Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  Here at Avenger Field, I felt like I was starting over, like I didn’t know anything. We went through spins and loops, upside down and sideways and right side up, because Jackie Cochran said learning all these moves was the only way to have total control over our planes.

  Paula Hodges, the golf champion, was taking her turn in the air, so it was just me and Loma and Mudge in line. We were assigned to flight groups by height because we had to take turns with the same parachute, which meant little Sally was in a group with girls her own size.

  Loma was already worrying. She said, “If anyone’s going to fail ground school, it’s me. I’ve had study hall every night this week. I’m going to wash out, I just know it, and then what will my husband say? What will my daughter think of me?”

  Mudge sat next to me, eyes closed, leaning back against the building. Her goggles rested on her lap, and she’d pulled her turban off so that her dark hair hung around her shoulders. Because she was an actress, she believed in looking glamorous at all times. The wind was picking up her hair and blowing it every which-a-way. She said, “Hush up, both of you. No one’s going to wash out.”

  A lot of the girls we knew had gone home already—at least 23 of them that we could count. I thought back to our first day and Jackie Cochran lining us up. “There are 112 of you in your class,” she said. We all looked around to see if this might be true. “The odds are good that half of you won’t make it to graduation day. Most of you will wash out. There are plenty of chances: ground school, link training, disobeying orders, too many demerits, dating instructors, civilian and army check rides.” Those were when they sent you up with an instructor to test you on various maneuvers, but you never knew when or where they were going to happen. “All that said,” she told us, “maybe you should just go home now.”

  Then she said, “Look at the person on either side of you, because both of those girls will wash out.” And I thought, Oh poor things. It never occurred to me for one second that she was talking about me.

  Now I wasn’t so sure. I’d been pulling study hall myself lately, and this week Puck had yelled at me in front of everyone after I made a bad landing. I opened the book again and the heartleaf was picked up by the wind and blown away. I jumped up after it, swearing “Great holy Moses!”

  Loma said, “That’s a dime you owe the cuss pot.” The cuss pot was a jar we’d stolen from the mess hall. It was Loma’s idea that we had to drop a dime in for every damn or hell and a quarter for worse words, the ones I’d only ever heard Johnny Clay or Harley say but had almost never used myself. So far we had a dollar and twenty cents.

  I caught the heartleaf just as it was flying up over my head, and that’s when I saw the horizon. There was a solid black cloud, like a thundercloud but darker, and it kind of sat in the distance, covering the earth for as far as I could see, starting at the ground and reaching upward. I thought maybe it was a tornado, only the sky overhead was blue and not green. The cloud was moving, wobbling from side to side.

  I said, “What in the hell?”

  Loma said, “Ten more cents, Hartsie.”

  I looked at her over my shoulder and said, “Look.”

  Loma got to her feet and Mudge opened her eyes, and then she jumped up too. The three of us stood there, and soon there were other girls wandering up from the barracks, from their flight groups, from the control tower.

  I said, “What is it?”

  Shirley Bingham was two trainee classes ahead of us. She was a suntanned girl with freckles and bright-blue eyes and hair the color of North Carolina clay. She walked up and stood over my left shoulder and whistled long and low. She said, “Locusts.”

  By afternoon the black cloud covered the sun. We spent all day—trainees, cadets, instructors, officers—covering the planes with tarps, especially the open-cockpit Stearmans. In the barracks we closed the windows and locked all our belongings away in the footlockers and shut the doors to the bathroom and the hallway, stuffing paper underneath so there wasn’t a single crack showing.

  Then we waited.

  By nightfall we could hear them—a buzzing, humming plague of locusts, hitting the base like a great, spinning meteor. Everything stopped—classes, flying, mess. The girls and I took cover in the bay, stuffing more paper under the doors. We could hear the locusts beating against the roof, the windows, the walls. The sound they made was like the beating of a million wings—like the very highest note on a fiddle being played over and over.

  It was just like in the Bible: “Behold, tomorrow will I bring the locusts . . . And they shall cover the face of the earth, that one cannot be able to see the earth . . . and shall eat every tree which groweth for you out of the field.”

  Even though we were sealed up tighter than a drum, there was no way to keep the locusts out of the bays, the lockers, the beds, the food, our hair. They hopped and buzzed around the room while we chased them with our shoes or hid under the covers. Sally said the average swarm was made up of about fifty billion bugs and that it could be days before a swarm moved on.

  The first night I didn’t sleep at all because there were locusts in the bed. I pulled both the sheet and the blanket over my head, even though it was hot as blazes in the bay. Through the blanket I felt them land on me, thudding against my legs, my stomach, my arms, my face. I slapped at myself here, there, everywhere because I thought I felt them crawling on my skin, that maybe they’d got under the sheet.

  I lay there fidgeting and itching and kicking the locusts off me and thinking how much I hated Texas and how much I missed the sounds and seasons of home. Why had I ever come to Texas, with its flat, ugly earth and locusts and sandstorms and tarantulas and scorpions? The locusts were hitting the windows from inside and outside and buzzing against the floor, the footlocker, the bed. I could hear one in my ear and I screamed.

  “Did they get you, Hartsie?” Paula shouted from her bed. Each of us was lying just like the others, all bundled up head to toe like mummies.

  “One got in my goddamned hair!” Mudge hollered.

  “One tried to get in my goddamned mouth!” shouted Sally.

  I slapped at my arms and legs and thought about how much money we were all going to owe the cuss pot when this was over and done.

  When I finally started to drift off, after lying there for hours, I thought about Cornelia Fort. She’d grown up in Nashville but left to join the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron. On March 21 she was killed over a place called Merkel, Texas, when the plane she was ferrying was clipped by another plane in midair. She was the first woman to die on active duty for the United States. When Jackie Cochran told us the news, she said to remember that Cornelia Fort died doing what she loved most. Ever since, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Cornelia Fort left Nashville only to wind up flying planes in Texas, and how strange that was because I left Nashville—where I always wanted to go my whole life—to go fly planes in Texas too.

  Even though she was a stranger and I’d never known her, I couldn’t get her off my mind. These were the things I knew about her: she was twenty-four years old. She was the daughter of one of Nashville’s richest families. Her family gave her a debutante ball when she was nineteen and she had to be bribed before she agreed to go. She was the first female flight instructor in Nashville. She graduated from college. The week she earned her pilot’s license, she flew two thousand miles to celebrate.

  All of this had been in the papers along with a letter she’d written to her mother one year before she was killed. In it she talked about why she loved flying and what it meant to her: “I loved it best perhaps because it taught me utter self-sufficiency, the ability to remove myself beyond the keep of anyone at all—and in doing it taught me what was of value and what was not . . . If I die violently, who can say it was ‘before my time’? . . . I was happiest in the sky—at dawn when the quietness of the air was like a caress, when the noon sun beat down, and at dusk when the sky was drenched with the fading light. Think of me there and remember me . . .”

  Cornelia Fort’s body had exploded on hitting the ground. Her plane came down in a pasture near Merkel, and Betty Joe Seymore, who was fourteen years old and living on a farm close by, found what was left of her—a scalp and hair. A farmer named H. H. Cargill found her insignia pin and a piece of her watch, which was smashed flat.

  Merkel was just thirty miles east of Avenger Field, on the road to Abilene. I couldn’t get over the closeness of it and the fact that I’d just finished my first month as a WFTD trainee when Cornelia Fort crashed and died in a field.

  How horrible to die in Texas. I remembered the tarantula we’d seen outside the mess hall the other day and the scorpion that had tried to sting Sally in the shower. I thought, when it came down to it, Texas was the most god-awful place I’d ever seen. I thought about Nashville and Harley and my family up on Fair Mountain and all I’d left behind to come here. I tried to take myself home, fast away in my mind, to its streams and hillsides and trees and green and gold dust and flowers and birds. I pictured the sun—the way it fell through the leaves, making patterns of light on the ground—and remembered the way it warmed your skin without burning it right off.

  And all that night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts.

  I wondered if I’d brought this plague of locusts on, just like in the Bible, if maybe my leaving Harley had something to do with it. The thought of this was suddenly the saddest thing in the world, and the part of me that was like my daddy’s people, that sometimes liked to dwell on sad things, stepped up and said, “You stopped loving Harley even though you promised him you always would, and now here you are being attacked by locusts. What did you think would happen?”

  From her bed, Loma shouted, “Goddamned locusts!” And we all laughed over the buzzing and the humming and the high scratching of violins because it was the first time we’d ever heard her swear.

  Mudge hollered, “That’s twenty-five cents you owe the cuss pot!”

  And Loma said, “I’ll pay my month’s salary! Just get these goddamn things off me!”

  I was hot. I was suffocating. The locusts thumped against me like stones. Then I thought: Texas brought these locusts on itself.

  The longer we stayed cooped up together, the more I got to know my bay mates in a way I hadn’t on the flight line or at mess or at ground school or during the in-between times. Paula was the best listener and she was also a problem solver. She liked figuring things out, just like a puzzle. She and Mudge each kept a stash of gin outside the bay in a narrow alley between the barracks. There were hundreds of sticks in the ground, just like a little graveyard, and this was where the girls from all the classes hid their liquor.

  Mudge was smart and she could be sweet. She always meant well, but she said whatever was on her mind, which could be good but was sometimes bad, like when she made Loma cry. This was easy to do because Loma was the most sensitive person I’d ever met, and she was funny without knowing she was funny or trying to be. She was always saying words wrong and getting mixed up. And Sally was smarter than she seemed for being such a chatterbox. She also talked with her gum—snapping or popping it at instructors and at us when she had something to say. Most of the time it worked better than words.

  I wondered if any of us would have been friends in real life. The one thing we had in common was that we all loved flying. Whenever we heard a plane buzz the barracks, we ran outside to see what kind it was. The male pilots at nearby bases knew we were off-limits, but somehow they kept having engine trouble right over Avenger Field. They would land and holler to us while we stood there in our zoot suits or pajamas, till we were rounded up by Lieutenant Patrick Whitley or our one female instructor, Evelyn Beatty, or even Jackie Cochran and sent back inside.

  Loma talked a lot about her husband, and sometimes I wished for someone—not Harley but someone who would be back home loving me, someone I couldn’t wait to go back to. I was only lonely sometimes though. Mostly it felt good to be on my own and to feel like I was getting better at being on my own. It was like when you were growing, back when you were little, and suddenly you’d wake up one morning and your legs would look longer or your arms would look longer or your hands would look bigger. And before you knew it, you were growing right before your own eyes. That was the way it felt being there in Texas.

  Two days later we spotted blue patches of sky in the direction the locusts had come from, and suddenly the plague was over and the locusts were gone. No more sealing our bays up tight, no more sleeping with the covers over our heads, no more running to mess with our helmets on and our jackets wrapped around us. No more picking locusts out of our food or our hair or shaking them out of our clothes and shoes before we got dressed. No more missing ground school or PE or, most of all, flying. No more snapping at each other and fussing at each other because we thought the plague would never end. We’d been grounded for three days.

  We all came blinking out into the sun—trainees, instructors, control-tower operators, mechanics, cadets, officers, Jacqueline Cochran herself. We stood there like moles or people raised in caves who didn’t recognize the sun and blue sky. The flight line was black with crushed locusts. I stood there staring out at the land around us. And I’d thought it was brown before. The ground was empty. There wasn’t a blade of grass in sight. It was just sand and dust as far as you could see.

  The trainees and cadets were given clean-up duty. It was the worst job I could imagine—scraping dead locust bodies off the runway, the flight line, the planes themselves. Scrubbing the planes clean from the inside out. Cleaning our bays, our latrines, the windows of the mess hall, the wishing well that sat in the courtyard between the barracks.

  As I scraped the wing of a PT-13 Stearman parked outside the hangar, I said, “I’m sorry, locusts. I’m sorry you came here and scared us to death and trapped us inside. I’m sorry so many of you had to die because that sure don’t seem like much of a life.”

  “Are you talking to the plane or the locusts?”

  It was a southern voice, soft and deep, but not southern like North Carolina. It was more of a Texas voice because there wasn’t music to it, and it wasn’t slow and lazy like Louisiana, like Butch. It was a cowboy’s voice.

  I looked up from the Stearman, which I was trying to turn from black to silver. One of the cadets—the one that played reveille and taps on the bugle—was standing there grinning down at me.

  I said, “Both.”

  He nodded like he knew this already and then he folded his arms and watched me for a minute.


  “Nothing. Want some help?”

  I said, “Okay.”

  He grabbed an ice scraper, the kind they used on the planes in winter, and started cutting away at the black. He said, “Ned Tyler. You can call me Ty.”

  I said, “Velva Jean Hart.”

  “Pretty. Strange, but pretty.”


  He laughed. “I just never heard it before. Where you from, Velva Jean Hart?”

  “Fair Mountain, North Carolina.” I started to ask him where he was from, but then I thought of Butch Dawkins and how sometimes men didn’t like you to ask them about themselves in a personal way.

  He said, “I’m from Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

  I said, “My brother was in Tulsa for a while, roping steers.”

  He said, “That so?” He scratched away the locusts just as easy as if he was brushing sand off his shirt. He had long fingers, the kind that should have been playing piano and not scraping dead bugs off a plane.

  I said, “He wasn’t there long before he went on to California, but he liked it fine.”

  “You ever been?”

  “I’ve only been three places: North Carolina, Tennessee, and here, not counting where the train passed through on my way down.”

  I thought, Don’t give yourself away all at once, Velva Jean.

  He said, “I never been to North Carolina or Tennessee, so that’s two you got on me.”

  I thought that
he was a kind of boy-man, rangy and tall with dark curling hair that ran wild all over his head. He had a long nose, a wide mouth, and brown eyes.

  I said, “Do you have locusts up in Oklahoma?”

  He laughed. He smiled fast and easy, like even if his face went serious for a minute that smile was always waiting close by. He said, “I reckon that’s where they’re headed now. You got ’em in North Carolina?”

  “Lord no,” I said. “The worst we got is mosquitoes.” It made me happy and sad to think of home. “It’s beautiful where I come from. The trees are so high in places you can barely see the sky, but the sun always works its way through. The ground is soft and green and covered in moss and grass and ferns and flowers, and there are streams everywhere and Three Gum River, which is where I was saved when I was ten. At night you can see the stars up above the mountains, so close that you feel they’re sitting on your head. The streets of Alluvial, down in the valley, are covered in gold dust. And the mountain makes its own music—just like it’s humming.” I didn’t know why I was telling him so much.

  He wasn’t scraping anymore. He was staring at me. He said, “You think of nature as a friend.” I didn’t know what to say to this, so I stopped working on the plane and looked at him. He said, “We think of it as fire ants and scorpions and locusts and sandstorms and things to run from and hide from and deal with all the time.”

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