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.

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



Saddle Shoes, Florida, & Rosalie Sorrels

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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.

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.”



World War One, The Great Depression, Vaudeville, Golden Age of Aviation, Amelia Earhart, Golden Age of Hollywood, Rise of Fascism, Waco Aircraft, Professional Ice Skating, Sonja Henie, World War Two, Battle of the Atlantic, Pearl Harbor, War in the Pacific, Cold War, Sun Belt, America as a World Power.

Get the two-part Memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight and connect these fascinating dots. Also available on

If you’ve enjoyed this adventure, leave a review on Thanks, Gail.









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.


bonvoyagecard10001So I just read a scathing review of my first book, “River of January.” This reader really hated it, and made a real effort to express her distaste. To say she went out of her way to revile the story doesn’t do justice to the term ‘condemnation,’ and continued to blast me as the author.

So how exactly does a writer react to such a scorcher of a reprimand?

I’d like to get upset and obsess over the two measly stars and every berating word in the post. But I can’t seem to throw myself on that grenade. And much as I’d like to feel mortified and humiliated, I don’t. All that reacting is just too much work–takes too much energy. Besides, if the aim of a book is to elicit an emotional response, then, I suppose, my book has found a kind of success.

Three years ago this review would have destroyed me, almost as if someone had pointed out that my beautiful new baby is actually ugly, and that I’m a blind fool. But as a writer I’ve let go of that kind of perfectionism, and any illusion that I fart roses.

This true story is what it is, and I happen to think it’s damn good, and count myself lucky that it came into my life.

So what now?

I turn on my laptop and compose this blog. Writing is what I do. And some will connect to my  voice and identify with this quandary. Others have already clicked cancel.

I suppose that’s why cars come in different colors.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir River of January and River of January: Figure Eight.