History and a Rollicking Romance

A nice review is a welcome gift for any writer. John Vogel of Preserve Old Broadway graciously published this piece today.

We were supposed to start our exploration of The Vagabond King today. It is a wonderful operetta that is based on the life of Francois Villon, a French poet who allegedly rallied the people of Paris to defend the city against the attack of the Duke of Burgundy. In saving the city, Villon also preserved the monarchy in France, in the person of Louis XI.

My plan has been interrupted by an interesting turn of events. I have just finished reading two books, River of January, Part One, and River of January, Figure Eight. If you love history and a rollicking good romance, you need to read these two books, written by Gail Olson Chumbley.

But well you may ask, how did I come to know about these books and its author?

Shortly after I started posting comments and music on this FB page, I noticed a new visitor to the page, Gail Olson Chumbley. I looked her up and found out that she was an award-winning teacher at Eagle High School, Toppenish, Washington before she retired. She met her second husband, Chad Chumbley, in 1994, and Chad regaled her with stories about his parents, Chum and Helen Chumbley. Eventually, Gail, the history teacher, became curious and dug through boxes of old correspondence and pictures and finally interviewed Chum before his death in 2006. What she found was even more impressive than Chad’s stories, because the lives of Montgomery (“Chum”) Chumbley and Helen Thompson Chumbley were intertwined with key events in American history from 1925 to 1955.

Not ever having written a book before, Gail started the arduous task of translating dead archives back into living human beings. This daunting task was made easier because of her two love affairs: she loved Chum and Helen and she loved their son, Chad. Her writing was a labor of love.

I promised I would read her books one day, but my schedule was busy and “one day” kept moving to the right. Gail ended my procrastination by mailing me both books; and at night before I went to sleep, I would read through 30 or 40 pages. Gail didn’t start to write until she wrote these two splendid books, but what comes through is a historian’s love for detail and context. Gail gives the reader both the overview of history (the big picture) and the personal details of the two people she follows. We follow both Chum and Helen separately until 1936, when they met in Rio de Janeiro and fell in love.

Chum enlisted in the Navy and eventually won a spot in Flight Training in Pensacola, FL. He stayed in the Naval Reserves, even after he left active duty, and began a career that revolved around Waco Aircraft, an early pioneer in aircraft design and manufacturing. Chum was one of the few early aviators who came after WWI but was ready to serve once WWII came into focus. He was one of a handful of pilots who started in planes made of wood and ended in the jet age.

Another pilot, who trained at the Army base at Brooks Field, Texas, was Alexis Klotz. Lex also was involved in delivering the mail, although Lex started on the West Coast. Lex ended his career with TWA and offered to show me around the cockpit of the new Constellation when they went into service. Flying the mail from west to east in the winter was hazardous, and many good but not great mail pilots went down in bad weather. In winter, forced landings almost always resulted in death.

When Chum and Lex flew airplanes, the cockpits were open (it got cold at higher altitudes), and the planes had little if any navigation or communication equipment. Many pilots learned the ground terrain, the railroad tracks and other identifying ground markers to guide them during their many hours in the air. Flying was more art than science.

One the other hand, as Gail explains to us, these pilots loved to fly and may have been more comfortable in the air than on the ground.

But that is only half of the story. The other half of the story involves Helen Thompson who, from an early age, was pushed by her mother, Bertha, into dance. Luckily, Helen learned to love to dance and to perform, in general. From ballet, Helen moved into vaudeville routines and eventually ice skating with skating stars like Sonja Henie. 

But Helen’s career is only part of her story. At each turn in her career, she met famous people and witnessed key events. Coming home from a European tour, Helen performed onboard at the Captain’s request, alongside another performer named Maurice Chevalier. What was more important was the fact that both performers sat at the Captain’s table. Helen dined with the former President of France, Edward Herriot, on his way to Washington DC to confer with FDR in the mid-1930’s.

It is this constant integration of the big picture of history (Chevalier jokingly asking Herriot if he could save the world from Hitler) with the details of Helen’s dance program that make the two books so charming and engaging. We are reading history from the bottom up, living through periods of time through the eyes of Chum and Helen. And it is a wonderful way to learn and was used successfully by Kenneth Roberts in his many books on the American revolution.

For all of you history buffs who like a good romance story, put away David McCullough for a bit and pick up River of January, Part One, and River of January, Figure Eight.

For more from John Vogel visit Preserve Old Broadway on Facebook.

Gail’s books are available at http://www.river-of-january.com, and on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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

Panama 1932

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, if all goes as planned. If the smoke is laid down close enough to the water, if it doesn’t rise too fast, and if the wind doesn’t blow in too hard. That’s a lot of ifs. Think about it. We approach in low formation, drop our payload and bank, while dangerously showing our undersides to the enemy. We’d be lucky to keep our asses dry, Win. Makes me wonder what desk genius dreamed up this idea. It’s a suicide mission.”

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

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

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Archive Story

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Amelia Earhart (left)

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Video-The Family Archive

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

Quebec City 1939

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why We Remember

Roosevelt Field Aviators,1933: Elvey Kalep, sitting right, Betty Gillies, on her stomach, Frances Marsalis, standing center, Amelia Earhart, at left looking down. “The Ninety Nines.”

This week’s promotion of “River of January” turned out a glorious success. My central purpose in researching and writing this first installment was to honor what transpired in America before our time. I hope all of the Kindle readers who downloaded the memoir are stirred by this true account, and return for the sequel, “River of January: Figure Eight.”

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

New York 1933

Excerpt from “River of January.”

    “You Chumbley?”  

     Chum glanced up from Ailor’s desk, where he was adding up airtime in his logbook. A well-dressed gentleman, clearly from the city, faced him. The caller had quietly stepped through the door, surprising the pilot, intent on his figures. 

     “You found him, sir,” Chum smiled warmly. 

     “My name’s Rosenbaum, Richard Rosenbaum, but I go by Ross. The man extended his hand, as Chum hopped up. “Say, I need a reliable passenger plane for hire, with a good pilot at the helm. Your name was given to me over at the AP office.”

     “Uh huh,” Chum answered casually, privately pleased at the referral. “Where exactly would you need me to fly, Mr. Ross?”  

     But Ross answered something else. “I have a chair on the stock exchange, but don’t hold that against me,” he volunteered—Chum gawked, and Ross laughed, “I know. You’re surprised I have the guts to state my occupation. We Wall Street types aren’t exactly popular with the public these days, are we?” 

     The flyer chuckled at the businessman’s blunt honesty. 

     “Well, I won’t crash the plane, if that’s what worries you. The market crashing is enough for now,” Chum joked back. 

     With the ice broken, Chum and Ross got down to business, discussing rates and various destinations. Sensing Ross could become a first-rate client, he offered, “Would you like to go up for a spin, Mr. Ross or Rosenbaum?”  

     The client laughed again. “Love to— love flying.”

     Twenty minutes later, the plane eased down, trundling to a gentle stop on the airstrip. As he released his safety straps the broker remarked, “Thanks for the test ride. You know, you’re quite the pilot—may I call you Mont?”  

     “Nooo, sir. My friends call me Chum,” the pilot answered. 

     “Well, Chum, I’d like you to plan on a pleasure trip next weekend. The boys and I need to get to Havre de Grace in Maryland. And I will stay in touch.”  

     The two men shook hands again, and Ross, whistling, walked over to his Chrysler Imperial, and motored away. 

     Promptly a week later, while jiggling his office key into the door, Chum heard Ailor’s phone ringing. He burst in, leaving the keys hanging in the lock, and seized the receiver. 

     “Hello, Chumbley here—hello?”  

     “Morning Chum,” flashed an urgent voice. “This is Richard Ross, and I am awfully glad I caught you at the office! We have a horse posted in the third race and need to get to Baltimore, fast.”  

     “Havre de Grace Race Track?”  

     “A horse in the third.”  

     “Wait, where are you calling from?” the young man asked. 

     “Newark. We’ll be waiting at the airfield for you to arrive.”  

     “Horse track, huh?  Roger that. I’ll gas up the Waco and be over soon.”  Jogging to the hangar Chum reflected, “This trip sounds like fun, especially if I make a couple of bucks.”  

     Taxiing down the runway, the flyer lifted off—his trip was just a short hop west—and Chum presently approached the New Jersey landing strip. From his windshield he could see three figures moving outside an office building near the tarmac. 

     “Must be Ross,” Chum mumbled. Touching down, the pilot slowed and turned the plane toward his passengers. But he noticed they were running toward the Waco. Ross was shouting something and waving his arms. 

     “We need to go, now, Chum!” the pilot finally heard above his roaring engine. Chuckling, as they clambered aboard, the flyer again turned and taxied down the same airstrip, quickly lifting off toward the southeast. His three passengers breathlessly discussed the upcoming race card. Thoroughly entertained by their excitement, Chum listened.

     “That number six will be tough to beat,” and “I paid a call to those stables and I wasn’t that impressed.”

     This flight wasn’t long either, but apparently too lengthy for the impatient stockbrokers. As Chum circled the county airfield, Ross reached up and patted his shoulder. “Not here, Chum. It’s too far from Havre de Grace. Land the plane at the track, put it down on the infield!”  

     Stunned, the pilot clarified, “At the horse track?”  

     “Yes sir! There’s no one better than you to pull off a landing like this one!”

     As he doubtfully turned his plane around, dangerous images passed through Chum’s mind—in particular, the incident in Elmira. He understood, as every pilot understood, that potential disaster rode along with him on every flight. 

     Chum worried:  What are the chances of cart-wheeling the plane? Can I regain lift if I come too close to the viewer stands? Will I be arrested?  

     Ross read Chum’s alarm and assured the pilot, “I trust you. The field is long enough for a good flyboy like you to manage. And we’ll pay for any mishap or damage.”

     “How ’bout my broken neck?” the pilot half-joked. 

     The broker snickered. 

     Chum shrugged, lowered the nose of his Waco, and touched down firmly, bouncing on the grass, and smoothing out as the plane slowed. By the end of the infield, the Waco stopped, facing the viewing stands. Safe. No snags. Leaning over the yoke, he inhaled deeply realizing he’d held his breath through the approach, the landing, and the braking. 

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