American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  No one was waiting to meet us because they didn’t know we were coming. A few old men sat outside Deal’s General Store drinking Coca-Colas and chewing tobacco, but I didn’t recognize their faces. They narrowed their eyes in our direction, like we were strangers and not to be trusted.

  We walked past them, past Deal’s, up the hill toward Sleepy Gap, which sat high up in a holler on the side of Fair Mountain. As we walked up the hill, Johnny Clay and I didn’t speak a word. His leg was giving him trouble, but the closer we got to Sleepy Gap, the faster he started walking. I walked faster too, until we were practically running. Then we were racing, just like we used to when I was ten and he was twelve and we were trying to get home for supper.

  We came up over a rise in the hill and I could see the big red barn, the chicken house, the smokehouse, the root cellar, and Daddy Hoyt’s fiddle studio, where he made his violins. The first of the houses was a narrow weatherboarded two-story. It had a tin roof and a porch on the front. I could picture the newspapers, yellowed and curling, that lined the walls inside and filled in the cracks. They were the ones I’d learned to read from.

  Johnny Clay threw our bags down in the grass and we were past Mama’s house and around to the back, where another house sat. This one was made up of two log cabins connected by a dogtrot, or breezeway, and a shared red roof. Five blue stars hung in the front window—for my brothers Linc and Beachard; Johnny Clay; Sweet Fern’s husband, Coyle Deal; and me.

  The front door stood open and just as Johnny Clay was getting ready to holler, an old woman walked out onto the porch, shading her eyes with one hand. Granny. She was thin and tough as a strip of tanned leather. Her white hair was pulled back in a bun. You could see the Cherokee in her—in the cheekbones, in the eyes—as she took her hand away. She blinked against the sun and let out a shout. Then her arms were around us, and she was small but strong and she was crying. I breathed her in—the smell of lavender and lye soap that she made every year.

  A man came out of the house. Daddy Hoyt. He was tall and sturdy, even with the rheumatism that made his back ache and caused him to stoop. He wore his herb-gathering pants, overalls with what seemed like a hundred pockets, which meant he was planning to spend the day in the woods, collecting the healing plants he needed. Granny was talking and crying and calling out to Aunt Zona, to Ruby Poole, to everyone on the mountain to come see, come now, the children are home.

  They were all around us, and suddenly a man was hugging me. At first I didn’t recognize him and almost pushed him away. His black hair was cropped close and there was a long scar at the hairline. Linc. My oldest brother. His wife, Ruby Poole, was crying and Aunt Zona’s girls were crying, and I heard myself say, “Where’s Aunt Bird?” at the same time Johnny Clay said, “Where’s Hunter Firth?” and started to whistle for that old brown dog.

  Someone said they’d died last winter, both of them old, both of them weary from living such full, long lives. Then a voice rose up behind us, coming up over the hill, traveling toward us like a bullet.

  “Is it true? Are they back? They said at Deal’s—the train just came—and two people, a boy and a girl . . . Where are they?”

  A woman appeared. Her brown hair had gone almost gray and was pinned up off her neck. Her face was round and plain except for a smudge of pink lipstick. An old blue apron was tied around her waist and she was followed by one, two, three, four children of various ages. Sweet Fern. She must be thirty-two now, almost thirty-three. She’d been twenty when Mama died, when she was left to raise Johnny Clay and me.

  My granddaddy was looking at me. He had seen Johnny Clay’s hand and leg, had noticed the missing finger and the limp. Nothing ever got past him. Daddy Hoyt was a healer and a medicine man, trained by the Cherokees, the wisest person I knew. He was looking us both over, making sure.

  That night, I sat at Granny’s table and held hands with Ruby Poole to the left of me and Linc to my right as Daddy Hoyt said grace. “Well, sir, here we are. We’ve had quite a time of it lately, but it seems the worst is over. I want to thank you for getting these young people home to us. It’s not Thanksgiving, but we’re giving thanks just the same.”

  Linc and Coyle had both come home early, Coyle in January and Linc in May, discharged because of injuries. Coyle, shot through the arm, which now hung at his side, still working, still movable, but crooked. Linc, sent home with a head injury, minor enough to survive, major enough to end his war career. He looked up now and caught my eye. He squeezed my palm, and I glanced around the table, bowed head by bowed head, taking everyone in. I had my own scars but I wasn’t wearing them on the outside.

  Daddy Hoyt said, “If you would continue to look after Beachard who’s still fighting in the Pacific, we certainly would appreciate it. And look after the rest of the brave men and women who aren’t lucky enough to be home yet with the folks that love them.”

  Our hands broke apart and the food was passed—the very same food I used to dream about at Fresnes prison in Paris, where we were given coffee made of sawdust and bread rotten with maggots.

  The children were practically grown. The youngest, Russell, was nearly eight. He sat next to his mama. Ruby Poole—dark hair curled over her shoulder, lips painted red, pretty as any Hollywood starlet in the movie magazines she loved to read—rested one hand on his head, the other on her stomach. She was pregnant, barely a month along.

  Johnny Clay said to Linc, “You sure didn’t waste a minute once you got home.”

  Sweet Fern said, “Johnny Clay.”

  For a long while I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t talk, which was fine because Johnny Clay was doing enough talking for everyone. At some point, he pulled out the gold bookmark that he swore had belonged to Hitler and passed it around. He said, “Careful now. Don’t you drop it or lay a scratch on it.” Johnny Clay took the bookmark from Dan Presley, Sweet Fern’s oldest, and held it up to the light so that we could all see the inscription there. The words were in German but the initials were clear: A.H. herzliche Grüße von E.B. Then he carried the bookmark over to Granny, as if he were bringing her something holy. He said, “I brought this back for you. I thought you could put it on your mantel along with these.” He fished two bullets out of his pocket. They were clean, nearly as bright gold as the bookmark, but there was a time they’d been covered with my brother’s blood.

  Just as everyone finished eating, I picked up the fork with my left hand, which was the way I’d learned to do in France so that no one would suspect I was American. Across the table, Sweet Fern and Coyle watched my hand and then looked at each other. No one had asked me yet what had happened to me, what I’d been through, and I was grateful.

  The story of my brave escape made it from the New York Post all the way to the Hamlet’s Mill Gazette, and when the newsreel clip played at the theater in Waynesville, everyone on the mountain found a way to go and see it. I signed autographs for folks I’d known all my life who brought me casseroles or homemade pies or samplers they had stitched. The papers called me Miss Star-Spangled Banner, Miss Stars and Stripes. Margaret Truman, daughter of the President, wrote to me from Washington, D.C., to tell me I was “an inspiration,” not only to her but to America. General Henry Arnold sent me a telegram. Jacqueline Cochran, head of the WASP, wrote to congratulate me on my bravery and my “fine example to women everywhere.”

  The newsreel called me Miss Red, White, and Blue: She’s the little girl who rescued an important operative! Government secrets were in her hands! This All-American sweetheart was one of the vital keys to the Allied effort in this war! She saved herself from the hands of the Germans and stole an enemy plane to rescue her dying brother and return him to Allied land. This little girl deserves more than just her brother’s gratitude— she deserves the gratitude of a grateful nation.

  Johnny Clay was getting mail too—mostly from girls who saw him in the newsreel and sent him pictures of themselves. They wanted
to take care of him and help him get better. My brother threw these letters in the trash, all except one—a package from Helen Stillbert, my friend from the WASP, which contained a note for me and some books for him, which was funny because I’d never known Johnny Clay to be one for reading.

  He began taking off in the mornings with his gold pan or one of Daddy’s old guns. He’d come back hours later and I would hear him whistling up the hill. Sometimes I smelled liquor on him, which made me think of Daddy, and other times he smelled like the woods and the earth, as if he was a part of them. One night, he got into a fight outside the Hamlet’s Mill Theatre, and the next morning Sheriff Story walked him up the mountain so he could have a word with Daddy Hoyt. He said if that boy wasn’t careful, he’d get himself locked up for good, or worse.

  We’d been home a little over a month when, on August 15, Dan Presley came hollering up the hill followed by the rest of Sweet Fern’s children and Sweet Fern herself. Her face was wet, her eyes red. Before Dan Presley could holler again, she said, “Japan surrendered, Velva Jean. The war is over.”

  That night, everyone came down from the mountains—Blood and Bone and Witch and Fair and Devil’s Courthouse. We gathered in Alluvial, slapping each other on the back and shaking hands and congratulating one another on winning the war, as if each of us had single-handedly been responsible. There was food and music and homemade wine, and the children drew their names in the air with sparklers.

  “What are you going to do now that the war is over, Velva Jean?” someone called out.

  “I don’t know,” I said. A voice inside me was telling me to be on my way, stop wasting time, go, go, go.

  The world after a war is a good world, I told myself. A happy world. A secure world. In this world, I might do anything.

  One month later, just past noon on Friday, September 28, a stranger came walking up our hill. He found me on Granny’s front porch, where I was helping Daddy Hoyt separate the plants we’d collected that morning.

  The man said, “I’m looking for Velva Jean Hart.” He stood in the yard fanning himself with his hat, his face shining and red, either from the heat or from climbing the hill. He had a thin blond mustache that gave him a slick look, and blond hair with plenty of pomade, which was starting to melt in the afternoon sun.

  I came down the steps to meet him. “I’m Velva Jean Hart.”

  “Lowell Grann.” He held out his hand and I shook it. “I’m with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in New York. We’ve seen your newsreel with the footage of you and your brother. You’re quite the hero.”

  “Thank you.” By this time, Granny and Ruby Poole had appeared.

  The man said, “We’ve been trying to get ahold of you. We’ve sent telegrams, tried to phone you. We don’t usually do this kind of thing in person, but you aren’t easy to reach.” He looked around at the woods as if now he could see why. “Lucille Ryman is head of talent at MGM. She’d like to offer you a test.”

  “What kind of test?”

  “A motion picture test.”

  “To do what?”

  “To be an actress.”

  Ruby Poole said, “The movies? Oh, Velva Jean!”

  “She can sing,” Granny said. “Prettiest voice you ever heard. Better than any singer you got out there in Hollywood.”

  The man wiped his forehead. “I’m sure that’s true.” He said it as if he didn’t believe it for a minute, as if this was something people said to him all the time. “Ms. Ryman wants you in Los Angeles. I’m to arrange for your ticket. On the next train, if possible. You’re quite the national hero, Miss Hart, and we want to keep you in the public eye while you’re already in it. I won’t be able to accompany you, but someone will be there to meet you in California.”

  I finally found my voice. “I have a friend at MGM. Barbara Fanning. We trained at Avenger Field together. We were WASP together. She was at MGM when the war started, and after we graduated she went back.” Until the studio renamed her, she’d been Eloise Mudge, and the last time I’d seen her was spring of 1944 at the funeral of our friend Sally Hallatassee, a pilot like us.

  “Barbara Fanning’s one of our most popular stars.”

  Ruby Poole said, “She’s playing Mallory in Home of the Brave, Velva Jean. The movie based on the book. Nigel Gray is Daniel, and I read that Ophelia Lloyd came out of retirement to play Martha Washington. It’s going to be the biggest picture ever made.”

  “What would I do at MGM, Mr. Grann? You wouldn’t put me in movies right away.”

  “You would train, take classes, prepare.”

  “Music classes?” Ruby Poole had once told me that the stars were given music lessons. Even Joan Crawford and Bette Davis had to study when they first began.

  “We have the finest music teachers in the world.” He could tell he had my interest. “We teach types of music you’ve never heard of. Every instrument. Every vocal technique. Song styling, phrasing, interpretation of lyrics. Do you think Judy Garland could sing when she came to us? Yes, of course, but not like she can now.”

  Before I could ask anything else, Johnny Clay said from the porch, “You should go, Velva Jean.”

  I turned to look at him. I hadn’t even known he was there. “You could come with me.”

  He glanced at the man, at Daddy Hoyt and the rest of our family. “Velva Jean, I need to find my own way, ride my own coattails for a while.” The shadows and the sharp angles of his face and collarbone had started to fill in thanks to the sunshine, the fresh air, and Granny’s home cooking. “‘If now is only two days, then two days is your life.’”

  I glanced at the book wedged in his back pocket. I was going to write to Helen and tell her to stop sending packages to my brother. I said, “What’s that supposed to mean?” Even as I asked it, I thought: You know what he’s talking about. You feel that way too.

  “It means if you only got two days, you need to treat those two days like a lifetime. You need to find your place and figure out what it is you’re supposed to do there, and I need to find mine.”

  Lowell Grann cleared his throat and replaced his hat. “Miss Hart. I will be on the four o’clock train. If you’re interested in our offer, you can find me down at the general store. If not, I wish you luck. But I want you to realize that this is an opportunity that doesn’t come around often. There are thousands of young women and men across this country who would give everything they have for an opportunity like this. We may see a thousand people a month, all wanting a chance. Of those, we might test five and sign only one. Wouldn’t you like to be that one?”

  He touched the brim of his hat and started down the hill.

  Hollywood. All my life, I’d only dreamed of one place—Nashville—but Judge Hay, of the Grand Ole Opry, and Darlon C. Reynolds, record producer, weren’t the ones who had traveled all this way to ask me to come with them. In Hollywood, I could train with the finest music teachers in the world and get all the experience I ever needed so that I could go back to Tennessee and show them I was ready. We teach types of music you’ve never heard of.

  Everyone stared at me as Lowell Grann disappeared out of sight. I thought, I want to be that one. And then I started to run.


  On October 2, four days after I’d left North Carolina, the Santa Fe Super Chief pulled into Los Angeles, California. I walked through the depot, carrying Mama’s old suitcase and my hatbox, which, after all these years, still held my treasures. My Mexican guitar was strapped to my back.

  I felt a fluttering in my heart as I left the station, stepping out into sunshine. It was a warm, cloudless morning. The palm trees swayed overhead. The air smelled like roses and wildflowers. The streets shone white. Layers of hills rose in the distance. Heavy red roses and other bright flowers bloomed everywhere. Fat oranges and lemons hung from trees. I didn’t know any place could be filled with so much color anymore. California. It was a different world, a
different planet. A new world, a new life.

  I set my bag down and waited on the curb. Cars rolled past, pausing long enough to pick people up or drop them off. Here I am, I thought. Yessir, here I am.

  After twenty minutes, I fished in my purse for the number Lowell Grann had given me. Someone will be there to meet you, he’d said, but here I was, alone. I took one last look around and then picked up my bag and headed back into the station. I found the Traveler’s Aid desk and asked where I could find a telephone.

  The man at the counter said, “If it’s a local call, you can use this one.”

  At that very moment, I heard my name. “Hartsie!” For a minute, I thought I’d imagined it, but then I heard it again: “Velva Jean!”

  A woman flounced toward me—dark glasses, hair tucked under a scarf, mink coat with the collar turned up. I didn’t recognize her at first, even after she hugged me, her perfume turning the air sweeter. She held me out at arm’s length, her lips and nails a feverish red, and said, “Don’t look so terrified, Hartsie; it’s me.”


  “That old nickname. No one’s called me that since I left the WASP.” She took the suitcase from me, linked her arm with mine, and said, “Where are your bags?” Her voice sounded throatier, huskier than I remembered.

  “These are my bags.”

  From behind her glasses she raised one eyebrow, then she hugged my arm tight against her and we walked out into the sunshine. She steered me toward a long red car, bright as a ripe apple, one wheel sitting on the curb, the front bumper jutting out over the sidewalk so that people had to steer around it.

  She tossed everything into the back except for a thick stack of bound rainbow-colored paper and the fattest book I’d ever seen. “Hold these for me.”

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