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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 V 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.
Sure he was far behind, Mont Chumbley pushed his Waco Cabin C through the night sky. Fresh from the Navy, the young aviator found himself wondering why in the world he’d agreed to enter this “Darkness Derby” competition in the first place.
Called “Chum” by his friends at Roosevelt Field, the pilot had begun a civilian career out of a Western Aircraft Company (Waco) hangar near Mineola, Long Island. Transporting press photographers and reporters to breaking news locations, plus teaching flight to the rich and famous, including Jaqueline Cochrane and Kathryn Hepburn, he found his niche. A 1933 flight to a horse track in Maryland set Chum’s course for the night race he now anxiously questioned.
Richard Ross, a financier who held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, was the horse fancier who hired Chum. Ross needed a quick hop to Harve De Grace Track outside Baltimore, Maryland for a horse he had going on the afternoon card. Extremely impressed by the young pilot’s skill, (Chum landed his Waco in the track’s infield) Ross soon offered to pay for modifications to Chum’s Waco if the flyer would agree to enter the transcontinental Darkness Derby. Considering $1,500 in prize money that could really help him out, the young aviator agreed to enter.
Chum set off on September 29th, heading west, flying cross-country to his final destination—Glendale California’s Grand Central Terminal, the starting point for the air race.
Seeded second in a slate of seven planes, positions rated by horsepower and speed, Chum lifted into the growing dusk on October 1, 1933. Guided by a compass and tracking a full moon, the determined young pilot found conditions perfect, the clear night air permitting his Waco a smooth passage.
Before takeoff, Chum studied his competitors, becoming familiar with the pilots and aircraft he had to beat. Merle Nelson of Los Angeles flew a Stinson Cabin powered by a 200 hp Lycoming engine, and looked tough. Frank Bowman of El Paso, Texas in his 90 hp Lycoming engine Monocoupe appeared to be a contender as well. His own Waco Cabin purred with a 210 hp Continental engine, and Chum knew he could open it up to over 130 miles an hour, if necessary.
The moon as his guide, the Mojave Desert illuminated below, the little Waco pushed onward. Setting the aircraft down in Albuquerque, the pilot dutifully checked in with the ground judges, and then hurried to re-fuel. Making small talk with the teenager servicing his plane, Chum was told someone else had already landed and gone. Panic stricken, he cut the conversation short, and returned to the air as fast as he could. It was now that he pushed that plane full bore, resolved to catch up and beat any opponent.
At 9:37am, Mont Chumbley taxied onto the ground in Wichita, completing the first leg of the race in 12 hours and 17 minutes. There had been no other plane, at least not in this race. The kid in Albuquerque had been wrong. Four hours later Nelson arrived, and three other planes still in contention lagged far behind. Following a bit of rest at the field, then carefully inspecting the soundness of his equipment, the derby leader once again rolled down the runway, lifting off into the eastern sky.
Following another quick stop in Indianapolis to check in and fuel his Waco, the pilot learned he still held on to the lead. Satisfied, he returned to the darkness, fairly certain of a pending victory. However, that assurance evaporated when layers of cloud-cover compounded with darkness convinced the pilot that he had become utterly lost. Pushing on, buffeted about by worsening conditions, Chum began to worry he was squandering valuable time. Wracking his brains for deliverance, his aviator eyes suddenly spotted a break in the thick swirling mist. Not hesitating a moment, the Waco slipped through the hole that fortune had sent his way.
Underneath, clearly defined in the infinite blackness beamed a tiny, dim light. One. Chum decided to take his chances and try to figure out where he was. The landing didn’t go well. In swells of bumps, the Virginia farm boy realized his wheels were pounding on furrows of newly cleared fields. Drawing closer to that isolated light, Chum made out the side of a house, with an extended porch. Someone had to be inside.
He rapped on the weathered door, and waited. Sounds of scraping and thumping grew louder until the door opened revealing an equally weathered farmer, and his disheveled wife holding a candle. Chum smiled through the entryway, and in a friendly voice explained his dilemma. The farmer stared a moment, measuring the stranger’s sincerity, then decided to let him in.
As the wife poked the coals in the wood stove, and reached for the coffee pot, the farmer spread out maps on the table. Chum soon learned he had landed in western Pennsylvania, and wasn’t too far off course. Profoundly relieved, the young man stuffed cake in his mouth, downed a cup of coffee, and in a rush of heart-felt thanks again bumped over the dark fields back into the sky.
The darkness soon transformed to early morning, and Chum wondered again where his fellow competitors were located. He knew he hadn’t lost too much time with his unexpected stop, but still fretted, uncertain about the status of the other flyers. Worried about the constant cloud cover that didn’t want to clear, he decided, as a last resort, he’d head out over the Atlantic, look for another break, and duck through. But once again luck smiled, and in the perfect light of morning, a providential clearing appeared and Chum took advantage.
On October 4, 1933 Montgomery Chumbley landed on Roosevelt Field #2, seeming the winner of the 2006 miles long Darkness Derby. However, judges and spectators rushed the plane, arms waving, and clipboards flashing to warn him he’d landed on the wrong strip! Shutting down his plane would have meant disqualification. Without a pause, Chum quickly taxied to Field #1, then turned off his engine, and in 24 hours, 12 minutes (two added for the last minute taxi) won the transcontinental air race.
The competition had been set as a preliminary event leading to Roosevelt Field’s National Air Pageant. The widely lauded landing launched the festivities planned for the rest of the week, including an exhibition by German stunt pilot, Ernst Udet. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the pageant, with proceeds earmarked for her charities, and Warner Brothers shared by premiering their newest film “Night Flight,” starring Helen Hayes and Clark Gable. On the evening of October 5, in a theater filled with flyers, Miss Hayes presented Chum with a trophy and his winnings, before screening the film. (Merle Nelson received $750 for second place, and Bowman $500 for coming in third.)
As for Chum in the days and weeks after the race? He became a minor New York celebrity, with aspiring students and eager press lining up for his flying services. In 1934 Waco hired him sending him to Rio de Janeiro to sell equipment to the Brazilian, and Argentine air ministries. By the time the Night Flight winner returned to the States in 1936, Mont Chumbley was the most prolific overseas salesman Waco employed.
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.
A civilian pilot learns of war.
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 http://www.river-of-january.com, and on Kindle.
I never imagined a living legend would grace my home.
The weather had finally turned at the cabin; brief, chilly showers shifting into warm sunny intervals–golden debris blowing across the deck. I had given up clearing away leaves and pine needles, settling instead for mopping rainwater off of plastic chairs. In our cabin for less than a year, my husband and I had volunteered our small place to host a fund raiser for two local candidates running for county offices.
Guests began arriving in late afternoon, carting in plates of finger food and bags of chips. Visitors commandeered my little kitchen, quickly producing cheese & meat trays, while toasting garlic bread in the oven. Shuffling knives and serving spoons, I glanced up to an opening door to greet one of the arriving candidates. Her husband followed her bearing a big smile and carrying an old fashioned squeeze box—a melodeon. I sensed a forthcoming singalong.
I vaguely recognized the third visitor passing through the threshold. After introductions were made, the mystery cleared; the lady was legendary folk singer, Rosalie Sorrels. She had driven over with the candidate and her husband, as they were friends from the other side of the county. I had seen Sorrels before in concert, and honestly grew tongue-tied meeting her in person.
The room filled and the evening warmed–mellowed by good wine and friendly camaraderie. Ms Sorrels drifted around the room, chatting here and there, while perusing our limited artwork. She admired, in particular, a panel of over-sized Florida scenes, soon sharing tales of chauffeuring her children through the Sunshine State many years earlier. At one point, she and I shared a moment out on that leaf-strewn deck, agreeing that cutting down a tree, even as a safety measure, was still a shame. But the big conversation that memorable night centered on my footwear, a pair of vintage saddle shoes.
One woman told us that at her California high school everyone called these shoes Oxfords, and were acceptable only in white. Ms. Sorrels happily joined in with a story of her trusty black and white pair. Mine were coffee and cream, the same as I wore when I attended grade school. Odd, but in that moment we all seemed to channel our long ago girlhoods; guarded adult caution melting away in the banter. Animated with a gentle, expressive smile, Rosalie, too, swapped memories, chuckling along with the rest of us.
As dusk fell, and lamp light filled the house, our company began to depart. There were long drives ahead, and people needed to get going. My husband and I waved goodbye, pleased we had opened up our home for the event. And in the following days we shared with anyone who would listen that Rosalie Sorrels visited our cabin. If they didn’t recognize the name, they did after we were through singing her praises.
That was nearly ten years ago.
When it came across the news last week that Sorrels had passed away in Reno, my mind traveled back to that singular Fall evening. I recognized then, and I still believe, that the cosmos handed us a mighty gift in that visit, of a luminary who had once driven to Florida with her kids and, like the rest of us wore saddle shoes.
Gail Chumbley is a nationally recognized history instructor, and the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also on Amazon.
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.”