Read River of January for the story behind the pictures.
Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, a memoir, also available on Kindle. Watch for the sequel, “River of January: Figure Eight” out in November.
Arms twined around skaters on each side, Helen balanced nervously in the shadows. In V-shape formation, costumed in tall Hussar caps, and military jackets resplendent with gold brocade, the line stood expectantly in the dark. She 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 absently noted.
Positioned at the apex of the two wings stood Czech Olympian, Vera Hruba—one of three women headliners in the new production. When the last measures of an orchestral stringed overture faded to a close, the house lights darkened, and the arena fell silent for an expectant moment. 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 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 in appreciation with waves of echoing applause. Helen’s first ice show had begun.
If rehearsals were any gauge, she already felt great confidence in the show’s success. The dance line often lingered along the rail, chatting, stretching—waiting for the director to call them onto the ice. “That’s ViVi-Anne Hulton, she’s Swedish,” Clara Wilkins leaned in whispering, both studying the soloist on the ice. “She’s been skating since she was ten,” Clara nodded, as Hulton 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 automatically 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, actually hasn’t 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, May Judels, head line-skater, spoke up from the other side of Eileen. Listening 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 Hruba completed a flying camel. “So,” May sighed, “to make a long story longer, Vera and her mother left Prague in ’37 as refugees, the Hun’s 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 rise again. Vera then responded, publicly rejecting the Fuehrer’s comments, 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’s eyes returned to center ice. “Makes Henie even more of an apple polisher.”
“A swastika polisher,” Margo corrected, as the director motioned the giggling chorus to center ice.
River of January sets off tonight in Salt Lake City’s Trolley Square!
Join author, Gail Chumbley at Weller Book Works
See you at 7:00pm!
Peppered through the vast family archive used in the writing of River of January, exist three special sets of letters. Though largely filled with conventional chatter and sentimental superlatives, these documents also provide a fascinating peek into another time and place–of a nation suffering through economic free fall, and perched on the threshold of war.
The letters frequently mention the turbulent state of international affairs, from fascist Italy, to the Spanish Civil War; episodes that eventually and inevitably led to the Second World War. Even more ink is expended discussing the difficult economic situation stemming from the fallout of the Stock Market Crash–securing theater bookings, closing business contracts, and aviation training in a downsized Navy. Still, aside from the monumental, most of the content reported simple day to day life, shared with humor and concise observations. From their correspondence these men clearly promoted themselves, vibrantly rising from the faded and yellowing paper.
The first are a series of letters mailed from a Hollywood address, composed by comedy writer, Grant Garrett. (See above). The second collection, posted almost exclusively from Europe, came from the hand of a 28-year-old Belgian entrepreneur, Elie Gelaki. Serious and painfully formal, Elie’s letter reveal a methodical mind, clearly continental in manner with a determined nature. Finally, the last, and largest collection came from Mont Chumbley, Virginia farm boy turned aviator, who looms largest in the memoir. His writing reveals a practical, warm, and straightforward young man who expressed himself in plain language.
Despite definite differences in style, these three writers did share many qualities. All were deeply ambitious, establishing successful careers in the particularly difficult years of the Great Depression. They were clearly literate and educated, in a time when many (at least in America) did not regularly attend nor graduate from secondary school. These letters rise from the ordinary, written with distinctive originality, candor, and technical accuracy.
The link that tied this portion of the archive together was the beautiful New York dancer who received each letter, and preserved them all, Helen Thompson.
Grant Garrett became Helen’s first heartthrob. A native of Los Angeles, Garrett was a regular script contributor to radio shows and vaudeville acts. A talented singer and dancer in his own right, he interviewed Helen to partner with him for an upcoming tour across the country in 1931. After their junket ended, she returned to New York, and he returned to Hollywood. Now in love, the couple exchanged a series of clandestine letters, (her mother forbade Helen to see him again) with only Grant’s compositions still surviving today.
For a nineteen-year-old girl, Grant was hard to resist. Moody, smart, and funny . . . he was the essence of the tortured poet, a perfect combination of beauty, pain and passion. Of her suitors, Grant was the only one who shared her profession, and their time together forged a strong, and influential bond. Helen’s association with Grant provided something of a professional finishing school for her. From Grant she learned to laugh through tough times, and push through adversity because “the show must go on.”
Grant’s whimsical map of a planned Garrett & Thompson reunion tour.
Next time, Belgian, Elie Gelaki.
After Brussels, Elie visited nearly every town Helen played, frequently heralding his arrival with a spray of flowers waiting for her at each hotel.
“Please, please invite your friends to join us on our outing,” Elie cheerfully encouraged Helen.
In Paris, where Voila was performing, Elie motored a carload of Beauties to the countryside, stopping at the Bourbon Palace of Versailles. The American girls strolled amid the recovering gardens, the graceful flowing fountains, and grand buildings that had been severely neglected during the Great War, not so long before.
“Elie, this place is magical!” Helen exclaimed. “Have you been here before?”
“Only once,” the young man replied. “We—my mother, two sisters and I, traveled to Paris after the funeral of my father in northwest France. Perhaps I will take you up there another time.”
They toured the ornate grand salons including Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon, the queen’s palace. Helen lost herself, dazzled with the elaborate ivory and gold friezes along the walls and ceilings, and the gold-framed paintings hung in arched cornices.
Later, standing before a vast mirror in the Hall of Mirrors, the couple caught their reflection together—Elie smiling tenderly while Helen felt an inexplicable pang of regret.
In Strasbourg, on another day trip, the pair enjoyed a 12:00 tour of the town’s beautiful Gothic cathedral.
“Oh!” Helen exclaimed, captivated by the cathedral’s ornate astronomical clock inside the transept.
Elie whispered, “Wait my dear, it gets better.”
After only a few moments, small figurines emerged from above the blue and gold clock, within a square opening of the sandstone wall. The carvings represented the phases of life, holy saints, and culminated with statuettes of Jesus and his twelve apostles. While absorbed in the intricacy of the synchronized whirring, Helen felt a touch on her hand, as Elie took her arm. Together, the two silently contemplated this majestic tribute to the Almighty’s dominion over time.
On another stop Elie caught up with Helen by driving to Geneva. In the morning, before rehearsals, the Belgian escorted the dancer on a visit to the League of Nations.
“How did you manage passes, Elie? Charlotte and Grace were told they needed a sponsor to attend,” Helen whispered in the vast paneled halls, watching Elie retrieve the official cards from his pocket.
“I have a business contact here in the city who agreed to endorse us,” Elie quietly responded.
Finding their seats in the public gallery, Helen listened as one prominent gentleman after another eloquently spoke of a peaceful world. Moved by the solemn atmosphere in the chamber, the dignified proceedings, and the sincerity of all the delegates’ remarks, she whispered to her new friend, “These men sound determined to spare the world from another war.”
“My dearest girl, I truly hope they are successful,” Elie answered emotionally, gazing at the proceedings with brimming eyes.
Elie was in London on business, unable to attend Helen’s ballet performance in Erba, a town in northern Italy which was a holdover obligation from the Gambarelli contract. Mistinguett permitted the rest of the cast time off while the girls rehearsed for the somber ballet—Goethe’s Faust. This dark saga, a morality tale of the man who sold his soul to the devil for worldly power, puzzled the ballerinas.
“Ballet is a serious dance form, it’s true,” complained Una, “but this performance is so grim, I’ll bet there’s no belly laughs, or knee slappers in the aisles tonight.”
A murmur of assent echoed in the dressing room.
The cast party after the program proved to be anything but grim or serious. Accompanied by two Italian boys, Eddie and Nikko—young men the dancers had met earlier—the crowd left the theater in a cacophony of chatter and laughter.
Parading to a nearby café, the American girls swarmed around small tables on the stone terrace. Under a garland of dim light bulbs strung around the courtyard, clouds of rising blue cigarette smoke, laughter, and chinking glasses animated the softly lit oasis, the celebration flowing easily against the night.
“Have you tasted cognac, Miss Helene?” Nikko asked, in an innocent tone.
“No, Nikko. It’s bourbon for this girl.”
“My dear, cognac is the nectar of the heavens. You must try a sip.”
Helen reluctantly stared at the cognac the Italian pushed in front of her. She cautiously raised the snifter, appraised the aroma warily, and sipped. Choking a bit, she concluded, “This isn’t bad.”
Nikko, grinning, ordered another. The more cognac she consumed, the more earnestly the dancer explained how she was properly instructed to perform Ballet spotters back in New York.
Eddie sat, enchanted, listening to the pretty American girl. He suddenly asked, “Lovely Helene, would you permit me the privilege of observing your spotters?”
Nikko winked at his friend, and then added, “I have never seen a New York spotter.”
“Go on, Helen, show us how your Mr. Evans says it should be done,” egged on Grace, weaving unsteadily around the table to watch.
“New York spotters!” demanded several voices. Looking blearily around at her audience, Helen wobbled to her feet. The little crowd applauded.
“Hop up on the table, Helen. We can’t see your footwork from here,” shouted Carmen. Helen warily looked at the tabletop. She carefully placed her knee onto the edge, testing its strength, and satisfied it wouldn’t tip or collapse, awkwardly clambered up.
She clumsily rose to her toes. Lightheaded from the alcohol, the dancer tried to focus on a fixed spot, but just couldn’t pinpoint one. One rotation she turned, then another, and Helen began to gather speed. Inevitably, and all too soon, the girl tottered, losing her footing and equilibrium. Luckily for her, spectators surrounded the table and as she listed at a dangerous angle, the boys caught her before she hit the unforgiving flagstones.
Sick and sore the next morning, the no-longer-graceful ballerina retching in the bathroom, gasped, “Nectar for the gods? Tasted more like lighter fluid. I—hate—everyone.”
Elie caught up with the Mistinguett Company when Helen and her friends returned to Paris. Pleased to be reunited with the lovely American girl, he offered the group another afternoon tour in his Packard.
“I have my automobile, and you can decide our destination,” he invited.
“We’ve been to The Louvre.” Carmen mentioned.
“I loved the Mona Lisa, remember, Helen?” added Charlotte.
“The Winged Victory was wonderful, too. Plus we have visited the Arch de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower,” Helen finished. “I think that today it’s your choice, Elie.”
The Belgian looked the girls over, gazing mostly at Helen. “I believe I have an idea. Climb in. We will motor north.”
The party journeyed under a cloudless blue sky to the northeast. Eventually, after passing through some small villages, Elie veered onto a narrow road, parking his Packard in a field.
“This is the battle area known as the Marne,” he announced soberly.
The girls quietly climbed out of his vehicle almost reverently at the familiar name of the legendary site. The young man guided the group over the ribbons of scarred landscape left by the many futile attacks that made up the Marne Campaign in the Great War.
“Was your father killed here, Elie?” Helen whispered.
“No, Helen, he died later, further northwest near the Somme River. That is where he is buried.”
It wasn’t a topic she gushed over in her letters to New York. That afternoon excursion made the wreckage of war too real for a dancer from faraway America.
Back in Paris Helen was astonished to find a letter postmarked from Los Angeles, California. Grant’s letter seemed from another world, another lifetime. Helen slowly opened the envelope and read,
My Dearest Little Nell
As you can see I am still residing in the City of Angels. Your silence took the starch out of a booking to South America and I took a pass. I am waiting patiently for my partner to return from her world travels. Shall play nary a date till you arrive… will continue to play my hunches instead… and never doubt me even when I am not with you.
Below his note, Grant had sketched a whimsical map of the routes he planned to book for her return.
He cleverly illustrated the stops with leaning snowy mountains in Denver, oversized, smiling cactus in Phoenix, and swaying skyscrapers back in New York.
“Oh Grant Garrett, you are a charmer, and I do miss you,” she murmured, feeling a little sentimental.
“Helen, did you say something?” Grace asked, glancing up from her bed.
“Oh—no. Sorry, Grace. I didn’t mean to wake you,” the girl murmered.
Lying back on her pillow she mused, I can hardly believe it, but Grant hasn’t crossed my mind since I sailed in April. The tour has been so fast and so thrilling. For now, she yawned, I’m just glad to be here. I’m far enough away from those who spend all of their time planning my life.
Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January
While composing “River of January,” I spent much of my time searching and analyzing family papers. These letters, pictures, and news clippings, along with other souvenirs, make up an enormous archive which spans over seventy years of the twentieth century. Along with Chum and Helen, many secondary individuals are mentioned in the papers, and when I stumbled upon those names, curiosity sent me on the hunt for more information. One of the characters who rose from the stacks was a proper young Belgian named Elie Gelaki.
Elie made quite an entrance into Helen’s life, and subsequently into the pages of “River of January.” His romantic introduction into the story is reminiscent of a 1930’s Hollywood musical. While taking in the premier of “Voila Paris,” at the Palace Theater in Brussels, Elie spotted the girl of his dreams gracing the stage in a solo act. Apparently the smitten young gent quickly scanned the playbill and decided that the girl must be the dancer named Lillian. In an impulse of ardent infatuation Elie sends a note back stage to Lillian inviting her to meet him after the show. Alas, Lillian doesn’t respond and fails to appear at Elie’s appointed location.
The following night the resilient young man again attends the production. Again he watches, thoroughly enchanted, by the vision that is, he thinks, Lillian, Insistent in his attentions, Elie, this night sends flowers and a typed letter composed earlier that day. Again he implores the dancer to rendezvous at a preselected spot. And happily for Elie, this time she materializes out of the dark snowy night.
The girl seems, Elie notices, amused somehow by his attentions. Then he finds out why. The dancer he believed was Lillian in fact was Helen, and that Lillian had a boyfriend back home, in New York. He is embarrassed by the mix up, but more than that, Elie is charmed by the American girl. After drinks at a late night cafe, he asks to see Helen the following day. And so began the courtship of Elie Gelaki with the breathtaking blonde from New York.
Bringing light to this man, lost to anonymity was an true pleasure. Searching through the volumes of primary sources and the internet, I discovered Elie was born in 1906 in Palestine. Further research, this time reading his avalanche of correspondence (to Helen) revealed that he supported two sisters and a mother in Brussels. Elie proudly shared with Helen his deepest ambition as a businessman, founding a company he intended to expand around the world. He had named the firm, “Polyphoto International,” and confidently assured her that the unique processes he developed would change professional photography forever.
I have thought a lot about this enamored young man, (he was only 28 when they met) and I have ransacked the archive many, many times looking for any picture that might be this steadfast suitor. I’ve never found one. His letters were so loving, so personal, that I had to ask myself why Helen, who kept every other slip of paper had no picture of Elie.
He actually complained about this scarcity as well.
In 1936, four years after they met in Europe, Elie writes Helen in New York begging her for an updated photo. He laments, “If it weren’t for the one (picture) you gave me Brussels, I would have forgotten what you looked like.” Apparently the shortage went both ways.
I had to ask myself why? Why would Helen go out of her way to omit “Elie pictures” from her vast collection of mementos? Then I chanced upon a letter Helen sent to her mother in the middle of her 1932-33, European tour. She goes out of her way to assure her mother that she would never marry a Jew. Now this might sound harsh to modern ears, but I think that Helen felt torn by her denial and his Jewish heritage. From current family members who knew Helen, she once admitted she had a “thing” for Elie, using the word “heartthrob.”
At the time she met the young man, antisemitism was on the up tick, and not only in Europe–but in America as well. What I believe pressured Helen to write such things, was placating her mother. Any single girl worth her salt knows what to say to mother when it comes to “boys.” For Helen, at that time and that place, a rejection was much easier than the truth. And her words belie her actions. She must have given the young man reason enough to continue his amorous pursuit for four long years. He pursued Helen across the world . . . and by the end of the book, across two oceans.
This continental gentleman, this Elie Gelaki, carefully, and thoughtfully laid out his future. He aimed to achieve financial success in the business world, and he aimed to make the American girl his wife. He wrote her constantly and sailed over the Atlantic to see her when he could. In “River of January” the last readers hear from Elie is in a letter from Kobe, Japan, dated 1936. He explains to Helen that “I hope to conduct Polyphoto business in this city, (Kobe).” And that is it, he is gone. Elie just vanishes.
I know, and readers understand, that all of his plans and dreams and hopes and ambitions mattered not a bit. A war is coming. A war of explosive magnitude, fueled by hate and violence and war crimes. A war against the Jews. Elie’s individualism, his personal ambitions, his entire world was devastated in the massive cataclysm of World War Two.
Uncovering this young man left me troubled. I felt as if Helen had been compromised, as were so many others, to sacrifice her natural regard for the young man in order to conform to conventional thought. Though only an episode in the bigger picture of “River,” this ardent suitor, this diligent businessman, deserves the dignity of recognition and remembrance.
The following is an excerpt from River of January, Crossing The Atlantic
I am sorry to write to you in a crisis, but I have dreadful news. Please keep what I’m about to tell you a secret—not a word to my Mother or my sister, please. We’ve been fired! I know—it’s horrible. I don’t know what we’ll do. Jans says he can fix it, but I’m not so sure. I may have to come home early. I am writing to you because I can’t say a thing to my Mother—you know how she gets. But I may need a little money to get home. I do promise to pay you back when I get on my feet.
We made our first trip to the Palladium, they lettered my name on the billboard “Helen Thompson, Our Saucy Soubrette” whatever that means. I thought it was cute. Anyhow, we entered the theatre through the back entrance and met a lot of the cast. Such nice people, too. They told us that “The Crazy Show,” that’s what they call it, has been coming back to the Palladium for years. This group of comedians is known, together, as the “Crazy Gang” and made us feel very welcome. They explained that the same crowds return each season to see their old friends in the show.
We felt pretty excited opening night when Jans and Whalen took the stage after the all-cast extravaganza and began their routine. Harry Jans told the one about the soldier who had survived mustard gas and pepper spray becoming a seasoned veteran. No on laughed. The audience hated them. No one booed, and they clapped a little when Jans played and sang, “Miss Porkington Would Like Creampuffs.” Remember that silly song? Other than that polite response, not a snicker sounded in the whole house.
Then I went on stage and performed a widow comedy monologue; black gown, the whole bit, and I bombed too. With all those spotlights trained on me, if it hadn’t been for the coughing and murmuring I would have thought the theater empty. It was horrible— nauseating— I couldn’t believe how miserably we failed. WE LAID AN EGG!
After the show some of the regulars took us out for drinks. I wanted to run back to the hotel and hide. They led us to a nice pub, but I felt so shook up I could hardly light my cigarette. They explained that English audiences often don’t understand American humor. In particular, my widow act seemed more offensive than funny.
“Too many widows after the Great War,” one comedian named Eddie Gray told me. “Not funny to families with loved ones who died in the trenches.”
That never crossed my mind, Dot. It’s been almost 15 years, for goodness’ sake. So we were ready to make the changes the boys in the cast suggested. No prohibition jokes, no dead jokes, more songs, and lighter skits. When we arrived for rehearsal the next morning letters were pinned to the dressing room doors that we were to clean our things out—that the management would no longer honor our contract. By the way, the Times critics gave us a lambasting, too. I got to feel mortified all over again.
So, dear Dorothy, that is how the situation stands. Whalen won’t come out of his room. Jans is ready to murder the guy in the front office, and I may drag out my trunk and mail myself home. Just let me know if you can cover my passage. But, don’t do anything yet.
Thanks oodles and oodles and mum’s the word.
My Dear Friend Dorothy,
Salvation! We have been kept on the bill, at least for a couple of small bits. So thanks for agreeing to help me home, but Jans did take care of things. I swear, Dot, Harry Jans could coax the English rain back into the gray English clouds.
It all happened so quickly, but this is how events turned. We were shocked, and then worried, as I’m sure you could tell. Then Jans remembered that our contract explicitly stated we were to make $1000 dollars a week regardless of circumstances. He marched into the manager’s office and wouldn’t leave until he received a check for $4000 dollars, or our reinstatement to the show. The manager balked and then Jans reiterated that the contract was clear. My partner gets a little fierce when he’s riled and I think he scared the fellow. The manager said he’d discuss it with his investors.
But that’s not the best part. The whole cast refused to go on until we were back on the billing! Their leader, Teddy Knox, told the manager that one night wasn’t fair, and that until we went on again, they would wait. All of them! Bless their hearts! Guess they are crazy. Later, I caught up with Teddy Knox in the green room and told him how grateful I was. I guess I just hugged him and cried.
So all is well, and Bertha still calm. I will tell her, but will word my letter so that she doesn’t blow her stack. Thanks again, Dot. You are such a swell friend!
We have had quite a hectic week. We opened on Thursday night and were fired Friday morning. Can you believe that? But don’t panic, we’re back on the bill now. It was all a misunderstanding; apparently people in England and people in the States laugh at different things, so we changed our act a bit. Should be all right now. Jans and Whalen are keeping a close eye on me so don’t worry. I will send a money order in my next letter and hopefully more news. Don’t worry Mother. Things here are fine. Love to Eileen.
I don’t understand how you could take firing lightly. If there are any further problems you catch the first ship home. You tell Harry Jans that I mean it. Now take care, and make sure you keep me informed of any other issues.
I hope that you aren’t too cross with me. We won’t be gone long, and I will be home very soon. The three of us are back in the lineup. Jans and Whalen play toreadors in the opening number, and I am in a black and white feather costume complete with white boots. The outfits are very snazzy. We sing the show’s theme song, “Come Round London with Me,” then “God Save the King.” We had to rehearse them both, and the audience stands up and sings along when “God Save the King” begins. Can you believe it?
Jans and I finally are doing our own skit. I wear my tap shoes, a short flared skirt with suspenders and a huge pink bow in my hair. On cue I timidly step to center stage (everyone can hear each tap). Under the spotlight Jans, says “Did you come out to sing a song for the nice people?”
I point to my throat and croak out “l-a-r-y-n-g-i-t-i-s.”
Jans answers, “Oh, that’s a shame we all were looking forward to your number.”
I lean over and whisper into Jans’ ear. Jans then says loudly “You want to whisper the words to me, and I sing the song? Yes, yes, a grand idea! I would love to!” He announces “This song is called “Where on Earth could all the Fairies Be?”
I whisper in his ear, he sings a line, next whisper, he sings, and then Jans finishes, arms opened wide belting the out the refrain, “Where on Earth could all the Fairies Be?”
A spotlight quickly hits Jimmy Naughton, (he’s a Brit) planted up in the balcony who calls out in an effeminate voice,
“Oh, my, where aren’t they?” The lights cut to black and the crowd roars with laughter. Cute, huh?
Did you receive the money I mailed?
It won’t be long now,
This wasn’t my idea. The completion of River of January has been as much a surprise to me as to anyone. I never presumed to be any kind of writer, ever. In fact, I spent my entire career as an American History teacher who told stories, not wrote them. But when River of January came into my life, the story took root, soon dogging my every step. Forget the fact that I didn’t know how to write, or understand the first thing about publishing–River of January made it clear that those deficiencies were my problem.
This project flowed into motion after meeting and coming to admire my story’s central figure. Mont Chumbley, one of two major characters in the River of January, was a real flesh-and-blood man full of irresistible charm. He was also my father-in-law, and as such generously shared hours of gripping storytelling, regaling tales of his fascinating life. His personal anecdotes exquisitely depicted the golden age of aviation, leaving me humbled and honored—in awe of his singular and astonishing career. Delightful episodes included flyers, Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes, among many other colorful characters that populated Roosevelt Field. Chum became my own Peter Pan, guiding me on a magical journey to an America full of promise and opportunity.
Next a treasure trove of Chumbley memorabilia surfaced that verified his stories. This archive touched not only his life, but that of his wife, Helen Thompson Chumbley. An accomplished dancer, Helen preserved every memento related to her equally remarkable career. Steamship tags, playbills, performance reviews, baggage stickers, and photos of an eager, happy girl costumed in an array of attire for stage productions or film sets. Helen too, aimed to preserve her accomplishments saving pictures, lists of business contacts, and letters home to her mother–all depicting a clear narrative of Helen’s own artistic path. Her passport, for example tells of extended junkets to Europe in 1932, London, 1934, and Brazil in 1936. All journeys illustrated with glossies, more letters home, and snapshots of a young dancer having the time of her life.
Their lives unfolded before me only to shift and refocus with each new piece of evidence. This composition grew so immense that only one book became impossible. Inevitably I had to find a fitting close, and then resume the tale in a second volume. Chum’s early years, for example, required a deeper examination of the aviation industry; complete with the serious obstacles he met attaining his wings. It also became crucial to explore the larger story of America, understanding the national barriers Chum overcame to see through his goals.
The same hurdles held true for Helen. Readers had to be reminded that the decades presented in River of January were years of careless economic boom followed by a devastating bust, leaving her path that much more daunting. Moreover, her mother required financial support in an era with no Social Security or Medicare. The burden fell completely on young Helen and her sister. With talent and fortitude, Helen’s grit loomed large in this story, tinged by a real fear of devastating consequences.
This author had formidable obstacles to overcome, too. The most profound drawback, the greatest obstruction–I had absolutely no idea how to write– not in any vibrant or intimate style. If the truth be told, creating River of January felt much like building a car while driving it down the street. River’s first drafts were so awkward and flat, that my first editor fired me as a lost cause. Mortified, I wanted to crawl under my bed, and never write again. And worse, I couldn’t disagree with this editor because I honestly had no idea what I was doing. Still, the book didn’t care. River wasn’t interested in my shortcomings, and the story refused to go away. Despite feeling an amateur fool, I bravely soldiered on.
Every family has a story waiting to be unveiled. In this instance the flow of narrative arrived from three directions. First, and most significantly, was my marriage to Chad Chumbley, the eldest son of Mont and Helen Chumbley. It was he who initially conveyed there was a tale to tell. With what little Chad knew of his father’s career and his mother’s accomplishments, my husband was certain of an epic waiting to appear.
The abundance of primary documents sealed my fate as my in-laws biographer. And again, though I didn’t recognize the forces at work, sifting through each item from that vast collection boosted the project forward. And this couple saved EVERYTHING! Air show tickets, menus from European eateries, pressed flowers, telegrams, his logbook!
By 2005 we coaxed Chum to come west and take up residence in an assisted living facility. He soon became the most popular, most charming tenant in the place. And it was in his room, 18 months later that we sadly attended his death. A mighty Virginia pine had fallen, and the era of his extraordinary life died with him. For me, that could not stand—Chum’s story deserved to be remembered, and no one else was going to see that job through. Nor could Helen be forgotten. Her qualities of greatness cast as large a shadow as her husband’s. I had no choice but to ignore my doubts and get to work piecing together their lives–from youth to marriage.
Not all members of the family were keen with my project. And I am sensitive to their concerns. But, Chum and Helen lead such astonishing lives, and achieved such great accomplishments, that I decided to forge ahead and make River of January a reality.
There was only one entrance off of the main arterial into the library parking lot. It wasn’t quite 10:00 AM yet, but spaces were filling up fast.
On foot, bebopping up the sidewalk, dressed completely in black, ear buds stuffed under his stocking cap, was the happiest Goth in creation. His belly jiggled over his black jeans, keeping time with his silent/screaming music.
A young mother followed close behind, a stack of books awkwardly vised under one arm, and she clutched her baby with the other, cautiously balancing both loads. Both visitors gathered at the same sealed entrance. The time was 9:58.
Old, young, the well dressed, alongside tattooed Walmart shoppers were preparing for their morning visit to the public library. How wonderful.
As the doors finally slid apart, this mass of incongruous patrons flocked inside, striding with purpose and authority to their appointed places. A no-nonsense aura filled the air as each card holder claimed their chair, booth, or computer to commence their daily routine. If ever there existed a bastion of perfect democracy it is America’s neighborhood lending library.
Visits make a lot sense. The facility is clean, climate controlled and the interior is well lit for reading and research.
Libraries offer a multitude of services for their diverse patrons. For those suffering unemployment this destination gets them out of the house, providing an opportunity to search job openings on the internet, and perhaps check out a DVD or two at no cost. For the troubled homeless, the safe interior means sanctuary for rest, or to catch up on some reading, without fear of harassment or victimization. Mothers with young children make use of programs such as story-time, organized games and crafts–providing a respite from too many hours of home-bound togetherness.
My own elderly parents check out their limit of books every two weeks at their neighborhood library. They, too, wait in the parking lot–my Dad’s Impala idling in a disabled spot by 9:55 AM. When those doors glide apart Mom and Dad, canes in hand, hobble as quickly as they can, joining the solid wave of democratic folk utilizing their library privileges.
Benjamin Franklin cemented the true intention of America’s experiment in democratic equality. This famous civic innovator understood the power of public institutions to tie people together from all walks of American society. In was, in fact, Franklin who established the first lending library in Philadelphia back in the day. As a true visionary, Mr. Franklin set the course for general literacy, by establishing these literary gathering places. If he could see what I saw in that library parking lot, his legacy still vibrantly active, he would certainly feel most gratified.
We can all stay as long as we like at the library, as long as we follow some common rules of conduct–just like out in society. And librarians can be real tough on people for violating standards of behavior. They stop kids from running through the stacks, enforce time limits on computer use, insisting internet hogs log off for the next guy, quiet the boorishly loud, with their self important conversations. In the end, their policing allows the rest of us to make the best use of the place.
A library card is the ultimate equalizer–leveling the richest to the poorest among us. No amount of status or money can keep the rest of us in the neighborhood out, because no matter who you might be, my card equals yours.
Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” a memoir. Also available on Kindle.
One of the toughest obstacles I faced writing River of January, was assuming I knew the family story best. These people were real and left a rich paper trail of their dramatic lives. I was lucky enough have recorded interviews, stories graciously shared by family members, and volumes of letters, mementos, and photographs. The internet, too, has been helpful.
Still, I struggled with the presumptuous notion of interpreting Helen and Chum’s lives through my understanding. After agonizing for a good year over the arrogance of committing their lives to paper, I experienced a moment of clarity.
These two deserve to be remembered. If that task was placed in my novice hands, so be it.
I have since spent the last three years learning how to write, because this story must be told, their adventures pieced together into a more coherent picture.
I hope to share more regarding the events that led to this book in future blogs.