Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  “We’re going to separate the men from the boys,” company commander Lieutenant Peter Flick told us on our first day of training. One man dropped in the first mile. I kept going with the rest of them even though my legs stung and my lungs burned and I wanted to kill someone. Maybe that’s the idea. It’s each for his own here, and I ain’t helping nobody that can’t help himself. When we got back to camp later that night, the bags of the men who’d dropped were already packed.

  When I run up the mountain, I stare at the head of the guy in front of me. I pick one who ain’t going to drop. You can tell which ones will do it, just by looking at them. Already fifteen guys of the original fifty-six have gone home. Not me.

  Wanna know what else I do? I tell myself, “Just one more step. One more step. One more step.” I say it over and over in my head while I run. It sounds stupid, but just telling myself “one more step” makes me keep going. I say to myself, “You think you’re going to die and you might, but just run one more step before you do.” After all, you can’t run them all at once.

  Most of the fellows are fine. Some are from the South and others are from New York, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri. This guy Mickey Gorham, from Boston, is the worst though. He was calling me “cracker” till I told him exactly what I would do to him if I ever heard the word “cracker” come out of his mouth again. We’re friends now. It’s usually his head I look at when I run. Part of me would still like to knock it in.

  I know you’re mad at me because I ain’t heard from you. I know you’re just freezing me out and that you still love me even though you don’t want to, but someday you’ll understand why I needed to go and why it’s so important to me to do this. Our own daddy’s always run away from everything big or hard, but you know me. I believe in taking things head-on.

  Did you hear about Beach? He had to take over his plane when the pilot and copilot was killed. Shot down four enemy planes and one Jap bomber over in a place called Guadalcanal, and he ain’t even carrying a weapon because he’s a noncombatant.

  Tomorrow we begin jump training from ground level mock airplanes, but I’m ready for a real one. I don’t know when we’ll be done with all this and when they’ll ship us out, but I can’t wait to see the faces of the enemy and the fear in their eyes—whoever they are—when they see me coming.

  Love,

  Private Johnny Clay Hart

  P.S. The FBI arrested 158 German nationals living in the United States because they was endangering state security. And 30 of them are women. Spies!

  FIFTEEN

  On September 20 Duke handed me the latest issue of Life magazine. There was a picture on the cover of a girl, not much older than me, wearing goggles and standing in front of an airplane. He said, “I want you to take this home and read it. You’re one of the best natural pilots I ever seen. You’re a regular Amelia Earhart.”

  This was the most I’d heard Duke say all at once since the very first time I met him and he talked to me about how if I could drive a truck I could fly a plane. I stood there waiting, just in case there was more, but then he turned toward the Aeronca, and I knew that meant it was time to go up.

  We flew for an hour—Duke was teaching me spins—and after we came down I ran to the truck holding the magazine close, just like it might get away from me. The old men sat outside the cracker-tin building, spitting and arguing and playing cards, and because I didn’t want them to call out to me or bother me I drove fast as I could back to the Lovelorn, the magazine burning a hole in the seat next to me the whole way.

  I parked just down the street and then I sat there under the streetlamp and read. The article told about two government programs started for women pilots, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, or WAFS, and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, or WFTD. The WAFS was started by a woman named Nancy Harkness Love. There was a picture of her in the story, and she was beautiful even in her flying gear and goggles. She learned to fly when she was sixteen, and when she was at Vassar College in New York she earned extra money by renting a plane and taking her fellow students for rides. One time she flew low over campus, and someone turned her in. She was suspended for two weeks and not allowed to fly for the rest of the semester. Nancy Love had handpicked the top twenty-five women pilots in the country to ferry military planes to training camps and airfields across the United States. They’d just flown their first mission, flying Piper Cubs from Pennsylvania to New York.

  The WFTD was created by Jacqueline Cochran, who was America’s most famous woman pilot and the first and only woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean. She owned a cosmetics company, and it was her husband who suggested that she learn to fly so she could market her cosmetics around the country. She became good friends with Amelia Earhart and believed that women pilots could be trained to do more than ferrying, that maybe they could even fly in combat. The training school for the WFTD was in Houston, Texas, where the first classes of pilots were being taught to fly the army way, while living in barracks and wearing uniforms and practicing drills. I thought she looked like a more glamorous Sweet Fern.

  I couldn’t read the article fast enough. My eyes started traveling up and down the page, across it, back and forth. I kept thinking, This is too unbelievable. The girls in the pictures looked like me—young and happy and normal, like they’d just come from anywhere, maybe up in the mountains or a small town or a farm in the middle of nowhere. I looked at them and thought, I could be one of them.

  But these girls had already been chosen. The WAFS and the WFTD already had their female pilots. I imagined them first learning to fly at fancy air bases in Washington, D.C., or New York City or Los Angeles, California. They must have had hundreds of hours of experience. They must have been flying for years.

  Then I saw the last few sentences of the story, which Duke had underlined twice with a thick black pen: “The first class of twenty-eight recruits from the WFTD will be reporting to Houston on November 17, but the WFTD is looking for more girl pilots for future classes. Interested ladies should contact Jacqueline Cochran.”

  The Life article said the WFTD had originally required two hundred hours of solo flying time but that they’d just lowered the requirement to thirty-five hours. I had twenty-five hours, but I wondered if that might be enough. The article also said girls had to be at least five feet two inches tall, a high school graduate, and twenty-one years old. I was only nineteen and I hadn’t gone to school past the seventh grade, but I was five feet six, almost five feet seven, and I thought those extra inches should count for something.

  The next morning Harold Lee left for training camp. He was headed to North Carolina and he was as wound up as a cat. He jigged and jittered in place till I wondered if he might not dance all the way there. We stood outside the café, just me and him—he’d already said good-bye to everyone else. He had his duffel bag over his shoulder and he was on his way to the train station. He handed me a poem and he said, “Will you wait for me, Velva Jean?”

  I tried to laugh, but the sight of him in his uniform, his dog tags hanging around his skinny neck, that Adam’s apple bobbing up and down, made me sad. I said, “Harold Lee, you just keep yourself safe.”

  “You won’t even try to love me, will you?”

  I said, “Not like you want me to.” I felt like the world’s worst person. I thought how easy my life would be if I could only love Harold Lee. For one second I tried to imagine it in my mind, but I couldn’t. I wondered if I would all the time love the wrong men.

  He said, “I love you, Velva Jean.” And then he kissed me quick on the mouth and hugged me tight and spun away at a sprint up the street, just a blur of legs and arms, disappearing into the crowd of people that always seemed to be walking down the sidewalks no matter what time of day or night.

  I watched him go and then I looked down at the poem he’d handed me. It was written, as usual, on a Lovelorn Café napkin. It was called “From a Soldier,” and not one word of it rhymed.

  This boy
is going to fight for his country

  In a war with people he’s never met

  He’s going to have to kill

  And bleed

  In a place he’s never heard of

  But he wants you to remember

  That you knew him once

  And that he loved you

  And that he was here.

  I folded up the napkin and slipped it into my dress pocket, and went up the stairs to my apartment and into my room and sat down at my desk in front of my typewriter.

  September 21, 1942

  Dear Jacqueline Cochran,

  My name is Velva Jean Hart. My flight instructor sent me an article from Life magazine about the WFTD, and I would like to apply. I now have twenty-five hours of solo flying time. My teacher, Duke Norris, says he’s never seen anyone take so natural to flying, and he’s been flying for twenty years. I am five feet six inches tall, and I will be twenty on my next birthday.

  Last year I taught myself to drive an old yellow truck that came to me when my brother-in-law was killed in a train wreck. It was his truck and then it was my brother’s and now it’s mine. No one helped me learn to drive. I did it all on my own, and then I drove that truck from Alluvial, North Carolina, to Nashville so that I could be a singer at the Grand Ole Opry. I’ve wanted to sing ever since I was a little girl. But now there’s something I want to do more—fly.

  Please consider me for the WFTD. I promise not to let you down.

  Yours sincerely,

  Velva Jean Hart

  After that I stopped writing to Judge Hay at the Opry and started writing to Jacqueline Cochran. I wrote her at least one letter every week, even though she didn’t write me back. When I wasn’t writing to her and when I wasn’t working, I went out to Duke’s farm and earned more solo hours up in the Aeronca, just so I would be ready.

  October 9, 1942

  Dear Jacqueline Cochran,

  I read that you came from a poor background, like me, that you were an orphan too, that you had to go to work when you were eight years old, and that you chose your name out of a telephone directory. You didn’t go to high school, and you passed your flight test without even knowing how to write. I know you grew up in Florida. I may be from North Carolina, but I think we come from the same place.

  I got married when I was sixteen years old. I thought I knew what was going to happen with my husband when I fell in love with him. I thought we were going to be together forever, Mr. and Mrs. Harley Bright, but sometimes things don’t work out like you think. I thought there was a guarantee.

  Same with the Grand Ole Opry. My whole life I’ve pictured myself up on that stage, wearing rhinestones and satin and playing the steel guitar. For all these years, it was never like I was dreaming it up, but like I was seeing what was going to happen in the future. Like it was predestined, and all I had to do was wait till it was time. I left my husband and went to Nashville to make that happen but I still haven’t sung at the Opry. So is it predestined? I don’t know anymore. Maybe it’s just a dream that will never come true, and I was only fooling myself.

  Now I’m in Nashville and I thought this was where I needed to be. But I don’t need to be here anymore. I need to be Out There, as my mama called it—living Out There. She didn’t know back then, before she died, that I would ever fly a plane. I was just ten years old. But maybe she did know somehow and maybe she meant that Out There was in the sky, high above the clouds.

  All I’m asking for is a chance.

  By the way, I now have thirty-two hours of solo flying time.

  Sincerely,

  Velva Jean Hart

  October 18, 1942

  Dear V. J.,

  You can tell by the address that I’ve moved again. That’s right—no more Camp Tombs. Fort Benning may still be Georgia, but it’s a high time compared to Toccoa. Here we got big brick barracks and beautiful big mess halls. The PX at Camp Toccoa only had cigarettes and chocolate bars, but the one here’s got everything you could ever want on this earth.

  We’re in such top condition that our company got to skip the first stage of jump school—the only goddamn company in the airborne to do so. It’s double time here everywhere we go. We got parachute towers like we did at Toccoa, except here we got a device that draws you up and lets you go.

  The best thing about Benning, though, is the jumps. I never loved doing anything so much in my life. I mean it. I wish you would jump out of a plane and see what I’m talking about. It beats gold panning and gem mining and roping steers.

  Did the army make you a pilot yet?

  Love,

  Your brother,

  Corporal Johnny Clay Hart

  Headquarters

  Army Air Forces Training Command

  Fort Worth, Texas

  October 25, 1942

  Miss Velva Jean Hart

  c/o The Lovelorn Café

  Nashville, Tennessee

  Dear Miss Hart:

  Will interview applicants for the Women’s Flying Training Program at the Nashville, Tennessee, military recruitment center on November 19 and 20, between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.

  It is suggested that you bring your logbook and student pilot’s license at time of interview and be prepared to undergo a medical examination by an army flight surgeon.

  If your papers are in order and you successfully pass your medical examination, you will receive official instructions as to when and where to report.

  Yours very truly,

  Jacqueline Cochran, Director

  Women’s Flying Training Detachment

  SIXTEEN

  On Thursday, November 19, I walked to the recruitment office. I sang the whole way there, not caring who heard me, because I hoped it would calm me down. Inside the office there were so many girls that it took me two hours to have my turn. While I was waiting, I talked to some of them and compared flying times.

  One girl said, “You should pad your logbook. That’s what we done.” She pointed to herself and the two girls she was sitting with. “Unless you got thirty-five hours of signed time, they ain’t even going to look at you.”

  I said, “I’ve got thirty-nine hours.” As I said it, I sat up a little straighter.

  She said, “How old are you?”

  “Twenty.” I didn’t tell her I’d only turned twenty just two weeks before.

  “Well, you got to be twenty-one at least. You been to college?”

  “No.”

  “High school?”

  “No.” I wasn’t sitting up so straight anymore.

  She shook her head. “You better add more flying hours so they don’t just send you home.”

  I said, “I’m not padding my book.”

  She said, “Now’s not the time to be a good Christian girl. You need to put that aside and think of what’s at stake here. Do you or do you not want to be a pilot?” I looked at her and at the other girls, who nodded. One of them handed me a pen.

  I went into the bathroom and padded my logbook till it said I had fifty-five hours and then I came back and took my place in line. I felt filled up with guilt but at the same time there was nothing else to do. I was sure that Jacqueline Cochran’s people would take one look at my book and know I was lying.

  When it was my turn, I sat down at a desk with Miss Henrietta Novak, who was close to forty, with short brown hair and skin that was freckled from the sun. She was what Daddy Hoyt would have called a “handsome woman”—thick as a Christmas goose and wearing a crisp khaki uniform. She gave me a questionnaire to fill out and then asked me a hundred questions about flying and where I’d gone to school and why did I want to join the WFTD, and then she looked over my logbook while I held my breath and said a quick prayer that she wouldn’t know I cheated.

  Then a female army surgeon measured me to see how tall I was, and afterward she made me stand on a scale. She listened to my heartbeat and checked my pulse and looked into my ears and eyes and throat. She said, “Everything looks good, Miss Hart.”

  I??
?d stopped calling myself Mrs. Bright long ago. I hadn’t felt like Mrs. Bright in a very long time. Part of me wondered, though, if the government would know I was married. If they did, maybe they would think I was lying on the rest of my application if I didn’t put Harley’s last name, since I was still his wife. I wondered if I should tell the army surgeon the truth.

  After my exam, the surgeon led me back to Henrietta Novak. I sat down across from her and thought about how I wasn’t Miss Hart, I was still Mrs. Bright, whether I liked it or not. Miss Novak said, “Miss Hart, you passed the physical, but I’m concerned about your lack of education and your age. Your letter from Duke Norris is one of the most glowing references I’ve ever read. But we have certain rules and requirements in place for a reason.”

  All I could think was: Miss Hart, Miss Hart.

  I said, “I wanted to go to school past the seventh grade, but my mama died and my daddy ran off, leaving my sister to raise us, and she needed me at home to help with all her babies and so she made me quit even though I loved my teacher, Mrs. Dennis, very much.” It made me sad to think of Mrs. Dennis being run out of town with her husband and the rest of the outlanders by Harley Bright.

  I thought: Mrs. Bright, Mrs. Bright.

  “But I read every book I could get my hands on, even though Sweet Fern didn’t approve.”

  Miss Novak said, “I’m going to need to discuss this with the director of the program.” She ruffled through the papers on her desk. I saw the stack of letters I’d written to Jacqueline Cochran, or copies of them. Miss Novak skimmed over these and tapped them with her finger, and then she stacked them into a neat pile and cleared her throat. She said, “It says here, Miss Hart, that you taught yourself to drive.”

 
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