Citizen Interview

Gail Chumbley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was it difficult to combine two books into one script?

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

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

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

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

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

You ended up writing the books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you ever write another book?

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

And Ray, what’s next for the script?

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

Beloved #392


“So buddy, I was wondering if you have any plans tonight,” Fred Murphy said as the Mariner throttled to the Alameda dock. “It’s nice to head over to San Francisco when the opportunity presents.”

“What did you have in mind, Murph?” asked Chum.

“Is that a yes? Because there is this place pilots really like—but it’s a kind of a surprise, and you’re gonna have to trust me.”

“You, Fred? Trust you? Should I pack my service revolver?”

“Just trust me, Chum.” Murphy smiled.

That evening, a yellow taxi crawled up the steep incline of Telegraph Hill in the drizzling rain—Coit Tower front and center in the foreground. From his vantage point in the cab, Chum studied the illuminated monument—the raindrops and the wipers making it an abstract, streaky blur one moment, a defined structure the next. Their cabbie downshifted, doubling horsepower for the uphill climb to a line of apartment buildings stacked along Montgomery Street. The taxi stopped at a plain stucco building, the simple design a contrast from the adjoining buildings with ornate wrought iron balconies. Murphy paid the cab fare.

“This doesn’t look like much of a nightclub, Fred,” Chum remarked.

“Trust, remember? Besides, this is the best place in the Bay Area for fellas like us, pal. You just wait—she’s gonna love you.”

“You know I’m married, Fred.”

“Ha! Funny, Chum. So am I.”

The men ducked under the stoop and Fred gave a quick knock on the door. After a moment, a small Asian woman opened the door. She’s smaller than Bertha, Chum thought. The maid maybe?

“Lieutenant Murphy! Welcome back, welcome back,” The woman’s smile transformed in warm recognition. “You have escorted someone new to meet me, I see. Is he as skilled as you, my dear lieutenant?” Chum felt his jaw drop. Murphy laughed.

“Hello, Mother.” Murphy stooped and pecked the woman’s cheek.

Under her wire-framed spectacles, “Mother” shifted her appraising eyes back to Chum. “Welcome to my home, Lieutenant. And you are . . . ?”

Still unsure about why he was there, Chum stumbled over his answer. “Chumbley, ma’am. Lieu . . . Lieutenant Montgomery Chumbley. But please call me Chum.”

“Delighted to meet you, Lieutenant Chum. I can see that Fred did not prepare you for this visit.” Mother’s eyes returned to Murphy, conveying a light reprimand. To Chum she said, “I am Doctor Margaret Chung, but as you have already witnessed, all my sons refer to me as ‘Mother.’ Lieutenant Murphy has brought you here tonight to not simply meet a nice Chinese lady, but—I would guess—for your formal adoption into my family. Please come in, come in.” Dr. Chung gestured down a long, cluttered hall, and the two pilots complied.

Presented with such a confusion of artifacts, it was hard to know where to look first. Framed glossies of smiling aircrews, salvaged pieces from Nakajimas and Zeros—propellers, pieces of fuselages, wings—graffiti-strewn flags bearing the distinctive rising sun, spent torpedo casings, Hellcat and Corsair unit insignias, and hundreds of news clippings and snapshots of smiling pilots . . . her walls a chaotic collage of air war memorabilia. Dr. Chung studied Chum’s incredulous face as he absorbed the massive collection, visibly pleased with his reaction.

“Please find a seat, gentlemen, and allow me to explain my haphazard museum to our guest,” Dr. Chung said. Chum slumped into a stuffed wingback chair, his eyes still sweeping the memorabilia. “As you already know, Lieutenant Chum, China is presently suffering under the cruel occupation of the Japanese Empire. You need look no further than the barbarism that took place in the city of Nanking to understand my natural revulsion.”

Chum nodded. He had seen newsreels of the butchery in that city.

Dr. Chung’s eyes reflected both tragedy and determination. “I have made it my mission to raise not only awareness but also funds for the suffering people of China. It is men like you, our skilled pilots, who are striking most directly against the foe, and that kind of bravery has made you one of my dearest sons.”

Dr. Chung dropped her gaze and reached over to an end table, picking up a leather-bound ledger. She shuffled through the pages, passing inscribed signatures, finally chancing on a blank space. Holding her fountain pen, Mother began scribbling into the register. “There—done.” She glanced at Chum. “You, Lieutenant Chum, are now officially a member of the Fair Haired Bastards. Ah, let me see”—Dr. Chung silently calculated—“you are son number three hundred and ninety-two.”

She extracted a small card from a drawer in the end table and carefully filled in the blank lines. Finished, the surgeon rose and, with a handshake, presented the card to her new visitor. Chum read:

This is to certify that

Montgomery Chumbley

Is a member of Dr. Margaret Chung’s Fair Haired Bastard’s Club, San Francisco

                                                                                         Margaret J. Chung MD

Her intense eyes softened, her smile gentled. “Remain safe in those dangerous skies, Lieutenant Chum. I don’t want to lose any more of my sons.”

Chum glimpsed over to his co-pilot, then back to his exceptional hostess, grappling for something to say. “Thank you, ma’am. This is an unexpected honor, and I will do my best to defeat our enemy.”

At that, Dr. Chung beamed, offering the boys a beer. More relaxed, the doctor inquired about their aircraft, their primary duties, and what they had seen of the fighting.

“Doctor Chung, ma’am,” Chum said, still inspecting the cluttered walls. “I just have to ask. Who is Fair Haired Number One?

“Ah.” She nodded, producing a wry smile. “An excellent pilot, and he’s from this area—from San Francisco. You may know him, Lieutenant Chum. His name is Lieutenant Bancroft, Stevens Bancroft.”

Of course he is. Chum threw his head back and laughed. “Oh yes, I know him, ma’am.


River of January: Figure Eight is available on and at

September 1, 1939

Seventy-eight years ago today, the Second World War began. This excerpt is that fateful day for American pilot, Mont Chumbley–subject of the memoir, “River of January: Figure Eight.”


Los Angeles


On a sunny morning at the first of September, Chum arrived in the town of Winslow, Arizona, bumping down the landing strip at the airfield. Taxiing off to the side of the field, he observed a crowd collecting close to the control tower. Curious, he rolled to a stop, switched off the Waco, and hopped down. “What’s cooking?” he asked no one in particular.

A boy in greasy dungarees and black high-tops chirped up excitedly. “The Germans invaded Poland, mister. And England and France have declared war!” The boy beamed proudly, satisfied with reporting such important news.

Astonished, Chum stared blankly at the kid—countless considerations flooding his thoughts. Poor Helen. She’s been worried about what would happen. She loved France. I’ll probably be hearing from the reserves. We’re not in yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

While various scenarios dominated his thoughts, Chum refueled his plane. He then carried on with his flight plan, eventually touching down in Albuquerque—his destination. With his Waco S Series plane tethered to the ground, the pilot beelined to the small airport office, anxious for any news. The day had grown hot, but Chum barely noticed. He needed water, but the news came first. Approaching a low, dark building, he heard a voice booming from a radio:

At dawn, with no provocation or declaration of hostilities, the German army has invaded Polish territory, ruthlessly violating the country’s national integrity. Intensive bombing attacks are at this moment raining death and destruction over the cities of Poznan, Wroclaw, and Danzig resulting in considerable casualties among innocent civilians . . .

“Hey, Coop,” Chum called, hailing the manager. “What’s all this about marching Germans?”

“Been waiting on you, Chum,” the man called Coop replied, turning down the news broadcast. “Got a cable here for you from Troy. And that breaking news is all too true, pal.” Coop gestured toward the radio with his thumb.

Mumbling thanks, Chum unsealed the telegram, tuning out the now-muted announcer. He read:

Finish Albuquerque demo. Then to Troy. Big meeting. Perry

“They want you back at the nest, I’d wager,” the manager said with a knowing expression.

“Yes. Yes they do. All hands on deck, as the saying goes.” Chum tried to smile.

“Jerry’s hit Poland hard,” Coop continued. “First their heavy bombers, then the tanks, then the army marching in. Poor Poles. They don’t stand a chance. Radio announcer called the attack blitzkrieg.”

The word didn’t click. “What’s a blitzkrieg?”

Coop replied in a dark voice, “Lightning war.”

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



Thanks for Noticing

“River of January,” and “River of January:Figure Eight” have garnered some recognition. Find out why today. Click this link, and order your own copies, personally signed by the author.

Award winning history instructor, Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir River of January and Figure Eight.

Always On My Mind


Had a six-plus hour drive today; Salt Lake City to my mountain cabin in Idaho. Lengthy car-time, for this Indie writer, always results in exploring fresh ideas for book marketing. I don’t say much to my family, but promoting the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” is never far from my thoughts, and I’m pretty sure this is true of fellow writers.

Finally made it home, chatted with the husband, did a little of this and that, then idly picked up today’s newspaper. Now, I’m not an avid follower of the mystic, but being an Aquarian, (there’s a song about us, you know) I sometimes do indulge. And, as you can see the cosmos told me to do this, so by damn, I am.

Dear reader, if you enjoy a true American story, set in the American Century, get River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. In the pages, you will experience adventure, travel, glamour, and romance. Aviation enthusiasts relive the thrills and peril of early flight, theater fanciers follow an aspiring dancer as she performs across international stages, and takes her chances in Hollywood.

Take it from the author–in peacetime and in war–this two-part memoir is richly entertaining. Also available on

Gail Chumbley is an award winning instructor of American history and the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January.”


Fighting Joe


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 same time he met and married a local widow, a woman with three children to care for.

Joe Tucker had been in and out of the US Army since initially enlisting in 1929; and discharged after a second hitch ending in 1938. Following the Pearl Harbor attack, and America’s entry into World War Two, Joe realized he’d surely be called back for more active duty. Not anxious to leave his young daughter, or his new family, he requested a deferment of some kind, due to his previous service, and current domestic responsibilities. He was promptly denied. And, once again, Joe found himself in uniform.  Part of the XIX Corps, Joe Tucker and his new outfit underwent infantry training in support of an armored division. (When he departed Spokane, his new wife, Velma, turned on a kitchen radio, and didn’t turn it off for the next four years).

After six months at Camp Polk, Louisiana, the entire Corps shipped out for England as part of the buildup for the D-Day invasion. Joe and his company was stationed in the south of England, in Wiltshire, adjacent to Southampton, the primary staging area for Operation Overlord. In a letter to Velma on eve of the June invasion he cautioned her that “Your’e going to see a lot of frightening news, but really, it’s not as bad as they say.”

On June 6th, the first Allied wave crossed the English Channel, securing a beachhead in Normandy at the expense of thousands of American soldiers. Days later, Joe’s infantry unit, and accompanying tanks, rolled onto those same blood-soaked beaches; members of the XIX Corps bracing for their own European crusade.

For the next five months the XIX slugged their way from Castilly, to St. Lo, fighting their way through the storied Siegfried Line, then crossing the Meuse River in Holland. However, by mid-December, the slog to Germany came to a sudden halt with an unexpected push-back in the Ardennes Forest, later called “The Battle of the Bulge.” During the darkest days of this German counter offensive, Joe and his buddies switched to defensive warfare, retreating back into Belgium.

My grandfather’s utter surprise at this sudden German attack is evidenced by an optimistic Christmas card he mailed to my mother’s elementary school in early December, 1944.

IMG_0793          IMG_0794

On guard duty at the worst of the Bulge, his Sergeant voiced concern that my grandfather might have fallen asleep at his post. “Go check on Tucker, make sure he’s awake,” the Sarge ordered one of Joe’s squad members. But the fellow soldier came to his friend’s defense. “Sir, you can bet Tucker’s eyes are open.” And they were, Joe heard the whole exchange from his guard post.


Joe Tucker, second from left.

When Hitler’s last gamble failed in early 1945, the XIX Corps turned toward the east, battling their way into the Rhineland. Near Katzenfurt, Germany, an exhausted Joe Tucker, stumbled across an abandoned American tank left by a roadside. Weary, he crawled inside the hatch, falling asleep almost at once. Waking hours later, uncertain of where he was, or the time, Joe bolted awake to the sound of men shouting. He realized at once that the language was German, and that some kind of patrol was approaching his armored sanctuary. Alert, Joe sat up and seized the 50 calibre machine gun mounted on the tank. He opened up on the German patrol, saving his, and probably other American lives. For this action, Tucker was awarded the Bronze Star.

German resistance began to noticeably give way the deeper into Germany the XIX Corps moved. Reaching the Elbe River, in Southern Germany, the Army encountered the Red Army for the first time. When the German surrender came, and the war officially ended,  Joe Tucker received his orders to head home. Finally back in Spokane by September, 1945, Sergeant Joseph Tucker was formally discharged the next month. His wife, Velma finally switched off that kitchen radio. Her Joe had come home.

Once again, my grandfather resumed his job as a switchman at the Great Northern Railroad. And despite his earlier reluctance to activate in 1942, Joe Tucker volunteered for duty with the Washington National Guard.

In the years following the war, Grandpa became an active member of the Spokane Democratic Party. With deep Arkansas roots, Joe carried his New Deal sensibilities to Eastern Washington politics. His tireless work canvassing neighborhoods for local, state, and national candidates eventually earned notice across the Cascades, in Olympia, and from gubernatorial candidate Albert Rosellini in Seattle.

By the late 1950’s, Joe Tucker’s modest home on Boone Avenue became the center of vital party planning. Velma mentioned that on one occasion Governor Rosellini, Senators Henry Jackson, and Warren Magnusson all sat among her quilts and afghans consulting with my grandfather for major strategic planning. Joe was a valuable asset, working city precincts with the same determination that he marched from Normandy to Germany. And the party counted him a senior operative.

All Joe wanted was a level playing field–that those with power and money would have to follow the rules everyone else did. The powerful could not exploit those who lacked position and privilege. He saw firsthand the power that every day American’s brought to enormous obstacles–he fought with them in Europe. Joe believed that the rest of us were as worthy as the richest people in the country. His wartime experiences exposed the cost of tyranny, and the absence of democracy.

You see, Joe Tucker was a foot soldier, nothing more, nothing less. In war, he committed himself to serve his country–an enlisted guy who lugged a rifle for the rest of us. In peace he poured that same devotion to his family, his job, and his wider community. There was work to do for America in both scenarios, and my grandfather never shirked away from doing his bit.

Have a safe and thoughtful Memorial Day.

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








Indie Everyday


With apologies to Nathanial Hawthorne, this shirt is my version of the Scarlett Letter.  “Hello, my name is Gail, and I’m an Indie author . . . the process is hard, but very gratifying (even while pulling weeds in the garden).

This weekend I invite you to pick up River of January, and the sequel, River of January: Figure Eight.  If in Boise, check out Rediscovered Books, in Salt Lake, Sam Weller’s in Trolley Square, and Spokane’s Aunties Books. Also available on

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January.