The Last Flight

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Chum returned to uniform by August 1941. Luckily he had worked for Eastern Air Lines exactly one year, vesting his employment, ensuring a job when he returned from the war. But that raises an interesting question, what war? There was no American war. Six more months transpired until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The answer to this intriguing question reads something like this; President Roosevelt instituted the preparations he could–Cash and Carry,The Destroyer Deal, quickly followed by the Lend Lease Act in 1941. America’s first peacetime draft had already been activated the year before, in 1940. Everybody knew what was coming, except for the bulk of the American population. They found out the hard way, later, across the Pacific, on a mild Hawaiian Sabbath.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January, and the forthcoming sequel, River of January: The Figure Eight.

River of January is also available on Kindle.

Exploitation?

My husband and I have talked a lot about how his mother and aunt supported their own mother when they were girls.  By the time Helen’s father died in 1925, Helen was forced by circumstances to become a professional dancer.  She would have followed that path anyway, but had to make the decision sooner than any of them expected.  The fatherless little family desperately needed the income and the mother didn’t work outside the home.

The City of New York enforced what were called the “Gerry Laws,” age restrictions for children in show business.  The minimum age for child performers was set at 16, though Helen danced plenty before legally permissable.  With the right application of make-up and her mother along at auditions, confirming the girl was of age, she landed two contracts  still closer to 14 years-old than 16.  Helen did a little modeling for romance magazines, too, costumed in lingerie more suitable for a 20 year old.

It felt easy to judge her mother for exploiting Helen’s talent for her own financial benefit.  But after more research for the book, River of January, I found the practice of pushing children on to the stage was more common and egregious than anything concocted by Helen’s mother.

Many small children acts crossed the vaudeville stage.  These precocious kids forfeited an ordinary childhood to support their ambitious parents.  Some of the more famous child acts included Sammy Davis Jr, “Baby” June Havoc from Gypsy fame, Bobby Short, and  “Baby” Rose Marie.   These children were no more than preschoolers and unable to say no, or make any of their own decisions.  And the laws were on the books in most cities to protect children from these exploitative adults.

For the parents of these children violations meant jail time, if they were caught.  And mothers or fathers spent  as much effort dodging law enforcement as they did in promoting their little ones’ careers.

I started out this piece to honor those champions of child welfare.  I believed these reformers battled for vulnerable children, who had no one looking out for their best interests.  Then it hit me that other small children at the exact same time were more brutalized in other sectors of the economy.  These same “Gerry Laws” did nothing to spare those little kids from the hazardous mines and mills of America.

I’ve decided that these “do-gooders” chose to target theaters because the stage was so visible.  While these so-called reformers made names for themselves crusading in the theater district, other children faced greater threats laboring as virtual slaves.  Young children suffered perilous dangers, becoming victims of accidents, crushed below ground in coal mines, or mangled in the machinery of filthy factories.  Those abuses were committed out of the public eye.

The city fathers looked quite virtuous to the public, as did the police in ferreting out vaudeville’s exploitation of young children.  Bad, self-serving parents either paid big fines, or served time, satisfying the community’s outrage.

It may appear at first glance that Helen was misused by her widowed mother by going to work so young.  But in comparison to say, 4-year-old Baby Rose Marie, or the multitudes of tiny children facing 60-hour weeks in textile mills, Helen’s experience was more a joy than a sacrifice for her family.

Sharing Our Truth

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I retired from teaching last May after more years in the classroom than I care to admit.  No longer constrained by rules, rules, and more rules, I began friend-ing my former students on Facebook.  What once was ethically frowned upon, is now my link to my past career.  That being established, I have enjoyed viewing the posts the kids have put up since graduating high school.  In something akin to an educational diaspora, these 18 year- old’s are encountering their first experiences away from home.  Of course that includes washing one’s own laundry, filling up on starchy food, and getting out of bed for class without mom.

The pictures are charming.  Girls, arm in arm, who only a month ago were strangers, now glow, linked together in this new adventure as best friends.  The boys seem less inclined to pose.  Instead they splay across the floor of a dorm room, stuffing pizza and chips into their smiling mouths.

Still the experiences behind those photos may be the most profound in life.  Whether the setting is a dorm, or an apartment, or a cave, the ritual remains the same.

I remember best, parked on the bathroom floor in my dorm room, talking earnestly and laughing many late nights.  In my new family of girls, we revealed our essence to one another, creating a link that I cannot replicate today with new acquaintances.  Established when I was naively open, without those worldly defenses I have perfected over time, those friendships have endured.  Fertilized only with an occasional Christmas card, or a stray email–when we get together, we pick right up where we left off.

Helen, with no opportunity for college, shared a similar bonding experience with her “new” friends touring Europe.  As discussed in my book, River of January, she danced in a ballet company called, “The American Beauties,” who together performed first in Paris, and traveled as far as Algiers from 1932 to 1933.  In fact, the girl and her fellow dancers patched together their own version of a Christmas celebration at a hotel in Islamic North Africa.  She too, relished the late night yakking sessions, the joy of carrying out pranks, such as the night a group of them short-sheeted the bed of two other, unsuspecting dancers.  The picture above is a charming example of Helen purely celebrating life.

Later, these women remained some of the best friends Helen ever had.  Traveling to her home in Miami from Los Angeles or New York, the old girls sat around Helen’s little kitchen table, enjoying drinks, reminiscing and laughing.  For a short moment, seated at that tiny white table, they again were the same young dancers who had reveled in an extraordinary and memorable learning experience of their own.