Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  But about the third time up with just the two of us, Johnny Clay decided to let loose. You could tell he just couldn’t hold himself in anymore. The first thing he did was fly off the regular path and take us over the main road leading to Duke’s and then beyond that to the farms that spread out wide around it. He swooped down low over the ground like a bird hunting for prey, and just when I thought he was going to crash us headfirst into the earth he pulled up sharp and we were back in the sky.

  I let go of the stick and the throttle long enough to pinch his neck hard. I hoped it left a bruise. Just for that, he took the plane into a loop—first one, then another, then another, then another, until I thought I was going to be sick on my stomach. I started yelling at him: “Johnny Clay Hart! Dammit, Johnny Clay!”

  He just laughed. And then he took the plane into a dive, and I leaned up to his ear and I yelled, “So help me Jesus, you better stop it right now.”

  He shouted, “I can’t!”

  “What do you mean, you can’t?” I caught sight of his face, the part I could see from the side, and he looked scared. This terrified me because Johnny Clay was never scared in his life. I shouted, “Bring us up!”

  He said, “I can’t!”

  Then I saw the fuel gauge. I pinched him again. “We’re out of gas!” We were losing altitude fast. The little plane seemed to be picking up speed as it headed down, down, down.

  He was pulling on the throttle, pulling on the wheel. He said, “What do I do? Shit, Velva Jean. Shit, shit, shit!”

  I held on tight to the sides of the seat and leaned into the glass so that I could see the ground. Farms everywhere. Corn and high grass and barns and silos. I’d lost sight of Duke and the old men and the barn where he kept the airplane and the little cracker-tin building. And then, just ahead and to the right, I saw a pasture full of cows grazing. I shouted, “There! Take it down there! Can you land it?”

  He peered to the right, and I knew he’d seen the pasture. He said, “Goddamn cows.”

  “Can you land it?!”

  “Dammit, Velva Jean!” And then he swore a blue streak—words I’d never heard before, not even from my daddy when he’d had too much to drink. The nose of the plane was pointed straight down toward the ground, and I could tell Johnny Clay was freezing up, not sure what to do. Without thinking, I gripped hold of my controls and pumped the rudders and slammed the throttle and did my best to level her off. I felt like my arms were going to rip out of my sockets, but I held on hard as I could, leaning back into the seat with all my strength. I gritted my teeth so hard that I saw stars and I could taste blood where I’d bitten the inside of my cheek. Suddenly the nose of the plane started to inch upward, just like it was going through swamp water, and then it inched up a little more, a little more. We were still free-falling, but she was getting more level.

  I steered us toward the pasture. We were coming down hard and fast, and I wondered if this was what it felt like to jump from a plane. I heard my brother’s words: “Did you know that when a human body falls out of an airplane it takes eight and a half seconds to hit the ground?”

  Eight and a half seconds . . . eight and a half seconds . . .

  I shouted, “Hold on!” And I thought, What a stupid thing to say. Of course he was holding on. We were both holding on for life. As I struggled to land that little plane, I was thinking about everything that had happened to me so far—from Mama dying to Daddy leaving to the panther cat to Harley Bright to the Wood Carver to Butch Dawkins to learning to drive to recording my songs to leaving home and coming to Nashville. My whole life was going by like a newsreel only faster and faster, gathering speed, until the images were blurred and fuzzy.

  The ground came toward us hard and fast, and I started praying. Dear Jesus, please don’t let us die. I don’t want to die. Not like this. Not smashed against a pasture full of cows. I’ve got too much to do in this world. Please help me land this plane safe and, so help me, I will earn my leaving home.

  We bumped and bounced through the air, and I held on for dear life and kept up my prayers. And then suddenly—we were floating. For a second, I wondered if I was dead, and then I saw that we were just over the pasture and the plane was gliding fast, skimming the top of green, but we were smooth and steady. The cows scattered in a hundred directions, and then I felt the landing gear touch the ground once, twice, three times, and we were coasting fast through the pasture, wheels on the earth.

  I thought about crying and then I slapped the back of Johnny Clay’s head instead. I shouted, “Don’t you ever do that again!”

  Then I climbed out of the plane and nearly fell on my face because I was so mad and grateful to be alive and my legs didn’t work. Johnny Clay jumped down, and I could tell he was a little wobbly, but he was grinning at me the same way he did after the panther got my leg—with admiration. He said, “Velva Jean, you just flew that plane.”

  I said, “Don’t you even talk to me.”

  I kept the cows off the Aeronca while Johnny Clay hitched to the nearest farmhouse to beg for gasoline. “Shoo, cow, shoo.” Every time I waved one away, another would come wandering up. They seemed to like the yellow of the plane. They stood there chewing grass and staring at me with their sad brown eyes and then they’d try to climb up on the wings. It was something to see, but we couldn’t have a cow on the plane, so I ran round and round, hollering at them to stay back.

  After about an hour, Johnny Clay came sauntering back, gas can in hand, whistling a tune. That was the thing about my brother. You couldn’t rush him. You couldn’t make him do anything he didn’t want to do, even after we’d almost died.

  As he poured the gasoline into the tank, he said, “We had ourselves an adventure, Velva Jean.”

  I didn’t say anything because I still wasn’t speaking to him.

  He said, “Yes, sir. Feels good, don’t it? After all this time? Good for the soul. Like running away from home and hopping the train and being chased by the panther cat. We was nearly killed but we weren’t.” He finished emptying the gas can and then he leaned back against the plane and ran one hand over his hair. He said, “Yes, sir.” He closed his eyes and took in the sun.

  I looked at him hard then and wanted to say something about how the last thing that was good for my soul was nearly dying in a field of cows, but he looked so gold and happy and peaceful, and suddenly I had a flash of him in uniform, jumping out of an airplane bigger than this one, carrying a gun, being shot at in some strange place by men that didn’t even speak English. And I couldn’t help it—I felt my heart go soft at the center. And then I thought: I flew an airplane. I landed an airplane. I saved our lives.

  I said, “I’m glad you’re here, Johnny Clay.”

  He opened one eye and said, “Don’t you get sentimental on me.” Then he went loping off toward the farmhouse, swinging the empty gas can. “Be right back,” he hollered.

  It was August 23—one year to the day since I arrived in Nashville—and getting close to time for him to go. We didn’t talk about it, but I knew he didn’t have much longer before he had to report for training. Every time I went up in the Aeronca I pretended he was in my plane, getting ready to jump out of it, and that I was making it my duty to know that plane as good as I could so that nothing at all could ever go wrong.

  One of the cows shuffled up to me and stood, not blinking, just chewing and watching my face. I said, “Shoo, cow.” We stood there looking at each other and finally I said, “I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to him.” The cow just chewed and stared. As I stood there staring back, a great heaviness gathered around me till I wondered if that little plane would be able to even get off the ground to carry us back to Duke’s.


  On Saturday August 29, Gossie and Marvina and Harold Lee and Johnny Clay and me went to Bootsy’s to hear Travelin’ Jones’s band, only now that he was gone to war one of the other men was leading it. I sat there feeling blue over Johnny Clay leaving soon and also blue over Charlie
Jones being off to war. I touched my lips, remembering when he kissed me.

  Tommie Lou had left for the Red Cross on Wednesday, but Marvina wasn’t going till the next week. She was leaning in close to Johnny Clay, swinging her crossed leg in his direction, every now and then bumping him with her foot. Harold Lee had a stack of napkins and he was writing down lyrics and passing them to me. Gossie was looking around at the Wall of Fame and pointing out all the people up there that we didn’t recognize. She said, “Each one has a story, and just think of all those stories we’ll never know.”

  Marvina perked up at this because she loved stories. She said, “Let’s make up a story for everyone.”

  And she and Gossie started doing that very thing. “Unwed mother. From Topeka. Left her baby to come out here and chase her dream. Stayed two years, but went back home after getting her heart broke and only recording one song. Now works in a bank.” Or: “Oldest of twelve. Never had anything for himself. Was barefoot when he first got here, but someone heard him singing on Church Street, trying to earn money enough for shoes, and that someone recorded his first record.”

  The whole time the band played and they talked and Marvina swung her foot and Harold Lee wrote on napkins, Johnny Clay sat looking up at the pictures. Suddenly he grabbed my hand and pulled me up and said, “Come on, Velva Jean.” The girls and Stump were staring.

  I said, “Where are we going?”

  He said, “You’ll see.”

  And with a wink at Bootsy herself, he dragged me outside the lounge and into the street and next door to where the photo booth was, in an old musty-smelling store that sold cigars and headache powder.

  He said, “We’re going to take a picture before I go.”

  I felt my heart clinch up. I said, “When are you going?” And I was sorry I asked it because I didn’t want to hear the answer.

  He waved my question away with his hand. “We need something to remember us, Velva Jean.”

  We sat down side by side in the photo booth and tried to figure out how to work it. There were some buttons and a lever and a place to put money. Johnny Clay pulled out his wallet and when he dug for money, I saw the paratrooper picture from Life magazine still folded and tucked away. He shoved his wallet back into his pocket and then he slid a quarter into the machine and there was a clicking and then a flashing bright light. He threw his arm around me, and we bent our heads together so they were touching, and he said, “Smile, Velva Jean.”

  The light flashed and then popped, and I was nearly blind. Then it was over and we sat there waiting for the photograph to develop. I thought, What would Granny say if she could see this?

  I said, “I don’t believe it.”

  Johnny Clay said, “Just you watch.”

  About five minutes later there was a spitting and a whirring and a grinding—like the booth was gearing itself up to run away—and then out came our picture.

  I’d never seen a picture of myself before. It was good of both of us—Johnny Clay looked big as life, handsome and laughing, a little bit blurred, and just like Daddy around the mouth and Mama around the eyes.

  I sat there looking at myself. I couldn’t get over it. Was this the way I looked? The face in the picture was different than the face in the mirror, and I wondered if this was because you just looked different in pictures or if it was because I’d only seen myself backward till now, like the way the mirror reflected you.

  My hair looked too wild. My eyes too big. My smile too wide. I could see my freckles still, even though I was all the time trying to cover them up with powder and a bit of rouge. I wasn’t sure about me.

  One thing I did know though: I looked happy, and I knew that came from being with my brother. I thought we actually looked a lot alike—I don’t think I’d ever noticed it. I looked like Daddy around the mouth and Mama around the eyes too.

  Johnny Clay said, “You look like Hedy Lamarr, Velva Jean,” and before I could tell him he was crazy he grabbed the picture and fanned it to wave it dry. Then he went marching back over to Bootsy’s and right up to Bootsy herself and handed her the photo. He said, “This is for your Wall of Fame.” She liked Johnny Clay just like everyone did. She cackled at this like a summer hen and then she stood up on her little fat feet and whistled to the bartender. She said, “Get me a tack.”

  He rummaged around behind the bar and then tossed her one, which she caught one-handed. Then she stood there staring at the walls, eyes narrowed, trying to find just the place. By this time Gossie and Marvina and Harold Lee were staring at us and Gossie raised her hands, palms up, like “what’s going on?”

  Bootsy said, “Over here.” She moved between the tables without bumping a single person. There was a spot right over the jukebox that was easy to see no matter where you sat. It was practically the first thing you saw when you walked in the door. She said, “There.” And then she leaned up on her tippy-toes and tacked the picture to the wall, right in the middle of all the pictures of Eddy Arnold and Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe and Maybelle Carter, not to mention the hundreds of folks with names I’d never learn. Johnny Clay helped her tap the thumbtack in, and then we all three stood back. I felt someone over my shoulder, and Gossie was standing there, arms folded across her chest.

  Bootsy said, “Right where you belong.”

  Gossie said, “Now there’s a story, Mary Lou.”

  On September 6 I went up for my first solo flight. It was almost dusk on a warm, muggy day. The old men sat outside, fanning themselves with the playing cards and drinking lemonade. Johnny Clay lay stretched out on the ground, hands folded behind his head, eyes closed. I couldn’t tell if he was awake or asleep. Duke went over the plane again and again—the safety belt, the throttle, the rudders, the engine, the wings. I thought he looked worried.

  Finally he helped me up into the cockpit even though I didn’t need help. He watched as I snapped on my safety belt and pulled on my goggles. He leaned forward and tugged at the belt. He said, “You’ve got the hours. Are you sure you’re ready?”

  I thought how funny this was because in his quiet way he’d always made me believe I could fly even when I didn’t believe it myself.

  I said, “I’m ready.”

  The Aeronca had stiff controls and a narrow cockpit. I thought I would feel hemmed in up there, but as I took off at forty miles an hour—a little shaky at first—the sky just opened up like it always did. I was going so fast I could hardly tell I was airborne, but then I saw the ground far below and I was part of the sky. I suddenly felt like I was flying myself, just me with my arms out, no plane, no safety belt. The first thing I noticed was how light the plane seemed without another person in it.

  I circled over Duke’s farm, over trees and house and barn. The evening air was quiet and there were long, blue shadows over the grass. Darkness was creeping in along the outside of the sky, just along the horizon, but the sun still burned orange and gold and pink. As I flew I imagined myself as a soldier, flying somewhere over England or France, swooping down to make a daring rescue, circling the enemy. I pretended I was off to fight the Germans and Hitler and end the war once and for all for everyone, most of all my brothers.

  That night, during supper at the café, Johnny Clay told everybody how I flew that plane all by myself. I felt jumpy as a cricket and twice as excited, and later, after we went upstairs, I sat in my room and got out Mama’s Bible, where I kept records of everything I’d ever done in my life, good things and bad things, and dusted off the cover. I could still feel the light of the sky high above Duke’s farm and feel myself drifting over the trees and earth.

  The last entry in the Bible was from August 22, 1941: “Velva Jean . . .” It was from the day I left home, and I hadn’t known what to write then so I left it blank. Now, on the page where I had already written so many important life events, I wrote “September 6, 1942—Velva Jean learns to fly.”

  Three days later Johnny Clay left Nashville. I drove him to the train station and walked him inside, even though he told me
not to. We said things as we walked, like “Tell Duke good-bye for me,” and “Let me know if you run into Linc or Beach or Coyle Deal,” and “Remember to keep your nose up when you’re flying—you always keep it too low,” and “Write me when you get there.”

  They were announcing his train when we got to the tracks, and Johnny Clay said, “Well, little sister . . .” And before he could finish, I threw my arms around him and hugged him tight. He just stood there like a tree, and after a minute he dropped his bag and he hugged me back and we were both crying—me a lot, him a little.

  I said, “Don’t you get yourself killed, Johnny Clay Hart.”

  And he said, “I promise.”

  Then he pushed me away and grabbed up his bag and ran. I watched him moving away from me fast, boarding a train to Toccoa, Georgia, where they would turn him into a paratrooper, a soldier, a fighter. He swung himself up into the boxcar and before he disappeared inside he saluted me. His face was shiny from the tears and he looked gold in the sunlight.

  I wanted to run after him—to get on that train and follow him to camp, and then even follow him to Italy or Germany or France. But instead I stood still, rooted to the ground, and saluted back.

  September 13, 1942

  Dear V. J.,

  Goddamn Georgia. I’m pretty sure hell will be like this. We call this place Camp Tombs on account of the casket factory up the way, and let me tell you it’s just the right name for it. The camp is ugly as Hink Lowe. There’s mud everywhere, even in the tents. We’re four to a tent, and the mosquitoes are as big as Mrs. Garland Welch’s behind.

  We’re up at dawn and every damn morning we do this run up Currahee Mountain. It’s three miles up and three miles down. Sometimes we run it once in the morning and then again in the afternoon in full dress gear in this goddamn rotten Georgia heat.

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