Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  “Yes’m,” I said. “And to take apart an engine and put it back together again. I can do the same thing with an airplane.” This wasn’t exactly true, but I had studied the Aeronca’s engine manual and I figured I could take a plane apart if I had to.

  Miss Novak sat back and looked at me, crossing her arms over her chest and her uniform. I wanted a uniform just like it. I thought it was about the smartest thing I’d ever seen.

  Finally she said, “Classes are filled five months ahead. You see all these other girls here? Every one of them has hours of flying instruction. They’re all good pilots, maybe as good as you, maybe better. But we don’t have room for all of them.”

  Each word she said made my heart sink low into my chest, so far to the back of it that I couldn’t even feel it anymore. I looked around me at the other girls and I thought about my padded logbook and how these other girls, some of them, probably had more hours than I did and had more right than me to earn a spot in the WFTD, and here I sat like a liar, like some sort of mountain trash, trying to cheat my way into being a pilot.

  Miss Novak said, “It’s a risky business, and you need to know that. You need to know that flying is dangerous, no matter how good a pilot you are, and that accidents happen all the time and there’s always the chance of an accident being fatal. Every time you go up in the air, you’re taking a risk.”

  I said, “I know that.” I couldn’t stand to be a liar. I didn’t want that logbook on my mind five more seconds. I said, “Could I have my logbook please?”

  She said, “Excuse me?”

  “Just for a minute.”

  She handed it to me, but she was looking at me like I’d just gotten up and buck danced on her desk.

  I said, “Can I borrow a pen?”

  She searched her desk and found one. I took it from her and then I opened my book and crossed out the hours I’d added, the ones I never actually flew. Then I handed her the book and said, “That’s the real truth. I don’t want to get into this program on a lie. I’d rather not get in at all. I padded my logbook, and I’m sorry, but only because I want this more than anything I ever wanted in my life, except for my mama not to die. I’m sorry I lied to you.”

  “I’m sure you’re not the first or the only.”

  I didn’t say anything to this because it was true. What I did say was, “There’s something else I need to tell you. My name is Velva Jean Hart Bright. I’m married, so I guess you should be calling me Mrs. Bright and not Miss Hart. I left my husband to go to Nashville and I don’t feel married anymore, not for a long time. I don’t feel married one bit. But you should know the truth all around, so you can call me what you want.”

  Henrietta Novak said, “You don’t need your husband to sign for you. You don’t need his approval to be here.”

  I said, “That’s a good thing, but I thought you should know just the same.”

  Henrietta Novak looked at me good and hard. Then she said, “I can’t promise anything, Miss Hart, but let me see what I can do.”


  Army Air Forces Training Command

  Fort Worth, Texas

  December 10, 1942

  Miss Velva Jean Hart

  c/o The Lovelorn Café

  Nashville, Tennessee

  Dear Miss Hart:

  Congratulations on being accepted into the WFTD. Please report to the Blue Bonnet Hotel in Sweetwater, Texas, on Saturday, February 13, 1943. Further instructions will be forthcoming.

  Yours very truly,

  Jacqueline Cochran, Director

  Women’s Flying Training Detachment


  On December 19 I went to the Opry one last time, and Gossie went with me. We paid our twenty-five cents and sat in the crowd, and I breathed it all in. As Roy Acuff stood up there with his guitar, singing “Red River Valley,” I sang along. The people on both sides of us turned, and I knew they were watching me but I didn’t care. I sang harmony, and after a minute Gossie joined in. I sang like I was standing on top of the Stahlman Building, the tallest building in Nashville, or like I was up in the Aeronca. I didn’t know when I would see Roy Acuff again and I didn’t know when I’d see the inside of the War Memorial Auditorium. Maybe I wouldn’t ever be back here, and maybe I would, but, just in case, I wanted to be able to say I’d sung at the Grand Ole Opry.

  Afterward we went home to the apartment, and Gossie poured us a drink. We clinked our glasses together, and I said, “You’re the best friend I ever had outside my own family, Beryl Goss. I hope I see you again.”

  Before she could hide it, her eyes turned to water, and she took a fast drink and pulled out a cigarette and started puffing away. She said, “Dammit, Mary Lou. The things you say.” And then she took my hand and squeezed it.

  Later I stood in my room and looked at my bed, my window, my desk, my chair. My first very own room. The framed Opry picture that Johnny Clay had given me was still hung up on the wall. I pulled it down and packed it into the hatbox. Someday, I thought. Maybe.

  “It’s a funny thing about a road,” Daddy Hoyt used to say to me. “It’s not just an incoming road, you know. It’s an outgoing road too.” It felt funny to be incoming again, when the last time I was on the Scenic I was heading out, the only thought in my mind go, go, go, and no idea if I’d ever be back.

  On December 23 the snow was hitting the windshield, the flakes like flimsy white stars, turning to water as soon as the wipers brushed them away. Through the snow and the wet and the fog that was rolling in, I strained to see Fair Mountain. It was harder to tell the mountains apart in winter. They were a mass of smoke and snow, the dark black-green of the trees, and the raggedy sharp brown of the rock.

  The Scenic was paved the whole way now, all the way to the turnoff for Hamlet’s Mill. All that new black road was being covered in white. In my head I heard the song I’d sung as I first left home.

  Oh, they tell me of a land far beyond the skies.

  Oh, they tell me of a land far away.

  Oh, they tell me of a land where no storm clouds rise.

  Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day . . .

  Nashville was that land beyond the skies for me. I hadn’t sung at the Opry, not really, not like I’d dreamed I would. But I was going to be a pilot in the WFTD. The moment I got the letter from Jacqueline Cochran I knew I wanted to see my family before I went to Texas.

  When I came to the turnoff for Hamlet’s Mill, I pointed the truck down the hill and headed home. And then I saw them rising up in front of me and around me and above me—my mountains. Bone. Witch. Blood. Devil’s Courthouse, where somewhere Harley Bright was preaching or eating or sleeping. And Fair Mountain, where my family was just this minute waiting without knowing they were waiting.

  At the sight of Fair Mountain, I gripped the wheel tighter and leaned forward, trying to keep my eyes on the road and also on my mountain. My eyes were burning, which meant I might start crying. And then I did start crying, but it didn’t matter because there was no one to see me. Night was falling up on the Scenic—only the snow caught what was left of the sunlight and made everything seem brighter. I knew that down below, deep in the valleys, in Alluvial and Sleepy Gap and Devil’s Kitchen, the sky would already be dark under the shadows of the trees and the fog.

  I passed through Hamlet’s Mill and then I followed the old cattle road up to Alluvial. It looked exactly the same as when I left it, except for the snow. I slowed the truck as I passed the hotel where Lucinda Sink lived, the school where I’d gone through the seventh grade, the Baptist church, Deal’s General Store, Sweet Fern’s house that Danny Deal built for her before he died. Everything looked the same except for the two blue stars hanging in the window of Deal’s and the one blue star in the window at Sweet Fern’s—one star for each boy fighting in the war.

  I wound up the mountain to Sleepy Gap until I could see the roof of Mama’s old house. My throat closed up tight at the sight of it. Outside the house, a girl with spindly legs and long br
own hair was building a snowman while a tall boy I didn’t recognize was chasing Russell with a snowball. The tall boy had brown hair and was wearing a blue cap, one that I knew from long ago. It was Danny Deal’s cap, the one he’d lost in the train wreck and that someone—our daddy—had brought back. The boy must be Dan Presley, Sweet Fern’s oldest, and the girl, I knew was Corrina. For a minute I studied them, thinking they were nearly the same ages Johnny Clay and me were when we were living here, just before Mama died. I thought: What if that was us? What if I was watching this and suddenly Mama came walking onto the porch, calling us in for supper? That was the thing about Fair Mountain. No matter how much the rest of the world changed, it looked so much the same that it took you a minute to remember what year it was and how old you were and who was still there and who was gone.

  I drove up to the house, slow and steady, and Corrina looked up and squinted because the fading sun was behind me, and then she hollered and ran right into Mama’s house and then came back out. A tall, gray-haired woman ran out behind her, and it was Aunt Zona, and she was crying and wiping her hands on her apron, and it hit me all over again how little she looked like Mama even though they were sisters. Just past Zona, looking over her shoulder, were two round girls with wide matching faces. These were the twins, Celia Faye and Clover. And pushing past all of them was Granny.

  She ran right for the truck, arms flapping, white hair flying. She hollered, “Velva Jean, honey! Darlin’ girl!”

  I parked the truck and shut off the engine and threw open the door and ran straight for her over the snow. Then her arms were around me, wiry but strong, and she was hugging me tight and practically lifting me off the ground even though she was so small. She held me at arm’s length and looked me up and down and said, “You’re too thin. Don’t they feed you in Tennessee?” And then her eyes went watery and she cupped my face with her hand and said, “Just as pretty as you ever were.”

  I said, “I’m home,” because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

  We ate supper that night at Granny’s—Granny, Daddy Hoyt, Ruby Poole, Aunt Zona, the twins, Aunt Bird, the children, and Sweet Fern, who walked up the hill from Alluvial, carrying baby Hoyt on her hip. I met her on the front porch, out on the dogtrot that ran between the two parts of Granny’s house. There were four blue stars hanging in the front window—one each for Linc, Beach, and Johnny Clay. The fourth one, I guessed, was for Coyle.

  Little Hoyt had light-brown hair like his daddy, lighter than Sweet Fern’s, and it curled in ringlets all over his head. Sweet Fern looked tired and older and when she saw me her face went blank. For one minute I was scared of her, just like I had been when I was little. I felt like I felt when I was twelve and I ran away from home and from her, and the panther chased me through the woods, me and Johnny Clay dressed only in our underthings. I thought of every time I’d made her mad—from almost getting arrested and thrown in jail to running away.

  She walked right up onto the dogtrot and pulled me close and hugged me hard with her free arm and when she pulled away she was blinking and blinking, which was what she always did when she tried not to cry. She said, “I’m glad you’re home, Velva Jean.” Her lips were bare and their normal pink, and I remembered the lipstick she’d started wearing before I left for Nashville.

  I said, “I’m sorry I didn’t say good-bye.” She frowned and brushed away an imaginary strand of hair. She bounced Hoyt on her hip and stared hard at the top of his head.

  She said, “You know I went to camp with Coyle, me and the children. When it was time for him to ship out, we took the bus back. It was a hard, awful trip, one I wouldn’t have wished on anyone.” Her eyes got sad and mad all at once. She said, “Everyone at camp and on the bus called me a ‘camp follower,’ which is what they call women that follow their husbands to camp. They said it like they wanted to spit, just like they say ‘Nazi’ or ‘Jap,’ so you know it’s not a nice thing. I don’t see why it’s bad to want to spend as much time with your husband as you can before he goes off to war where you may never see him again.” She wore a little cross on a chain around her neck, and she didn’t touch it but I could feel her touching it in her mind. “Coming back, I thought everything would be better, but it’s all so strange here now. There are holes everywhere. But we’re doing okay, the children and me.”

  I said, “I’m sorry I wasn’t here for your wedding.”

  She said, “It was pretty. Simple.” Then she got that old mad look that I knew so well. Her face took on a pink color, and I could almost see the top of her head start to smoke. She said, “I hope you ain’t come back for Harley Bright because if so I’ve got a thing or two to say to you, Velva Jean.” Then, before I could open my mouth, she said, “You listen to me. Mama’s gone and Daddy’s gone, but I’m here now, and I reckon I’m about the closest thing you have to a mama, like it or not. And strange as it sounds, I need you to go away again and get off this mountain. I was mad at you plenty when you went off last year and didn’t so much as tell me good-bye, but now I need you to be free because that’s what you were born to do, Velva Jean. If you don’t go, why did I work so hard to raise you? Why did you fight me so much back then over every little thing? Why did we even waste our time if it didn’t mean anything?”

  I said, “I’m going to be a pilot in the WFTD. I’m going to train with Jacqueline Cochran, the most famous woman pilot in the world. I’m going to fly planes for the war. I go to Texas in February.”

  She stood there blinking at me. Then she nodded her head once, like this was exactly what she wanted to hear. She said, “You can’t be rooted, Velva Jean.”

  In her arms, Hoyt said, “Doggy!” And pointed to Johnny Clay’s old brown dog, Hunter Firth, who was lying on a corner of the porch. Hunter Firth fanned his tail back and forth without moving or looking up.

  Supper was spent talking about my trip to Nashville, the Opry, meeting Gossie, the Lovelorn Café, Travelin’ Jones, Darlon C. Reynolds, Johnny Clay’s visit, learning to fly, and about being chosen for the WFTD. I sat there looking around the table at the faces of my family and feeling filled up in a way I hadn’t felt filled up since I’d left.

  After supper Daddy Hoyt and I sat on the porch while everyone else did the dishes and cleared the table and drank tea by the fire because there wasn’t any coffee to be found. I pulled a blanket around me and tried not to the feel the cold, but Daddy Hoyt sat there in his shirtsleeves. He never seemed to feel the chill like the rest of us.

  The snow covered everything now. It fell heavy and quiet, but if you listened, tuning out the sounds from inside the house or the creaking of the rockers, you could hear a million little ice crystals touching down. The trees were icing over and, except for the falling snow, the whole world grew still, just like we were sitting under a tent, the edges pulled down tight around us so that nothing could get in or out.

  It felt strange to be rocking there on that porch just like no time had passed, just like I’d never gone away and tried to sing at the Opry and make a record, just like I’d never worked at the Lovelorn Café and met a girl named Beryl Goss and gone to juke joints and honky-tonks and learned to fly.

  Daddy Hoyt cleared his throat and said, “Daryl Gordon was killed in November.”


  “A place in the Pacific called Bataan.”

  I said, “Have you heard from Beach?”

  “He’s in the Solomon Islands with the marines.”

  I thought about my brothers and all the boys I knew being so far away in strange places. When we were little, Daddy had told us that the reason he wandered was because he was called away to Africa and England and Egypt to visit with royalty. He would bring things back for us from his trips, little things we treasured because they came from him and also from these wild, exotic places he showed us on Beachard’s globe. I thought how funny it was now that Daddy was somewhere in North Carolina or Georgia or Tennessee while his second son was in the Pacific, going places our daddy would never see.<
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  Daddy Hoyt sighed. His chair rocked, making the floorboards creak. He said, “I don’t know how it will end, Velva Jean. There’s hardly a single boy left on this mountain. They’re all off fighting.”

  I said a quick, silent prayer that the stars hanging in the front window would stay blue. If any of our boys died, I knew Granny and Aunt Zona would have to sew a gold star on top of the blue one. In school gold stars were given out when we did something good. I wondered when they’d turned into something bad that you would never want at all. Then I thought that we should sew a star for Mama.

  Daddy Hoyt looked older to me, even in the dark of the porch. I could tell he was trying to sit straight and walk straight, but I’d already caught him stooping, like when he first got up from the table and had to lean too hard on his cane. It was a beautiful cane, the wood twisting and turning, looking just like a serpent, and there were words carved into it from the Bible. The wood was smooth except for a part in the middle where it was darker than the rest of it.

  Daddy Hoyt said, “Does Harley Bright know you’re here?”

  “No, sir.” Rock, rock, rock. Creak, creak, creak.

  “When do you plan on seeing him?”

  “I don’t know.” The thought made me stop rocking. I hadn’t thought about Harley—really thought about him—in months. I looked out at the snow, so clean and white. That’s what I feel like, I thought—fresh and new.

  “Do you still love him, Velva Jean?”

  “No, sir.” It wasn’t a lie. I didn’t love Harley anymore.

  We rocked in silence for a while. Then he said, “The Wood Carver’s back.”

  I sat straight up. “Where? Have you seen him?”

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