Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  I said, “That’s awful.” But then I thought that Oklahoma was probably a lot like Texas and that Oklahoma was probably beautiful to him, even if nature was something to be scared of. I tried to think of something nice to say so that he didn’t feel bad about where he was from. “Sometimes we got tornadoes that come through. We had a bad one when I was a little girl, and it sent some of the houses right down the mountain and even killed some people.”

  He said, “Oh, we got tornadoes. We had one last year that killed forty-five people, and one the year before that killed sixty.”

  There wasn’t anything I could say to this because nothing that bad had ever happened in my mountains, unless you counted the Terrible Creek train wreck, and that had nothing to do with nature. Finally I said, “My mama always told us to keep on the sunny side, no matter what. Even in a tornado or a plague of locusts. She used to sing that song to me and my brothers and sister, ‘Keep on the Sunny Side.’”

  “Used to?”

  “She died years ago, back when I was ten.”

  He said, “I’m sorry.” And the way he said it sounded like he really was sorry, and not just from an outside looking in kind of way, like something people just said to you because they were supposed to, but from an inside way. He said, “I never lost a soul in this world and I can’t tell you how grateful I am. I give thanks all the time because I know how lucky that makes me.”

  I started thinking about all the people I’d lost, but before I could count them, like I sometimes did, he began to sing: “‘Keep on the sunny side of life. It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way, if we’ll keep on the sunny side of life.’ ”

  His voice wasn’t beautiful, but it wasn’t bad. I thought how good it felt to listen to him, out here under the sun, clearing the locusts away.

  April 21, 1943

  Dear V. J.,

  You’ll never guess where I am now: North Carolina. That’s right. I’m home again, only not really. They sent us to Camp Mackall, which was named for Private John Mackall of the 82nd Airborne, who was the first American paratrooper killed in combat in this war.

  It ain’t long now before we join the European invasion. We know they’re going to put us through it because we’re just that close. One of the things they’ve got here is the Resistance Training Laboratory, which is a mock prisoner-of-war camp where they teach us resistance techniques in case we’re captured by the enemy. I sure as hell don’t ever plan on getting captured, but if I do you can know for damn sure they’ll be sorry they did it.

  I can’t believe you’re in Texas almost as soon as I’m back in N.C.

  Give ’em hell, little sister.

  Love,

  Sergeant Johnny Clay Hart

  P.S. Linc is training in Ireland with the 6615th Ranger Force.

  TWENTY-FOUR

  Wednesday, May 12, was our first solo flight. I sat on the flight line wishing for a real uniform and not a big, baggy zoot suit—something smart and stylish in a pretty color and not something that made me look like a mechanic or a service-station attendant. I was sick and tired of looking like a boy. Today I wore my hair down instead of in my turban, and Evelyn Beatty walked by and gave me two demerits.

  As she walked away, Mudge said, “She’s just sore because she’s an old maid who’s never had a boyfriend or a marriage proposal.”

  Loma said, “You don’t know that.”

  Paula said, “Her whole life is flying.”

  I said, “Our whole life is flying.”

  Mudge waved her hand. “We’re young. We’ve got other things to do. Movies. Golf. Kids. Husbands.”

  Mudge didn’t mention singing because none of them knew I sang. Ever since leaving Nashville, I hadn’t sung a note except to join in the marching songs—we marched everywhere and we sang while we marched—and I certainly wasn’t writing any words or music. I felt like a phony compared to Paula, who had championships and trophies to show for her golf career, or Mudge, who had a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. I didn’t feel like a singer anymore, even though it was how I’d always seen myself. I wasn’t even a real wife like Loma, with a wedding band and a husband whose picture I kissed every night. I didn’t know what I was now, except a pilot and a WFTD trainee.

  Suddenly Puck stalked up, stooped toward the ground, and barked at me. “Get a move on, Hart! You’re up first!” Then he stalked back off.

  I stood up and put on my helmet. I hoisted my parachute up behind me. I pulled on my goggles, pushing them up on top of my helmet. Then I ran after Puck to the PT, trying not to look like Granny’s mule, Mad Maggie, with all that gear on me.

  I climbed up on the PT and swung one leg over the open cockpit and then the next leg and then I sat down in the front seat. I snapped on my safety belt while Puck cranked the engine. Then I taxied out, swinging into position next to the runway. I pulled my goggles down, but the wind was already blowing sand into my eyes and mouth. I started coughing, and my eyes were tearing, and Puck was shouting something at me from the ground, but I couldn’t hear him because the engine was so loud, rattling and roaring.

  I sat there breathing in, breathing out. I breathed in. I breathed out. I was done with practicing takeoffs and landings. Now I would be expected to do spins and stalls and dives, all on my own. I thought: Get your head on straight, Velva Jean. Settle down. You can do this. You can fly this plane. The only difference is that Puck isn’t going to be up here to yell at you.

  I pulled on the throttle and suddenly I felt the earth rushing away and the plane starting to lift. The wind was warm, stinging my face. I wanted to yell, “Let me down! I want to get out! Let someone else go first!” But I was already climbing up into the sky, fighting the currents.

  The PT was a low-winged, open cockpit, 175-horsepower Fairchild PT-19A and the largest, most powerful plane I’d ever sat in. I climbed to eight thousand feet, and I stopped blinking and tearing up long enough to look around me: there was brown and blue everywhere—the brown of the flat, endless earth and the blue of the sky—and patches of black here and there from the locusts. Even though my safety belt was on, I felt like I could fall out at any time, like nothing was holding me in my seat. The air rushed by and underneath my helmet my hair whipped around, stinging my cheeks.

  I tugged on my safety belt, and it held tight, and then I rolled the plane to the left and then to the right and then I leveled the plane and pulled the throttle back and lifted the nose higher, up and up, until it went into a stall. This meant I was stock-still for a moment, which seemed like minutes strung together, and then I started diving straight toward the earth, the nose of the PT pointing down. I wanted to holler, but I couldn’t because my throat was as frozen as Three Gum River in winter. Stalls always spooked me, no matter how many times I went through them. I told myself, This plane is not in charge of you.

  I leveled the plane out and started to glide. I flew fast and high, the earth rushing past below me, above me, beside me, everywhere. After being left behind my whole life—by my daddy, by my mama when she died, by Johnny Clay going off to Oklahoma and then California, by Harley leaving to go preach and then leaving again when he got home by wandering away from me in his mind—now I was the one off on my own. This is why I’m here, I thought. This is why I came to Texas.

  When I came down, the girls ran for me, shouting and hugging me, even with Puck standing there glaring at us because we were acting like girls and not soldiers. I was the first one to solo—me, Velva Jean Hart.

  It was Loma’s turn next, and I handed her the parachute. She couldn’t get it fastened, so I helped her. Then she said, “Wish me luck. I’ll need it,” and ran after Puck.

  Mudge sat down to wait her turn, and I sat down next to her. She said, “That poor girl is the worryingest girl I ever knew.”

  After we’d each flown solo, the girls from our class—all of them, not just my bay mates—picked me up and threw me in the wishing well. Shirley Bingham, two classes ahead of us, had told us this was tradition. E
very girl to solo first was dropped in the well. I lay back, zoot suit floating up around me, and looked at the sky. The girls stood around me singing:If you have a daughter, teach her how to fly.

  If you have a son, put the bastard in the sky.

  Singing zoot suits and parachutes and wings of silver too,

  he’ll ferry planes like his mama used to do . . .

  I thought about all the times I was saved in my life—when I was ten years old and baptized in Three Gum River, when I was fifteen years old and met Harley Bright, when I was eighteen years old and drove my yellow truck to Nashville.

  I closed my eyes and went under. I held my breath and stayed there. While I was under, I thought about Gossie and my brothers and Nashville, about spiders and dust storms and locusts and cadets and a little town called Sweetwater, which didn’t look at all like it sounded, but which was pretty nice even so. When I came back up, the sky was even bluer than before and the sun burned bright.

  That afternoon I was back in the bay, sitting at the wooden desk we all shared, studying my Morse code, when I heard someone whispering: “Girls . . . Oh, girlies.”

  I looked up at Sally, who sat across from me, writing in her notebook. She always said everything she was writing out loud as she was writing it, no matter how many times we told her to be quiet. Sally just loved to talk.

  She stopped talking now and we stared at each other. “Did you hear that?” she said.

  Paula was stretched out on her cot, reading. Without looking up, she said, “Cadets.”

  One week after the plague of locusts, the cadets had flown off to California. They’d come back to base this morning, engines roaring. When we ran out to watch them land, some of them sent their planes into spins and stalls and put on a show.

  Sally raced to the window and I thought that there was no boy on earth, even Roy Acuff, who could get me to race anywhere right now. It was too darn hot, and, besides, I was done with boys, and not just because Jackie Cochran had forbid it. I was here to earn my wings.

  Sally said, “Velva Jean, one of them’s asking for you. The one that plays reveille on his bugle.”

  Paula looked over at me. She laid her book on her chest. She said, “I thought you were married.”

  “I am.” I pretended to study my Morse code.

  Paula yelled, “Go away! She’s not interested!”

  My face started burning pink, right around the temples, but I tried to act like this wasn’t happening. Sally sat back down across from me and said, “The one they call Ty, that bugler, he said to tell you to listen close to taps tonight because he’s going to throw a little something in there just for you.”

  At 9:57 that night, Sally stood by the open window and waited. Loma and Paula and Mudge lay on their beds, not reading or writing or talking, and I knew they were waiting too. I sat at the desk, writing a letter, and pretending like I didn’t much care what Ned Tyler played for me, but I’d only written about five words.

  At ten o’clock on the dot, we heard the bugle. Sally said, “Hartsie, get over here.”

  I acted like it was the last thing I wanted to do, but I sighed and set down my book and walked to the window. I could see Ty outside, standing between the barracks, just a dark shadow. There was something bright and sad about the clear, clean notes of the bugle. Sally put her arm through mine and her head on my shoulder, and we listened, and there at the end was “Keep on the Sunny Side.” He played the whole thing till one of the officers shouted at him to stop.

  The girls and I clapped, and the shadow bowed in our direction. I stood there a minute longer before climbing into bed.

  “Too bad you’re married, Hartsie,” Paula said. She was smirking at me. I made a face at her and then opened Mama’s Bible and wrote fast as I could before the lights went out: “May 12—Velva Jean flies solo for the first time as a pilot in the WFTD.” I read the words over, and then I closed the Bible and was just putting it back into my footlocker when something fell out. The heartleaf Granny had given me for heart trouble. I picked up the leaf and held it to my nose, breathing it in. Then I pinched off just the smallest piece and slipped it under my pillow, tucking the rest back into the Bible.

  June 15, 1943

  Deer gurl,

  Yur granddaddy and me shure does miss you. You dont no how much. We’re so prowd of you. Have you flew a bommer yet?

  Is Harley Bright down there? He’s gone missing. You let me no if he is and if so if you need help. I can always sent Frank Lowe down there aftur him. He’s about the only one left up on this mountin with good nees.

  I luv you.

  Granny

  TWENTY-FIVE

  By July the air was heavy, even at night, and the wind that always blew, whether it was winter or summer, suddenly blew like a broiler. It got up to a hundred degrees in the sun, and we moved slow and talked slow. Even flying was hot because now we were in the BTs, which was what we called the planes we flew in basic training, and these had closed cockpits, which meant we melted just like we were inside a Dutch oven. At bedtime, we soaked our pajamas in the bathroom sink and then wore them to sleep in.

  We started sneaking our cots outside after lights out—not just Paula, Sally, Mudge, Loma, and me, but girls from other bays too. At night the breeze blew stronger and the air wasn’t cool, but at least we weren’t locked up in the bay where the air was so stuffy and thick that you couldn’t think to study or even talk much.

  We had to watch out for rattlesnakes because they came out at night. They were trying to stay cool too. Sally said the thing to do if you saw one was to run if you were far enough away from it, but if you were close enough for it to strike, you had to stand still as a statue and then back away as slow as possible with steps so small that the rattler couldn’t tell you were backing away. Then when you were far enough from it, you ran like hell. Sally said that rattlers could strike at a distance up to half the length of their bodies.

  Every night after supper, Ned Tyler the bugler met me at the mess hall door and asked me to take a walk around base, and every night I said no. He was good-looking and funny and he played the trumpet just as good as anyone I’d ever heard, but that was as far as it went.

  Sometimes I talked to Ty, but I wouldn’t walk with him. I only talked to him about things that didn’t matter, like what the weather would be like tomorrow and what to do when you saw a rattlesnake. After mess one day, I told him what Sally said, mostly just to fill up space and not let any serious conversation in.

  He said, “Oh no. What you want to do with a rattler is sing to it.”

  “Sing to it?”

  He started singing loud as could be:You’ve had your day,

  don’t stand around and frown.

  You’ve been a good old wagon, daddy,

  but you done broke down!

  I tried not to, but I laughed till I was hiccupping. I said, “Could I sing it a hymn?”

  He said, “Are you kidding? Rattlesnakes only like ragtime.”

  He is the king of lovin’,

  has manners of a crown.

  He’s a good old wagon, daddy,

  and he ain’t broke down!

  I watched him while he sang—right there in front of the cadets, officers, and the girls from the WFTD walking by—and I thought, It’s a shame I can’t fall in love with you. He seemed like a good man to lose your heart to.

  On July 6 we started practicing parachute landings. We trained by running as fast as we could and throwing ourselves onto the ground. We had to learn to land on our backs instead of breaking our fall with our hands or our feet because that was the surest way to break your arm or leg. We spent all afternoon in the burning sun jumping from a platform so we could prepare for an accident. When we were done with that, we swung down on pulleys to practice our landings that way. I was black and blue, just like someone who’d been punched and prodded with a stick. Every single bone and muscle ached, sharp stabbing pains that made me lose my breath each time I moved.

  I sat at t
he table in our bay, Sally across from me writing and reading out loud, Paula propped on her cot where she was nursing her hip with an ice pack and groaning. I stared at my book on Morse code, but the words and figures blurred so that it looked like they were being washed out—just like I’d spilled water on the pages.

  Jesus, just take me now. I’m done with this. I never thought I could be so tired or so sore. Please make this heat go away and let us have a break. I’ll learn Morse code, so help me. I’ll practice it all day long. Just don’t make me jump off any more platforms and don’t let them swing me from any more pulleys.

  I wondered if Johnny Clay was throwing himself on the ground and jumping from platforms right now, somewhere in North Carolina, if he was even still there. The thought of him was like another bruise, another ache. I closed my book and said, “Sally, can I borrow some paper?” She didn’t even look up, just pushed her notebook over to me and kept talking to herself. I picked up a pen and started writing my brother a letter.

  “Dear Johnny Clay,” I wrote. “Where on earth are you? Are you still in North Carolina or have you gone to Europe? Please answer me as soon as you get this because I want to know you’re okay.”

  On July 8, just after bed check, we were lying on our cots, each of us tossing and turning. We could hear the sounds of airplanes outside, which meant the trainees in the class ahead of us were night flying.

  Mudge said, “I’m too hot to drag my cot outside tonight.”

  Sally said, “I’ve never been so hot in my life. Our Indiana summer ain’t this bad.” She cracked her gum three times in a row.

  Paula sat up and said, “Blast it. I can’t sleep. Let’s go watch the show.”

 
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