Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  For the rest of the meal we didn’t say two words to each other, and when we got back to Mama’s, Harley kissed my cheek but his lips felt dry and light as a breeze, like he barely touched me, like he was already back up in Devil’s Kitchen. When I went upstairs to Mama’s room, I looked out the window and he was still down there, standing by his car.

  I put my hand over my heart, feeling my hand shake, feeling my heart pound. I watched till Harley finally climbed into the DeSoto and drove away and then I curled up on Mama’s bed. I lay there and waited to cry. I thought about Carole Lombard, who died one year ago that very day. I thought about my own mama, who died right here in this room, right here in this bed. But instead of crying I started thinking about the old yellow truck parked down below, out there in the snow, and I breathed a little easier. Not easy, but easier. Just thinking of that old truck made me feel better. I figured that was as close to a home as I had anymore.

  And then a voice in me said: No. Your home is in the sky.

  TWENTY-ONE

  On the morning of January 31, I found a note slipped under Mama’s front door. It said:Dear Velva Jean,

  I been thinking on our visit. Coming back up to Devil’s Kitchen that night after dinner and not finding you here in this house was worse almost than you leaving the first time.

  Remember the Bible passage you asked me about just before you left? “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course. I have kept the faith.” This passage has been playing through my head like a song.

  You’re still my dream girl. Maybe you always will be. No matter what you say, I can’t think that’s a bad thing to be. We’ve fought a good fight, Velva Jean. We’ve kept the faith. But I’m afraid we may have finished our course.

  Love,

  Harley Bright

  I walked outside and sat on the porch steps. Hunter Firth came over and sat by me. He walked slow and favored his back leg, and it made me sad to think how old he was and that soon he might be gone too, just like everyone else.

  I scratched him under the chin and behind the ears, just like he liked, and thought about the letter and something Granny had said not long after I got back home: Harley just wasn’t up to it. He just hadn’t been able to keep up. I wondered if he’d ever been up to it or if I just thought he was and hoped he was, way back when.

  I said, “Hunter Firth, you listen to me.”

  He lay with his chin on the floor while I rubbed his ear, but he rolled his eyes over in my direction so he could look at me.

  I said, “You got to make your own way in this world and follow your own heart. You got to not feel bad if you have to leave someone behind, if they’re happy where they are and it’s better for the both of you. You got to just go out there like the Bible says and wander far off. Fly away and be at rest. And don’t you ever let anyone stop you.”

  Much as I wanted to take my yellow truck to Texas, I wasn’t sure it would make it all the way there. On February 11 I drove it down the hill from Fair Mountain to Alluvial and left it with Sweet Fern, who promised not to let it rust. I parked it behind Deal’s, next to Mr. Deal’s truck, and I thought about how this was where my truck started when Danny first drove it up here from Asheville. It had sat there years ago until the train wreck, when Danny was killed trying to save a man he didn’t even know. And then it went to Johnny Clay, and then it went to me.

  I sat inside it for a minute, feeling the engine running through me, up through my feet and the backs of my legs and my back and my hands, just like it was my lifeblood. Then I turned the key and shut it off and kept on sitting there. Emily Post once wrote, “Is there anything more exhilarating than an automobile running smoothly along?” I knew what it was like to fly a plane, higher than a bird or a cloud, but even with that there was no better feeling on earth than driving my yellow truck, because I had done it first.

  I got out and closed the door and patted the hood. I said, “Good-bye, old truck.” Then I picked up my suitcase and my hatbox and walked over to join my family where they were standing outside Deal’s. I’d paid for my train ticket out of the money I’d saved working at the Lovelorn Café. It would take two and a half days to get to Texas.

  The usual crowd was outside Deal’s, watching to see who would get off the train and who would be getting on. I remembered jumping the train with Johnny Clay when we ran away from Sweet Fern, and riding the freight train with Harley when he was preaching. I thought of Butch Dawkins and the other outlanders being rounded up on the train and made to leave. There were haints everywhere.

  Everyone came to see me off, and this time I said a proper good-bye, hugging Sweet Fern twice just to make up for not saying good-bye the first time, and holding on to Daddy Hoyt so tight I almost didn’t let go. Granny was crying, but not wanting anyone to see, and the children were saying, “Send us something from Texas, Aunt Velva Jean.” As I looked at all their faces, I wondered who would be here and who wouldn’t be here the next time I was home.

  “You be safe,” Granny said for the hundredth time. “You be careful.”

  “I will, Granny.”

  “Write us when you get there.”

  “I will.”

  Granny held something out to me. “Boil these leaves into a tea and drink two tablespoons twice a day.”

  I took the leaves from her. “Heartleaf?”

  “Yes.”

  “What for?”

  “Heart trouble. Just in case,” she said. Granny’s Cherokee heritage made her superstitious. It was why she made a cross in the dirt with her toe every time she left the house and why she carried a hand axe with her in case she met dark spirits or panther cats. She burned old shoes in her Dutch oven to keep the snakes away and she never swept the floor after sundown because she said it was bad luck.

  The conductor came up then and said, “We’re set to go, miss.” I was the only passenger getting on in Alluvial, although I could see I wasn’t going to be the only passenger on the train—there were plenty of soldiers hanging out the windows. Maybe I wasn’t exactly a soldier, but I felt like one. First Linc and Beach and Johnny Clay, and now me, just like the five Sullivan brothers from Iowa who served together in the navy and died on November 13 when the Japanese sunk their ship, the USS Juneau. The brothers had asked to serve together, even though the navy wanted to keep them separate. As far as I was concerned, my brothers didn’t have to be in the same company to be serving together in this war, and now I was going to be a part of it too.

  Mr. Deal picked up my suitcase, and I held on to my hatbox and tried my best not to cry. I walked backward, waving at everyone. Granny turned away so that she was facing Deal’s, but her shoulders—thin as a bird’s—were shaking. Mr. Deal and Daddy Hoyt walked with me to the train. Mr. Deal handed me my suitcase, and then I hugged them both one last time. Before I turned away, Daddy Hoyt pressed something into my palm. He said, “This was on my front porch this morning.”

  I opened my hand and there was a wood carving of a girl, mouth open, arms spread wide. I turned the little statue over and over, and then I looked up toward Devil’s Courthouse, up where the giant’s cave was at the very top. Daddy Hoyt fixed his gaze up in the same direction. He seemed to know exactly what I was looking for.

  I said, “Why didn’t he say hello?”

  “Because he doesn’t want to be found right now, honey.”

  The wood figure was rough but lovely. It was like something carved from magic. The girl had long wild hair and a heart-shaped face and she looked as if she was flying.

  February 21, 1943

  Dear Wood Carver,

  Thank you for my little wooden girl. I brought her with me all the way to Texas, where I’m training to be a pilot with the WFTD. Did you know I could fly? Did you hear me say it? I don’t know if you meant for the wooden girl to be flying, but that’s how I’m taking it. I think she’s going to be my good-luck charm.

  I wish I’d been able to see
you before I left, to thank you in person. I hope I’ll see you next time I’m home. I keep remembering what you said about nature dealing in curved lines, not straight paths. I think about that every time I’m up in the air. I never in my life thought I’d fly airplanes. But now that I am, I can’t imagine a time when I didn’t.

  Your friend,

  Velva Jean

  TWENTY-TWO

  I was an actual WFTD trainee. For the next nine months my address was going to be Barracks A-6, 318th AAFFTD (which stood for Army Air Forces Flying Training Detachment), Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas.

  Sweetwater didn’t look at all like I’d pictured it. Instead of a green place thick with trees and streams and a blue lake of water so clear that you could drink it, it looked just like a town from the Old West, like something out of the cowboy movies Johnny Clay loved.

  Texas was the dustiest place I’d ever seen. The train trip across it was nothing but brown and dirt and flat, wide spaces. I thought it was ugly as sin, but I tried to remember that what was ugly to some was beautiful to others, even though I couldn’t help but feel sorry for anyone who was from there. The more I saw of the world, the more I knew I was lucky to be from a place like Fair Mountain.

  Downtown Sweetwater was only three or four blocks long, with dusty streets, low brick buildings, more churches than you could count, a café, and the Blue Bonnet Hotel, which stood seven stories high and was the tallest building. There was a drugstore on the first floor of the hotel, and I went in there right after I arrived and bought myself a brand new lipstick—Comet Red by Max Factor. The Blue Bonnet was where all the girls stayed the night before the cattle wagon picked us up bright and early on February 14 and drove us to Avenger Field. The cattle wagons were big, old, creaking trailerlike buses with high, tiny windows. As we started to drive away in them, one of the girls sang, “Off we go into the wild blue yonder . . .” We all raised our voices and sang along. Maybe I was singing loudest of anyone.

  All around Avenger Field there was nothing but more brown, flat, dusty Texas. There wasn’t a single tree to be seen and just a few patches of grass here and there. The wind never stopped blowing. Avenger Field itself had low barracks close to the flight line, a mess hall, an infirmary, offices, airplane hangars, a huge marching field, and sand. On the gate as you drove in was a sign that said “Aviation Enterprises Ltd.” and above that “Avenger Field” and above that a picture of Fifinella—a little blonde cartoon gremlin with wings and flight goggles. Walt Disney had drawn her up for a movie based on a book by Roald Dahl, but Jackie Cochran asked if we could use her as our mascot, and Mr. Disney gave Fifinella to the WFTD. Pilots sometimes liked to blame gremlins for engine failure and anything at all that went wrong with their airplanes, but Fifi was supposed to protect us and bring us good luck.

  Jacqueline Cochran had moved to Sweetwater from Houston and was now living on the base. We got a good look at her that first day at orientation, and I thought she looked like Sweet Fern, kind of round and pretty, only with blonde hair and a lot of makeup. When she shook my hand, I forgot my own name. I felt like I was meeting the president or the queen of England.

  I was going to be paid $150 a month, and out of that we had to pay our room and board and all our expenses. Some of the girls were mad about this, but I couldn’t get over the sound of $150.

  Our flight gear included cloth helmets, goggles, coveralls, leather jackets, and winter flying suits lined with fleece. Our “uniforms” were GI mechanic coveralls that were old and worn out and so big that Tsul’Kalu the giant could have worn them. They looked just like zoot suits, and we had to roll up the sleeves and the pant legs so we didn’t trip on them. We wore them everywhere—to ground school, to fly, eat, drill, scrub the barracks, and to do our calisthenics. The only time we didn’t wear them was when we were sleeping.

  Each barrack was divided into ten bays and each bay held five or six girls. The bays were one-story rooms and each room was connected by a bathroom. This meant twelve girls shared two showers with no doors, two sinks, and two toilets. Our bay had five cots. We each had a small wardrobe and a footlocker at the end of our bed. There was a long wood table in the middle, where we did our homework and wrote our letters home. We had one trash basket between us, and that was about it.

  At 6:00 a.m. we woke up to reveille, which was played by one of the cadets. We didn’t know there would be boys at Avenger, especially because we’d heard from the trainees ahead of us that everyone in town called the place “Cochran’s Convent.” Jacqueline Cochran said the male cadet program was there a long time before the WFTD but that the cadets were shipping out in a few months and then we would have Avenger Field to ourselves. She said we were there for one reason only and we needed to “stay on task.” The only time we were allowed to be together with the men was during meals.

  At 6:15 we fell out of bed and pulled on our zoot suits over our pajamas and wrapped our hair in white turbans, which made us look like washerwomen. At 7:00 a.m. we fell in for mess.

  At 8:00 we went to ground school. We were studying navigation and meteorology, and when we were done with those we were going on to physics and airplane mechanics. We spent an hour in each class, and then at 10:20 we went to physical education, or PE, with a funny little man named Melvin Burr, who looked almost exactly like a badger. We marched up and down and did sit-ups and push-ups on our knees and jumping jacks till I thought I was going to die.

  At noon, we marched to mess, and at 12:50 we went to the flight line, where we stayed for five hours. This was our favorite part of the day.

  My flight instructor was named Arnold Puckett, but we called him Puck. He had a face like a winter cabbage and walked stooped over like he was watching the ground for quarters. He was grouchy and stern as a preacher, and he didn’t like girls. His wife was a housewife who had never worked outside the home and who said women belonged on the ground and not in the sky. Puck believed this was one of the smartest things a woman ever said. We hadn’t done much flying yet, but they had us practicing takeoffs and landings over and over again. The day before, I’d learned how to land in a crosswind, which was a good thing to know because it was so windy all the time.

  At 6:00 p.m. we changed out of our zoot suits and into our dress slacks for mess, and after we ate we had free time, except for the girls who had to go to study hall because they were doing so bad in ground school.

  At 10:00 the bugler played taps, and then it was lights out. Sometimes we stayed up talking longer than we should—about boys, religion, homework, and mostly about flying. Then, after everyone drifted off to sleep, I lay there and thought about how for the first time in my life I was in a place with people like me who were dreaming about the very same things, even though all the girls were different and came from everywhere—the farm, the dress shop, the doctor’s office, the circus, college, the mountains, the desert.

  I had four roommates. Paula Hodges was a golf champion from Florida. She was twenty-seven and tall, with short wavy hair and a mouth that was too big for her face. She wasn’t pretty, but she had a way of walking into a room that made people look at her. She swore worse than Johnny Clay and she knew more about flying than any of us because she had two hundred hours of flying time and a daddy who was a mechanic.

  Mudge was a Hollywood actress. She was twenty-six and had already been divorced twice. Her real name was Eloise Mudge but Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer changed it to Barbara Fanning. She always said exactly what was on her mind, good and bad, and she was one of the most worldly girls I’d ever met. She looked just like Ann Miller.

  Loma Edwards was a housewife and mother from West Virginia. She was only twenty-four, but she had a daughter who was seven and living with Loma’s parents while Loma trained to be a pilot and her husband was overseas with the infantry. He was the one who taught her to fly. I couldn’t even imagine that. Even so, she worried all the time that she didn’t belong here. She worried on everything.

  Sally Hallatassee was two years older than me. Sh
e was a secretary before the war and left her fiancé, her parents, and her five little brothers behind in Indiana so she could join the WFTD. She was as small as Ruby Poole, and always popping her gum and cracking jokes. She could talk the horns off a billy goat but she’d do anything for you. We lost her every time she put on her zoot suit because it was so big and she was so little. She wasn’t shy, and she went right to Jackie Cochran to complain about her uniform, but Miss Cochran told Sally she was going to have to wait a few weeks, till another class graduated, to get one closer to her size.

  And then there was me—Velva Jean Hart, twenty years old, with only thirty-nine hours of flying time under my belt, and a seventh-grade education. I liked to think that what I was doing here helped Johnny Clay and Linc and Beach and the rest of them. I had to think it was doing some good somewhere. I was trying to keep on the sunny side, but I was scared to pieces. Maybe it was good for me. Mama used to say being scared or sad or mad gave you things to write about that weren’t just blue skies and spring flowers and ice cream.

  TWENTY-THREE

  On the morning of March 29, I sat on the flight line waiting my turn to fly. The weather had turned warm almost overnight, and I wore the legs of my zoot suit rolled up over my knees and the sleeves pushed all the way up to my shoulders so I could get some sun. I was reading a book on Morse code and trying to concentrate. Morse code was all dots and dashes, and so far I couldn’t remember a single word. I tucked Granny’s heartleaf into the page I was reading and closed my book. I said to the girls, “I’m going to fail ground school.”

  The army way of flying wasn’t like what I’d learned with Duke Norris. The stalls and spins were different, and there were a hundred new maneuvers to learn. The planes at Avenger Field were tougher, harder to handle. The very first time I’d gone up with Arnold Puckett, he’d cut the throttle and pointed the nose of the primary trainer, or PT, at the sun above us and then brought the stick back, straight against my knee. The plane started spinning and the earth twirled around and around and I went jolting out of the seat, the safety belt catching me so tight around the stomach and chest that it knocked the wind out of me. Then he pointed the nose of the plane down and then up and then lifted a wing and we were flying upside down. My feet flew toward the ground and my bottom came up off the seat, and the safety belt cut off the blood in my stomach and legs. I held onto the plane, to my seat, to whatever I could, and prayed to Jesus that I wouldn’t die.

 
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