In order to be clearly understood one must write.
In order to be clearly understood one must write.
By Lex Nelson
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.
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.
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.
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.
Note: My students used to ask how the planter aristocracy convinced poor whites to fight in the Civil War. I think the answer lies in the power and position that the underclass envied and hoped to emulate.
Please permit me to reintroduce these four figures from America’s antebellum period.
Thomas Jefferson, best recognized as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president of the U.S., and the man behind the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803.
Andrew Jackson, the celebrated hero of the Battle of New Orleans, noted Indian fighter, and seventh president of the U.S.
John C. Calhoun; Congressman, turned Senator, from South Carolina, who served two separate administrations as Vice President.
Jefferson Davis, a former soldier in the Mexican War, one-time Secretary of War, and later President of the Confederate States of America.
All four of these men avidly pursued political careers, embraced the social norms of their era, and all hailed from the Old South.
Ironically if one found the courage to ask their occupation, none would have mentioned politics. Instead, to a man, all would have replied, “I am a farmer.”
To modern ears that curt answer feels a bit disingenuous and profoundly understated. However, in the early nineteenth century, exercising dominion over large tracts of land, and cultivating crops as far as the eye could see, was considered the most noble and honorable of pursuits. In keeping with carefully practiced manners, one politely, and tactfully left unmentioned, the reality that hidden among the hogsheads of tobacco, the bales of cotton, and bags of rice, there germinated a mightier harvest of exaggerated superiority, violent racism, and self deception.
The truth was these politicians were all slave masters; Lords of the Lash, who derived a living “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” (as Lincoln so eloquently described). These four also minimized the financial underpinnings which afforded each man’s elevated social standing; for any talk of the dark brutality behind their “greatness,” was simply not discussed in genteel society. Each cavalier capably hijacked, and effectively distorted American virtues, such as the ideals of freedom and the social contract to suit their own ends.
No central power held any authority over their personal affairs and conduct.
The maestro of this sophistry was Thomas Jefferson. Proffered as the “Sage of Monticello,” Jefferson brilliantly articulated a vision of America where all lived freely, untouched by the outside world, upon private acres of liberty, immune from any overreaching government. Occasionally those noble scions of property did assemble together to establish necessary laws on general issues; infrastructure, property disputes . . . common needs beyond plantation boundaries. For Jefferson, his fellow planters were “natural aristocrats,” the only power qualified to decide what mattered most. Only this paternal elite knew best what constituted the common good for lesser members of the community.
After the regrettable passage of a clearly unconstitutional law, the Sedition Act in 1798, Jefferson jumped into action against the Adams administration, authoring a tract titled the “Kentucky Resolution.” This position statement, submitted to the Kentucky Legislature, introduced the concept of ‘nullifying’ Federal law. The idea was simple. If a majority of delegates, assembled in special convention, renounced this Federal statute, the law was rendered null and void within the state.
For the first time, in one pivotal moment, Jefferson’s insidious principle found its way into the fabric of American politics, but found no traction in surrounding states . . . at least not yet.
Away from public scrutiny, Master Tom held sway over some 600 slaves, and fathered six children by his deceased wife’s half-sister—a slave—Sally Hemings. According to plantation records meticulously scribed by “the Sage,” himself, regular whippings, especially of young male slaves were scheduled, performed, and unquestioned. Jefferson understood slave labor required obedience, and obedience was assured only through violence. Apologists have argued that Jefferson felt troubled by such practices, and attempted to lay blame in the nation’s colonial past. Yet, he did nothing meaningful to end this tortuous practice, even when he could. Emancipation would have simply been his ruin.
And it is that legacy of deception–Jefferson’s cries for personal liberty versus the cries of the enslaved–that shaped his politics. The human nightmare Master Tom inflicted on his people laboring upon his lands was nobody’s business but his—and Jefferson’s aristocratic peers shared that same view.
Andrew Jackson interestingly enough didn’t care for Thomas Jefferson. As a young Congressman, then Senator from Tennessee, Jackson realized he couldn’t remain seated through all that talking and rules of procedure required in law making. Jefferson, in return, thought the brash young man a tad impetuous and well, nuts. But both planters did share in the same world view, “What happens on my plantation stays on my plantation.” Jackson too, was a ferocious master who answered to no law, but his own. A merchant in both horse and slave trading, Jackson dueled any who questioned his honor, supervised cotton production on his fiefdom (The Hermitage) and eradicated indigenous peoples on lands Jackson saw as better suited for more cotton production.
To Jackson’s credit he did not attempt any pretense of civic virtue, or learned philosophy.
When elected in 1828, President Jackson exercised a different style. “Old Hickory” governed very efficiently without any of the political nonsense of protocol or formality.
Even Supreme Court reverses proved no obstacle. Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Cherokee Nation, et al, could remain on their ancestral lands in Georgia. Unimpressed by the judicial decision, Jackson cynically carried on ordering the military to remove the tribes from the state. The President knew the land in question was broad, and fertile; perfect for plantation crops. Plus gold discoveries in the same region put paid to the inevitable, accelerating a massive forced death march known as the Trail of Tears.
In another episode, Jackson, finding himself formally censured by the Senate (for vetoing the re-authorization of the Second Bank of the United States) used his considerable influence to have that rebuke expunged from the Congressional Record. His overly exaggerated sense of honor demanded that Jackson demand that this official insult be eradicated.
In a candid moment Jackson later confessed his only regrets as president was not hanging the Senator behind the censure.
Jackson injected a petty impetuosity to national politics unrivaled until today’s shenanigans. And though Jackson’s enemies christened him “King Andrew I,” his unilateral style did not derive from any monarchical notions. Rather, the President’s conduct came from his background. Jackson was accustomed to being obeyed—he was Master Andrew, a member of the planter class.
Before Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina soured into a states’ right’s militant, his political outlook had been national in scope. With unusual clarity, young Representative Calhoun once confessed that slavery was a “necessary evil,” vital to South Carolina’s prosperity. Over time he married a wealthy Charleston cousin, elevating his standing and political authority in Southern society. Calhoun began renovations on Fort Hill, a plantation in the uplands of South Carolina, which, with his new wife, cemented his bona fides as a member the ruling class. This ambitious politician had truly arrived, assuming the role of gentleman, influential political figure, and a prominent slave master. Much like Monticello, Fort Hill was an ever-expanding operation, endlessly improved using the same teams of slaves that tended his fields.
However, in a series of unforeseen reverses beginning in 1828, Calhoun’s political prospects declined.
This self-made politician-planter coveted the highest office in the land. Calhoun had served as Vice President under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and viewed his ascendency to the White House a natural next step. Yet circumstances played out beyond his control. These events aren’t exactly pertinent to this essay, but look them up. Interesting stuff.
Bitter, Calhoun resigned the vice presidency and returned to Fort Hill an angry man. His stance on slavery changed as well, leaving him vitriolic and defensive. Under increasing pressure from growing abolitionist criticism, Calhoun, speaking now for the entire South, adamantly insisted the institution was not evil, after all, but instead a ‘positive good.’
When a high import tariff was passed by Congress, Calhoun defiantly announced South Carolina would not collect this “Tariff of Abominations.” Moreover, the angry former Vice President organized a state convention to nullify (remember Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution?) the Federal law. With Calhoun’s newly minted militancy, the former Vice President defiantly stood his ground.
President Jackson did not suffer Calhoun’s impertinent challenge lightly. A another slave master, he bluntly threatened Calhoun in terms both “gentlemen” understood—the president personally guaranteed Calhoun’s thrashing. Fortunately this particular crisis was averted by cooler heads in Washington, postponing the curse of fraternal bloodshed for a later generation.
But the question of states’ rights, local control, and the sovereignty of the master class merely continued to boil. Nullification bloomed into full secession by 1861 after decades of discord. No longer did the planter class tolerate insults or challenges to their natural preeminence and power. South Carolina, (The deceased Calhoun’s home state) became the first of the eleven to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860. Delegates attending the state convention did not wait for the final electoral college results, to reject the victory of nationalist Abraham Lincoln as president. So enraged were these aristocratic lords, that Lincoln’s name did not appear on the ballot in most southern precincts.
I’ve added Confederate President Jefferson Davis to this piece because of his later role in perpetuating the genteel myth of the Southern aristocracy. After battles and bullets finally settled the supremacy of the Federal government, Davis, released from jail began a writing career. He penned first, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, followed later by A Short History of the Confederate States of America. In both of these works, Davis revisited the events leading to secession, briefly described in this essay.
Rehashing Constitutional debates from the Philadelphia convention, Davis insisted that the States existed before the Union, thus could leave whenever the Feds no longer acted on their behalf. Reiterating this view in both volumes, the defeated Secessionist defended the South’s righteous justification in standing up to tyranny. Davis repeatedly echoed the virtues of States’ Rights, nullification, and local political control. Sadly for our nation’s history, Jefferson Davis had not only the last word, but also the lasting spin on the creating the fictional myth of “The Lost Cause.” Oh, and this is significant—Jefferson Davis was a planter as well, the master of “Brierfield,” a plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi before the onset of war.
For this student of history, the bandying about of terms like “States Rights,” “nullification,” and “secession,” coupled with an unending vilification of the Federal Government gives me pause. This fanciful yarn was only concocted as an appealing cover for a legacy of hubris, power, greed, hate, racial exploitation, and violence.
This essay closes with no examination of the State’s Rights’ issue in the Twenty-first Century. Modern history most certainly has much to lend, especially regarding the Civil Rights Movement. The point of this effort, rather, is to shed light on an enduring political influence. This lot is not only vibrantly alive, but has left a tradition of chaos, intransigence, and gridlock. And this crowd has no intention to cooperate or compromise.
And I must confess when Representative Joe Wilson, a defoliant-resistant sprout from South Carolina shouted, “You Lie,” to President Obama, on the occasion of his first State of the Union address, my Nationalist-leaning blood froze. Though no longer permitted to inflict public whippings, or issue challenges to duels; the outraged indignation of America’s antebellum period roared across the House Chamber. On that cold, historic, January night in 2009, the master’s voice thundered once again.
Gail Chumbey is the author of River of January.
“Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
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.
http://www.river-of-january.com. Also available on Amazon.com
Gail Chumbley is an award winning instructor of American history and the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January.”
We all know the story.
On a mild April night, President and Mary Lincoln attended the final performance of the popular comedy, “Our American Cousin,” at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln, by all accounts was in a light, blissful mood. A week earlier Confederate forces commanded by Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, and except for some dust ups, the Civil War had ceased. We also know that John Wilkes Booth, and fellow conspirators plotted to kill, not only the President, but the whole order of presidential succession; Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, etc . . . but only Booth followed through with that night’s violence.
Andrew Johnson took office in a whirlwind of shifting circumstances. In the year up to President Lincoln’s death a notable power struggle had taken shape between the President and Congress. America had never before endured a civil war, and the path to reunion had never been trod. As President, Lincoln believed the power to restore the Union lay in the executive branch—through presidential pardon. But an emerging faction in the Republican Party, called the Radicals saw the issue differently. These men operated from the premise that the Confederate States had indeed left the Union—committed political suicide at secession—and had to petition Congress for readmission. (Congress approves statehood). And this new president, Andrew Johnson, was determined to follow through with Lincoln’s policies.
Unfortunately, Johnson was by temperament, nothing like Abraham Lincoln. Where Lincoln had a capacity to understand the views of his opponents, and utilize humor and political savvy, Johnson could not. Of prickly character, Andrew Johnson entered the White House possessed by deeply-held rancor against both the South’s Planter Class, and newly freed blacks. This new Chief Executive intended to restore the Union through the use of pardons, then govern through his strict interpretation of the Constitution. Johnson had no use for Radical Republicans, nor their extreme pieces of legislation. Every bill passed through the House and Senate found a veto waiting at Johnson’s desk, including the 1866 Civil Rights Act, and the adoption of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Congress promptly overrode Johnson’s vetoes.
Reconstruction began with a vicious power struggle. And much of the tumult came from Andrew Johnson’s inability to grasp the transformation Civil War had brought to America. While the new president aimed to keep government limited, the Radicals and their supporters knew the bloody struggle had to mean something more—America had fundamentally changed. Nearly 700,000 dead, the emancipation of slavery, the murder of Father Abraham, and a “New birth of Freedom” had heralded an earthquake of change.
But Johnson was blind to this reality, seeing only an overreaching Congress, (Tenure of Office Act) and Constitutional amendments that had gone too far. And so it was a rigid and stubborn Andrew Johnson who eventually found himself impeached by a fed-up House of Representatives. Johnson holding on to his broken presidency by a single Senate vote.
There have been other eras in America’s past that fomented rapid changes. The Revolution to the Constitutional period, the First World War into American isolation, the Vietnam War stirring up protest and social change. All concluding with reactionary presidencies. No less occurred with the 2016 election of Donald Trump.
2008 to 2016 witnessed social change of a new order. Administered by America’s first African-American President, Barack Obama, liberty reached further, bringing about change where once-closeted American’s hid. Gay marriage became the law of the land, upheld by the Supreme Court in Obergefell V Hodges. The trans community found their champion in Bruce, now Caitlin Jenner. Health care became available to those caught in relentless poverty and preexisting conditions. Undocumented young people were transformed into “Dreamers.” And though he didn’t take the Right’s guns, President Obama did successfully direct the mission to nab Osama bin Laden, America’s most wanted man.
So when former students began sending horrified texts to me, their old history teacher on election night, 2016, I gave the only explanation history provided. The Obama years introduced change to America that reactionaries could not stomach. (And yes, racism is certainly a large part of the equation).
So now we deal with a Donald Trump presidency. But, Mr. Trump would be wise to acknowledge and accept what has transpired in the last eight years. The thing about expanding the ‘blessings of liberty,’ is no one is willing to give them back. When push comes to shove, the new president may find himself facing the fate of Andrew Johnson.
Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also on Amazon.
It’s been uncomfortable to watch the media coverage from Louisiana about the removal of General Robert E Lee’s statue in New Orleans. As a life-long student of the Civil War the idea of removing reminders of our nation’s past somehow feels misguided. At the same time, with a strong background in African American history, I fully grasp the righteous indignation of having to see that relic in the middle of my city. Robert E. Lee’s prominence as the Confederate commander, and the South’s aim to make war rather than risk Yankee abolitionism places the General right in the crosshairs of modern sensibilities. Still, appropriating the past to wage modern political warfare feels equally amiss.
Robert Edward Lee was a consummate gentlemen, a Virginia Cavalier of the highest order. So reserved and deliberate in his life and career, that he was one of a very few who graduated West Point without a single demerit. Married to a descendent of Martha Washington, Mary Custis, Lee had American stature added to his already esteemed pedigree. (The Lee-Custis Mansion, “Arlington House” is situated at the top of Arlington National Cemetery. And yes, this General was a slave holder, however he appears to have found the institution distasteful).
When hostilities opened in April of 1861, the War Department tapped Lee first to lead Union forces, so prized were his qualities. But the General declined, stating he could never fire a gun in anger against his fellow countryman, meaning Virginians.
On the battlefield Lee was tough to whip, but he also wasn’t perfect, despite his army’s adoration. Eventually, after four years of bloody fighting, low on fighting men and supplies–facing insurmountable odds against General Grant, the Confederate Commander surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.
Meeting Lee face-to-face for the first time to negotiate surrender terms, Ulysses Grant became a little star-struck himself in the presence of the General, blurting out something about seeing Lee once during the Mexican War.
In a letter to his surrendering troops Lee instructed, By the terms of the agreement Officers and men can return to their homes. . .
But Robert E. Lee’s story doesn’t end there.
Despite outraged Northern cries to arrest and jail all Confederate leaders, no one had the nerve to apprehend Lee. And that’s saying a lot considering the hysteria following Lincoln’s assassination, and John Wilkes Booth’s Southern roots. The former general remained a free man, taking an administrative position at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia. It was in Lexington that the General died in 1870, and was buried.
Lee led by example, consciously moving on with his life after the surrender at Appomattox. He had performed his duty, as he saw it, and when it was no longer feasible, acquiesced. He was a man of honor. And from what I have learned regarding General Lee, he would have no problem with the removal of a statue he never wanted. Moreover, I don’t believe he would have any patience with the vulgar extremists usurping his name and reputation for their hateful agenda.
This controversy isn’t about Robert E Lee. It’s about America in 2017.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also available on Amazon.