I’ve neglected you since publishing your story, and I regret my doubt-inspired silence.
The delight of researching the both of you, made clear that you lived more life than I’ll ever see in mine. Risk, peril, glamor, and ambition. You put yourselves out there, and is the best story, ever.
I wrote those books wracked through with feelings of inadequacy. Possessing little experience as a writer, I took on both volumes largely on my own and finished them, impatiently pushing the story out to the world, mistakes and all.
Still, I’m not sorry to have narrated your journeys, it’s the most kick ass true story I’ve ever encountered.
Fear and confusion froze this greenhorn in her tracks. I am guilty of getting in the way of sharing your adventures, and reliving your forever love story. Forgive me. I presumed this 20th century saga belonged to me, but that is not so. Truly, there would have been no books at all, without your daring and triumphs to inspire me.
These books were not a mistake.
Chum, you squared your shoulders, took a deep breath and strapped into that cockpit, forging a career of monumental consequence. The victor of the 1933 Darkness Derby, you braved the night skies over a sleeping America. Flying your mighty Waco aircraft, you touched down at Roosevelt Field where Lindbergh and Earhart began their storied flights. Later, in defense of democracy, you piloted US invasion orders through a dangerous South Pacific typhoon, tossed and slammed by up and down drafts, to complete your mission.
And to you sweet Helen, though we never met in this life, you inspired the entire effort. It was that first visit to your Miami home when something stirred inside me. A unexpected inspiration. Remember that black and white glossy? The portrait of a sultry platinum blonde? You know the one. Chum had it up in his room until the end.
That photo triggered a spark, a slow burning fire I could not ignore. This story had to be shared. The European tours, dancing, dinner with Maurice Chevalier, cruises across the Atlantic on the SS I’le de France, vaudeville with comedians Jans & Whalen. Then off to Rio de Janeiro you sailed, opening at the Copa Cabana. And after your marriage to Chum, and the war broke out you took up ice skating, performing nightly for Sonja Henie’s productions at Rockefeller Center. My God! What a life.
“River of January” is done, as is the sequel, “River of January: Figure Eight.” Preserved in the pages is magic, whether in the sky, on the sea, under the footlights, and revolving across shimmering ice. This story crackles with your energy.
This won’t be neglected any longer. I’m getting out of your way.
With Love, and Eternal Admiration,
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.
We had two cabins on a small lake in Northern Idaho.
Located between Lake Coeur de Alene, and the Pend Oreille, our little acre overlooked tiny Cocolalla, with large windows where we could watch the waves lap up on the beach. The original structure we astutely named the Little Cabin, later followed by the larger Big Cabin. This bigger cottage had been built with all the amenities of home; running water–hot and cold, a tub and toilet, a full kitchen, and electric heat.
Those early weekends in the Little Cabin hold many good memories. All of us crammed into that tiny wood box, the unfinished walls festooned with a lifetime of greeting cards, a big enameled wood stove, and a porcelain basin for washing dishes. Grandpa got his hands on a tall steel milk can and commandeered it for enough drinking water to get us through the weekend. As for entertainment, Grandma had an old radio that blasted the most impressive static, interspersed with Roy Orbison or Andy Williams fading in and out.
Once the Big Cabin was completed and my grandparents moved in, the smaller cabin was demoted to storage. It also housed a set of bunk beds, a fold-down couch, and one double bed; useful for my brothers who were just getting bigger. Now, in addition to greeting cards, the cabin stored every variety of water equipment. Fishing poles, life jackets, oars, and an outboard motor clamped to a metal barrel, with stacks of beach towels the size of blankets.
As I recall, a constant grit of sand coated the linoleum floor.
The property was my grandparents retirement dream, but a dream they happily shared with the rest of us. I knew, even then, that I was always welcome, always.
My grandpa was an early riser, a product of a lifetime as a mailman. He didn’t want to tiptoe around a little kid sleeping on his sofa at five in the morning. At bedtime my grandmother and I made our way to the Little Cabin in the dark by flashlight. Under the covers of the double bed, I would chafe my feet deep under the sheets to warm my toes. As we grew settled and peaceful she would begin to reminisce, talking to me for hours in that darkness. I learned of her life in those moments, warm in that cozy bed, listening to her voice, breathing the scent of the evergreen forest.
She told me of my biological grandfather, her first husband, who had left her bereft and penniless after my mother had been born. Despite the Depression, he liked to gamble away their money. My Grandma had to leave him and she struggled to find work as few jobs existed. Forced to farm out her daughter, my mother, in various homes, her the guilt still haunted her. Clearly it still broke Grandma’s heart that she was forced to separate from her little girl for months at a time. I could hear a wound that could never heal.
As the night grew deep, crickets and bullfrogs began to chorus. Flanked next to her, and pressed against some greeting cards, I prayed I wouldn’t spoil the magic by having to go potty. She kept, beneath the bed, a Chase and Sanborn coffee can that I hated to use. It felt cold and left rings on my little bottom. Still, considering options, the can was more appealing than a journey to the outhouse. Using that creepy outhouse in the daytime was bad enough, but at night unthinkable.
Finally poking her lightly, I would tell her. And she never hesitated. Showing no impatience at all, Grandma seemed to make my problem her own, reaching for the flashlight and finding that rusty can. She held the light on me so I could aim properly, then back into the warm bed. No recriminations.
She loved me.
I loved her.
Today my husband and I live in the woods. We don’t have a lake, but a river runs near and we can hear it on very quiet nights. I relax in my cozy bed in the darkness and listen to the crickets and bullfrogs, while breathing in a scent of pine. A sense of complete security, of love, of acceptance returns, synonymous with the love of my grandmother. She was home for me, and though gone these many years, my mountain cabin still echoes with her voice.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.
Following his celebrated success in the Darkness Derby, Chum found his charter business more hectic than ever. Student pilots, passengers, and acquaintances from the nearby press office, particularly from United Press International, and International News Photos, crowded the Waco Office looking to hire Chum.
In early September, 1933, a reporter tasked with covering a train derailment near Elmira, New York, hired Chum for a middle of the night flight. It was dark, and a wet, thick fog had settled over Roosevelt Field. Filled with doubt, Chum only reluctantly agreed to take the fare from the desperate reporter, and very soon regretted his decision to fly.
An impenetrable cloak of fog, blending into a thick darkness, confronted the pilot as he prepared to land near Elmira. Probing his way down, Chum set down hard and immediately slid across the drenched airstrip. Slipping over the edge of the field his Waco thudded hard against a power pole, damaging one side his biplane. The reporter had a waiting automobile at the airfield, and sped away to the train derailment, leaving Chum to sort out the accident. He deduced his Waco was still airworthy, and later in the morning returned with his passenger to Long Island facing an expensive fix. Ten days later, adding insult to injury, he opened a letter from Associated Gas & Electric charging him $16.30 for repairs to the power pole. Lesson learned . . .almost.
Two weeks after the mishap in Elmira, Chum took another risky flight. His friend and patron from the Stock Exchange, (see part one of this article) had given notice that Chum was to keep Monday, September 25th open for passenger trip. This wealthy investor was an avid horse enthusiast, and Chum had shuttled the gent to various racetracks around the northeast. On this particular day a last minute phone call sent Chum hurrying from Roosevelt Field to Red Bank, New Jersey, and his waiting client.
Three men climbed aboard Chum’s Waco Cabin near Newark, breathlessly directing him to aim for Havre de Gras’ Racetrack, near Baltimore. These men had a horse on the race card, and were anxious to reach their destination before post time. As the Waco neared the track his passengers grew increasingly impatient. Chum’s patron insisted that instead of landing on a nearby rural field, the pilot needed to land directly on the infield of the horse track. Chum balked at the idea, but his client insisted, vowing to pay for any damage or fines that might result. Folding under pressure, the pilot threw good sense to the wind, and again lowered the nose of his aircraft for a risky landing.
Connecting with the grassy infield, the Waco bumped down the entire length of the infield. By the time Chum rolled to a stop, track officials and the police had surrounded the Waco. In the end, with a lot of fast talking from his influential friend, and perhaps a little cash changing hands, the biplane was allowed to remain. In fact, he and his passengers spent a glorious day enjoying the races. Later, after the stands were emptied of spectators, Chum rolled up the length of the racetrack returning to the sky and home
For Chum night flying became a particular pleasure. He mentioned in a later interview how peaceful he found the experience. In March, 1934, when Howard Ailor asked him to deliver a new Waco C to West Palm Beach, Chum gladly took the overnight job. Coursing through the twilight he made his way south from New York. Landing in Richmond, Fayetteville, Charleston, and Jacksonville, Chum eventually touched down in West Palm Beach by late morning.
A bit worn, the pilot unbuckled and completed his log of the flight. Still seated in the cockpit, he noticed a tall gentleman come out of a hangar and head toward the biplane. Chum instantly recognized the man, as he was a famous aviator in his own right. It was Howard Hughes, and the millionaire was not happy.
Hughes wasted no time in telling Chum that the engine in this biplane was used, and that he wouldn’t buy it. For his part, the young pilot assured Hughes that that simply wasn’t the case, but that Hughes would have to take it up with Howard Ailor back at Roosevelt Field. With that, the exchange of telephone calls between Florida and New York ensued. Back and forth the two businessmen squabbled. As the war of long distance calls heated up, Chum repeatedly requested a ride to the train station. He told Hughes that he, too, had a business to run, and needed to return to New York. After a day of back and forth, Hughes informed Chum he wouldn’t buy the Waco Cabin, but he would hire Chum to come work for him. Astonished, Chum agreed with the unexpected offer, lured by Hughes prominence and by the good salary.
For two weeks Chum worked at Hughes West Palm hangar. The other mechanics were easy to know, and he enjoyed watching Hughes and his entourage come and go. The only sticking point to this new job was that there was nothing to do, except watch Hughes. The new Waco Cabin sat inside Hughes hangar without any resolution.
After two weeks of inactivity, salvation arrived in the form of a long distance phonecall. Called to take the call in Hughes empty office, Chum issued a polite hello. The voice on the other end belonged to Hugh Perry from the Waco Factory in Troy, Ohio. Momentarily taken aback, the young pilot discovered that Perry wanted him for a sales position in South America. Pleased, Chum couldn’t say yes fast enough. And not waiting around to give Hughes notice, Chum simply walked to the train station and bought a ticket for New York.
He never knew the fate of that Waco Cabin. (#NC 13402)
Chum set sail on the Munson Cruise Liner The Western World in April of 1934. To say Chum was thrilled doesn’t do justice to his excitement. The farm boy from the foothills of the Allegheny’s, caught in the worst economic crash in memory, boarded a luxury ship for Brazil. He felt on top of the world.
After two weeks at sea, the pilot arrived in Rio de Janeiro and set to work at once. The Brazilian Air Ministry had shown some interest in the Waco CTO, complete with Browning machine guns mounted on the wings. He later said he couldn’t understand why the country needed such armaments, but the customer was always right, and Brazil was the customer.
Mont Chumbley took his first flight over Rio on May 4, 1934, piloting another Waco C. By the 7th he was testing and demonstrating other models, including the CTO. Becoming acquainted with officers from the ministry, he learned the government was determined to develop the vast jungle interior of the country, answering his unspoken question of why machine guns might be needed. Obstacles stood in the way deep in Amazonia. In the end the ministry opted not to make the purchase, though other biplanes met their approval.
Chum did very well in sales to the government of Brazil, and also in Argentina.
Chum lived and worked in Rio for almost three years. In that time he earned his reputation as one of the most successful Waco sales representative in the company’s history. However, by spring of the 1936 he had met, and become engaged to a beautiful American dancer, Helen Thompson and decided to leave South America. Chum later said he left Waco in the fall of 1936 to find a more predictable job in aviation, one more suitable for a married man.
By the end of October, 1936, Chum returned to New York for good. He had considered a job offer from Pan American, but declined when he learned he’d have to train at Dinner Key, Florida, Pan Am headquarters for a year.
The next month Chum returned to Waco, but this time stateside.
Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Both available on Kindle.
A nice review is a welcome gift for any writer. John Vogel of Preserve Old Broadway graciously published this piece today.
We were supposed to start our exploration of The Vagabond King today. It is a wonderful operetta that is based on the life of Francois Villon, a French poet who allegedly rallied the people of Paris to defend the city against the attack of the Duke of Burgundy. In saving the city, Villon also preserved the monarchy in France, in the person of Louis XI.
My plan has been interrupted by an interesting turn of events. I have just finished reading two books, River of January, Part One, and River of January, Figure Eight. If you love history and a rollicking good romance, you need to read these two books, written by Gail Olson Chumbley.
But well you may ask, how did I come to know about these books and its author?
Shortly after I started posting comments and music on this FB page, I noticed a new visitor to the page, Gail Olson Chumbley. I looked her up and found out that she was an award-winning teacher at Eagle High School, Toppenish, Washington before she retired. She met her second husband, Chad Chumbley, in 1994, and Chad regaled her with stories about his parents, Chum and Helen Chumbley. Eventually, Gail, the history teacher, became curious and dug through boxes of old correspondence and pictures and finally interviewed Chum before his death in 2006. What she found was even more impressive than Chad’s stories, because the lives of Montgomery (“Chum”) Chumbley and Helen Thompson Chumbley were intertwined with key events in American history from 1925 to 1955.
Not ever having written a book before, Gail started the arduous task of translating dead archives back into living human beings. This daunting task was made easier because of her two love affairs: she loved Chum and Helen and she loved their son, Chad. Her writing was a labor of love.
I promised I would read her books one day, but my schedule was busy and “one day” kept moving to the right. Gail ended my procrastination by mailing me both books; and at night before I went to sleep, I would read through 30 or 40 pages. Gail didn’t start to write until she wrote these two splendid books, but what comes through is a historian’s love for detail and context. Gail gives the reader both the overview of history (the big picture) and the personal details of the two people she follows. We follow both Chum and Helen separately until 1936, when they met in Rio de Janeiro and fell in love.
Chum enlisted in the Navy and eventually won a spot in Flight Training in Pensacola, FL. He stayed in the Naval Reserves, even after he left active duty, and began a career that revolved around Waco Aircraft, an early pioneer in aircraft design and manufacturing. Chum was one of the few early aviators who came after WWI but was ready to serve once WWII came into focus. He was one of a handful of pilots who started in planes made of wood and ended in the jet age.
Another pilot, who trained at the Army base at Brooks Field, Texas, was Alexis Klotz. Lex also was involved in delivering the mail, although Lex started on the West Coast. Lex ended his career with TWA and offered to show me around the cockpit of the new Constellation when they went into service. Flying the mail from west to east in the winter was hazardous, and many good but not great mail pilots went down in bad weather. In winter, forced landings almost always resulted in death.
When Chum and Lex flew airplanes, the cockpits were open (it got cold at higher altitudes), and the planes had little if any navigation or communication equipment. Many pilots learned the ground terrain, the railroad tracks and other identifying ground markers to guide them during their many hours in the air. Flying was more art than science.
One the other hand, as Gail explains to us, these pilots loved to fly and may have been more comfortable in the air than on the ground.
But that is only half of the story. The other half of the story involves Helen Thompson who, from an early age, was pushed by her mother, Bertha, into dance. Luckily, Helen learned to love to dance and to perform, in general. From ballet, Helen moved into vaudeville routines and eventually ice skating with skating stars like Sonja Henie.
But Helen’s career is only part of her story. At each turn in her career, she met famous people and witnessed key events. Coming home from a European tour, Helen performed onboard at the Captain’s request, alongside another performer named Maurice Chevalier. What was more important was the fact that both performers sat at the Captain’s table. Helen dined with the former President of France, Edward Herriot, on his way to Washington DC to confer with FDR in the mid-1930’s.
It is this constant integration of the big picture of history (Chevalier jokingly asking Herriot if he could save the world from Hitler) with the details of Helen’s dance program that make the two books so charming and engaging. We are reading history from the bottom up, living through periods of time through the eyes of Chum and Helen. And it is a wonderful way to learn and was used successfully by Kenneth Roberts in his many books on the American revolution.
For all of you history buffs who like a good romance story, put away David McCullough for a bit and pick up River of January, Part One, and River of January, Figure Eight.
For more from John Vogel visit Preserve Old Broadway on Facebook.
A former student posted pictures yesterday of a cadet event at West Point. In a formal ceremony he and his classmates were presented with gold class rings in what looked like an annual military tradition. According to the post these rings were made from gold melted down from deceased former cadets, and shavings from the remains of the Twin Towers. A moving and inspiring affair for sure.
Parades on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, The Fourth of July, festooned with waving flags, highlight the modern veneration Americans feel for their warriors, past and present. But this honor and respect wasn’t always held for our fighting forces. In fact from the close of World War One in 1918 until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Americans across the country roundly rejected and criticized anything to do with the armed forces.
As I go about the Northwest, speaking on “River of January,” folks are consistently surprised with the contempt the public held for soldiers and sailors in the book’s setting. The central figure in the memoir, Mont Chumbley shared with me before his death that at the time he enlisted in Norfolk Virginia, signs appeared in city parks warning, “dogs and sailors keep off the grass.” And it is that quote that draws stunned reactions from listeners.
The killing fields of World War One dragged on for three bloody years until America joined on the side of the Allies. Woodrow Wilson, the sitting President betrayed his earlier campaign promise of, “He kept us out of the war,” quickly changing his mind about Europe. He ultimately asked Congress for a declaration of war in April, 1917 to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.” This idealist Chief Executive sent American boys across the Atlantic to remake the world in the image of America’s republican system.
American soldiers, “doughboys,” weren’t in any way ready to deploy, quickly activated and barely trained. Still the recruits and draftees were promptly loaded onto troop ships landing in time to stave off a final German offensive. Gung ho and naïve, US forces made the difference almost at once, charging enemy trenches in blind innocence, with a faith in their youthful invincibility. The exhausted, war-weary combatants, particularly the German “Huns,” soon collapsed, requesting an armistice in November of 1918, ending hostilities.
World War One had unleashed unthinkable horrors in tactics and weaponry. Foul sewage-filled trenches, poison gas, machine guns, aerial bombing, torpedo launching u-boats, tanks, barbed wire, and “no man’s land,” sickened the American people. An outraged sense of being duped into war by big business and self-serving politicians became universal.
Beleaguered President Wilson attempted to salvage purpose from the unspeakable carnage with his “Fourteen Point” peace plan, including his “League of Nations,” a forerunner to the United Nations. Citizens universally rejected Wilson’s efforts to remake a peaceful world. In fact, Americans rejected any form of internationalism whatsoever. War was pointless, and the nation resolved to never venture abroad again, period.
An attitude of isolation gelled and hardened into popular opinion for years to come. Any boy who joined the service was considered a no account scoundrel with no ambition, or self respect. It was in this hostile atmosphere Mont Chumbley bucked popular opinion choosing to join the Navy and ultimately fly airplanes.
It came as no surprise that his family vehemently opposed his enlistment plans. The entire clan closed ranks, certain the family name and reputation was at stake, and the boy could not be permitted to sully the rest of them. And that is only a single anecdote of one family in a nation appalled by anything military.
All three branches faced draconian budget cuts in the 1920’s, with more slashed during the Great Depression. Military leaders hustled to find ways to justify their shrinking budgets before Congress. Military planners were met with answers such as that concluded by Congressman Gerald Nye. Results of Representative Nye’s study determined the US only entered the World War to enrich munitions manufacturers and bankers. The Navy had already taken an earlier hit when a moratorium was placed on building any new battleships. America didn’t need them anymore, the country would never go to war ever again.
And that attitude persisted from 1919 to 1939 until Hitler’s blitzkrieg shattered the peace. But even then the US did not involved itself, even as England stood alone before the Nazi onslaught. Instead Congress passed Neutrality Acts tying the President’s hands to help the English. American entry into that war didn’t occur until the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor two years later, in December of 1941.
The “Long Weekend” starved America’s military for twenty years. That Mont Chumbley managed to join at all, and managed to fly the few aircraft the Navy possessed is nothing less than a miracle. That farm boy from Virginia overcame immense barriers; stiff family opposition, social ridicule, and crossing an immense chasm to become a Navy pilot.
Author Note: The following excerpt was drawn from extended interviews with veteran aviator Mont Chumbley (1909-2006), discussing his training in the interwar Navy. For the rest of the story read “River of January” available on Kindle.
Later, with his flight training securely behind him, Seaman Montgomery Chumbley received his first official orders. He and his class were assigned to Torpedo Squadron 3, located in Coco Solo, on the Atlantic coast of Panama. Chum joined his fellow novices as they shipped out southward aboard the USS Shawmont.
Watching from the deck as the Florida base vanished, the pilot silently rejoiced at this milestone. He also celebrated the fact that he didn’t have to return in disgrace to Virginia. That euphoric detail made the sky somehow bluer, the clouds somehow more feathered and graceful. The young man felt nearly giddy.
After two pleasant days at sea, the Shawmont cruised into the Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to refuel. Chum was enchanted by the beauty of the jungle and continued to marvel at the colorful sea life and assortment of exquisite birds circling the ship for handouts. The vast horizons he used to imagine, were becoming reality.
The Squadron’s final destination lay near Colon, Panama. Coco Solo was a vast, busy American naval installation, surprising the young pilot with its colossal size. The arrivals boarded a transport for delivery to their quarters, gawking out their bus windows in wonder at the enormity of the American base.
His awe continued after he and the boys were escorted to the adjacent submarine facility to tour that installation.
Returning to the field, the group sat through their initial military briefing, Chum, next to Win, listened as the instructor addressed the new aviators. The captain explained that a 1929 War Department directive assigned the US Navy the task of protecting the Atlantic zone of the Panama Canal from hostile threats.
“The Army’s Fort Gulick sits adjacent to us in Coco Solo, and shares our same mission,” he explained. “As some of you may already know, to the southwest, other military bases dot the entire 51 miles of the canal—all the way to where it meets the Pacific.
After the session, Chum remarked to his buddy, “I feel strangely noble defending the canal. It’s as though we all are part of a bigger picture, with America expanding into both oceans.”
“But what country would be nuts enough to attack us?” Win wondered.
War games made up much of Chum’s Panama duty. The flyers were the “red” team, attacking from the air, while the “blue” team lay in wait, aboard ships “guarding” the canal. The pilots executed their orders during these simulations, but off-duty they grumbled about the Navy’s outdated and seriously flawed maritime battle plans.
“I can’t believe they have us flying so near enemy ships!” Chum groused, crunching over a gravel path after morning exercises. Win paced alongside as they headed toward the base canteen.
“So near? What do you mean? How else could we release our torpedoes?” His friend asked as they ordered sodas at the commissary’s cafeteria.
“Think about it, Win. A torpedo aims more accurately if it detaches directly above the ocean’s surface. And it’s not the steep dive on approach that’s fatal—it’s pulling up after releasing the torpedo. That maneuver is potentially fatal. The belly of the plane is too close to enemy guns. Any surface ship could blow us to kingdom come.” He smacked his palms loudly for effect.
“But, Chum, hold on! There’s smoke laid down on the surface by the first two T3M’s. That smoke blankets us.”
“Yeah, if all goes as planned. If the smoke is laid down close enough to the water, if it doesn’t rise too fast, and if the wind doesn’t blow in too hard. That’s a lot of ifs. Think about it. We approach in low formation, drop our payload and bank, while dangerously showing our undersides to the enemy. We’d be lucky to keep our asses dry, Win. Makes me wonder what desk genius dreamed up this idea. It’s a suicide mission.”
The two flyers stared at their icy drinks. Perhaps Win could see his own plane exploding into the cold depths, just as Chum had already envisioned.
“Anyhow, the scuttlebutt says the brass is taking a second look at that line of attack,” Win disclosed. “The Navy wants to remodel the torpedo bombers into patrol biplanes, replacing the ordnance with fuel tanks. Can’t come fast enough for me—you’ve made me a believer,” his friend admitted.
Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available at http://www.river-of-january.com or on Kindle.
This post originally appeared in early 2016. Cassandra award?
A divided national party . . . voices of extreme rhetoric . . . an ugly, contentious primary season. Does this spell doom for two-party system?
Sounds modern, doesn’t it? But the year was 1860, and the party in question was founded by Thomas Jefferson, and shaped in the image of Andrew Jackson: The antebellum Democratic Party.
On the eve of Civil War, the future of the Union appeared in fatal doubt. Political leaders in the Deep South: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida had all but washed their hands of the centrally powerful United States. Adding to the precarious atmosphere, a faction of Democrats in the North promoted a policy to permit slavery into the western territories under the principle of Popular Sovereignty, or direct vote. Others voices in the northern branch of the Democratic Party believed the Southern States should depart the Union in peace. And these pro-secession advocates became the most worrisome threat for Senate leader, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1860.
Douglas found himself in a hell of a spot. He fervently burned to lead his party to the White House and save his nation, dangerously poised on the verge of civil war. As the principal heir to Senate leadership, Douglas had spent over twenty years in Congress working to stave off Southern secession, taking over when Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” died. Clay had also spent most of his earlier career drawing up one concession after another in a noble attempt to preserve the Union. Eventually the effort wore him out, and Senator Douglas pick up the cause.
As far as Douglas was concerned, slavery wasn’t a moral issue, merely a bump in the road. The issue could easily be decided by the good folks migrating west. Douglas believed if settlers didn’t want slavery, they would decline to establish laws necessary for supporting the “peculiar institution.” But the Senator was wrong—dead wrong. Slavery had, by 1860 become an issue impossible to fix. And it was this miscalculation, underestimating the power of the slave issue, that the Illinois Senator imploded both his party, and his career.
The new Republican Party had organized six years earlier in Wisconsin, founded on one central principle—slavery would not extend into the western territories, period. And this new party spread quickly. Composed of splinter groups, this now fully unified alliance insisted that free labor was an integral component to a flourishing free market economy. The presence of slavery in sprouting regions of the West would devalue free labor, and undermine future commercial growth.
Now, don’t get me wrong, these Republicans did not sing Kumbaya or braid their hair. These men did not believe in equality between the races—they were not abolitionists. Economic principles drove their political platform, (Emancipation came later with the transformation of President Lincoln through the caldron of war).
For Stephen Douglas the approaching 1860 election meant vindication for his support of popular sovereignty, and reward for his faithful political service. And Douglas was no political hack. He fully understood the solvency of the Union lay in the delicate art of sectional balance, and his ascendancy to the White House as a Democrat would go a long way to placate the Southern hotheads. But this Illinois Senator failed, once again, to fully comprehend the temper of the nation, or of his own party. The era of seeking middle ground had passed—America’s course had been set toward industrial modernity with no place for an antiquated, barbaric labor system.
Charleston, South Carolina, was selected as the site of the 1860 Democratic convention. Chaos immediately broke loose on the convention floor. While Southern Democrats demanded strict, precise language guaranteeing the extension of slavery into the territories, Northern Democrats and those from California and Oregon pushed for Douglas’ popular sovereignty. This tense deadlock forced the latter faction to walk out and reconvene in Baltimore where party business could function.
Southern Democrats moved on without Douglas or his faction. In a separate, Richmond, Virginia convention, Southern Democrats proceeded to nominate Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge.
Back in Baltimore, Senator Douglas indeed gained the Democratic nomination, preserving his precious principle of local voters determining the western migration of slavery. Meanwhile, the Democrats in Richmond took a step further, adding the absolute protection of slavery to their platform. Middle ground had vanished.
Though a long shot, a third faction of the Democratic Party broke ranks with both Douglas supporters, and the Richmond faction. Calling themselves the “Constitutional Union Party,” this coalition nominated John Bell of Tennessee.
So what can we make of this 1860 fiasco today, in 2016? If I could attempt a bit of divination I would suggest that the political party that can present the most united front will prevail in the general election. If current Republican candidates continue to employ such wide-ranging, and scorching tones to their rhetoric, and stubbornly defend the innocence of their loose talk, the party may run head long into oblivion, as did the Democrats of 1860. If the roaring factions, currently represented by each GOP aspirant goes too far, the fabric of unity will shred, crippling the Republican’s ability to field serious candidates in the future.
Looking at the past as prelude much is at stake for the unity of the GOP. In 1860 party divisions nearly destroyed the Democrats, propelling the nation into a bloody civil war. And though Republicans at that time elected our greatest Chief Executive, Abraham Lincoln, the Democrats suffered for decades, marginalized as the party of rebellion. And even the best lessons left by the past are still forgotten in the heat of passion, by those who know better. (The Democrats shattered their party unity once again a hundred years later, splintered by the Vietnam War.) This is truly a cautionary tale for today’s turbulent Republican Party.
Zealots do not compromise, and leading GOP candidates are spouting some pretty divisive vitriol. Southern Democrats self righteously rejected their national party, certain it no longer represented them, and ultimately silenced the party of Jefferson and Jackson for decades. The lesson is clear for today’s Republicans. By tolerating demagoguery, extremism, and reckless fear-mongering in their field of contenders, the RNC may indeed face a similar demise.
Though it is true that no party can be all things to all citizens, malignant splinter groups should not run away with the party.
The American public demands measured and thoughtful candidates—and both parties are expected to field candidates of merit and substance.
We deserve leaders worth following.
As Senator Stephen Douglas refused to recognize that the political skies were falling around him, and his party, the modern Republican Party must not.
This week’s promotion of “River of January” turned out a glorious success. My central purpose in researching and writing this first installment was to honor what transpired in America before our time. I hope all of the Kindle readers who downloaded the memoir are stirred by this true account, and return for the sequel, “River of January: Figure Eight.”
An extraordinary event has come our way. River of January, then River of January:Figure Eight are to become feature films. We have signed an option agreement with Falls Park Entertainment of Greenville, South Carolina to bring Helen & Chum’s story to the silver screen. Pinch me, I must be dreaming.
Mont “Chum” Chumbley is a pilot. He’s a natural, and he lives to fly. Helen Thompson is a dancer. She’s a natural, and she lives to dance. They come from different worlds and have nothing in common. Yet they are very much alike and destined to be together.
In her 2014 award-winning biography, River of January, Gail Chumbley follows the lives of her husband’s parents from 1927 through 1936. Using their letters, shared stories, and interviews, along with her own storytelling skills, Chumbly has created an informative and entertaining book that reads more like a novel than a biography. It details the struggles of not only the individual characters, but of the world through the Great Depression and events leading to WWII.
River of January includes historical details of the entertainment business from the decline of vaudeville to the emergence of talkies (motion pictures with sound). As well, the book reveals how developments in aviation also moved quickly in the 1930s. Chumbly adeptly follows those drastic historical changes.
Having both come from humble beginnings, Helena and Chum each choose career paths eventually lead them to their first meeting.
At 18, Chum joins the Navy with the hopes of becoming a pilot. He works his way through the military bureaucracy, getting assignments everywhere, it seems, other than at flight school. His lack of education holds him back, but he’s determined to fly.
He has something to prove to his family, to himself. So, when an opportunity presents itself Chum accepts it.
“A nervous and sleep-deprived Mont Chumbley reported for flight elimination exercises.” Everyone expects him to wash out; after all, he has failed the entrance exams more than once. But Chum knows all he needs is a chance to prove himself.
Meanwhile, Helen has her own struggles. While confident and self-assured on stage, off stage she is a pawn of her controlling mother’s insecurities and personal dreams. The only way Helen seems able to escape—while keeping her mother at least somewhat satisfied—is to accept jobs that take her away from her New York home. She finds herself traveling with dance troops throughout Europe.
This need to escape home and family in order to discover and develop their true potential is one thing Helen and Chum have in common, though the way they deal with it is very different.
Eventually, the stock market crash throws the whole world into economic turmoil, which leads to political turmoil, and Helen and Chum are caught up in it all as the entertainment business and the technology of aviation transform.
Chum finds himself, restless and bored, with a job in West Palm Beach, Fla. He jumps at an opportunity to demonstrate Waco Aircraft Company’s new fighter plane for the Brazilian government down in Brazil.
Meanwhile, Helen is back in New York as 1934 slides into 1935, working in a three–person act under her mother’s watchful and domineering presence. Helen, too, is getting restless and ready for change. “She also knew her time had come to move on from their partnership. She hoped her mother would see it the same way.”
Helen flees New York on a ship to Brazil and lands a gig dancing in a club regularly frequented by Americans. “Three young men seated near the dance floor caught her eye, clearly American by their dress and relaxed posture.” One of those young men is Chum, and he catches her attention immediately.
“This new girl, this sparking, compelling blonde on the stage, radiated a magnetism that surprised him.” In a moment, as their eyes meet, the pilot and the dancer connect. And although they try to be together as much as possible, they each have careers and obligations that take them in different directions.
Eventually, Chum proposes, and Helen accepts. They plan to live in Rio de Janerio, but it isn’t that simple.
Between Helen’s mother, who disapproves of their union, and the war, the young couple’s letter transcripts reveal their struggle against seemingly unmovable objects to continue their love and establish a life together.
In 2016, Chumbley published River of January: Figure Eight, picking up where the award-winning River of January dramatically left off. In the sequel, she tells the story of their continued courtship, marriage, and struggle to keep their love intact, despite the challenges of WWII and the unrelenting interference of Helen’s mother. It is the realism of the story—the struggles and successes, the bad times and the good, as well as the author’s narrative—that keeps readers enthralled and turning pages. These two books are more than a family biography. In telling the story of these two intriguing and imperfect people, Chumbley has captured and preserved the history of an era.
Chumbley is a retired history teacher. In 2005, she received the Outstanding Teacher of American History from National Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington DC. A native of the Pacific Northwest, the author was born and raised in Spokane, Wash., and earned a history degree from Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. Chumbley and her husband currently live near Boise, Idaho. She received the 2016 Idaho Author’s Award for Memoirs and Biography for River of January.