderly society, imparting the message that through literature and music were a taught to be human.

This is a short read with a long title, made even weightier for the philosophy it imparts.  As I read  Vogel’s words I intuitively knew that he was right about the sublime power of the unseen. 

A Spiritual Exploration is a work that speaks to the timeless and universal.

John Vogel’s book is available at:

 https://www.amazon.com/Spiritual-Exploration-Literary-Performing-Arts/dp/1081615699/ref=sr_1_2?crid=2GZWNC2WDGCOP&keywords=john+vogel+books&qid=1566516179&s=gateway&sprefix=John+vogel%2Caps%2C218&sr=8-2#customerReviews

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Hampton Roads, 1928

This excerpt comes from River of January, the first volume of the two-volume memoir available on Kindle, and at http://www.river-of-january.com

Two weeks later, a nervous and sleep-deprived Mont Chumbley reported for flight elimination exercises. He joined 125 other candidates; smartly lined up on a long dock, facing the gray, choppy seas of Hampton Roads. From this windy spot would-be pilots underwent demanding instruction in ten-hour heats on various flight maneuvers. Day one: morning-takeoff, afternoon-landings. Day Two: mornings- turns, including the figure-eight, afternoon-climbing and descending turns—all in Curtiss NC4 seaplanes. Their instructors rated them at each step, either passing or failing, with no second chances. The pool of candidates became smaller with each roll call.

Feeling the pressure, the young sailor took special pains to follow protocol. Climbing around on wet pontoons fixed to the underside, Chum examined the biplane as it bobbed on the rolling water. He talked himself through each required procedure, so he wouldn’t overlook any step.

“Oil leaks? Negative,” Chum recited as he performed his pre-flight inspection. “Rudder locks off? Affirmative.”

He continued crawling around the aircraft until he was sure his check was thorough. After the meticulous exterior inspection, he settled into the cockpit.

“Controls? Check. Stick?” He jockeyed the stick left to right then up to down, “Check.” “Ailerons? He wagged the panels, “Check. Gauges?” He examined the calibrations closely. “Check.”

Concluding the pre-flight list, the student-pilot ignited the motor as another crewman propped the biplane’s propulsion blades, quickly, hopping back to the dock.

Chum, still repeating all he was taught, lifted the plane from the rollicking waves and then leveled the wings using the needle ball as he reached altitude. Momentarily surprised with the ease of his lift, Chum relaxed, in control of the little trainer.

“This isn’t that complicated!” the astonished young man marveled. The thrum of the engine seemed calming, and he could practically feel the buoyant pontoons below the fuselage.

“Flying makes sense,” he reflected. “Pull the stick this way, up, reverse the stick that way, down.”

A sense of wonder filled the young man. As if born to fly he intuitively grasped the mechanics. “Flight requires gravity, logic, instinct, and sound equipment.”

The Curtiss biplane read Chum’s mind, rising on a line, descending on an angle, turning on an invisible anchor point. The little aircraft did what he desired.

Of the 126 flight hopefuls, only nineteen succeeded— including Mont Chumbley. The washouts returned to Norfolk to ship out to sea, to labor on the hellacious coal burning tugboats or other maritime duties. Chum gratefully headed for warmer climates—flight training with his class, 37C, in Pensacola, Florida.

Thinking of Commander Seymour Chum had to smile, “Radio school would probably have been too difficult.”

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com