Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  Johnny Clay and I just laughed and laughed. It was the best kind of laugh—the kind that I only shared with my family and with Johnny Clay especially. It was like being home, no matter where you were on earth.

  I looked out the window and we were passing another farm, another field. As far as I could tell this was the hundredth farm we’d seen since leaving downtown. But this time Johnny Clay told me to turn off onto the dusty dirt road that cut through the farm. I rolled up the window so the dust wouldn’t choke me. I said, “What on earth?”

  We drove down that dirt road till we came to a tiny little building—just a white square that looked like a cracker tin. Next to it was something that looked like a barn but wasn’t exactly a barn. And stretching away to the horizon was a flat field of grass, as wide as twenty trucks bumper to bumper.

  I stopped the yellow truck and Johnny Clay got out. He kind of stretched this way and that, raising his arms up over his head and then out in front of him. He looked back at me over his shoulder. “Well, come on.”

  I got out of the truck and slammed the door and said, “What on earth?”

  He started walking toward the little cracker-tin building. I followed after him, saying, “Johnny Clay? Johnny Clay!” I followed him into the building, which was just one room. It smelled like pipe smoke and musty old books. There was a desk on one wall stacked with papers and magazines, and a tiny table where two stooped-over men with white hair and wrinkled faces sat playing a card game and shouting at each other.

  One of them said, “That was the day I shot down the Fokker D. VII. And I did it after losing an engine!”

  The other man snorted. “You think that’s something? I shot down thirteen Fokker D. VIIs, four other German fighters, five observation balloons, and four reconnaissance planes. And I did it flying blind!”

  “That wasn’t you. That was Eddie Rickenbacker!”

  “Rickenbacker!” The old man spat on the floor. “Rickenbacker was a woman!”

  Johnny Clay said, “Either of you Duke Norris?”

  They looked up at us, and one of them shouted, “What?”

  Johnny Clay hollered, “Either of you Duke Norris?”

  The man said, “Out there!” He crooked his thumb at the barn.

  Johnny Clay said, “Thank you, sir,” and then he ducked out of the building and headed, long legs moving, for the barn. I thanked the men, but they didn’t hear me because they were back to fighting over Eddie Rickenbacker, and then I ran after my brother.

  The barn wasn’t really a barn because instead of a hayloft there was open space from floor to ceiling, and instead of doors there was just a big gap where a wall and doors should be. Inside was the littlest airplane you ever saw, painted bright yellow—not the yellow of my truck, which was the deep gold-yellow of mustard or goldenrod or birch leaves in the fall, but more like the sweet, new yellow of daffodils. The plane was oil splattered and rickety and looked like it was held together with rubber bands and hairpins.

  Johnny Clay stood there, grinning like a fool.

  I said, “Where are we, Johnny Clay?”

  Parachutes were stacked high in a corner, covered in dust, and engine parts were scattered here and there along the walls. There was a gas pump and farm equipment and part of an old car rusting in one corner, and a sign propped up on its side that said “John Deere Quality Farm Implements.”

  He said, “I thought we’d learn to fly.”

  I stood there looking at him like he’d just sprouted wings and danced a jig. I said, “What in Sam Hill are you talking about?” I thought about Carole Lombard. My heart started to thump hard and fast in my chest.

  “Ever since I got here, I been looking and looking for a good teacher, but they either cost too much or they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. A man out at the airport told me about this guy, said he’s supposed to be the very best in Nashville, though he don’t fly much anymore.”

  I said, “Johnny Clay Hart. I told you I never wanted to set foot in a plane ever in my life.” Then I suddenly thought of the old men yelling at each other over their cards. I said, “Who’s going to teach us?”

  Just then a man appeared, walking toward us, carrying two bags of seed, which he dropped against one wall. He wiped his hands and said, “You the Harts?”

  “Yes, sir.” Johnny Clay shook his hand. “Johnny Clay, and this is my sister Velva Jean.”

  The man said, “Duke Norris.” He was just my height and wiry. His skin was burned brown from the sun and he had hair that wasn’t blond or red but was somewhere in between. He had a scar on his nose that was shaped like a star. I thought he was probably my daddy’s age and that, nice as he seemed, he didn’t look like the very best pilot in Nashville.

  He said, “Pleasure.” He looked at me. “This for both of you or just you?” He said this to Johnny Clay.

  I said, “Both of us.” I felt a thrill saying it. I thought: What are you doing, Velva Jean? What are you saying? You’re not actually going to do this.

  The man nodded like this was no big deal, like he taught women to fly all the time. He said, “Who wants to go first?”

  I said, “He can,” because my palms had gone clammy and the back of my neck was hot and sticky like when I had a fever.

  Johnny Clay crooked his eyebrow at me, which meant “are you sure?”

  I said, “Go on. I want to watch you.” I hoped he couldn’t tell how jittery I was.

  I looked on as Duke showed my brother how to climb into the plane, into the passenger’s seat, which was just behind the pilot’s seat. Johnny Clay hopped right in like he’d been getting in and out of planes all his life. Then Duke swung himself up, and he was graceful, like a dancer. They put on their seat belts and goggles and helmets, and Johnny Clay gave me a thumbs-up as Duke started the engine and steered the plane out toward the flat field of grass.

  At the sound of the engine, the old men tottered out of the cracker box, cards in hand, and shaded their eyes from the sun. One of them hollered, “Flight of the angels, Duke!”

  I held my breath as the plane went up, afraid it would fall to pieces in front of my eyes, but it rattled and shook as it climbed, and suddenly it evened out and it was smooth as could be, just like a bird. I thought it was maybe the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

  From the sky, Johnny Clay waved down at me, and I could tell he was laughing. Suddenly I wanted them to come down right away so I could take my turn. Duke did twirls and spins and loops and I swore I could hear Johnny Clay yelling. They spun by me, and my brother waved again and he had that fool’s grin on his face, and I thought right then and there that I didn’t want to sit where he was sitting. I wanted to sit where Duke was.

  When they finally came down, Johnny Clay waited till he got the okay and then he jumped out and ran for me. He said, “Velva Jean, you won’t believe it. I almost hate I’m going to have to jump out of them, because they’re too damn fun to ride in.” He went on and on, breathing hard and talking fast.

  Duke walked up, slow and steady. He looked at me and said, “Ready?” I suddenly felt weak at the knees. I wanted to run back to my truck. I said, “Why don’t I wait till next week?”

  Duke looked at me, calm and patient as could be, but Johnny Clay said, “You have lost your mind, Velva Jean.” And he started pushing me toward the plane like a wheelbarrow.

  I could hear the old men laughing. I said, “Johnny Clay, stop that this minute.”

  Johnny Clay said, “You’re as chicken as Sweet Fern. You’re worse than the old True sisters.”

  Duke said, “She don’t have to go up if she don’t want to.”

  Something about the way he said it made me smack Johnny Clay’s arm and march over to the plane. My heart was beating hard in my chest, so hard I was sure those old men could hear it, deaf as they were. But I swung myself up into the passenger’s seat and waited. I sat there thinking that I’d got myself into this plane just like someone who’d been doing it all her life, and I felt proud. I tho
ught: To hell with you, Johnny Clay. To hell with you, old men. To hell with you, Harley Bright. I’m doing this thing right now. I’m going to fly. Just watch me.

  Duke came up the side and leaned in and snapped my safety belt tight around me. Then he handed me my goggles and helmet. He stared me square in the face and said, “You sure?” His tone was kind.

  I felt the anger slip away. I said, “Yes, sir.” But I knew I didn’t sound sure.

  He said, “I’ll tell you something about flying, young lady. It’s a little like driving, only up in the sky instead of on the ground.” He looked over his shoulder at my yellow truck. “Your brother told me you taught yourself to drive.”

  I said, “Yes, sir.”

  “Well this is going to be easier because I’m going to teach you to fly. You ain’t going to have to learn all by yourself. But I got a feeling if you know how to drive you already know a bit about flying. That feeling you got when you first put your foot on the clutch and your hands on the wheel? That feeling that made you decide you could do that? That you wanted to do that? That’s all you need to fly.”

  I remembered what the Wood Carver told me once about how the figures he made were already in the wood, just waiting for him to find them and carve them out.

  I said, “Like I’ve known how all along and it’s just waiting for me?” This was what singing was like for me, and also driving.

  “Yes.” He gave my belt another tug, just to make sure it was latched. I thought about how his face seemed to look sad no matter what he was saying. When I thought about people, I always pictured them the way they looked when they didn’t know anyone was watching them. Johnny Clay had a grin that meant wickedness. Sweet Fern frowned in a way that meant she didn’t approve of things. Granny’s eyes always danced like she was thinking up mischief. Daddy Hoyt was peaceful. Ruby Poole sparkled like a firecracker. Linc looked serious as an undertaker. Beachard’s eyes were far away as the moon. Mama had been sunshine. Our daddy’s face was always changing, just like Harley Bright’s. But Duke wore a sad face, even when he smiled.

  “You’ll have to help me get the plane started,” he said. “While I swing the propeller, I want you to stamp hard on the brakes and pull the stick back into your lap so I don’t get run over.”

  I said, “Where are the brakes?”

  “Those little knobs under the rudder pedals.”

  His feet hit the ground and he disappeared around the front of the plane. I waited a minute, nervous that I’d stamp on the brakes too early or too late. I strained to see what Duke was doing but lost sight of him. Then Johnny Clay was waving at me, so I stamped down as hard as I could and pulled the stick back into my lap. I thought that the very last thing I wanted to do was kill my flying teacher before I’d even gone up in the air.

  I could feel the rumble in my whole body, from my feet to my head. I wanted to scream and jump out, but it was too thrilling and I wanted to keep feeling it. I thought, Oh dear Jesus, keep me safe. Duke reappeared then and shouted, “Good job, Velva Jean!” Then he lowered himself into the pilot’s seat.

  I held my breath as we rattled down the grass runway, the plane shaking and quaking, and just when we got to the end, just when I thought we would drive straight into the high green grass, the nose of the plane rose up, and Duke pulled up sharp, and I felt the tail leave the ground. My ears popped and my head went light and spinny, and as the plane climbed higher and higher into the blue of the sky I dug my nails into the seat and shouted prayers to Jesus that I would make it back to earth.

  At first I stared hard at the back of Duke’s head, at the little goldred hairs on his neck, at the flecks of gray here and there, at the freckles coming out of his shirt collar. After a while I forgot to hold on to the seat, and I glanced, quick as I could, out at the sky. I couldn’t believe it. We were higher than any building. We were as high as the sun.

  Duke flew the plane steady, no dips or spins this time. I breathed a little easier. Then I looked out over the earth and at the water and the mountains far in the distance, at the blue of the sky and the rays of the sun that cut the sky into shining, glowing stripes, and I felt the wind in my face and the stinging in my eyes. I thought of Carole Lombard again and then I pushed the thought away. Up here there was no looming mountainside to crash into. There wasn’t any sadness or loss or even death. There was no guilt over Harley, no lost daddy, no dead mama, no faraway family, no worries, no fear. There was only sky and sun and wind and the earth spread out beneath me

  I touched the controls once or twice, trying to get a feel for them, pretending I knew what to do and what they meant and how to fly this plane. I let my hands rest on the different switches and levers, hoping that something would come over me and suddenly I would start flying, like I’d known how to all along.

  In the truck all the way back to the Lovelorn, I could still feel the light of the sky on my face, on my arms, in my chest. Johnny Clay talked and talked about what it felt like going up and how he couldn’t wait to do it again and to one day jump out of planes bigger than that one. I listened to him just like I would if he was far away and I couldn’t make out every word. I didn’t say anything, just let him talk on and on, but I couldn’t sit still. I kept hearing Ellen Tillman’s voice: “Women pilots are a weapon waiting to be used.”

  In my mind I knew exactly how to use those controls. I was flying dangerous missions in the dark of night and rescuing soldiers that were dying or wounded or taken prisoner by the Germans.


  Duke Norris chain-smoked Camels, his fingers stained brown from the tobacco, and he always seemed to be looking through us at something else, as if expecting to see someone come walking over the horizon. He never said much, but there was a kindness in his eyes underneath the shadow of dark circles and the sadness, and I decided he wasn’t bad looking, in a faded, tired sort of way.

  He could fly loops, barrel rolls, and spins in his yellow Aeronca Defender biplane. At our second lesson, one of the old men said that Duke’s wife had died after stepping into the propeller on their honeymoon. He said Duke had become a full-time farmer then and that he shut the plane away in his barn. Sometime later—no one knew why—Duke started barnstorming, stunt flying, and air racing. He seemed to be daring the plane, punishing it, pushing himself to fly higher and faster and wilder. But he never had an accident. I wondered if he’d wanted to, if maybe he wanted to die just like his wife. The old man said Duke wanted to teach but no one would take lessons with him because they said he was cursed. I didn’t know if he was cursed or not, but I thought he was romantic, and Johnny Clay thought it had just been some damn bad luck.

  The Aeronca used gasoline from a car, and there were things about it that Johnny Clay said weren’t allowed on new airplanes anymore—external wire braces, fabric construction, single-ignition engine, and no airspeed indicator. It had a 65-horsepower Continental engine, and the rear seat sat up higher than the front seat so you could see over the head of the pilot. You could also fly the plane from either position, front or back. Duke said it was almost impossible to make a rough landing in the Aeronca because it was a glider. Even if the ride itself was bumpy, coming down was smooth as could be.

  The second time I went up, I took my turn before Johnny Clay. I sat behind Duke with my feet on the rudders, one hand on the throttle, and my other hand on the stick. Duke told me to follow his every move, and I did my best. The Aeronca bounced along the grass runway, propeller spinning, until suddenly it roared up into the air, banked to the left, and then swept into the deep blue of a clear August sky.

  Just like before, the world opened up and I could see the green of Nashville spread out below like a blanket. We practiced level flight, climbing turns, and gliding, which all seemed pretty easy except that I couldn’t keep my mind and eyes away from the earth. It was a different world up there—a world of blues and whites, gold streaks of sun bouncing off the propeller, color everywhere. I thought that the world looked different now that I’d been up the
re. I thought that maybe the world would always look different now, even when I was back on the ground.

  At night I lay in my bed and pretended it was an airplane and that there was nothing below me but sky and earth and the green, flat grass of the runway. I closed my eyes and thought hard on it. I thought so hard that I could almost feel the wind on my face, the rumble and rattle of the engine, the pressure of the altitude closing in on my head, the shake of the throttle in my hand, and the cold metal of the wheel. I thought so hard that I could see the old men and Duke and Johnny Clay watching me from way down below, so far below that I couldn’t make out the details of their faces. From the clouds, I waved at them, knowing I was only a speck to them—a yellow, zooming blur—just like they were only specks to me. And then I started to sing.

  From that time on I practiced once a week, depending on the weather. Summer in Nashville was hot and rainy, which meant that more than once we had to sit inside with the old men, waiting for the rain to let up and the sky to clear. Sometimes we played cards and sometimes we just sat and listened to them talk about the Great War. Lessons were three dollars an hour, and this took a good bit of my earnings from the café, but even with that Johnny Clay and me spent every Sunday at the airfield. Johnny Clay loved talking to the old men. He asked them a million questions about their time in the war, and they told us tale after tale about their adventures. He was learning to fly himself, but Duke wouldn’t let him jump from the Aeronca no matter how much he pestered.

  Because I was working most days, Johnny Clay went out to Duke’s some mornings to take lessons on his own. This meant that he earned his solo time before I did—you had to have eight hours up in the air with Duke before you could fly by yourself. I was mad and jealous, but the one good thing about it was that Johnny Clay and I could now go up in the Aeronca together, him flying and me sitting in the seat behind.

  At first he flew just like Duke had taught him—no spins or dives or loops. Just gliding nice and peaceful over Duke’s farm, and then back around and down to the landing strip, steady as you please. Duke stood on the ground, hands shoved in his pockets or on his hips, and watched us with that gaze of his that didn’t flinch or blink, no matter what.

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